Opening the pages of Who Knows Tomorrow, one is presented with stark and compassionate portraits, hazy silhouettes and distant landscapes. A variance in light, the adjustment of the lens so that the frame becomes slightly out of focus. To linger upon each image, we gain deeper meaning. Our slow observations allow the images to evolve and morph, a triggering of ones senses to recognize universal beauty and universal communities.
Nii Obodai. Girl and Boy, series 1966, Who Knows Tomorrow. Courtesy of the artist.
A photographic exploration of Ghana’s rural and urban terrain is a collective feat by Ghanaian photographer Nii Obodai and French Algerian Bruno Boudejelal. A three-year journey published in 2010 by Les Edition de L’Oeil, with the financial support of the French Embassy in Ghana.
The images speak to a larger contextual dialogue, which uses Ghana as its backdrop to highlight art’s influence in helping to overcome political and historical constructs, and even stereotypes. While the images point towards historical complexities, they also celebrate Ghana’s historical position as the first country to achieve independence. Dedicated to Accra’s first city mayor Henry Sonny Provencal, Nii Obodai’s father, we experience a heartfelt and soulful look at not just Ghana, but humanity. Absolving the notion of ‘other’ through quiet familiarity and self-reflection, help to reshape existing narratives about identity.
Nii Obodai. Under the Village Tree, series Galamse, Who Knows Tomorrow. Courtesy of the artist.
“Far removed from illustrative photography, and the very first book of contemporary art pictures about Ghana.” – Who Knows Tomorrow Preface
In speaking with Obodai, I had the opportunity to learn more about his art practice, one grounded by his desire for true communication between himself and others achieved through mediation and inspired by his travels. It is his connection to the universe that in turn informs his relationship between his art and the power of the image. Subscribing to the notion that ‘consciousness affects intention’ he uses his art as a non-confrontational tool, to contribute to evolving narratives of progression and transformation. Who Knows Tomorrow, has been coined a poetic journey that has just begun, as Obodai and Boudejelal are working on phase two of their next collaboration.
Purposely, Obodai develops his practice locally in Ghana and has various collaborative projects in the works with other artists. He expresses the need to pool resources on the continent, a notion that is both gradual and necessary which he elaborated upon during our interview.
Nii Obodai. Black star, series 1966, Who Knows Tomorrow. Courtesy of the artist.
Stephanie Baptist | In what way did your father’s political background (Henry Sonny Provencal, the first Mayor of the Capitol City Accra) and friendship with Ghana’s first president Kwame Nkrumah, have a role in the development of your work?
Nii Obodai | I began putting works together for the book, Who Knows Tomorrow, with fellow photographer Bruno Boudjelal in 2007. My father had passed away at that time; he was 86. A few months prior and for the last 4 years up until he had transitioned, I had been interviewing him and his role in Ghana’s independence movement. The conversations were intimate and intriguing. What it did, is open up questions as to how do I display our discourse and what did I experience living in Ghana. I also wanted to find a universal way to open up questions from different perspectives. When we do look at our problems [as a country] they seem vast and far. And it also calls to mind the question of ‘the dream.’ What happened to our dream of independence and its legacy today? I also didn’t want to approach this project from a purely documentary perspective by saying this is my point of view, subjectively. I wanted to create distinct [visual] poems out of the images. I wanted to speak from the heart rather than my intellect. And I believe I achieved that.
How would you describe the collaboration between yourself and French Algerian photographer Bruno Boudjelal?
NO | It was a very interesting collaboration. When we were traveling together, we spent most of the time having a philosophical discourse, primarily about Europe’s historical position with Africa and where it is today. And as Africans how do we interpret or observe ourselves in the environment in which we have to take responsibility. We can spend our lifetime placing blame on the outside but we have to be introspective. We talked about family, very vast conversations. That really fueled the content of our images. We documented so much and then bringing it down. It is very progressive and interesting that two artists from 2 different realms can come together to tell a story. He is a very intelligent person. We’re still collaborating, and we’re talking about the next phase of the collaboration, which I am looking forward to.
Is there a market for art books/ publishing in Ghana?
NO | There is a very small market. Contemporary art is developing. In some ways, we are in the baby stages. We are now building institutions, but most of the work is privately supported and the expatriate community heavily supports the local market. There is a market, but we need to produce good quality art books. People are printing now in the Middle East and China, so publications are coming but we just need to find the people to financially support them. I am working on self-publishing at the moment to produce some of my own work and trying to encourage other artists to follow that route as well. They say charity begins at home. Since I am at home, I do my own charity as much as I can.
You have been quoted as saying ‘ to be an artist is an act of service to my society and the greater world.’ How does your artwork act as a conduit for society?
NO | I think my work allows me to engage with new societies and people I haven’t ever really thought about. With my work, I’m going to meet them and get to know their culture. Art helped me to bridge that gap. For example, in Manchester [We Face Forward] in our discussions as artists to the public, we spoke about our art, and our inspirations. This is where I believe my art starts becoming the junction between myself, and the other, whether at home, in a new place or country. Art allows questions to be asked and encourages us to keep asking ourselves those questions. To break down the crazy ideas of ‘us’ and ‘them,’ which has really become a boring story. I recently went to India and did not show photographs, but presented myself as an artist. I was able to talk about the beauty of India, its culture and its music. In one language in India, Ghana means song. Being an artist and expressing myself as that opened up a greater experience. This will translate later on into works I produce, all part of the research and connecting.
What are you working on at the moment?
NO | I have a local exhibition in Ghana organized for April 2013, as well as a collaboration with Belgian architect Barbara Roosen, called Negotiating Space. Negotiating Space looks at urban communities and constructs of urban society. I am working with Nyani Quarmyne, whose work is about climate change and the effects on the coast. Our company is called Visual Order, and our main objective is to create photography which dignifies humanity and applies a holistic approach towards communities, ourselves, and from Africa. We have already documented Ghana, Brussels and we are now looking at Portugal, as well as other spaces.
I also want to expand my knowledge of photography and how to use it effectively. I want to push my capabilities in order to produce something new, a new voice. Challenging myself to be more creative and to be open to being more creative. That’s the important thing for now.
Francis Nii Obodai Provencal (Nii Obodai) was born in Accra, Ghana in 1963 and has lived in England, Nigeria and Ghana. Nii Obodai is at ease with the vast and diverse world of his continent. His work mainly explores the urban and rural, not with a detached eye, but with an artist’s careful watching, with a strong interest in history and a love of the stories that abound in his world. Presently based in Ghana where he works and lives. He enjoys facilitating inspirational workshops on photography and continues to travel exploring and recording the vibrant essence of life. Nii Obodai has exhibited in Accra, Paris, Bristol, Den Haag, Amsterdam, Bamako.
Negotiating Space is a practical research, a reflection on the relationship between space and society; the coexistence of social, cultural, economic and ecological dynamics in the context of a squatter settlement. Instead of approaching squatter settlements with the intention of solving its urgent problems with a “western” urbanistic strategy, we will approach it with an empiric, common sense, sharp vision of how people appropriate and perceive the space and city they live in.
For more insight | craftcollectief.wordpress.com
Written by Stephanie Baptist.
All images courtesy of the artist. All rights reserved.