By Emmanuel Iduma
March 5, 2021
The art of the interview is an underappreciated skill. How do you take a spoken conversation and transpose it to the page, in such a way that the vitality and serendipity that underscores a live dialogue is retained, and remains compelling to the reader? In a lively discussion from 2017 with Nigerian photographer Abraham Oghobase, writer Emmanuel Iduma neatly reconciles these problems. Delving into Oghobase’s early childhood, his career, and shift from documentary to conceptual photography, Iduma gently probes the artist without ever cajoling him, allowing Oghobase to unveil his biography and philosophies in a way that makes for a compelling narrative.
—Jessica Holmes, Editor-in-Chief
I first met Abraham Onoriode Oghobase in 2013, the year I left Nigeria. There was no electricity that night, as I recall, but we sat in his living room perusing photo books in the low light of a kerosene lamp. Earlier, another artist had shown me images from his 2012 series, Untitled, in which he performs in front of the camera, pictured mid-air against walls with hand-painted advertisements. I was drawn immediately to the calculated intensity of his images. Now, almost five years later, his work has expanded in scope and nuance. As this conversation suggests, Abraham is the kind of artist who figures out early enough that if his work is to be far-reaching and relevant in the long term, it will require slower forms of engagement—layering layers on layers. At some point he says, “We live in a very complex universe. Africa is very complex. This complexity can’t be explored by photography alone.” I am inclined to believe him.
Born in Lagos in 1979, Abraham Oghobase studied at the Yaba College of Technology’s School of Art, Design and Printing in Lagos, majoring in photography. He often uses himself as material for his performance-based work. Recently, he has adapted four-color separation printing techniques to create compositions consisting of monochrome layers of images. Oghobase’s photography has been exhibited widely, including at the Palais des Beaux Arts (BOZAR), Brussels (2016), Victoria and Albert Museum, London (2014), KIASMA Museum of Contemporary Art, Helsinki (2011) and the 6th and 8th Bamako African Photography Biennial (2005 and 2009). He was a finalist in 2014 for the prestigious Prix Pictet global award in photography and sustainability. Oghobase lives and works in Lagos, where he practices his art and contributes regularly to artistic forums, workshops, and festivals.
—Emmanuel Iduma (Class of 2015 and Writing I Professor)
This is the first installment of three interviews between MFA Art Writing professor and alumnus Emmanuel Iduma and Nigerian artists Kelani Abass, Taiye Idahor and Abraham Oghobase. The artists were featured in the exhibition CCA Lagos at ISCP, at the International Studio & Curatorial Program (ISCP) in Brooklyn, NY.
CCA Lagos at ISCP, inspired by the 2016 exhibition Orí méta odún méta ibìkan (Three heads, three years, one place) at CCA Lagos, presents work from the archives of CCA Lagos as well as works in progress by Abass, Idahor, and Oghobase.
This conversation, conducted over the phone, has been edited for clarity.
Emmanuel Iduma: How did you make the transition into making art?
Abraham Oghobase: I’ve always been an artist, even from my childhood. I was born a left-handed person, and growing up my father would say, “You can’t eat with me with your left hand.” I was forced to switch using a right hand, and it sort of affected me. I became slow at school and dyslexic in a way. I couldn’t read until my dad taught me how to when I was in Primary 3 at age 7 or 8. After that I would read everything I saw on the board because it was a new terrain. Because of my reading impediment, the one thing I knew I could do as a child was draw. It was the only thing I knew I could do and have my shine. Drawing was a solace. No body could take that away from me.
At a very tender age I knew the power drawing had on me, not on people. It made me feel good as a person. Then, when I started reading, something happened. I wasn’t interested in the regular things. People were reading harlequin romance novels like Mills and Boon, but I was interested in looking at maps. I had a natural curiosity about the world around me, even at a young age, where I wasn’t interested in doing the usual things other kids were doing (reading comics, playing video games, etc), which could be what has propelled me into a non-traditional career as an artist.
EI: You went to Yaba College of Technology, Lagos, which is traditionally celebrated for sculpture, or three-dimensional work, but majored in photography. How were you introduced to photography?
AO: There’s a man who lived close to me, Deji Ajose. He studied at University of Zaria. He trained as a painter but transitioned into photography. He used to do light paintings in his studio, very experimental stuff. I think he’s one of the best light painters in the world, but for some reason he’s not showing his work. He was the first person that got me exposed to experimental art. I lived in his studio for one year when I was doing an apprenticeship with him. He knew that I was an artist, but I didn’t know. One day I went to meet him and said I wanted to be an artist. He said, “na God save you. You for be 40 before you realize.”
After one year, Uche James Iroha came along, and I did an apprenticeship with him. He was a graduate of the University of Port Harcourt, and he majored in sculpture. He also decided to be a photographer. You will see sculptural elements in his work, in his compositions, and how he plays with different elements. After one year, I met the last mentor, Bruno Boudjelal, who’s French-Algerian.
EI: Was this before or after YabaTech, or during that period?
AO: During that period. Deji was before, Uche was during, and Bruno was after. I was in a couple of workshops with Bruno, in Botswana, Ghana, and Paris. He was particularly interested in me. He felt he needed to be part of my development. I believed him. And of course, Akinbode Akinbiyi’s workshops played an important role—they were the first I attended as an artist. Every time I was in Berlin, he would take me around. He buys me endless books. Part of it was to affect that part of my brain that was creative, for me to see possibilities. It was successful working with these guys. At some point I began to think about my own visual language, and how do I begin to also think of installation along my narrative.
EI: How do you think your work as a conceptual photographer—if I may call you that—lead you to the work you’re making today?
AO: Yeah, actually I started as a documentary photographer and worked with film. I think I was the last generation of Nigerian photographers that worked with film, including Emeka Okereke. Of course people still work here, but in Nigeria, where digital revolution took over, it became difficult to get film chemicals, you can’t find film anywhere. If you want to use film you have to wait to come to Europe to develop. But I’ve also transitioned into digital photography because of the different layers of my work.
As a documentary photographer I showed a body of work in the 2005 Bamako Biennale of Photography curated by Simon Njami. It was called Mysterious Minds, a series of black and white images showing mentally challenged people on the streets of Lagos.
Of course there was a precision with what I was photographing—maybe that was why I was selected for the festival then. I was really young. I didn’t know what the festival was about, or that it was a big deal. When I got to Bamako, I was like, wow. It was new terrain. I saw different kinds of art. I saw possibilities in Bamako. I started thinking, and knew I didn’t want to do documentary anymore.
There’s a place for documentary photography, with no disrespect to those who do that. It is a powerful medium. I can always work with archival images. So, if people don’t document, for example, how do I work with such images?
What I became interested in was how to develop my own narrative, and search for my visual language and identity. I got a language residency in Berlin in 2007. For the first time, I turned the camera to myself and started photographing. That was the evolution, basically, of what you see today. Then I found out that the work that you produce is for you to understand and find yourself. It’s about you, in the end. The resulting work was called Lost in Transit and was shown in Bamako in 2009. It was shot on film, and quite eerie.
When I think of these images I also think of ambient music. I like my work to have that feel, that dimension, the poetic dimension, where you can draw your own interpretation from the work and also find yourself within that visual space.
EI: How did you get to lithography?
AO: I was at the Center for Contemporary Art and the Curator Bisi Silva proposed an exhibition with the body of work I made in Austria. Bisi had a serious impact on my development as an artist, from inception. I went to Salzburg after I came back from the US, where I had gone with the hope that I would settle there and become an artist in the diaspora. It was an illusion. I didn’t connect. I had to think about moving back to Nigeria. A couple of years after I moved back, Bisi proposed I go to Salzburg Summer Academy. She and the Academy supported me, which is the connection you find in that exhibition (Taiye Idahor and Kelani Abass went to Salzburg). I started looking at materiality. The exhibition she proposed was to reflect how artist engage their work in a studio space.
Bisi had said, “Abraham, maybe this is an opportunity to try something else.” Kelani Abass, whose father has a history in printing, and who also has a history in printing, advised me to try lithography. I was a bit reluctant to try something new and (quite honestly) to take advice from another artist about my own practice (personal work is very sensitive). But then I thought about it, and I went with Kelani to Mushin, and he showed me the different processes, and encouraged me to try. Now Mushin is like a second home. I’m now looking at different printing techniques, even printing on plastic and transparent tarpaulin. I also learned through this process to be more open when it comes to receiving ideas and feedback about my practice.
I’m interested in lithography because it gives me the option to explore the materiality within print making and also allows for fluidity where I can just play and be vulnerable with the medium and not have everything too tight in my head. It allows for some type of magic to happen. It’s also a process where I can move the lithographic materials around and create fictitious narratives.
EI: So it’s really the materials that matter for you, the process of materializing photography in a different way?
AO: Not necessarily. It’s in layers. My practice also questions how an image can transmit different emotions when you use different kinds of paper. But it is just one image. This is why the work is in different colors. For instance you have the image of the cloud. It’s just a cloud. But in the impress—the paint put on the paper—the intensity is not constant. Every print becomes unique. I’m also doing monochrome. I’m not interested in the four CYMK colors. I’m interested in one color tone. What it shows for me is that the images become different, because they radiate different kinds of feelings. That makes me question imagery, and see the possibilities of how materiality changes the dynamic of images, or how I can create multiple layers by putting a digital image on another image for example, so that becomes something else completely. I can do it digitally, but it is different because then I’m not exploring materiality.
A friend of mine said, “I can do this on Photoshop, Abraham.” I said, I know, you could do it. Anyone can do anything on Photoshop. But that’s why it’s not Photoshop, but lithography, because it’s an experience. It’s about the material.
EI: And this goes back to you talking about how, for you as an artist, it is a question of implicating yourself. What happens in the process of imprinting these colors, of expanding the possibilities of the image, becomes your own experience of that movement.
AO: Thank you. And also, how do you quantify experiences? How do you quantify or objectify feeling? It’s impossible. So you have to develop a visual language. When you listen to ambient music, for example, it’s a place where you float. There are no words. That’s the way I want to create images. It’s not about talking or making the image feel like what it is not. It is really about my experiences. It’s about the simple things like the rain or clouds, but also about how you find a visual language that has its root in painting and in art history.
Recently I’ve been making photos of things such as the ocean/water or land/places (borders) or the atmosphere (clouds). Within this ecosystem lies a deep sense of history that takes us back to the very essence of existence, and is about time and space. Basically this is what I’m trying to make sense of.
EI: I’m interested in hearing you talk about how the shift from being a documentary photography to a conceptual one highlights the nature of truth. Documentary photography, I would say, is a form of truth-making. And even though you moved away from that, you’re still invested in detail. A roundabout way of coming to truth.
AO: Exactly. Really, what we make is fiction. Even in a war zone, and you have 10 photographers shooting from different points of view, and they shoot one particular thing, the point of view is different. Already there’s a contradiction. What is the truth? For me it is a matter of questioning the idea of truth-making in imagery, and also exploring very global elements like clouds, water, and landscape.
The recent work I showed at the Leopold Museum in Vienna, curated by Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung, was made in Plateau State in Nigeria, which has a history of tin mining, connected to British colonial rule. They extracted tin there from the 1910s to 1950s, or thereabouts, before oil was discovered. There are a lot of legacies left behind. You have several mining ponds, and artificial lakes. You also have railway lines connected to colonialism, because the trains were used to move minerals to the ports. That’s why you find Ebute-Metta as a railway stop, which is close to the port. It wasn’t an accident, but designed that way, because the British had to ship goods. You also have a terminus in Port Harcourt, which is close to the water. Also, Plateau State is one of the first places in Nigeria to have electricity, and it was because they needed to power the mines.
After the exhibition I did at CCA, I was curious about my history. I didn’t dabble into post-colonialism because it was hip. I dabbled into it because I was interested in Plateau State. My fiancée was brought up there. The first time I visited, from the plane I saw the lakes, and I thought it was beautiful. She told me it wasn’t that beautiful, and the history behind it. I then became fascinated. It took me five years to do that project. It’s a large body of work.
EI: Is the work you showed at the Leopold Museum mainly photographs?
AO: No, lithographs. You have monochrome layers of the landscape. I also implanted the sculptures I photographed in Salzburg, and titled it What If Austria Had Colonized Nigeria. The Austrians never had a colony, but more than half of the meetings of colonial powers were in Vienna. Are they soft-participants? There were also a lot of Austrian mercenaries that worked with the British. I created this fiction, and then presented a map in use in 1879, before West Africa was mapped. My work is beginning to incorporate different layers in terms of materials.
We live in a very complex universe. Africa is very complex. This complexity can’t be explored by photography alone. I’m constantly looking for things that will add multiple layers, and give my ideas a robust understanding of something. The image is not enough for these layers, which is why I naturally worked with installations and objects. Almost like dabbling in anthropology, in a way. I don’t like to use these words, but it is what it is. It’s something I enjoy, because it creates a kind of aesthetics peculiar to how I work. My aim is to communicate something. I hope people are touched.
CCA Lagos at ISCP: Orí méta odún méta ibìkan (Three heads, three years, one place)
International Studio & Curatorial Program
April 29–June 9, 2017