Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Listening for The Unspoken (1) - Emmanuel Iduma


Untitled - Khartoum (Ray-Daniels Okeugo)

Our work in Khartoum is as big as finding anthropological details, and probably bigger.  Which means we must be careful to ask questions in order to understand better; I consider it a crime to make photos of people for the simple reason that they are photogenic, or that their faces or dresses or workplaces are breathtaking. If photography is art then it is not simply a question of aesthetics, for this is not hard to find, neither are alluring faces and beautiful landscapes. If photography is art then it is an attempt by the photographer to reveal, picture and (re)imagine the trans-ordinary; then it is an attempt to achieve the goal defined by Guillermo Gomez-Pena. “The ultimate goal is to look for images that will create a disturbing sediment in the consciousness of the spectator, images that the audience cannot easily escape from…”

I consider that the events of our latest day in Khartoum are premised on a collective attempt to listen for the unspoken. Which is why I do not consider it less productive that we spent bulk of the day indoors, preparing for a workshop with Sudanese photographers.

Before the workshop, the team granted an interview to Isma’il Kush Kush, a freelance journalist with CNN.com. The interview went the way of most interviews – the questions posed were questions of who, what and how. Yet, one thing led to another, and soon we were talking about what the word ‘Africa’ meant, our place in the continent, our divergent differentness, and the history of mal-representations. I noticed how, although the interview had ended, Emeka spoke enthusiastically about a trans-African Africa. I should note that this struck me as a selfless act. Even more because he emphasized that Invisible Borders was not a personal thing; how 20 years from now, travelling from across borders will be unnecessary if we achieve what the Projects hopes to achieve. Who knows if our enthusiastic response to Isma’il was triggered by the artistic feel of Papa Costa Restaurant? Papa Costa is the oldest bakery in Khartoum, once owned by a Greek. There is an exhibition of some paintings in the inner part of the restaurant. And MTN Sudan provided free wifi service in the restaurant. Is it just me, or is MTN Nigeria greedier than their Sudanese counterparts?

Emeka said, “We are not road builders. We build artistic highways.” Our workshop with Sudanese photographers was organized, I believe, to achieve this; trust me, it did. Even before we arrived (almost late), the venue of the workshop was filled with the photographers chatting amongst themselves. We joined, and began to exchange pleasantries, introducing ourselves – there were myriad of names, names I forget, but faces I remember. The workshop was simply an exhibition of sorts, where the works of Invisible Borders, both of 2010 and 2011 were presented on a projector screen to the photographers. There were applauses, giggles, acclaims, more or less an exchange. I hope this extends beyond an event, becomes a practice, and that Invisible Borders becomes a workshop in motion, a “moving residency” as Emeka once described.


Cross section of attendees at the workshop (Image: Ray-Daniels Okeugo)

The night ended with Sudanese food. I doubt we will ever forget falafel, or the bread, or the fish stew. Our host was a young Sudanese photographer, whose energy was infectious, and who spoke about the culture of Sudan with the confident knowledge of a person who had spent his life questioning and finding answers. His lady friend declared, “all Sudanese people have an identity crisis!” At first, that sounded inordinate and inappropriate. But upon a careful consideration, I realized it was something being said without words, for even when Ala noted that “Khartoum is not Sudan”, he sounded as though he was not speaking, as though the identity crisis was an evident blur.

By identity crises, our friends considered the wideness of Sudan, in terms of culture and size. They considered how some Sudanese people did not think themselves African but Arabic. There is, for instance, the East of Sudan, where people do not know the simplest political detail about ‘Sudan.’ There is no point in reaffirming that not every fact is replayed in the media; I have realize that there is an ease in blaming the media for misrepresenting Sudan, or Africa, or a people’s reality. Yet, there is hardly an attempt to individualize our own representation. There is no gainsaying that the words passed from mouth to mouth in that apartment where we had dinner was some form of individualized representation, and which hopefully, will become a constant feature of conversations between young artists and students living in Africa.

Or how else will the story of our Sudanese driver except through such individualization of reality. This time, his gestures transcend being Sudanese, or being welcoming. I consider that he is making an effort to engage with our alienhood; he gave us small stick-ons for our phones, he does extra time, takes us to buy things, plays English music in the van, and when occasionally he does play Sudanese music, he introduces us to it. All of this is despite the fact that I have never asked for his name (and might never) and despite the fact that he speaks little English.

If all I do is write a short paragraph about people I meet in Sudan, summarizing their stories as I know it, I will feel satisfied. But this is a duty I cannot fulfil given our tight schedule and itinerant life. One day, perhaps, that will be possible. 

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