How Artist Emekah Ogboh Became One of Europe’s Fastest-Rising Stars—Without a Gallery, a Dealer, or Even Self-Promotion
We spoke to the elusive artist ahead of a rare performance at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin.
Emeka Ogboh is tired. It’s understandable, really. The pioneering sound artist is still finding his preferred pace after participating in two of Europe’s largest art events last year, documenta 14 and Skulptur Projekte Münster (and receiving notable acclaim for his presentations at both). He’s also the only artist who pulled them off in tandem without a gallery backing him—and not for lack of offers.
In a conversation with artnet News a few days before his live performance at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt (House of World Cultures, commonly known as HKW) on November 2, Ogboh blames his fatigue on a hectic travel schedule. He’s just gotten off a plane from Paris, where he is completing a nine-month fellowship at the Columbia Institute for Ideas and Imagination. The Nigerian-born, Berlin-based artist has also recently joined a gallery there, Galerie Imane Farès. His first exhibition, “No Condition is Permanent,” is on view through November 24.
“It was good to be free,” he says of his prolonged stretch as a willingly unrepresented artist. Now, representation by a smaller gallery that specializes in artists from the Middle East and Africa feels like the right fit, especially over some of the bigger fish that were approaching him. Ogboh is wary of what big galleries can do to artists’ practices, and was equally as wary, it seems, of taking on any gallery too early (though he acknowledges that decision created other challenges for him).
“I have seen artists who have to make works because the pressure to sell was there,” he says. His own relentless focus, meanwhile, has led him to elude most interviews, art fairs, and other PR opportunities. And the day that he has to have an assistant checking his emails for him? “That’s the day I quit,” he says. “It’s not about spending 20 percent on the work and 80 percent on PR for the work.” (artnet News seemed to luck into this rare interview; Ogboh agreed to speak on a day’s notice before a rehearsal for his upcoming performance.)
Instead, Ogboh focuses on what is most important to him: exploring the boundary-less expanses of sound (and taste—he has more recently began developing artworks around beer). Tracing memories and history through these two senses, Ogboh recontextualizes them like migrants of their own diasporas, teasing out the many complexities they may be imbued with.
A Rare Performance
Considering his preference to remain out of the spotlight, the performance at HKW is a relatively unusual event. The piece, I Sneak Into Lagos in a Yam Truck, combines soundscapes of Lagos, the capital of his native country, and Berlin, his new home.
It’s part of the program tied to HKW’s exhibition “Radiophonic Spaces” (on view until December 10), which explores 200 sound pieces culled from 100 years of art made with or broadcast over the radio. With his highly anticipated performance, Ogboh continues his nuanced, sound-based exploration of migration, diasporas, and post-colonialism, three hot-button issues around the world, but particularly in Europe.
“It’s 2018 and humankind still hasn’t sorted out this issue,” says Ogboh of the ongoing migration crisis. Notably, Ogboh calls himself a migrant, consciously staying away from terms more commonly associated with the peripatetic cultural class, like immigrant or expat.
And although he commends the widespread demonstrations taking place across Germany to protest the right-wing resurgence, he is measured about the future. “This whole idea of migration and the issue of being an African or a black person in Europe will never end,” he says. “Or, at least, not anytime soon.”
For documenta 14, Ogboh also confronted Germany’s nationalism and increasingly prominent xenophobia. He branded his own beer, Sufferhead, blending Nigerian flavors with traditional Germany brewing methods—a move that effectively broke the German “purity laws” that govern beer production. Next, he’s bringing the project to Paris, France, a country he says is still, in some ways, a neo-colonialist state.
Ogboh emphasizes that, at least in his case, Germany has been good to him. But that hasn’t been the case for two other prominent Nigerian art-world figures. Artist Olu Oguibe’s pro-refugee obelisk, I was a stranger and you took me in, a public work from documenta 14, was relocated last month under pressure from right-wing politicians. For Ogboh, the outcome wasn’t surprising. “They are the masses, but then there are the policymakers, too,” he points out.
Meanwhile, another acclaimed Nigerian in the German art world, curator Okwui Enzewor, with whom Ogboh worked on the 56th Venice Beinnale, stepped down from his role as director of Munich’s Haus der Kunst in June. In an interview with Der Spiegel (a translated version of which is available on e-flux), he spoke frankly about the treatment he received “as an African in a predominantly monocultural city.” The same people who dismissed him for not speaking German, he recalled, would pronounce his name incorrectly.
That point resonated with Ogboh. “This is what migration is all about, it’s not one-sided,” he says. “You give and you take. If someone has to speak German, good—but also make an attempt to understand where they’re from.”
He then starts laughing as he realizes, for the first time, that the three men—Oguibe, Enwezor, and himself—are actually from the same tribe in Nigeria, the Igbo.
“People are now looking at African art, so I am now selling more works than before,” he says of the so-called “African art market,” a term he hesitates to use for fear of oversimplifying such a broad category. “If you want to break it down, then break it down to my tribe. I am an Igbo artist.”
Ultimately, however, Ogboh welcomes the recent explosion of interest in African art. He will be showing a sound piece at the upcoming Morocco edition of the 1:54 art fair. But as always, he is pacing himself. “I am not going to be one of those artists that thinks, ‘Let’s make the best of this now while it lasts. And will this be a bubble?’ I am more curious about what happens afterwards.”
For Ogboh, little is more important than maintaining control of his own work. Despite his self-imposed late-blooming relationship with a gallery, he is already booked solid with projects until at least 2020. A major commission with an undisclosed North American museum will also be announced next year.
“The art world wouldn’t exist without the artists—that’s what every artist needs to know,” he says. “You have the power and the power belongs to you. Do not flip it around.”
“Radiophonic Spaces,” a walk-in radio archive, is on view at Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin until December 10. Emeka Ogboh performs this evening as part of the exhibition’s listening platform “Der Ohrenmensch.”
“No Condition Is Permanent” is on view at Galerie Imane Farès in Paris until November 24.
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