Introduction: Six Songs, Swirling Gracefully in the Taut Air

Curator Natasha Ginwala on Akinbode Akinbiyi’s solo exhibition at the Gropius Bau

The 2020 exhibition programme at the Gropius Bau begins with Six Songs, Swirling Gracefully in the Taut Air, a photography exhibition showcasing works from various long-term series composed by Berlin-based Nigerian photographer Akinbode Akinbiyi over four decades. From the hundreds of photographs that comprise these durational projects and form the artist’s personal archive, a special selection will be brought together that has never before been shown to the public in its entirety. An artistic practitioner dedicatedly engaged in mentoring, curating and writing on photography especially in the African context, Akinbiyi’s relationship to the photographic medium moves well beyond direct use of a camera.

Akinbiyi lived in Oxford, Lagos, Heidelberg and Munich before moving to West Berlin. While initially training in literature—being an avid reader of fiction and poetry, he began to see the world through a viewfinder and mastered the dark room process in the early 1970s. As a wanderer and mediator between the hemispheres, Akinbiyi has ceaselessly documented and walked in cities, villages and coastlines. Staging optics of arrivals and returns, his pictures are not lodged in a nostalgic past; instead they are emergent scenes from Lagos, Berlin, Johannesburg, Bamako, Athens, Chicago, Cairo and Khartoum.

Akinbode Akinbiyi, Victoria Island, Lagos, 2006

Akinbode Akinbiyi, Victoria Island, Lagos, 2006
From the series Lagos: All Roads, courtesy: the artist

The exhibition title Six Songs, Swirling Gracefully in the Taut Air suggests the importance of the sonic register in Akinbiyi’s practice as he partakes in the visual grammar of listening. The ear plays a key role in the corporeal remembering of cities—how we mark built surfaces and how our existence becomes marked by them. One may also study his photography through the codes of improvised jazz such as collective affinity, experimental notation, seriality and impromptu arrangements.

In a world obsessed with the continuous stream of “instant images,” Akinbiyi roams the city streets and passageways slowly assembling the daily habitus, lived rhythms and social textures of places. Unlike the traditional role of a cartographer, for the photographer of street life there is a kinetic sensing by walking on uneven grounds and allowing for exhaustive chronicles to become charted through intuition, chance and design. Akinbiyi notes, “What I’m doing is observing, taking part in this urban phenomenon and trying to record documents. It is a kind of fine sensibility of understanding the passageways within the city.”

Akinbode Akinbiyi: Six Songs, Swirling Gracefully in the Taut Air

Akinbode Akinbiyi: Six Songs, Swirling Gracefully in the Taut Air. Exhibition, 7 February to 17 May 2020, Gropius Bau. Photo: Laura Fiorio

Akinbode Akinbiyi, Bar Beach, Victoria Island, Lagos, 2004

Akinbode Akinbiyi, Bar Beach, Victoria Island, Lagos, 2004
From the series Sea Never Dry, courtesy: the artist

The American critic, activist and eminent writer on photography Susan Sontag describes photographs as “miniatures of reality” and in this vein Akinbiyi’s pursuit involves collecting fragments of the world that are often refused, marginalised and stubbornly active in the effort of communal survival. This exhibition highlights his unique relation to medium format photography and particular use of the twin-lens reflex camera in communicating the soul of inhabited landscapes. The sacred and profane become interwoven in Sea Never Dry (since the 1980s, ongoing), a series that brings together coastal zones of West African cities and Europe, portraying public life around beaches while also capturing interludes such as sacred ceremonies, street trade, tourism and environmental degradation. The sea is visited not only as a realm of commuting but as a meeting place and temporary dwelling where the cosmopolitan spirit of cities is rejuvenated.

The epic series Lagos: All Roads (since the 1980s, ongoing) plots the many moods and faces of Akinbiyi’s “home” city and Africa’s largest metropolis, Lagos. Created as its peripatetic inhabitant, and therein seen through both distance and proximity. The viewer experiences these image sequences as contiguous and open-ended. Yet, the mega city is never fully grasped and circumnavigated, since it is in a continuous phase of reinvention and collapse.

While Akinbiyi closely identifies with sacred philosophies of Yorubaland in connection to rhythm, symmetry and balance, we might also consider in parallel the words of Nigerian novelist, poet and critic Chinua Achebe who has noted, “Among the Igbo the art of conversation is regarded very highly, and proverbs are the palm-oil with which words are eaten.” Akinbiyi’s photographs too may be seen as conversation pieces, extending a dialogue between the viewer and the viewed.

African Quarter (since the 1990s, ongoing) is a series of photographs made in Berlin since the late 1990s that plots candid encounters amidst the African diaspora and Afro-German communities in the city, especially around the neighbourhood of Wedding. Akinbiyi traverses streets that are historically pegged to Germany’s colonial exploits since the Berlin conference of 1884 with more recent stories of migration and persecution. Refracted views of the transforming metropolis recall ghosts from a shared past and subaltern voices of the present. As opposed to the western flâneur, a wanderer must bear the burden of history. That is the scars of racial and imperial violence. As a counter-mapping of the city, streets such as May-Ayim-Ufer and Martin Luther King Straße are visited in African Quarter to recall figures who strove to combat racism and upheld the long history of anti-colonial struggle. In sum, this series extends from the photographer’s autobiographical experience as a Berliner.

Akinbiyi’s protagonists are rarely captured frontally instead they are seen as part of a communal horizon jostling between civic infrastructure and pursuits of dreaming. Rarely has a photographer journeyed this extensively to carve out an encyclopedic suite of images consistently tracing realities across the African world and beyond. While Roy DeCarava portrayed images of African-American visual culture, jazz maestros and his Harlem neighbourhood from the late 1940s as visual poems and living expressions interweaving the beauty, struggle and dignity of black lives; Akinbiyi equally contemplates a range of life conditions in a scale of grays – the tranquil and the furious.

Recognising that picture-making is an event in itself, the photographer combines feeling and craft. As computing technology and data collection pursue the rapid exposure of individual stories such that there is a general loss in rights to anonymity, Akinbiyi’s analogue photography remains invested in generating diversified circuits of experience that steer away from a flattened image-world. In recognising photography’s history as an industrial art that has been used as an instrument in violent visual regimes, Akinbiyi unlocks the medium’s potential as a deeply human pursuit. He drafts a multi-relational cosmology featuring a great many lives, temporalities and landscapes.

Natasha Ginwala
Curator of the exhibition

Akinbode Akinbiyi, Berlin, Wedding, 2005

Akinbode Akinbiyi, Berlin, Wedding, 2005
From the series African Quarter, courtesy: the artist