According to Finnish photographer, Pekka Turunen, “the best thing about being a photographer is that you have to be present when the picture is taken”. For Nigerian documentary photographer Abraham Oghobase, the situation is different and more interesting. He is present as the photographer and a visible part of the story being documented. His photography imitates the style of performance while he features as a part of the subject presented.
Abraham Oghobase was born in Lagos, Nigeria in 1979. He studied Art, Design and Printing at Yaba College of Technology, and graduated with a major in photography. His photography covers subjects of identity, human existence and emotions in the context of politics and socio-economic issues. He has participated in several exhibitions in Nigeria and in Europe.
Last week, The Sole Adventurer had an opportunity to engage the photography artist on his work and current projects. Read the interview below.
So far, what are the remarkable landmarks in your career as a photographer?
If by landmarks you mean career achievements, there are a few that stand out to me. I was shortlisted for the fifth edition of the Prix Pictet in 2014 and my work (Untitled 2012) was shown alongside other shortlisted photographers at Victoria & Albert Museum in London. In the summer of 2012, the same body of work was featured in a major city-wide exhibition and event series in Manchester, UK entitled “We Face Forward”, featuring contemporary West Africa artists and musicians. I was also part of a significant exhibition – ARS 11 – at the Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art in Helsinki, Finland in 2011. I value these achievements as well as I acknowledge each intellectually and emotionally draining body of work I create and each time I mentor or I’m able to assist a young person in his or her development as an artist. I am just as fulfilled.
What influenced your approach to the performance-like works you create and why is your body an integral part of the subjects presented?
Personal experiences, events, the environment and history have all influenced my performance-based works. Using my body in performance is a way to visually move my images and experiences from a place of observing and documenting to a much more intimate space that incorporates my personal outlook, feelings, struggles, and other experiences. It is my way of relating to the given subject and emphasizing the common human experience.
Is there a commercial side to this kind of photography?
Yes, my works are available for sale to individuals, museums, and other public and private institutions.
What themes do you focus on?
I am very interested in contemporary social, economic and political issues and their roots in history.
“Fantasy” at Art Twenty One has your body positioned in different African Wax textiles to explore the identity given to Africans through these fabrics, what connections did you find?
To me, these fabrics represent neocolonialism and capitalism at its best. I find it interesting that these wax fabrics are so accepted as part of our African identity, yet the designs and patterns displayed on them are made up of numerous symbols (from animals to objects) that are quite universal. I see it as a reflection of how we have continued to allow the West to design and influence our culture in many ways. My aim was to deconstruct what it means to be ‘African’ in the 21st century in a playful and fluid way. We are living in a world of fusion and hybridity and my body language in the images expresses that fluidity.
What makes the previous series Ecstatic different from Fantasy?
The context, environment, ideas and the emotions expressed are all different in the two series. Ecstatic, for example, is situated in (and expressed as a reaction to) a very specific context in time and space (both in a physical and a mental sense), which gives it a documentary angle. Fantasy, on the other hand, is more abstract in terms of the imaginary and intellectual, fabric landscapes being a part of the narrative.
As an artist who has participated at international exhibitions, what are the most recurring issues on contemporary Africa presented at these exhibitions?
I have been fortunate to take part in international exhibitions where the intent of the curators is precisely NOT to represent a single story of contemporary Africa but rather to explore the multiple and complex issues and points of view that exist from one artist or country to the next. There are certainly issues that show up quite often (for example, corruption and other social ills) but I do think there is an effort being made to recognize that artists from Africa have many stories to tell in many different ways.
It is reassuring to know the single story approach is not encouraged at these exhibitions. You just finished a summer residency program at Salzburg in Austria; tell us about it. Did you create a new work series after the program?
It was a two week program at the Salzburg International Summer Academy of Fine Arts, and I took part in a course taught by Canadian artist Jayce Salloum and titled “The Possible Impossibilities of Representation or Reading/Making Pictures: The Production of Meaning”. It was a great time to reflect, unlearn, and learn, and to eventually respond to my experiences in a new environment and further develop my visual language as I continue to make new work. As part of the program, I produced two series, one of which was inspired by Salzburg’s spread of classical sculptures representing the city’s long – and largely religious – history. I made self-portraits re-enacting the poses of the statues (which are mostly made of white marble and date back to the 17th century) as a way of questioning and deconstructing black identity in Europe and in the world at large in the 21st century. The works were presented in a group exhibition at the end of the residency program.
Do you think your mission on identity will influence how Africans should see themselves as opposed to external influences?
I hope so. In the end, my work is personal and one expression of identity, but I feel it is important that Africans and everyone else see and understand that there are multiple viewpoints on the continent and our identities are shaped by an endless number of things and experiences. I’m not pushing any one ‘African’ identity, only expressing mine, and how I see life. As artists, we are adding our stories – alongside the media, politicians, economists, entertainers and other recognized stakeholders – to the expressions of the continent and of humanity as a whole.
With your focus on identity and self, how would you describe yourself in three words?
It would be impossible to summarize myself or identity in three words. If I had to, I would say I am dynamic – what I identify with or as, at one point in time may change at another point, open – I interrogate and explore, and engaged – passionate.
Abraham Oghobase is currently part of a group exhibition at Art Twenty One in Lagos titled, “Elsewhere”. It is a collaboration of eight artists questioning the notion of otherness in different artistic media. The exhibition closes on September 10th, 2015.