Emeka Okereke: Invisible Borders

A group of artists and photographers go on a road trip across West Africa in search of new images of the continent.

“A photograph is a window, and not the view. Don’t photograph what you see, photograph what you feel,” says Emeka Okereke, as he leads a busload of artists and photographers for the Invisible Borders road trip of a lifetime as they search for new ways to portray their continent and explore their art.

It is something he will try and teach young photographer Lilian Novo, for whom the trip is a first attempt at art photography.

The group set off from Lagos and head overland to the Democratic Republic of Congo in a minivan, but soon discover that driving across Africa during rainy season presents environmental, psychological and bureaucratic challenges.

The journey is made harder by Emeka’s moral refusal to pay any bribes at border crossings.

“Every year we go on a road trip across Africa with photographers and other artists. I can help them become better photographers, but it’s the experience of the journey that makes the person,” he says.


By May Abdalla 

It happened in this order. First came the rain and the road dissolved into mud, then the Chinese construction workers, who were building the Trans-African Highway out in the jungle between Cameroon and Nigeria, changed their minds about towing our van across the sinking brown straits. The customs offices, which were hard to find anyway, closed early and the organiser on the back of a motorcycle went somewhere in a particularly dense section of forest. 
Then the fuel ran out and the lightning storm began.

It was like something from a bad Nollywood (Nigerian film industry) script. A dozen African artists set out on the road to go forth and make art, challenging the constraints they felt were dispensed to them from their local cultural institutions.

Emeka’s time in a detention centre inspired him to work on a photography project while there [Al Jazeera]

“It is not about saying the problems with Africa are this or are that. We take spontaneity as our master” says Emeka Okereke, the creator of the Invisible Borders Trans-African Road Trip Collective.

“This is the true African strength – Improvisation!”

Four years ago, Emeka had inaugurated the Invisible Borders Trans African photography trip as a means to make it to the Bamako International Photography Biennale in Mali where he had picked up the Best Young African Photographer Award previously. The idea at the outset was to document the journey from Lagos to Bamako – so the following year the collective travelled to Senegal and last year they traversed the entire continent from Lagos to Addis Ababa.

It was this year’s journey however, intended to take 12 African visual artists and photographers from Lagos to Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of Congo that was the most difficult, not for its distance but for the borders themselves, that were not so ‘invisible’ after all.

And in the end everyone turned back less than half way into the journey in Gabon.

Emeka Okereke was born and raised in Ada in southeastern Nigeria but left the continent a decade ago to pursue his art in Paris, subsequently achieving international success as a conceptual photographer with his work exhibited in major galleries across Europe and North America. However, it was his dual identity that did not sit well.

Whilst travelling across Europe, Emeka was sent to a detention centre in Berlin for breaking his visa requirements. He turned the experience into a photography project and his work continued to bristle with ideas of displacement and disconnect.

“When I left Paris to study, I felt like I was getting stuck in an idea of which I was not part of,” he explains, “I never left Nigeria, I just lived in Europe. I am a border being. I live in two places at the same time. We didn’t see Africa in the history books there. I wanted to come back to Africa and do something here.”

It was the Sisyphean feat of driving across Africa each year armed with cameras that made the most sense to Emeka.

“These borders are not made by us; they are remnants of colonies for the Spanish, the French and the English. They are not relevant to the African modern experience.”

Emeka had leapt at the chance to have a filmmaker from Equatorial Guinea tag along with him on the trip. Gloyer had never left the country before and could only communicate in Spanish or broken French with the others in the van and could not obtain visas for all the countries en route. But the idea of challenging another border in the form of such a complex system filled the collective with excitement. The group also included Christian, a conceptual artist from Rwanda; Lesedi, a videographer from South Africa; and several other artists from Nigeria.

It was a laudable task and one that was increasingly lost on me after we slept for the third day running in the Invisible Borders van. I had thought I had been smart marking out a small amount of territory between both of the front seats as my own, but I had been unable to navigate the gear stick and so I did not have much sleep for several nights. My sound engineer had more success, stretched out on top of the suitcases in the back – it was just unfortunate when the driver had to break suddenly.

Trying to download footage and charging cameras without any power in the jungle proved to be quite challenging and complicated – but we were saved by an intricate adaptation of jump leads and a power converter. And then long into the night we watch loading bars crawl across the bottom of a screen smudged with sweat to the rising squall of crickets.

The refusal of the Chinese workers to tow our vehicle set us on a mission through the forest to circumvent the muds of the rainy season. To make matters worse, the lightning ahead struck a tree and it fell across the road, blocking yet another route. It afforded the team with plenty of time to discuss the onset of the new colonialism.

“When you look at what’s going on, China [and] everyone’s just trying to push themselves in Africa strategically,” Emeka explains, “So we have to build tunnels through the countries to bring people together – the new Trans-Africanism, transgressing Africanism, transcending Africanism!”

And so the word play continued as someone was sent out to find a chainsaw in a village.

The music for this film was composed by Max Baillie