SPARCK’s first three year programme, NET/WORKS: Translocal cultures in the Making of African Worlds, centres on the art of the deal: the nature, movement, ebb and flow of trade across space and time, and the types of practices that these call into play. Trade, here, refers to objects and economic concerns, of course, but also to ideas, imaginaries, perceptions, vocabularies and bodies of knowledge. Bodies proper, as both agents and subjects of trade, are concerned as well, together with places they inhabit, cross and transgress: cities, markets, territories, borders, vehicles, dreams.
A particular focus is placed, in this context, on what social scientists commonly refer to as “informal” or “parallel” economies. The terms “informal” and “parallel”, SPARCK holds, are deeply misleading. They serve to categorise as marginal, different and exceptional (or ex-centric) ways of doing and thinking that are, in fact, common to an overwhelming majority of the planet’s inhabitants. The practices, concepts, objects and concerns that constitute these economies, we suggest, are global phenomena. Across the world, they shape how individuals and communities engage with one another at the edge of the 21st century.
The Photographic Journeys project explores these global dynamics against the backdrop of urban spaces and practices both on the African continent and in its diaspora. This focus is not at all meant to suggest that the art of the deal is more prominent in the African urban world than elsewhere. Rather, it reflects SPARCK’s interest in thinking the world from Africa. In Photographic Journeys as in all SPARCK endeavours, Africa is both focus and vantage point: a platform for thinking globally about our worldwide condition as human beings in a late capitalist world and about our probable and possible futures.
Photographic Journeys is centred around six cities: three on the continent and three beyond. The project is divided into two parts. Photographic Journeys I takes three photographers to three cities in Africa, each of which is a hub of numerous NET/WORKS activities. Photographic Journeys II involves six artists, working in a variety of media, and centres on three cities of the diaspora.
The first phase of the Photographic Journeys project focuses on three mid-sized cities, each known for its complex, highly effective and historically textured practices of deal-making: Aba (Nigeria), Lubumbashi (DRC) and Touba (Senegal). Photographic Journeys I explores the art of the deal as it expresses itself in and as it moves outward from these three cities. Significant attention is also paid to relationships the three cities entertain with larger urban centres – national and regional capitals – and, extending further, to links they forge daily with cities across the globe.
Deal-making in the African world is a global phenomenon, extending far beyond the continent’s borders. Abroad, in the diaspora, much is afoot. The question, of course, is what one means by “diaspora”. As a general proposition, the term tends to bring to mind the “North” (or “West”) and cities such as Paris, London or New York. SPARCK’s primary interest, however, is directed eastward and southward, where large communities of African origin sustain livelihoods in and from Asia, the Arab World and Central and South America. Many women and men hailing from the African continent conduct business there, participating in the creation of new urban cultures and enclaves, in situ and in flux (moving in, through and between spaces). Photographic Journeys II considers such practices in three cities. The first of these is Guangzhou (China).
Touba is the spiritual home of the Muridiyya, Senegal’s most prominent and powerful Islamic brotherhood. Built on private land, exempt from taxes, the destination for millions of Muslims during the annual Magal pilgrimage, which commemorates the return from exile of the brotherhood’s founder, Cheikh Amadou Bamba (1850-1927), Touba is many things simultaneously: symbol, anchor, economic and political platform. The Muridiyya drives major national economies from groundnuts (one of Senegal’s principal export products) to transport and gas and plays a key role in banking, foreign investment and politics. However, very little of this activity takes place in Touba itself. The Mourride business network and trade web stretches across the country and reaches far beyond Senegal’s borders, with major diasporic centres in New York City, Sydney and Karachi, to name but a few.
The artists with whom SPARCK is working in the context of the Photographic Journeys project have highly individual and original gazes and styles. The bodies of work they create for the project will be shown individually and collectively. Such showings, initially, will not take place in galleries or museums. This is an essential aspect of the project. Nor, at first, will the photographs be printed. They will be “exhibited” in public, urban spaces as flashes of light: broadcast as massive projections onto the façades of buildings in cities across the world, creating palimpsests – superimpositions in which one city and then another and another, in wall-high blow-up images, will mix it up with still other cities on whose surfaces the images will be projected. At times, these showings will become events accompanied by sound, slam poetry, performance and, if previous SPARCK events are any indication, much impromptu debate.
Showings of the work will be produced like an evening of music is staged by a DJ: a collaborator chosen for her/his knowledge of and interest in the urban issues that are the focus of SPARCK’s first three-year programme will be asked to sample the bodies of work created by the Photographic Journeys artists and, from this sampling, to devise a rollout of images – a visual narrative – for public projection. Several “DJ/curators” will be approached, resulting in several different takes on the Photographic Journeys project. Works from PJ I and II will be shown as a body and in smaller groupings, in multiple cities across the globe. In advance of these outdoor showings, more intimate displays have begun, highlighting individual journeys. The first of these took place in May and June 2010, in Africa and Europe. They focused on one journey: the trip that Bill Kouélany and Goddy Leye took to Guangzhou (China), which resulted in a collaborative video installation entitled “Chocolate Banana”. Chocolate Banana explores grey-market transactions, cultures and languages in an off-the-books transnational arena – city streets and corners, dilapidated shopping malls, overcrowded apartments and squats – where African and Chinese traders, and occasionally artists, meet to do business. The set-up for the film – the way the installation is displayed – reflects Chocolate Banana’s thematic focus on the movement of bodies and goods within and between cities and continents. It is shown on small flat-screen LCD screens in the back of taxis. The model for this comes from Guangzhou, where such screens are present at the rear of most taxis, though the story they tell there (happy travelogues about the city) is quite different. Anyone who takes a Chocolate Banana taxi sees the film, in whole or in part depending on the length of the trip and/or the passenger’s interest. The video is ideally shown in five taxis travelling through whatever city Chocolate Banana is in at the time, and a sixth taxi parked at the exhibition venue, showing the film in loops at a standstill. A 4 page, A3 newspaper-style text-and-image flyer produced by the two artists is made available in large numbers, in the taxis and a variety of other points throughout the city. In some cities, specific routes are plied by the taxis, making them easy to locate; in other cities, the taxi drivers’ cell phone numbers are publicised, so people can call for a pickup. Chocolate Banana’s maiden voyage took place in May 2010, at the Dakar Biennale, where the installation was shown as part of the Biennale’s “Off” programme. Following Dakar, Chocolate Banana moved on to a second international venue, Art Basel, where it was shown as part of the Focus 10 programme, dedicated to works by contemporary African creators.
In advance of these outdoor showings, more intimate displays have begun, highlighting individual journeys. The first of these took place in May and June 2010, in Africa and Europe. They focused on one journey: the trip that Bill Kouélany and Goddy Leye took to Guangzhou (China), which resulted in a collaborative video installation entitled “Chocolate Banana”.