A SUM OF ENCOUNTERS 

by Emmanuel Iduma


Abraham Oghobase



He told me how to take photographs of waves…

Work with focused attention. Only a matter of seconds before the ocean withdraws its surge. Your interest isn’t entirely on the surge, but on the cadence formed by the waves, its foamy spittle, the layers of off-white on beach sand. Think of composition. You could stand there for hours looking for the right angle. Begin by taking few shots to get a sense of place, your stance in relation to nature’s expanse. Then delete all the hiccupy photos you have taken. Having found a rhythm, picture the waves as they unfold in front of you, as if working with a film camera.

In that first meeting we spoke about four photographs in the series Washed Ashore, only one of which depicts human presence. Each photograph was framed, ready to be mounted. He pulled them out of a room in a house he’d only recently moved into, on one of Lagos’ islands. The last in the series was made late last year, the others four years earlier. “It’s almost like you’re writing,” he said. “You have to be patient with the story.”

He is interested in making sense of his immediate world, landscape and seascape. To do this he must agree or quibble with certain aspects of culture. As an artist, he tasks himself to sift seed from husk, the facile from the complex. While we spoke he gave examples of art that, although shown in a popular gallery or fair, lacked a charge of social truth, and was stripped of emotional heft. Each time he made allusion to what he disfavored, he sounded more resolute about the necessity of his work. Could his photographs of waves communicate the despair and uncertainty he felt while he pressed the shutter?

Having lived all his life in Lagos, where he was born in 1979, he could be characterized as all Lagosians: sensitive, intuitive, and poised for hustle. You might interpret this as default mode for people who live in a megacity. But his has a peculiar twist. Almost 40, the idea could be for him to suss out a steady rhythm from the surrounding bustle. This could account for the minimalist nature of his images.

At the outset of his journey, he was apprentice to two older Nigerian artists, Deji Ajose and Uche James Iroha—the former trained as a painter then transitioned into light painting photography, the latter trained as a sculptor before becoming a photographer. Before all of that, as a little kid who was forced to write with his right hand instead of left, he became slow at school, slow at reading. Yet, he gained confidence through drawing. He knew the power drawing had on him, before he considered how it might impact others. And when he finally began to read, aged seven or eight, his curiosities led him to a fascination with maps, the wide world in sketched-out form.

He has furthered this relationship with the visible world. He said to me, “Its important to work as an artist in a way where you’re not constantly frontal, you’re rounded in your point of view.” His earlier work, for instance the 2008 series Lost in Transit, when placed in connection with the series developed later, indicates a progression: where once he interpreted his body’s interaction with space in a frontal, documentary fashion, he has become more assured about the multidimensional—the sky and earth, the middle ground. The photographs in Lost in Transit were taken in Germany, in waiting areas and places of transit, in spaces within buildings. The images, as a result, seem hemmed-in. But in Untitled, where he is pictured mid-air against walls with hand-painted advertisements, the landscape seems vaster.

On more than one occasion, he spoke of crying in response to what had been written about his work. The sentiment was gratitude, to the writers for expressing in clear, critical language what his work conveys. It highlights, in addition, the reach he hopes for—an emotional response.

One photograph is of clouds. These overhanging particles of condensed water vapor seem so universal it is possible to live an entire life without recalling their presence. Atmospheric. We could look at a photograph of clouds in one of two ways. As trite and commonplace, or as expressive of a beauty so dateless we are oft to reproduce it. Elemental.

He says: “Don’t get carried away by the beauty of the work. The beauty of the work is to bring you in. That is the poetry.”

In 2009, which might be the year his work took a decisive, conceptual turn from documentary photography, he developed the series Ecstatic. There are four photographs in all, and in each he pulls his hands backwards, tilts his head as far back as it can go. In one he leaps into the air, but in the others it is the moment before the leap—a foot firmly planted while another hangs loose, or both feet steadied by mere toes. He tells me this is a “very poetic interpretation of congestion.” All the photographs are composed, for the most part, of his outstretched body and a bus framed against an azure sky. In one there is a wall stripped of posters, but this is the only indication of obnoxious human activity. The poetic vision is conveyed through performance. He acts as if flying, as if sucking in the surrounding air, as if pulled towards solitude.

He says: “Even if I have to go the poetic route, I still feel I owe myself the responsibility to produce work that will talk about something vital—about human existence, and the human condition.”

To think of the vital—vitality, energy, spirit—he often resorts to music. Music with little bass, he says to me. Music, in the days we spent together, by Hammock, The Cranberries, Max Richter, Benjamin Clementine, and Hans Zimmerman. He often extends the allusion. “I like to believe that I want to create musical notes…” Perhaps a musician who plays a piece written for the orchestra on the piano, its keys standing in for the cello, cornet, or violin? He is speaking in particular of his use of lithography. The same image is printed in different tones. One chord and a ripple of echoes.

By the time he was invited, in 2016, to present a solo show in Port Harcourt, at the artist-run Boys Quarters’ Project Space, he had been working with the lithographic process for a few years. The lithographs in Kono Beach Revival show his leaping body beside a shoreline. The beach is abandoned, and as many others in the Niger Delta, the water is polluted. When he faces any landscape, he thinks first of its history, then his relationship to it.

After almost fifteen years of showing his work, he has remained consistent with picturing himself mid-air. What is this impulse to be seen with feet above ground?

“A kind of poetic migration,” he says.

Notice that, earlier, his portraits of others are more hurried, sometimes unfocused, particularly when he sought out people on the street—partly, perhaps, in homage to an early mentor of his, the French-Algerian photographer Bruno Boudjelal. Then he began to fit himself within the frame, and his hand got steadier, the action more calculated. What is this poetic migration, from unfocused to steady? Does he place himself in the frame as a hum before a song begins, the particular that opens into the universal? Is it a question of expressing a vital, individual truth? 

He turned to lithography at a pivotal moment, after a year spent in the United States in a failed attempt to immigrate. “It was an illusion. I didn’t connect,” he said. In seeking out a new direction in his work—a way in which photography didn’t remain two-dimensional, or lack materiality—he accepted the suggestion of Kelani Abass, an artist with whom he exhibited at the Center for Contemporary Art in Lagos, to consider lithographs.

Things progressed in the use of his newfound medium. Once, while in an airplane, descending towards Jos for a visit to his wife’s family, he saw a cluster of mining ponds, which he thought were beautiful. He furthered his interest. It has taken him five years to develop work to account for his immediate attraction to the landscape. Jos, a tin mining town whose occupants claim their land is devastated with nothing to show for it, is no less pretty than a smiling villain. In response, he has produced photographs and lithographs, even gathered stones. He hopes for his response to indicate the extensive environment—for instance, unlike others who use lithographs, he does not discard the digital negatives, but includes them while showing the work.

This April he will present a small survey of his images in a project space founded by the artist Victor Ehikhamenor. The exhibition will draw from work made between 2009 and 2017, and it will be the first solo show he’s had in Lagos since 2008. He has decided to title it, “No matter who you are.”

I recall his eagerness to converse in Pidgin English. In fact, I assume that at no moment is he jauntier than when he expresses an idea outside the conventions of English grammar. And this jauntiness suggests a vernacular worldview. “Vernacular” could be a suspect word, when used to imply ordinariness and unsophistication. In his case it is no ordinariness, or lack of formality.

It is thought funneled through an everyday tract. ︎


A Sum of Encounters is a year-long blog by Emmanuel Iduma featuring up to a dozen intimate portraits of Nigerian artists based in Nigeria or the United States. With support from the Creative Capital | Andy Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant Program.