On memory, representation & archive, in conversation with Ishola Akpo

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Ishola Akpo, Daibi Series, 2018
Ishola Akpo, Daibi Series. Image Courtesy of the Artist

In 2007 Ishola Akpo received an unexpected email from Fondation AfricAméricA. He was invited, as an artist, to attend the “Transcultural Forum of Contemporary Art” in Haiti in 2008. Other aspiring artists would have greeted such news with elation. A puzzled Ishola Akpo thought it was either a prank or a case of mistaken identity for he didn’t consider himself an artist but a graphic designer.

At the time, he was working for a communication agency in Benin, (West Africa) his home country where he lives and works. Frustrated by the poor quality of the images he received, he convinced the owner to invest in a basic camera so he could shoot their photos. As his confidence grew, he created composite photographs that he shared online. It was the discovery of these pictures by the team of AfricAméricA Fondation that triggered the invitation to the contemporary art event.

His attendance at the event entailed writing a letter of intent as an artist, hence articulating for himself and others his artistic vision. As a result, the trip to Haiti became akin to his own road to Damascus moment. It was a complete conversion for someone who was angered by his father’s predictions that he would work in the creative industry as a “fashion designer or a photographer.” These were not, he thought at the time, “noble career” paths to consider.

He attended the Contemporary Art Forum in July 2008, the first international art event of his career. The long-lasting relationships he forged with fellow artists, art critics, curators and others he met there, would become instrumental for his career. Soon thereafter, invitations to art residencies in Dakar, Ivory Coast and Togo came. Over the following years, he set out on a steep learning curve, developing his photographic skills and more importantly honing his creative voice.

This summer, we were sitting in the shadow of the trees in the courtyard of “Le Centre,” an art and cultural centre in the outskirts of Cotonou in Benin, as he fondly recalled his debut in the art world. Akpo is approachable and talked openly about his background and creative drive. As we spoke, the director of “Le Centre” Dominique Zinkpe stopped by and half-jokingly encouraged him to keep working hard. “Le Centre,” has become, over the last few years, an important art incubator for young and emerging artists. Akpo was in residence there the previous year and continues to drop by to bounce ideas off people and meet fellow artists.

Others would have called the sequence of events that led him to where he is now, serendipity. Ishola Akpo had a slightly different take on it. “I didn’t choose Art.” He says. “Art chose me. The same way here in Benin, [in the traditional religion,] Voodoo practitioners are chosen by the spirits, art chose me as one of its practitioners.”

Quote from Ishola Akpo

Now aged 35 and a decade after his fatidic selection by the art gods, Ishola Akpo is seen as one of the rising stars among African photographers. Besides private collectors, his work entered the collection of the Musée du Quai Branly – Jacques Chirac in Paris in 2015. In February this year, three images of his series “L’essentiel Est Invisible pour Les Yeux” (inspired by his Grandmother) opened the critically acclaimed exhibition “Africa Is No Island” at MACAAL (Museum of African Contemporary Art Al Maaden) in Marrakech. Curated by “Afrique in Visu,” the group show presented a multifaceted vision of contemporary Africa and was part of an ambitious program that marked the international launch of the museum, coinciding with the inaugural edition of the Contemporary African Art Fair 1:54 on the continent. The events drew a swath of international collectors to Marrakech and positioned it as a growing platform of Contemporary African Art.

Reflecting on “L’essentiel Est Invisible pour Les Yeux” and by and large on the role of artists in society, he said, “artists are not educators.” In an echo to Paul Klee’s famous quote “Art does not reproduce the visible; rather, it makes visible.” He added, “the role of the artist is to draw people’s attention to things they don’t see.” This stance has undoubtedly been the creative thread that connects the photography series he has produced over the last ten years.

Ishola Akpo shot the series “Les Redresseurs De Calavi” in the wake of a failed attempt to mug him in 2011. In a twist of events, his assailants became the subjects of his art, as he shadowed them and captured striking black and white images of their daytime lives. He “was not interested in what they stole.” That was the single narrative about this group that robbed people at night. He deconstructed that image when he highlighted the attractive features of their sculpted bodies and revealed to the community and the men “a form of beauty they could no longer see in themselves.” The Photographs were shown at Aleppo International Photography Festival in Syria in 2012, ahead of a local exhibition that became a catalyst for a change of lifestyle for some of the men involved in his project.

Akpo’s practice gravitates around some significant preoccupations: “representation, self-representation, memory, and archive.” Moving on from a documentary style of photography, he turned his gaze inward with the following series, “L’essentiel Est Invisible pour Les Yeux,” which is situated at the nexus of the themes that he explores. “L’essentiel Est Invisible pour Les Yeux” literally translates as “The essential Is Invisible To The Eyes.”

In a way he says, his “Grandmother initiated the series.” As an old lady increasingly facing the prospect of death, she was eager to leave a record through the lenses of her photographer grandson, teasing: “aren’t you going to take a picture of me before I die?” She pointed to the worn out, mundane household items that were part of her dowry when Akpo enquired about her relationship with her husband and their marriage. The dowry became the focus of the series of about a dozen pictures. Akpo restaged the dowry and in a poignant photo, the young bride now an elderly lady, can be seen wearing an African wax print and holding green bottles of gin.

With this conceptual series, Akpo has encapsulated layer upon layer of meaning in a seemingly simple composition. He photographed the components of the dowry against a neutral background. In doing so, he elevated these mundane objects beyond the personal story of his grandmother to showcase the changing customs surrounding an essential rite of passage: Marriage. The wax prints now a crucial element of the dowry, were introduced in West Africa in the 19th Century. They are charged with a history of conquest and colonisation that stretches from Europe to Asia and Africa. In this context, these imported objects, evoke the enduring trades and cultural links the African continent has built with other continents over the centuries; links that are now visible in the most traditional aspects of West African life.

L’essentiel Ishola Akpo, L’essentiel Est Invisible pour Les Yeux, 2015
Ishola Akpo, L’essentiel Est Invisible pour Les Yeux

He continued the familial introspection with “Daïbi.” Daïbi is the traditional name of God among the Nago Hunters, a group spread across Benin and Nigeria, and which the artist’s Grandfather belonged to. Contrary to Christian depictions of God, Daïbi is a fluid, non-figurative, spiritual entity encompassed in the four elements of the world: earth, water, fire, and air. Akpo gave a representation to Daïbi through 14 self-portraits with his body darkened in the same way as the hunters. He embodied Daïbi as he wore various cultural props that evoked both the spiritual elements the God takes the shape of and the spirits of his ancestors.

He brought his cosmopolitan sensitivities to bear in the story as he wore the Moroccan red Fez hat and borrowed props from other cultures in some of the pictures. The series was a very public and visual display of his quest for identity and meaning. It represented his attempt to connect with a grandfather he didn’t have the chance to meet, and with his origins, as a man located at the confluence of various cultural heritages and influences. Akpo is of Nigerian ancestry, born in Ivory Coast, based in Benin, travelling the world and in dialogue with multiple cultures. He went to Nigeria to get re-acquainted with his origins and fill in the gaps in his story. His photographic projects are grounded in his “life experiences” or that of his family. He “doesn’t like to follow trends,” instead, he explores themes that are close to his heart, that engage him, and which others can emotionally connect with.

Ishola Akpo, Daibi Series
Ishola Akpo, Daibi Series

The echo of these series along with their artistic and commercial success have allowed Akpo to embark upon his next ambitious project: reversing the selective institutional amnesia that erased some Queens from our history. His multimedia project is set to bring together the fragmented stories of these Queens who hailed from various countries including Benin, Senegal, Haiti, and France. If his previous works are any indication, this new series looks promising, even at this embryonic stage.

When we met in August, he was about to leave for his research trip abroad. As we spoke, it became evident that despite crediting his entry into the art world to fate, his progress this last decade has been underpinned by a quiet determination and unrelenting work ethic. He is avidly planning for the future not only for him but also for the future generation of visual artists. His art studio is under construction and should include a space where he could showcase his work and engage with viewers and representatives from the art world. He insists, “It’s not a gallery.” Conversely, he has adopted a very stoic attitude towards his surprising lack of gallery representation and remains proud of what he has achieved despite various obstacles.

All his images are printed abroad, even those for local or African exhibitions. Benin is a small country with little structure to support artists and artistic creation. The country is also at the forefront of the battle for the restitution of historical artworks looted during colonial wars. Without directly addressing the question of restitution, Akpo raises the issue of the little local interest in contemporary art, leaving almost all of his works in the hands of foreign collectors. Although it works for him and allows him to live off his art, he is conscious of the potential detrimental impact the lack of local collectors could have over the long term. Being ever pragmatic, he is planning to create an archive of his work to leave some artistic reference for the future generations of visual artists.

Looking back at the inroads Akpo has made in the art world and the way he is planning for the future, it is hard not to rejoice for him, and with him, over the inflection in his life trajectory that caused him to land in the art world. Whatever the reasons, whether you attribute the tipping point to the clairvoyance of the team at Fondation AfricAméricA, to fate, to the art gods or to be safe, all of the above combined, he continues his ascent, and I am looking forward to seeing what comes next.

Ishola Akpo’s photographic series “L’essentiel Est Invisible pour Les Yeux” is included in the group show “Grey is the new Pink” at the Weltkulturen Museum in Frankfurt. The exhibition runs from 25 October 2018 to 1st September 2019.

The exhibition “Africa Is No Island” (L’Afrique n’est pas une Ile)  will open at Fondation Zinsou in Cotonou (Benin) from 2nd November until 15 February 2019.

The interview was recorded in French.

This is the first feature of our Weekly Series “emerging artists“. The series highlights the practice of emerging artists based on the continent or part of the African Diaspora.

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