Writing Art History Since 2002

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Renowned Berlin-based Nigerian photographer Akinbode Akinbiyi talks about urban space in Johannesburg, walking slowly and lost innocence.

image from invisible-border.com
Akinbode Akinbiyi
Why did you choose Johannesburg for your photographic project? What fascinates you about this city?
It is part of my ongoing work which focuses on the so called major cities in Africa, which include Lagos, Cairo, Johannesburg and Kinshasa. However, I do work in other cities as well, such as Dakar, Addis Ababa, Bamako, Kano and Ibadan. Initially, I found Johannesburg to be very dense, very difficult to get into and understand. With time, I began to understand its inner workings, and I did research through books and the Internet. Still, I find it to be a very conflicted city. There are the Northern suburbs where the elite lives, then there is downtown where the majority of residents are black Africans from across the continent, the Southern suburbs which is also partly inhabited by the elite, then Soweto which is a huge city in itself, where some of the residents also belong to the so called new middle class.
Johannesburg is a strange place.
It is a young city, like Addis Ababa and Lagos. The layering went very fast and very dense. I find it hard for a non-native to understand the small things and ways that people go about their lives in the city, how they communicate, how they negotiate space and what they conceive as private and public space.
Why do you choose to walk? Does it give you a different photographic perspective?
My philosophy is that you are quickest on foot. This may sound contradictory. When you walk you move slowly through spaces and by so doing you see more. I have been doing this for 40 years. I move very slowly and gently, I try not to invade other people´s spaces, while at the same time trying to take images. It is a sort of dance, a negotiation, meandering – a very sensitive way of moving through all kinds of spaces.
You observe people through your lens. Do you feel your subjects move around freely in Johannesburg or do they look as if they felt constricted in the public space?
My observation is that in their own neighborhoods most people move quite freely. In the downtown areas – Hillbrow, Berea, Yeoville – however, there is a sense of tension. When I look at people´s faces I see a kind of underlying anxiousness which manifests itself in people walking fast and bumping into each other without apologising. I don´t know what this tension is exactly. I don´t think it´s fear, more of an unhappiness with their daily lives. High walls, fences and security are ever present – it seems to be interplay between security and insecurity, people are torn between their anxiety and a desire to be free. When I went to Soccer City stadium in Soweto for the African Cup of Nations´ finals, the atmosphere was much different: there was a sense of freedom, people were relaxed, and they celebrated. Security was good and there was police presence. You don´t get this vibe too often in the city.
What do you wish to express through your photographic work?
My work is an attempt to understand cities and urban life today. Over the past years I´ve realised that I am looking for my childhood, that kind of innocence and childlikeness that I had growing up in London and Lagos, and which I feel is no longer there. Whenever I find such moments – fragments of this lost innocence – I take photographs. At the same time I try to understand what´s happening today in the cities I document. By trying to understand I mean wondering. I am not a flâneur in Baudelaire´s sense, nor do I attempt to observe urban life as an anthropologist – instead, I move with the flow of the movements that naturally occur in these cities. I don´t let myself get carried away by these flows however; but try to be aware of them.
I take a step back and take images.
As much as I am not a flâneur, I am also weary of the term observer. I consider myself a wanderer, somebody who wanders and at the same time wonders; the line “I wonder as I wander” by Langston Hughes resonates with me. It is my way of coming to grips with the world around me, which for my current work is urban space. Cities, and especially the major cities of today, are very difficult to grasp. As soon as you have understood a particular area of a city and come back a while later, it has changed. Urban spaces are constantly changing and evolving. You do get to understand some of the layers of the city´s fabric, and what it´s foundations are but you can´t really ever fully grasp them, because of the constant change that is happening. Take for example Addis Ababa: the same site that hosted informal settlements two years ago now boasts high-rises, shopping malls and residential condominiums. I am not nostalgic however. Instead I attempt to understand from a childlike perspective, what is really happening in a city. For instance why are there taxi ranks in Johannesburg within the city space? This endeavour can sometimes be very challenging.
What is happening in the African photography scene? Are there any young upcoming photographers of African descent that you are watching?
There are many talented young people from Africa, and I am watching them. I am trying to establish a movement of young photographers who live and work in the cities I am documenting. The idea is for them to continue the work I started in these cities, but in their own way and visual language. I want to encourage young photographers to do work on the topic of urban space. Whether the type of photographic work is conducted during a lifetime, or within a set period of time, I feel urban space is important and should be explored and documented.
An interesting aspect of photographs is that we look at them differently over time, we see more and other things than we saw when we initially looked at them, and there is the historical, archival aspect to photographing cities.
My impression is that in Johannesburg, more photographers deal with personal issues in their work, rather than engaging with what is happening in the public space, for example doing a documentary on minibus drivers, street cleaners, or the banking district in the city´s CBD.
Born in Oxford, England in 1946, Akinbode Akinbiyi studied in Nigeria, England and Germany. He is based in Berlin and has been working as a photographer since 1974. Recipient of a STERN Reportage Stipend (1987), founder of UMZANSI cultural center in Durban, South Africa (1993, he curated the German contribution to the Bamako Rencontres de la Photographie in Mali in 2003 as well as the and was on the panel of judges of the World Press Photo Award.
His current work focuses on the phenomenon of African megacities, namely Cairo, Lagos, Kinshasa and Johannesburg, where he lived and worked in late 2012 and early 2013, to continue work on the upcoming art publication about African megacities.
The photographic exhibition will be shown in Johannesburg at the end of 2013.
The interview was conducted by
Miriam Daepp.
Copyright: Goethe-Institut South Africa, Internet editor
April 2013

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