Project Title: Photographic Journey I – Aba
Artist(s): Emeka Okereke
Date(s): July – August 2009
Location: Aba | Nigeria
Aba is a major trade centre located in the heart of Ibo land, in Nigeria’s southeastern Abia State. With strong commercial connections to Port Harcourt, Owerri, Umuahia and other pivotal local trade nodes, Aba attracts large numbers of traders and – although not yet comparable to Lagos, which counts some 17 million inhabitants – this mid-sized city is one of the most densely populated and fastest growing in Nigeria.
Aba exemplifies the problems inherent in the expression “informal economy”. In terms of standards imposed by organisations such as the World Bank and IMF, Aba’s thriving economy, with its high concentration of small-scale industries, is indeed informal: made up of largely off-the-record cash exchanges negotiated in spaces (physical and virtual) that escape all forms of centralised control, it is not readily quantifiable or taxable. It is, however, subject to highly formal regulations: locally produced and enforced methods of control that structure flows of goods and capital, labour and pricing practices, spatial organization and policing.
The city is best known for its many markets, among which the Ariaria market is the largest and most famous. This market is the central focus of the Aba Photographic Journey. A virtual city within a city, it offers a staggering variety of products, dominated by bags, shoes and clothing. Everything is “aba-made” – a term locally used to refer to Nigeria’s very own “fakes”: immaculate reproductions of international top fashion labels. From Chanel to Louis Vuitton, from Dolce & Gabbana to Armani, anything you may want is available. Everything is hand-made, at break-neck speed and in quantities that defy the imagination.
Catalogues showcasing the latest international trends, providing models for the market’s shoe, shirt and bag makers and for their clients, are imported on a regular basis from cities across the world. Also imported are highly specialised materials (leather, textiles, buckles, buttons), to produce the right look, and brand-name stamps used to create “authentic” products. The tools and machinery used are mostly second and third hand, imported also, mostly from China and South Korea. Aba-made goods find buyers locally and across Nigeria and are widely exported, both to neighboring countries and overseas.
About Emeka Okereke
The very first Photographic Journey brought artist Emeka Okereke, founding member of Depth of Field – Nigeria’s most forward looking photography collective – to Aba. Emeka, originally from Aba, left some years ago to study first in Lagos and then in Paris. He is particularly interested in the social structure of the city and focused his residency on the dynamics of the sprawling, booming Ariaria market. His gaze trained on the practices that organise the market, with a focus on forms of labour and rules governing the market’s largest section, where thousands of pairs of shoes are produced daily. Okereke’s approach involved multiple media, incorporating photography, sound and spoken word (notably elements of local slang) and video.