FORMING PLACE: Photographic Works by Abraham Oghobase

Boys’ Quarters Project Space is pleased to present an exhibition of works by Abraham Onoriode Oghobase. Featuring his internationally acclaimed, Lagos-based series Ecstatic (2009) and previously unseen commissions in territories as diverse as Florence, Salzburg and the Niger Delta, this selection is about emotion. It demonstrates how his practice uses places, textures, hues, and diverse media to lay bare human sentiment.

Oghobase is known for creating photographs that document his surroundings. Often times they are self- portraits, wherein the artist poses in response to the environments he captures. In his new work, he builds hybrid compositions by employing a four-color separation printing technique. Used across Nigeria, especially for printed media publications, this method is adapted by the artist to yield unique works. Here, Oghobase generates monochrome layers of color from images he has taken using a digital camera.

This exhibition also debuts Oghobase’s first work of sound art. A response to the legacy of Ken Saro-Wiwa, it takes the form of a site-specific installation in the late activist’s office. Laden with details of specific places, this exhibition highlights how Oghobase constructs liminal space in his practice. Oghobase’s configurations of perceived realities are not restricted to singular locations. Rather, they expand the notion of place and invite diverse interpretations. And this is emphazised in his new work, which highlights undercurrents in his earlier series; they are not simply of Lagos. Both the content of the works and their display defy presumably static dimensions and blur distinctions made between visual art mediums.

Abraham Onoriode Oghobase reacts to his surroundings through his art practice. In responding to specific places, Oghobase often inserts the human body, usually his own, to punctuate his findings and create unique compositions. The resulting juxtaposition of his body against foliage, man-made structures, and open-air landscapes interrogate assumptions of origin and migration. Forming Place, the title of the exhibition speaks to this method. It also refers to the layers of images taken in many places, which are combined to demonstrate the impossibility of a static place. Forming Place is also nod to the pigeon English usage of form, which means to assume qualities that are not completely founded.

With photography, Oghobase archives ephemeral realities in their fragility and in response to his peripatetic life. This approach can be interpreted as autobiographical explorations of being, and the many adjectives that he may be seen to embody. A process once restricted to the finite ends determined by digital printing technologies, Oghobase’s way of working has surpassed a threshold. Now, each photograph marks a beginning, an opportunity for the artist to build new imaginaries. These compositions elicit feelings of uncertainty, calm, escape, and exuberance, among others.

In 2016, the artist started experimenting with letterpress printing and printmaking techniques, which he developed in collaboration with his contemporary, Kelani Abass. An appropriation of a method used across Nigerian print media, Oghobase’s approach divides photographed images into layers of cyan, magenta, yellow, and key (black). These layers are then produced as photographic negatives, aluminum plates, and unique prints on paper. These pieces of paper are sometimes printed on more than once, and at times with different images. In other instances, the same image is printed multiple times and in different orientations on the same piece of paper. He then combines these mediums, layering negatives on top of prints on paper. In each of these scenarios, distinct forms collide to create a new hybrid, two-dimensional form. The mixed material results lay below plexiglass and are defined as soft sculptures by the artist. The dimensionality in this presentation blurs the demarcations between photography, printmaking and sculpture; each work is all of these mediums simultaneously. Thus, Oghobase’s work first occupies a place that is not restricted to divisive categories of visual art.

Looking at the iterations of Oghobase’s lithography process, the viewer is confronted with the impossibility of singular realities. In the series The Space Between (2016), the works collapse images made in Florence, Salzburg, and the Niger Delta. Taken between 2010 and 2016, the photographs comprise selections from the artist’s archive and others commissioned for this exhibition. As images from these different locations overlap, the works suggest that anything remembered cannot be restricted to a single image. They offer a visual representation of how memory is compounded, with layers of specific moments flattened as with software used to edit digital images. Both are built, at times with seemingly incompatible elements, yet can always be made to congeal into cohesive compositions. This void between individual frames and compounded memory is a second place Oghobase’s work enters.

In much of the previously described work, the artist is matured in appearance. His once lean frame has filled in girth and confidence. This difference is clear as the viewer compares images taken six years ago to those taken a few weeks ago. In San Gimignano (2010) depicts the artist pondering as he levitates across the frame. To contrast, his new work showcases refined performance, and calculated postures that respond to his ability to engage with Baroque histories of Austria, and the lifeless waters in Ogoniland. At the latter location, Oghobase punctuates layers of air, land, and water with his body. It is as though he rejuvenates this inert place with upward motion and kinetic energy. With the time that has passed between the earliest images and the present, Oghobase has identified a direction in his practice that draws on familiar details to highlight the profundity of human nature.

This trajectory situates him in environments that are specific, yet composed of elements that can be generalized. Returning to his most recent body of work commissioned in the Niger Delta, The Space Between that might otherwise be interpreted as a figure jumping in joy at the beach is dampened by the fragment of pipeline in the lower right-hand corner of the frame. As Oghobase continues to delve into the nuance of exchanges between his body and environments, cropped and constructed, the way he does so has become more considered. Now, he is in pursuit of specific histories. As these details are compared with his earlier exploratory work, his ouevre continues to expand and renew
environments. In Florence and Salzburg, his presence alone brings to mind the
possibility of movements once restricted, and offers windows into plausible futures of exchange. His work reframes moments captured in his past via infinitely variable executions. This temporal gap between when the image was taken and the endless possibilities of its presentation is a third place Oghobase occupies with this work.

Each featured image instantaneously becomes part of an archive, both of Oghobase’s experience in changing places and of specific encounters with himself. His photography reifies moments; it comes to signify his singular experience as an artist and wanderer, yet opens an opportunity for Ogbobase to build these images, as phrases, into questions. In deciphering these works, a viewer’s own bias inflects the final image, tinting it with interpretations derived from his or her experience. A self-portrait Oghobase took in Salzburg is an example. With the universal symbol of a heart, the scrawling on the wall might be interpreted as graffiti by a person with no understanding of the English or German language. On the other hand, a person versed in English might chuckle at the W form under which that ass is scrawled. There are levels of understanding that lend new meaning to this particular image and inflect Oghobase’s work as a whole. As the viewer is left to unpack these works in his or her own time and limitations, that which is historicized transforms via different versions of the viewers’ presents. Thereby, these works stand as invitations to connect views of Oghobase’s to one’s own. This point of entry for the viewer is a fourth place in Oghobase’s work.

In each rendition of the artist’s prints, the photographic image assumes a physicality that engages two and three dimensions simultaneously. This is emphasized in the installation, which exposes the thicknesses and curvatures of the mediums. With the three-dimensional quality of each tangible object, Oghobase’s images become plastic, metal, or paper. Ironically, as the images embrace this physicality, their content becomes increasingly amorphous. At times, as in Kono Beach Revival, 2016 (above) they enter a spiritual realm as depictions of physical forms meander among the artist’s capturing of light, air, water and other details of the everyday. Oghobase classifies these works that as banal, but they are essential for living beings and therefore more significant than the artist’s usage of the term would imply. When combined with other images debuted in Oghobase’s process, they can completely upend the interpretations of the resulting images, which become liminal spaces. This is a fifth consideration of place in Oghobase’s newest work.

The first iterations of this project are displayed on a shipping crate, which was used to transport Oghobase’s work to Port Harcourt, and palette box. These objects are also evidence of migration, movement, capitalism and the cumbersomeness of physical exchange. The crude cuts of wood grain of the materials that compose these objects meet the intentioned, though uncontrolled streaks in colors that characterize Oghobase’s newest works. The aesthetic of the textured wood is not unlike that of the images Oghobase creates using a German Original Heidelberg Offset-Letterpress machine, which was manufactured in 1970. The current owners of this machine did not import it. It is more likely that they acquired after it was left behind. And thus Oghobase’s process connects to a history of Lagosian appropriation evidenced by the use of this machine. Today, for the artist, it elicits a specific type of performance that is accompanied by a language of gestures—strike, water is thrown on an inked plate; oya put—more ink is added to saturate the resulting image; gum—ink is sealed on the plate with an adhesive topcoat; die—the image is trimmed flush, without a border. There is acknowledgement of the relationship between human beings and their inventions, but arguably more interesting, are the endless opportunities for innovation.

Both the pallette and the machine bring to mind the spirit of invention and the ways in which wood and other resources from the environment are transformed to ease lived experience. In addition, the inclusion of these objects emphasize the importance of sculpture and three-dimensions in the
exhibition, and in Oghobase’s practice. Like the palette box, Oghobase’s body appears erected in spaces where it might not otherwise be imagined and in postures that mirror structures that come to represent named places. For each moment Oghobase’s body is captured in a place, his presence adds to the way the place might be remembered. And the fact that he can work in some of these places in indicative of a present filled with opportunity.

Beginning with the photographs taken, and continuing through the lithographic press and the wooden objects for transport, the exhibition emphasizes contemporary motion. Both within Oghobase’s practice and as discourse around movement today, the work speaks to creating, sharing, discarding, forgetting, and discovering. Though much of that which moves is digital, and of the same medium as Oghobase’s photographs, human nature requires an interaction with the physical. The pixels in Oghobase’s photography represent this connection. They link personal journeys to the places where these images were taken, and to all that the possibility of his being in these places might represent. Oghobase’s work connects these places to one another. And they link to the journeys not had, the denied invitations and other contemporary obstacles that inhibit movement. They are also about the possibility of overcoming and of future destinations. Through his practice, Oghobase speaks to the vantage points from which he considers his own contemporaneity. He stands for himself, but also for others, who have or will follow similar paths, for their many reasons.

Now, returning to Ecstatic (2009), the youngest Oghobase soars above the ordinary, the expected and the secure. His ribs appear under the skin of his lean physique, which stretches as though in search of answers or revelation. Below him is a repurposed American school bus, perhaps a reference to formal education, the offerings of foreign infrastructure, or a metaphor for one’s foundation. Having seeing his new work, one might wonder where the title of the series applies. Ecstatic could be the impetus or courage to jump, the bliss of being in flight, or in the certainty of the impending landing and promises to come. To say that Oghobase has landed may be premature. To be sure, he is embracing a new direction while he continues to leap and build emotion into his surroundings. In communicating the intangible dimensions of place, his work reminds the viewer that it is only the chance of conjuring emotion that would have any particular place matter at all.

About the Artist:
Abraham Onoriode Oghobase was born in Lagos, Nigeria in 1979. He studied at the Yaba College of Technology’s School of Art, Design and Printing in Lagos, majoring in photography. His works have been shown at the Centre for Contemporary Art (Lagos), the Victoria and Albert Museum (London), Tiwani Contemporary (London) and the KIASMA Museum of Contemporary Art. He was recently nominated for the Prix Pictet Prize, one of the most respected prizes in photography.

About the Curator:
Temitayo Ogunbiyi’s years of experience working in the visual arts include roles as an artist, gallerist, and curator. She previously worked with Sotheby’s, Paul Kasmin and the Pace Galleries, and has facilitated projects with the Guggenheim Museum, The GAP, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Art Production Fund, the Centre for Contemporary Art Lagos, The Nubuke Foundation, and The Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts. Ogunbiyi earned degrees in Art History and Curatorial Studies from Princeton University and Columbia University, respectively. She founded Uzora Projects in 2013 to further her interests in bridging the divide between visual art and the everyday.