The founder of Invisible Borders tells us how African artists can get involved in their annual road trip across the continent.
There are very few times in our lives when we can take months to travel with like-minded people, work on passion projects, and produce art that impacts communities in the process. This is the valuable, yet rare experience that Lagos-based nonprofit organization, Invisible Borders offers with its yearly Trans-African Road Trip.
Created in 2009, the one-of-a-kind program, led by Nigerian photographer, filmmaker, writer and Invisible Borders' founder Emeka Okereke, offers a group of African artists, photographers, writers, filmmakers and more, a unique opportunity to tell stories through a totally immersive experience.
The most ambitious trip yet saw 10 artists on an intercontinental journey from Lagos all the way to Sarajevo, a trip that led them to re-examine the dangerous paths that African migrants take to reach Europe. The next expedition will be from Lagos to Maputo, and it may prove to be the most challenging trip yet.
Who better to be on the ground, documenting the stories of Africans than fellow Africans? It's the type of exchange between us—regardless of contrived national barriers—that the program seeks to promote.
We spoke to the program's creator about the upcoming trip, the hardest thing he's faced while on the road, and why projects that allow Africans to tell their own stories matter. Read our conversation below.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarification purposes.
Photo by Tom Saater
Can you tell us more about the Invisible Borders project as a whole?
Well, Invisible as a trans-African project was founded in 2009 by myself and in collaboration with some other colleagues. At the time it was mainly photographers, but with time it evolved into writers and filmmakers. Basically it's a project that brings together African artists to begin conversations and reflections around the question of borders, as it affects the 54 countries of the continent. And also to address the whole question of trans-African exchange, and what that really means in the 21st century African reality.
The most prominent form of the project so far has been the trans-African road trips, whereby almost every year we assemble African artists together and we travel by road across borders of African countries. While we travel, we make all these useful encounters, and we create works that reflect our everyday experiences. So we are not reporters in a sense, we are artists. But we are tapping into this real power and using it to reflect on the everyday African reality. As artists, we are thinkers, and what is left is for us to put ourselves through that process. That allows us to take our bodies and presence to these places, and reflect on the experiences, as opposed to simply creating from a place of comfort.
So far, there's been seven editions of the road trip, and we've taken off from Lagos. I think that's about to change, maybe, moving on, we might decide to start from somewhere else. We've gone from Lagos to Bamako, Lagos to Dakar, Lagos to Addis Ababa.
Photo by Tom Saater
Wow, that's a long trip.
Exactly. The most ambitious road trip so far was Lagos to Sarajevo road trip, transcontinental road trip.
It was a feat, it was ambitious. Spending four and a half months on the road, traveling from Africa to Europe. The reason for that is, we thought it was important to address that Africa-Europe relationship. To defy that distance that is really a fake distance. When there are all these narrative about people drowning in the sea, and dying in the desert, people tend to forget that there's an actual road, that leads from Africa into Europe. You don't need to die.
All the humanitarian organizations, and institutions, and media, start this whole narrative about people drowning, and they've forgotten that it could be easier if you could just open the borders.
But also, to really address [the relationship between Europe and Africa]. People don't talk about it so much. But Africa and Europe have always been neighbors, they've always had a relationship.
Afterwards, we took on our first borders within road trip to look at the borders inside, as opposed to one side. So, we did a trans-Nigerian road trip. Because we recognize, Nigeria is one-fifth of the population of Africa. It is, in many ways, a microcosm of the African problem. Multicultural, fighting nations, multi-nations, came together and put together, like a cocktail. A British colonial cocktail. We don't even know what it means to be a Nigerian. So, our road trip was just to address that. To travel around a country, to find out, to move away from the metropolis, which is Lagos, and to go to the province. To get a sense of how the conversation is happening there.
Photo by Emeka Okereke
Are there any stand-out projects in particular, that have come about as a result of this program?
Yes, as a sort of fallout of the trans-African road trip, [we created] the Trans-African Journal of African Art and Visual Culture. Basically, we would bring writers together, like about three of them, and they would write over a period of one year. Right now, it's still an online publication, but we are looking to take it beyond that.
Again, this journal is really a space for artists, for writers to write about images and imagery. From the perspective of Africa, or Africans. Of course, our projection is going back and forth, there's always a re-imagination of history, and projecting now on to history. We are very much interested in what is in between the past and the present. We always say that is the invisible border.
That distance between the past and the present sometimes, it's that distance between preconceived notions, ideas of a person or a thing, and freshly-acquired perceptions. So, there's a journal and of course, the road trip continues. We are also currently working on a children's book and a definitive Invisible Borders book, which is not published yet. [It will include] all the conversations, and all the experiences of the road trip.
Photo by Emeka Okereke
Can you tell us more about the upcoming Lagos to Maputo trip? Who is encouraged to participate?
We decided for our eighth edition of the trip to go from Lagos to Maputo. Again, it is a very interesting trajectory. Even in the history of movement and migration in Africa. We're passing through the center of Africa, which is the Congo, DRC. Which in the history of Africa, is very, very important. That part of Africa has been called the "heart of darkness," and so many things. It has been difficult to make that journey, from west to east, that way. In fact, that is why people don't normally travel by road in the continent. Because they can't cross the heart of Africa.That's why we have the west, the east, and central, because we've got to cross into each other. It's an interesting trajectory.
But also, it is framed by the two oceans, the Atlantic and the Indian Oceans. It is really different for us to also think about how Africa was colonized, and influenced by outsiders, or named, or discovered. All of these old conversations about discovering Africa played out on this route.There's a whole lot on that, that we have to dig out, in terms of history. That is why we've begun with James Baldwin's books. History is present, and we are history. When you now look at the present, we are now history. He removes any perceived difference between history, and who we are today. That's how we go into that. We go into that double-faced, the face looking back at history, and the other looking at the future. There is no foresight without hindsight. That's the mentality.
That's the frame of the road trip. As for who is able to participate, and how we find participants, we've put out an open call. The participants are mainly Africans, or anyone of African origin.
Photo by Emeka Okereke
Do you have to be based on the continent to participate? Or can it be Africans in the diaspora as well?
Yeah it's both continental and diaspora Africans, basically. We also say that it'd be nice if you have a passport from an African country.
So, the open call is out there. We encourage everyone to apply. This time around, there are writers, photographers, and filmmakers–the participation is divided into two. There are trans-border participants, those also are going to traverse the borders, traveling together, but then there's also going to be guest participants that will be joining us in every country that we visit. There is one guest participant per country. For that, we have nine guest participants, but also, we have about seven or eight trans-border participants.
For the first time, we decided to work in four languages. We have English, French, Portuguese, and Swahili. We are going to be translating all our writings, we already recruited volunteers, translators who are working with us, who we're going to be sending the writings to, and they're going to be translating them.
When we are traveling on the road, we are constantly blogging, and sharing our experiences. People are actually following in real time. In 2014, we actually built an app for that. You can download it on, Android or iOS, and then people can follow the participants. You can follow, you can like, you can comment, give feedback.
Photo by Emeka Okereke
You've been emphasizing that you all are artists, first and foremost. What do you think is the artist's role in creating social change? What's the relationship between being an artist, and being a humanitarian, or a social activist?
We believe that the most powerful capital that we have is our thinking, and how we can use our minds. What we want to do with our project is create new knowledge, or create a space where people can just think. You see that the writers who come, the artists who come, there is no set frame of what to write or do. It's all about going there and reflecting. Just thinking.
By extension, we encourage other people who are following the project to do the same. I think that this is what is going to change a place like Africa. The conditions in Africa, it begins with the mind.
We, as a continent, we are very resourceful, yeah? But oftentimes, we realize that, before you know it, other people come and capitalize on that, and want to take it away. I think that we have to really understand how to be more creative, and how to apply independent thinking, subjectivity. This is where we come in as artists.
I really hope that other people will pick this up, and refine it, or transform it into something else. That is actually how we go into this. We are there to create pockets of thought. People read it, and then they can be inspired by it, and then they can apply it to whatever they are interested in, or whatever they're engaging in.
Photo by Tom Saater
What has been your most memorable experience so far on these trips?
I think it's crossing from Nigeria to Cameroon. We got stuck in the mud for four days. On the trans-African highway. The trans-African Highway goes from Nigeria all the way to, I think to Djibouti? There are actually about eight trans-African highways in the continent.
Our project is based on taking these highways as a metaphor. We are creating, we are building trans-African highways of the mind. That was one of the reasons why we decided, even though we knew that it was going to be so difficult to cross, we decided to enter that road, and say, "No." We are going to take our bodies through this, no matter how difficult. [Our mission ] is to remark, or to imagine [European] cartographies, which are completely useless to our everyday lives.
"We really want to ground this road trip in those real, everyday people."
Being in that mud for four days, and not knowing how to get out of it, was one of the most striking, impactful experiences to me. Going into it, and all of a sudden, from being artists, writers, photographers who make art, we became people who are trying to dig ourselves out, shovels and everything. We had mud all the way to our knees. It became really tangible for us, it's not all about making images, or writing things or ideas. It was in that space, also, where we met a lot of people who have been living like that every day.
We met a man who said to us, I asked him, "How are you able to cope with all of this?" Dragging your motorcycle through this mud. He laughed, and he said, "Look, this highway's been like this since I was born." He was 66 years old. And it has been like this since I was born. It's supposed to be a trans-African highway. Stories like that, for us, make a difference.
Image courtesy of Emeka Okereke
What's the best way for people to follow this project? I know you mentioned the app, but are there other channels that people should look out for if they want to stay updated on the project?
Our newsletter, our social media, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, OkayAfrica. And other media partners as well. We are looking to have more media partners, we've worked with Al Jazeera in the past, CNN. It's all out there, but it begins with our website, of course. That's the landing page, but everything else, but for the road trip, definitely, the app is the way to go about it.
This time around, just want to make it, especially as you wake up in the morning, you get an education. You just read something small from the artists, about what we've experienced somewhere.
Anything else you'd like to add?
One thing I want to add, is that it's not going to be an easy trip.
For the first time, we have decided that we are going to change the way we work. In the past, we've always gone to cities, and metropolis. This time around, we have decided to spend more time at the borders. Because we want the stories that we are going to tell, or the stories that we are going to engage, to be the stories of those people who, every day, are the agents of those border crossings.
They are the ones who are feet-first when there's any crisis or conflict between countries. You see them, from Central African Republic, to Cameroon, they are constantly moving from—for example, Bangui—where almost everyone in the city left to DRC. For us, it's really what we want to focus on. All these bodies going back and forth between borders, and dying, and being the first victims of all the conflicts. And yet, we don't know their stories. They are just numbers.
We want to spend more time there, it's not meant to be an NGO kind of project. We really want to ground this road trip in those real, everyday people.