ABRAHAM OGHOBASE’S LEAP OF FAITH

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In his first solo exhibition in Lagos in a decade, Abraham Oghobase shares a kaleidoscope of his images between 2009 and 2017. Okechukwu Uwaezuoke reports

It doesn’t really take that long for the penny to drop. That is when the image begins to resolve itself into some form of coherence. In the photograph before the viewer, the photographer is the subject. His topless body – captured mid-air – forms an arc against the backdrop of the calm azure sky. He ostensibly has taken a leap from the roof of a commuter bus. His arms are stretched out behind him and his head tilted backwards as if he intends to turn himself into a human bow. Or, perhaps into a human projectile.

This photograph, which belongs to the series Abraham Oghobase calls Ecstatic, might as well be a metaphor for his sudden re-appearance after a long break from holding solo exhibitions. Indeed, it looks as if he is leaping from out of the blues… All puns intended.

He is, after all, back with his first solo exhibition in a decade. Titled No Matter Who You Are, it opened on Sunday, April 22 at a project space called Angels & Muse, along Sunbo Jibowu Street off Ribadu Road in South West Ikoyi, Lagos.

It is obvious from this exhibition, which is on until Monday, June 18, that the 39-year-old alumnus of Yaba College of Technology’s School of Art and Design has moved on from the more conventional, documentary offerings of the previous solo, Lost in Transit. That exhibition held followed on the heels of his return from a three-month intensive German language course in at the Goethe-Institut in Berlin, Germany.

The viewer then begins to connect the photograph to the others in the series. The initial blur of sameness soon dissipates, as the viewer distinguishes each photograph from the other. Besides the numbering of the photographs from 01 to 05, they capture the different moments before the leap in addition to the leap itself. Though taken from different perspectives, they could easily pass for still shots of a motion picture.

Perhaps, that’s really what they should be. Didn’t the photographer, after all, call himself a visual author? “It’s interesting how you take photographs,” he once told Emmanuel Iduma, the editor and co-founder of Saraba Magazine as well as the associate curator of the Nigerian Pavilion at the last year’s Venice Biennale. “This one was taken four years ago and this one was taken last year. So, it’s almost like you are writing. That’s why I think I’m an author. I’m a visual author. Like writing, you write to a point and then you stop, because you are stuck. Your story is not complete. But you have to be patient with the story until it clicks – then, you write…”

In this series, he explores the relationship of the self to the landscape. Almost a decade after, he finds himself extending this exploration a little further in another series he calls Washed Ashore. The first three photographs in this series capture the movement of the sea waves below a sullen cloudy sky. There is an obvious attempt by the photographer to follow the movement of the ocean’s surge. In the series’ last photograph, the photographer is captured in yet another mid-air leap. This time, he is shown upside down in a manner that suggests a reflection from the water.

Even with his lurch towards conceptual photography, Oghobase’s enchantment with landscapes and seascapes, which he attributes to his fascination for minimalism, has lost none of its fervour. Rather, it has transcended the commonplace through his experimentation with monochromes. Take his Kono Beach Revival series, for instance. A photograph of the photographer in his now familiar mid-air leap beside a polluted shoreline seems replicated in five different monochromatic colour schemes. A viewer is expected to be first sucked in by the attraction of their different colour hues before discerning the unsavoury details of the image. “The fact that it is a landscape, you think it’s just simple – it’s more complex than that. And that is what is beautiful about it. The fact that you feel like it is minimalistic, but when you begin to go through the lithographs and you begin to see these different colours. What happens is that it creates this tension as well – the tension that comes through the colours, and then the vibration changes; it exudes lots of emotions as well, because colour brings a lot of emotions.”

He had just moved back to Nigeria from the US, where he had unsuccessfully tried to immigrate, when he turned to lithography. As he told Iduma, “I was exploring my states of consciousness at that time, because it was a time…it was kind of rough, emotionally…”

Then, there was this inner urge to explore new ways of extending the limiting two-dimensionality of his photographs. This was when Kelani Abass, his co-exhibitor at a 2016 group exhibition at the Lagos-based Centre for Contemporary Arts, suggested lithography. He has since further honed his skills in this medium and even integrates its use with digital negatives. He even likens his use of the medium to creating musical notes. “I like to believe that I want to create musical notes – musical chords – with my compositions, with the kind of work I create. So, they’re kind of visual chords, visual notes.”

Photography, for Oghobase, has transcended what he calls “point-and-shoot”. It took him three years, he says, to conceptualise the images of the surging ocean. “Just so you have an understanding that it is not just the image of the ocean you are looking at,” he emphasises.

In his works, he also emphasises how fundamental the elements of water, air and land are to human existence. Air, he further explains, does more than make it possible for us to live. “…It also helps us to move from one place to another. It also helps the birds move from one place to another – even air-planes. And not only does the land feed us in terms of agriculture, it also helps people to move from one place to another.”

It is on this footing that he explores the concept of migration in his work. For him, it is “a kind of poetic migration”. Thus, even the apparently silent images seethe with expressions of activities swirling around human existence and human condition. They allude to congestion in a tangential way. “I didn’t have to go to Oshodi to show that Lagos is congested,” he says. “Because that’s not the interpretation of congestion that I want to engage with.”

In a country reeling with so many existential problems, Oghobase thinks the notion of art for art’s sake absurd. “We have very pressing issues to talk about in this country, and you expect me to do art for art’s sake?” he asks. “I can’t. It is impossible. Extremely impossible. It would be a crime and disservice to humanity if I do it. So, if I have to go the poetic route, I still feel I owe myself the responsibility to produce work that will talk about something vital – about human existence and the human condition. Even if it’s just about spaces…the spaces actually bring about these dialogues.”

Needless wondering about the photographer’s plans for the future. If he scoffs as the notion of Afrofuturism,, it is because he is convinced that the future is spawned from the present. “What does it mean?” he wonders during his colloquy with Iduma. “We haven’t exhausted the idea – the concept – of the present and we are talking about the future.”

Indeed, he sees the future in the present. “Now is the future. And then, the future becomes the past and the past is the present. So, how do you tell me I should explore the future?”

Similarly, he doesn’t care for the generally-accepted notion of the word “legacy”. For him, legacy is all about collaboration. “The whole idea of legacy should come as a result of value,” he argues. “People who see value in what you’re doing will always find a way to preserve it.”