Invisible Borders participants talk their first transcontinental road trip from Lagos to Sarajevo plus migration in an Okayafrica interview.
Photo credit: Invisible Borders, Breeze Yoko, Tom Saater, and Angus MacKinnon
Using art as its vehicle, the Invisible Borders road trip project is an attempt to draw a tangible line of connection across chosen geographic locations in order to transcend existing demarcating limitations. The project began as a road trip within Africa. Now onto its 5th year, Invisible Borders has embarked on its first transcontinental road trip. This year they will attempt to travel from Lagos to Sarajevo using one of the world’s most controversial migration routes from Morocco into Spain. A truly pan-African contingent, the team is made up of 9 artists from 5 countries in Africa. Okayafrica sat down with four of the participants for an update on the trip. Read the full Q&A below and find out more information on how to support Invisible Borders here.
Mzwandile Sibanda for Okayafrica: Can you introduce yourself? Name, country and skill/profession?
Heba: Hi, my name is Heba Amin. I am an Egyptian visual artist and University lecturer at the University of Applied Sciences in Berlin, Germany.
Emeka: I am Emeka Okereke from Nigeria. I am principally a photographer, but occasionally write and work with film. I am also the Artistic Director of Invisible Borders
Renée: My name is Renée Mboya. I’m a writer from Nairobi, Kenya. I work in short fiction and narrative non-fiction.
Breeze: Breeze Yoko is the name, I am an African living in South Africa and I'm a multidisciplinary artist specializing in film and graffiti.
OKA: Why did you get involved with Invisible Borders and what do you hope to take away from the experience?
Emeka: Well, I have always believed that there is a lot locked away in the unexplored relationships between peoples on the continent demarcated by those deliberately constructed borders. I see Invisible Borders as an opportunity to contest the fixedness of those borders. Beyond that, I see no other way of attempting an alternative narrative without a headlong engagement with the realities of the continent as proposed by the complexness of our existence.
Renée: Well a project like Invisible Borders is the defining experience of our generation. As Africans today, our experience of the world and our access to dominant culture is unlimited, except in the tricky instance where we present our passports. I’m really keen to understand what movement means in that context. We all immediately recognise the New York skyline but can’t remember the capital of the Central African Republic. I wanted to reflect on an African experience that is changing so fast and that is challenged by so many absorbing experiences, and I hope to gain a clearer perspective of my own unique identity in this context.
Breeze: Living in Johannesburg, a true United States of Africa (well as close as we can get), I have had encounters with people from almost every part of the continent. I have shared stories and life experiences that have made me very curious and longing to travel the continent. It seems easier to travel to Europe than within our continent and this was a perfect opportunity to do both. As an African living in South Africa, I have felt very removed from the reality of being an African and you often hear us South Africans referring to the our brothers and sisters who are not from SA but from the continent as Africans as if we are not. We look at ourselves as better and too often place ourselves on a pedestal with no valid merit. I hope to get a better understanding of myself and my identity and learn about the diverse complexities of being African.
Heba: As landscapes change, as cities get more and more connected via technology and as our politics become intertwined, this road trip represents for me a much needed dialogue and exchange about the failures of globalization. To move through the “borders” of Africa and Europe is to face the demarcations of contemporary bureaucracies. I am interested in how this trip allows me to personally confront the serious political and social issues of borders and migration and the ways in which we are all affected by these topics.
OKA: Can you share some of your most memorable experiences from the trip so far?
Breeze: There is so much that has happened that it is hard to pick one defining moment as the most memorable. I painted in Kalakuta (Republic), a place I only dreamt of and never thought I would ever see with my own eyes let alone paint there. I feel that I have contributed in preserving the memory and presence of Fela (Kuti) in his home, where I struggled to feel his presence. My most recent memorable experience was listening to a haunting tale of survival from Ali Rasmensi, an African from Cameroon living in Dakar, Senegal, who shared his story of the tears of black men dying unnoticed in the desert. This left me very angry, bitter and horrified at how Africans looking for a "better life" in Europe in this day and age are tortured and sent to die in the desert. This is just one untold story out of many.
Renée: I think for me this happened very early on in trip, on the first day in fact. We went to Femi Kuti’s space The New Afrika Shrine in Ikeja, Lagos, and I remember feeling incredibly nostalgic and quite overwhelmed by Fela’s looming presence in the space. It made me feel like I was personally part of a legacy that was so great and that the fantasy we have of "one Africa" might actually one day come true.
Heba: It is difficult to pinpoint one memorable experience as I go through this trip like a wide-eyed child. Everything is new, everything is exciting and, at the same time, it is all a blur because of the constant stimulation.
Emeka: Crossing from Senegal to Mauritania comes to mind for me, simply because for the first time, we had to cross in a Ferry. It felt like a rupture in the whole process of border crossings, so much that I am now thinking that if we could do it from Senegal to Mauritania, then we can achieve same from Morocco to Spain.
OKA: Have you come into contact with other Africans moving across borders?
Heba: We have come into contact with many other Africans moving across borders. Travelling by road exposed us to the many narratives of inter-African migration. The media is focused on the South-to-North migration and neglects the many experiences of Africans moving within Africa. We met, for example, a couple from Ghana and Congo in Mauritania. They own a small pizza shop that we encountered by chance, desperate to find a birthday cake for one of our participants. They offered to bake one within two hours. These encounters are incredibly touching.
Emeka: Definitely, in fact our route is littered by many Africans whose life is a huge carnet of border crossings. I met with Prince Emmanuel, a Nigerian currently living in Dakar. He speaks fluent Wolof, but in speaking with him he told me he had spent 15 years in Gambia, 2 years in Liberia, 3 years in Guinea, 6 months in Germany and 8 years in Senegal. So he has practically been on the road for a better part of his life. These are stories that relegate our road trip to a mere gesture or at best an intervention.
Renée: Certainly, but it hasn’t ever been anything as tidy as what we’re doing. For most people, moving across borders is just what they have to do to survive and a lot of the time they move in pretty tricky circumstances. To be an African moving across borders outside of the looming legacy of war, economic opportunity, disease or any of the other things we hate to admit to about contemporary Africa, has made me realise how incredibly privileged I am. I travel with a passport, a second language and a plan, whereas many of the people we are meeting travel because they have to, to places they don’t know anything about and often without documentation. It makes me grateful, at the very least, that we are a community that is still open to migration and movement as ideologies for positive civil life.
Breeze: It's amazing how many Africans move across the continent and how fictitious these borders are. So many tales of survival, movement and displacement. It has been amazing watching people move through borders without needing papers or having to show identification or permission of any kind, while we wait to be verified and confirmed. Here we are thinking we are privileged coming from the backgrounds and places we come from, yet we are so reliant and restricted by a piece of paper and a stamp.
OKA: What has been the most challenging aspect of the project?
Renée: The long hours of driving are harder than I had anticipated. I travel a lot overland, often by train (30km/per hour), over long distances and I thought I’d have it easy, but there comes a point where your body just gives up and I think we’ve all reached that point many many times.
Breeze: Time waits for no man, nor is it controllable by any. It has been hard to adjust to the rhythm and pace in which we have been moving and trying to produce work that one can present as complete. Spending 24 hours with 9 strangers for 5 months is no walk in the park. There is a lot of adjusting that is involved from everyone and you learn a lot about your tolerance levels and others.
Heba: The physicality of the trip has been the most challenging. Just as we settle and find a rhythm in one space we pick up and move to the next. Constant movement has become our normalcy. We are exhausted all the time.
Emeka: Hmm, as a coordinator of the project it is to keep the project moving at a certain pace, figuring out when to conclude that it is going well or it is not. Even when I sleep, it feels like I am awake.
OKA: What has it been like meeting and collaborating with other artists?
Emeka: I can invariably say that the project thrives on these encounters. We come into a town or city with no knowledge of the place or at best a preconceived knowledge.
Heba: One of the best things about the trip is the other artists we are meeting with. They have not only been incredibly generous with their time but have given much insight into their lives and how they work in their various environments.
Emeka: It is only way to do anything meaningful is to interact with the local artists in the given city or town. This interaction jump-starts the creative process.
Breeze: It's been an amazing learning experience and I have gotten so much energy, inspiration and encouragement from these encounters.
Emeka: So far we have been fortunate in the cities we have been to, I mean as regards the level of engagement of our partners and the artists. We are currently in Nouakchott, and there is an army of artists here collaborating with us; photographers, writers, filmmakers, painters, musicians, and more. In their company we feel lucky and even within just a few days here we have learnt and experienced quite a lot to make me want to come back any time soon.
Renée: Unbelievably inspiring; I’ve learnt so much about the extreme diversity of expression on the continent.
Breeze: I carry on because there is so much love, time and resources given by other artist going out of their way to make our travels as fruitful as possible, even during Ramadan artist came out and gave their all. I am humbled.
Heba: Their collaborations have been priceless. These relationships are ones that will live beyond the duration of the trip.
OKA: Is there a country you would like to revisit at another time and why?
Breeze: There are many countries I would love to go back to, and just paint more and more...
Heba: There is a part of me that wants to do the trip all over again, even as I am still on it. But there are definitely places that have resonated quite strongly with me, namely Mali and Mauritania. The very complex histories and dynamics of these places requirse a second, lengthier visit to break the surface of the research I am interested in doing.
Emeka: Senegal and Mauritania. Senegal because I am surely going to live and work in Dakar at least for a period of three months sometime next year. Mauritania because it presents a subject for the exploration of the mechanisms of demarcations and the differences given the heavy ethnic tensions existing between tribes therein.
Renée: I think I’ll be back in Ghana very soon, because this was the first place that I saw really embraced the spirit of pan–Africanism. The spirit of this project to a large extent challenges the idea of nationalism and physical borders but it wasn’t until we went to Ghana that I really understood what this meant and the liberating power of this ideal.
OKA: What is the most interesting and craziest experience you've had at a check point or crossing borders?
Breeze: Have you ever tried crossing the Seme (Lagos, Nigeria) border to Benin? Don't. It's fucking nuts and not for the faint hearted. Within the 5 to 6 hours and 11 or so checkpoints in a span of about 500 meters, I'm still not sure which one was actually the border.
Renée: There are so many. I think the most striking one was coming from Ghana into Cote d’Ivoire and there was a guy at the gate with a padlock. At six thirty every evening they physically lock the country – a whole country, locked in the same way I lock up my house back in Nairobi. This to me was so bizarre; it really made me think what a ridiculous thing a border is.
Heba-The border crossing that stays in my memory as the most bizarre is most definitely the Nigeria exit border. The chaos, the bizarre hierarchies, the eleven checkpoints we had to pass through with each asking us for the same documents followed by the same questions, the asking for bribes… I am still trying to wrap my head around that very bizarre space that seemingly followed no particular logic.
Emeka: At the border between Mali and Senegal, most of us got their biometric visas on the spot. There were barcode and fingerprint scanners plus courteous border officials. For a land border, that’s an entirely new one for me. Yes, interesting and crazy!
OKA: How are you feeling about crossing from Morocco to Spain, a notoriously dangerous crossing route?
Renée: I am much less intimidated by borders and bureaucracy than I was before we started this project, so in that respect I’m quite relaxed. At this point I’m thinking more about the very sad memories imbedded in this particular space – the spirits all the people who have lost their lives following a dream. I feel a huge responsibility to tell their stories.
Breeze: After hearing Ali's story, I feel heavy hearted about this crossing, mixed with a little bit of fear from hearing tales of peoples passports being ripped and sent to the desert to die so the police can get a lousy 100 Euros bonus for catching a black man. I know it won't be easy and I'm sure we won't be experiencing such extremes, but I cannot help but think about those who have not been in our privileged position of having a Schengen Visa and have paid with their lives.
Heba: For me, this is the heart of the trip. Knowing the struggles, the hopes, the dreams, the tragedies that people have experienced at this very border carries a lot of weight with it. I am a bit anxious to confront that, and yet believe it is incredibly important to better understand and relay its embedded narratives in a way that is perhaps different.
Emeka: I feel prepared, I look forward to it. It is indeed the defining border for this project. And I am going in with the mindset that whatever happens out there, that’s what the story will be.