The things of a life

Julia Friedel in conversation with Ishola Akpo

Why does a particular thing have a special meaning for us? Is it a symbol, a memento of an essential stage in our life? Or was it a gift from someone important to us? What can this object, something we may have had for years, tell about us? And when we ourselves are long gone – will it survive us and remind people of us?
An enamel plate and pans, a mass of colourful waxprint fabrics, a bottle of Royal Stork Gin – the things which artist Ishola Akpo includes in his portraits of his grandmother in the series L’essentiel est invisible pour les yeux are a testament to her life. Around 80 years ago, these things were given to his grandmother as wedding gifts. Today, they have lost none of their significance; they tell of close relationships and long traditions. In an interview, Ishola Akpo talks about the invisible layers of the meanings of things, family ties and a veryhuman need – the longing that something of us will survive.

JF: Why have you portrayed your grandmother and her personal biography in a photo series?

IA: Actually, it was my grandmother who asked me to take photographs of her. She wanted to have a photo to include in her will. I immediately knew this was the right moment to immortalise her in a series of photographs, to recount what she had experienced, and so keep traces of her in the family memory. In our first talk, I asked her to tell me the story of her marriage with my grandfather. He had died a long time ago, so I never had the chance to get to know him. At first, she told me about the things left from her bride price, possessions that still mean a lot to her today. These things evoke in her feelings of immense joy and sorrow at the same time. That was why I was interested in photographing these things which, in a poetic way, conjure up an essential time in my grandmother’s life – her marriage and life with my grandfather, who is no longer with us today.

JF: How would you describe your relationship with your grandmother? Is there something essential which you have learnt from her?

IA: My grandmother is a real blessing and gives me boundless love. I often spend time with her to listen to her stories. I was always fascinated by her ability to be so deeply rooted in tradition – and by her view on things in life which didn’t exist in her childhood, by her wit and sharp mind, and her powers of recollection. Her stories are always a wealth of sense, humour and wisdom. My grandmother is a source of inspiration for me, and of resistance. All the relationships she started are still intact, and they form a constant, unwavering force binding our family together.

JF: The title of the photo series comes from a famous line in The Little Prince by French writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. Is there a connection between this quote and your grandmother’s story?

IA: Yes, I borrowed the phrase ‘what is essential is invisible to the eye’ from Saint-Exupéry’s Little Prince. In Saint-Exupéry’s philosophy, it is not only love which produces something remarkable – something you cannot see with the naked eye – but, above all, the relationships we enter into with other people. With this title, I am trying to suggest and awaken associations of this invisible thing, which seems so crucial to me, through the objects which embody my grandmother’s past, but to do so without revealing everything. In the liminal spaces of what is unsaid, many other stories lie hidden.

JF: How exactly did these objects come into your grandmother’s possession?

IA: These are the things which my grandmother was given by the family of her future husband as a symbol of the alliance between the two families; these objects are a proof of their mutual consent. Often in Africa, two people do not come together simply because they want to themselves. Instead, it is also especially important to have the agreement of their relatives, above all, their own family’s consent. So in this way, this process helps to ensure that the couple also takes a long-term view of their community.
The bride price is the traditional foundation for marriage. It is an institution, charged with the narratives of a century-old tradition, with all its principles and rules. But this tradition is gradually losing its symbolic meaning for marriage. For some families, in some cases, it has even become a form of personal enrichment. Some parents of future wives use it to extort money from suitors for marriage. Whether we like it or not, the marriages of the future on the African continent are located between tradition and modernity, and will change the individual and collective narratives that are told. Fortunately, there are some families who still adhere to the old-fashioned practice of the bride price.

JF: What do these objects mean to your grandmother?

IA: These things represent my grandmother’s biography and memories. Moreover, they are cherished symbols, bearing traces of her life that will remain in the family memory forever. Evidently, in my grandmother’s eyes, these things gained in importance over time as part of the family heritage. After all, they are, on the one hand, silent witnesses of a meaningful act – the marriage to my grandfather – and, on the other hand, they are a testament to life itself. My grandmother treated these things rather like the stock of her own personal museum.

JF: You mentioned that it was important for your grandmother to leave something behind. Does she plan to give some of her bride price to her heirs? Is that part of the tradition, too?

IA: Passing on the bride price to the heirs is not part of these traditions. But my grandmother would like to give her grandchildren the benefit of her experience and her knowledge for their own lives. She wants the bride price to remain part of the family’s possessions.

JF: Suppose that someone would ask you to take a self-portrait with a personal object – which object would you choose?

IA: In the Yoruba tradition, wearing a cap or hat is a sign of self-respect. If you don’t wear some headgear, the traditional costume is incomplete – and that suggests a disconnection between the person and their culture. So, I would choose a traditional Yoruba hat, the type known as fìlà abéti ajá ìlẹ̀ke. This is a kind of cap with two triangular flaps at the sides, almost like dog’s ears.

JF: And which sort of object would your grandmother choose for you?

IA: I guess she would choose the wooden chest that was also part of her bride price. It was made by her husband, who is now dead. She used to keep her valuables in the chest – her fabrics, for example. The waxprint fabrics women use to make their clothes can be viewed as a kind of ‘social mirror’, as bearers of messages. For those able to read the messages, they serve as a medium of information about the ‘events of the day’.
The wooden chest is my grandmother’s ‘secret garden’, where she keeps all her valuable things. This kind of chest is no longer made today. Those who knew the technique of how to make such chests have gone without passing their knowledge on to the next generation. Mass consumerism has destroyed entire professions, and by this destroyed the widespread use of creative skills.

JF: As a photographer, is it important for you to reflect the experiences of the older generation – for instance, through art – and make their stories visible for the next generation?

IA: For me, photography is about more than just reflecting the experiences of past generations to pass them on to future generations. A documentary photographer might do that, but that’s not how I have worked up until now. But if my work should prove to have such tendencies in future, then so much the better. My work revolves, above all, around depicting the world, my own artistic aspirations and personal experience. The rise of globalisation fuelled a trend to standardise everything, allegedly to make the world easier to understand. But the world is becoming increasingly complex; the imagination is and remains multifaceted. My personal experience is just that of one of thousands, informed by my own understanding of the world. As an artist, I’d like to share this subjective, invisible experience with those who are open-minded and acting in the spirit of this openness to the world.

JF: Tell me about the aesthetics of your photo series. Why did you decide to set your grandmother and her objects against a white background and not in her normal surroundings?

IA: In the artistic process, an initial hurdle sometimes opens up an interesting perspective. Either you find this so troublesome that you don’t pursue the work, or you force the situation, take it as an ace card you can play, and shape it into one of the main components of the work. When I took the shots, I didn’t have any idea at all of the final result. My underlying idea was also not about exhibiting these photos. I didn’t know exactly how I should photograph my grandmother, and simply set her in her own familiar surroundings. It was only later that I had the idea of using this graphic design, like an attractively lit, imaginary studio. The original idea for the project was very spontaneous, and my aim was simply to take some beautiful portraits of my grandmother. This spontaneity enabled me to ask her, during the process of taking the photos, to tell me about her objects and my dead grandfather. Ultimately, I think it was my grandmother who guided this work.

Texte par Madeleine De Colnet (curator),

Ishola Akpo nous dresse un portrait en creux de son pays. Dans la série L’essentiel est invisible pour les yeux, réalisée en 2014, il reconstitue une dot, celle de sa grand-mère, héritage qui s’adresse autant aux mariés qu’au reste de sa société: prouver la capacité financière de la famille, sa place dans la communauté. L’essentiel est invisible pour les yeux recense un ensemble d’objets aussi divers qu’un coffre en bois, de la vaisselle, une bouteille de Gin, un trousseau de Wax. Isolés de leur contexte, sans aucune mise en scène ou mise en situation, ces objets nous sont livrés sur fond blanc. Chaque objet intrigue par son obsolescence, par son état défectueux, par son aspect artisanal ou son caractère insolite. Ils reflètent de manière sous-jacente l’usage du quotidien, leur utilité dans un mode de vie. Ils évoquent autant l’histoire de la famille qu’ils participent à la représentation de la société de ce qu’elle pense être essentiel, de ce qui doit être transmis. Censés appartenir au domaine intime, les objets racontent à leur manière l’histoire du Bénin et son évolution, notamment la puissance de l’empire colonial néerlandais au XVIIe siècle et la persistance de sa présence économique. Ils deviennent des marqueurs temporels, la bouteille de Gin introduite par les Néerlandais qui sert depuis d’alcool de remplacement pour les rituels et cérémonies. L’empreinte de l’histoire dans le domaine intime est alors révélée à travers des objets transmis, objets de la culture populaire qui deviennent vecteurs de tradition.

Ishola Akpo offers a between – the – lines reading of his country. In his series L’essentiel est invisible pour les yeux ( Essence in invisible to the eye) he rebuilds his grandmother’s dowry this estate destined not only for husbands but also for society and community : to prove the financial status of the family and its position in the community. L’essentiel est invisible pour les yeux, a photographic series created in 2014, identifies a group of objects as diverse as a wooden box, plates, a bottle of gin, a Wax trousseau. They are isoleted in their own context against a white background, with neither staging nor role – play. The object is intriguing in its obsolescence, its defective condition, its handmade or unusual apparance. They recall and evoke family history as much as they are a representation of society, of what society perceives to be essential and must therefore be transmitted. These objetcs reflect their underlying daily purpose and usefulness in a certain way of life. These objects, which seem to belong to an intimate domain speak in their own way of the history of Benin and its evolution, notably of the power of the 17th Dutch colonial empire and the persistence of its economic presence. They become cue points, as is the case for the gin bottle, which has become a fixture of ceremony and ritual since its introduction by the Dutch. The impact of society upon domestic life is revealed through the objects, rendered traditional through the act of transmission.

Madeleine De Colnet, Février 2018

Texte par Olivia Marsaud (curator),

Lauréat de Visa pour la création de l’Institut Français Paris, le photographe béninois Ishola Akpo présente à Cotonou un solo show qui analyse les rapports du corps et de la lumière.

C’est la première fois que l’Institut français de Cotonou expose une installation photographique et le résultat est plutôt réussi. Le jeune photographe Ishola Akpo, 31 ans ans, propose ici la restitution des trois mois de résidence effectués à la Cité international des Arts de Paris à l’automne 2013. L’exposition a été encadrée par le commissaire Giscard Bouchotte et scénographiée par l’architecte Franck Houndegla.

Avec “Pas de flash s’il vous plait”, Ishola Akpo se sert de son corps comme d’un matériau d’expérimentation et joue avec la lumière dans une série de 12 autoportraits. “Quand on va dans les musées ou les galeries d’art, on vous demande de ne pas prendre de photos. J’ai voulu retourner cette idée sur mon corps”, explique-t-il. Comment la lumière intéragit avec le corps de l’homme et sur la matière même de l’image, c’est ce qu’Ishola a exploré à Paris, lors de ses nuits de travail-insomnie dans une Cité endormie. Seul, dans les couloirs de l’institution, il s’est mis en scène, lampe frontale sur le crane ou torche en main, appuyant lui-même sur le déclencheur. Un face à face solitaire, un jeu de miroirs intéressant. Un théâtre d’ombres. “Jean Baudrillard disait des photographes qu’ils étaient des ‘écrivains de lumière’. Le travail du photographe ne consiste pas seulement à raconteur visuellement une histoire. Il s’agit avant tout d’inscrire sa démarche le plus sincèrement possible dans un univers et de pouvoir révéler ses sujets grâce à la lumière”, explique Giscard Bouchotte.

Dans la série photographique d’Ishola Akpo, la lumière est d’abord tellement crue qu’elle lui mange une partie du visage, effaçant ses traits et sa couleur de peau, grignotant son identité. Sur une autre, le flash lui fait comme une afro lumineuse couronnant sa tête, la dévorant. Jusqu’à une sorte de dissolution dans l’ombre, représentée par l’image qui a été choisie pour l’affiche. Malheureusement, la salle de l’Institut n’est pas assez sombre et le dispositif (projection au mur) ne rend pas justice au travail délicat effectué sur les images, où l’on devine une superposition de matières et même de la poussière d’étoiles… “Je suis dans une démarche de recherche photographique, de photographie plasticienne, je façonne mes images. Pas question de prendre les images telles que me les donne mon appareil. C’est un travail conceptuel.”
Dans ces auto-portraits, Ishola est simplement vêtu d’une veste rouge et d’un casque d’ouvrier. C’est la lumière qui révèle ou cache sa nudité sous la veste. Et ces accessoires servent de fil rouge au travail et à l’exposition. On les voit apparaître dans les photos d’une fresque murale qui est comme un making off de ses recherches et qui permet de juger du travail accompli – et abouti. “La plupart des photographes ne montrent pas cette partie du travail. Il y a des tests, des tâtonnements, des photos ratées en quelque sorte.”

Et on les retrouve aussi dans les 4 vidéos qui passent en bouclent sur 4 écrans. Trois courts films ont été tournés à Cotonou et un à Paris, qui s’intitule également “Pas de flash s’il vous plait”, et dans lequel l’artiste explore l’effet de la lumière de la lampe sur son visage et sur son corps. Bribes de peau, plans fantomatiques. La lumière comme un masque. Ou caressante. Comme si l’artiste redécouvrait son corps grâce à elle. “Je me cache dans le noir et la lumière me cherche. A un moment donné, j’accepte la lumière et je joue avec elle.” Jeu de cache-cache, aussi, dans la dernière vidéo, ou l’artiste est recouvert de sa veste rouge et évite le moindre rai de lumière. “Le rouge, c’est le sens interdit, je ne veux pas que la lumière me transperce Je ne veux pas qu’on me flashe !” Comme le résume Giscard Bouchotte dans son texte introductif : “Derrière cette injonction anodine (Pas de flash s’il vous plait !), il y a une réflexion sur le corps, matière, sujet à décomposition et sur la lumière comme moyen d’expérimentation. (…) Le photographe nous contraint à plonger avec lui, sans savoir ce qui remontera à la surface. Nous fixons des vertiges.”

Olivia Marsaud, Février 2014