Not long ago, I saw the phrase ‘innovate or die’ online. I didn’t think much of it until I interviewed Emeka Ogboh and my understanding of innovation was redefined. Though the phrase seems cold, it is an important reminder for anyone who desires continuous relevance and progress in life.
In the first quarter of 2015, Emeka Ogboh achieved notable milestones as a sound artist from Africa on two continents. He emerged winner of the African Union art commission for the Peace and Security Building in Addis Ababa. This broke the norm and preference for sculptures and murals in previous commissions by the African Union. He was selected by the jury for the uniqueness of his sound piece made from the African Union anthem highlighting the importance of unity in diversity and materials that reflect the process of integration on the continent. This same period, Ogboh’s career made another remarkable progress, he was invited to participate in la Biennale di Venezia 56th International Art Exhibition. His sound installation “Song of the Germans” enjoyed praises in critical reviews on that year’s biennale.
Ogboh’s career is an unusual path for artists on the continent. Within 8 years, he has participated in about thirty exhibitions in different countries using new sound experiments that are mostly commissioned including Venice Biennale and the African Union project. Coming from a background of graphics and designing websites, the natural progression would have been working in the advertising sector of the media industry. However, Emeka Ogboh bypassed that line of progression for art. He settled with the first medium that got his attention and this became his career since 2008. “My major foray into art was with sound. I decided to work with this medium after attending the Winter Academy in Fayoum (Egypt) in 2008. The media class was headed by Austrian multimedia artist Harald Scherz, whose sound course was titled ‘Audible Spectrum’. It was basically an introduction to working with sound without any visual aspect and this class ‘opened my ears’. When I returned to Lagos, a major ‘sound’ city, I began experimenting and the rest, as they say, is history.”
When he presented his first work on the sounds of Lagos which later became one of his many soundscape experiments, the feedback, in general, was positive. The whole idea of relocating Lagos sounds from the streets or bus parks into a gallery space was a new one. The presentation gave people an opportunity to pay close attention to these sounds, something many of them have never done before. A large part of the audience found it interesting and this actually encouraged him to continue his experiment.
Instead of capturing landscapes and spaces in their visual form, Emeka Ogboh records the audio of socio-economical happenings in cities especially Lagos called Lagos Soundscapes. He is fascinated by the multilayered structures that exist in the soundscape of the city. “There’s a lot happening at the same time and in loud volumes, especially the bus parks and markets scattered all over the city. These are major points of transition and interaction for ‘Lagosians’, and where you can listen to the multicultural diversity of the city. On these soundscapes you will pick languages from all corners of the nation and beyond, showing the cultural melting pot Lagos has become.” Ogboh describes the sound of Lagos as intense compared to other cities he has worked with. Only Cairo and Mumbai are close to the Lagos experience.
Sometime in 2014, Emeka Ogboh became popular for taking the Lagos Danfo bus to Brooklyn in New York City for Lagos State of Mind II. This was not the first time he took the Danfo bus for an exhibition in the United States. The first time was at the Menil Museum in Houston in 2012 for Lagos State of Mind I installation. Apart from the bus, he also worked with stickers that are found on these buses but the bus remains a prominent physical element of Lagos he has ever incorporated into his work. He positions the Danfo as the most recognizable visual iconography that represents Lagos in popular imaginations. “The Danfo bus, in my aesthetic practice, is a visual sign around and within which the acoustic references taken from around Lagos can be assembled to effectively transform into a dynamic, sonic sculpture. “
Driving the Lagos Danfo past the Buka restaurant in Brooklyn NYC last year, the Nigerians there went wild and chased after it screaming all the Lagos bus stops they could recall. When he finally reversed and parked in front of the restaurant, it was an emotional moment for the Nigerians there with many of them jostling for playing conductor on the bus. “The next time I was there, the chef at the Buka restaurant walked up to me and said thank you.”
The reactions from his non-Nigerian audiences are often a mix of shock and confusion, and sometimes an inspiration for other artists in the audience. “Lagos soundscape is quite ‘colourful’ compared to the bland soundscapes in most parts of the western world. I have had western composers that have never been to Lagos react positively to the city’s soundscapes and we ended up collaborating on sound compositions”. For Nigerians living abroad who encounter his installations, it reconnects them with the familiar. A Nigerian student living in Helsinki in Finland reacted emotionally to his outdoor installation for the ARS 11 exhibition at KIASMA museum in 2011. The student initially thought he was going crazy hearing sounds from Lagos but surrounded by white people. He had not visited Nigeria for 4 years since he left, and after this experience with the sound installation, he visited for Christmas the same year. Ogboh states moments like these makes his work worthwhile.
Often, he takes advantage of these exhibitions to create new works and he has created a vast archive since 2008. Lagos Soundscapes are now resources he digs into to create compositions for other soundscape installations. His archive also has sounds from Nigerian independence which he used as the material for the Ambivalence of 1960 installation. There’s also a sizeable archive of recordings from Japan he used for Trancemission and C2073 installations. On this long list are recordings of [dis]connect, Fractalscapes experimental video series and Egwutronica, a new experimental project that combines music made with traditional Igbo instruments with electronic musical compositions. Occasionally, he combines sound with a video like he did with Fractalscapes, combining sound with a mirror effect video. The combined media creates an individual abstract audio-visual narrative. In some cases, these videos are used to boost understanding of the background the sounds come from without taking focus from the sound.
For the African Union commission, Ogboh is creating a series of sound installations that are interconnected but can stand-alone, in five parts. The installation will engage with the past, present, and future. He has spent the past months researching the AU archives and other Pan-African archives around the continent for speeches that evoke the installation theme. Excerpts from these speeches will be used with vocals from the AU anthem in different languages, with support from a composer, an African choir, and recorded sounds of birds from all over the continent. All these will come together as the sound installation to reflect the rich diversity and unity of the African continent.
This pattern of production is similar to the installation at the Biennale in Venice. On his arrival in Berlin last year, he heard about the Oranienplatz refugee situation in Germany and the migration stories from Global-South to the Global-North. Researching this situation inspired his work The Song of the Germans installed at ‘All the World’s Futures’ exhibition. When contacted for Venice Biennale, he sent in a list of recent works and ideas, and The Song of the Germans was selected for the Biennale. Then, it was an untitled piece, only on paper as a concept. “It evolved a bit during production to what was finally installed at the Giardino delle Vergini tower in Venice.”
Sound art may come across as simple and easy until you find out the processes involved. Ogboh explained the process of producing some of his works using The Song of the Germans as an example. The production involved translating the German anthem into 10 different African languages, taking a Choir of 10 into a large studio well equipped for group and solo recordings in the former GDR radio station in East Berlin. The recording was actualized as a 10 channel sound installation, where 10 loud speakers were installed around the space in a circular pattern to create an immersive installation. Each singer was placed on a separate speaker, set at the head height of the singer. However, the exhibition space in Venice determined the final output of the recording experienced at the exhibition. When the artist and is team got there, a lot of ideas previously designed for the installation were discarded for what the space allowed. Giardino delle Vergini is an 18th-century tower at the Arsenale in Venice and totally different from the space the sound was created.
Prior to 2015, Emeka Ogboh shuttles between Lagos and Berlin to work. He prefers working in Berlin for the same reasons some other artists have labeled Lagos as unfavourable for creativity. In Berlin, he has access to highly equipped studios and a professional team experienced in sound art production. There is also the issue of electricity. “I don’t have a specific work schedule, and I like to work when I am inspired to, not because PHCN decides to behave or because my power generator is on. Those moments between power interruptions matters a lot. It could disconnect you, and you may find it hard to reconnect back to work. Having to stop work due to power interruption or generator issues can be quite frustrating.” Ogboh proposes government or institutions should support artists with production funds, create a conducive working environment and professional technical facilities for high quality works.
Beyond the art world, music and sound are now combined together for therapy in medicine. Sound art is evolving to that level where it will be specifically created and adapted to an environment that an individual will walk into for an immersive therapeutic experience. Space and installation design will play a major role in this use of sound. For now, Emeka Ogboh gets commissions for site-specific installations for residential homes and offices. They are customized interactive sound compositions installed to suit his client’s living or work space. Most of these installations are combined elements taken from memories, space, a moment in time and other sounds.
In our conversation on Venice and the AU prize, he referred to those achievements as huge and notable in his career. “To be part of the Venice Biennale is certainly a plus. This achievement is not just for me but also for upcoming Nigerian artists thinking of working with new media. The norm for AU was the commissioning of sculptures or murals for public spaces. Commissioning sound installation for a public space is a major shift and a turning point for the future of new media on the continent. The impact of these achievements on my career is huge, both in terms of exposure and production processes. For these two projects, I worked with a well-rounded technical team; sound engineers, environmental experts, and lawyers. I learned a lot in the process.”
Amongst the many different nationalities Ogboh has met on his travels, he describes Nigerians as confident people, noting this character sometimes come across as arrogance.