Interdisciplinary Approaches in Photography: Wilfred Ukpong
This week, all of the artists that I am featuring take photography beyond what it is or what it is perceived to be, to what it can be. There are a wide range of themes such as family, culture, loss, history, memories, biblical stories, mythology, film and community among others. For all of these artists, the photograph is the starting point, not the end result. Beyond photography, their approaches incorporate painting, stitching, alternative processes, object making, sculpture, installation and even community engagement. Each of them employ process and content that creates a uniquely personal style of photography that demonstrates extraordinary vision.
“I strongly believe that the future of Art lies in the transversal encouragement of innovative ideas and creative imaginations from the realms of interdisciplinary, cross-cultural and connective aesthetic practices that seek to be transformative and responsive to our socio-cultural demands, economic deficits, and environmental emergencies of our precarious time…….herein lies the crux of our Blazing Century, for these are days of many artistic commitments for change” – Wilfred Ukpong
I discovered the work of Wilfred Ukpong in Houston in 2020, during the Society for Photographic Education’s national conference at an exhibition called African Cosmologies: Photography, Time, and the Other. I could not get the work out of my head. It resonated with me because of its surreal imagery, but the project also has a complex cultural, social, environmental, ecological and political component, which speaks to Wilfred’s birthplace in the Niger Delta. This region, which Amnesty International calls one of the most polluted places on earth, is West Africa’s major oil producer and exporter.
Wilfred uses art to raise awareness and encourage change by engaging the youth in the community. He works with them to collaborate on a film; in addition, he hosts workshops and has begun building a creative academy, The VOF foundation. While his work hints at the past with use of color symbolism it hopes for a better future through a sense of community.
Wilfred Ukpong is a Nigerian-born interdisciplinary artist, practice-led researcher, and filmmaker who live and work out of Oxford (UK), Clermont-Ferrand (France), and Eket (Nigeria). Working between photography, film, sculpture, installation, music, performance, and incorporating a studio-based artistic practice with connective social engagement, Ukpong tackles pertinent socio-political and environmental issues with community participation and intervention. His long-term project in the Niger Delta, Blazing Century 1, received a special grant from the Prince Claus Fund in Amsterdam and has been exhibited in London, Lorient, and The Hague, Abuja, and Johannesburg. His short film “Future-World” won the Golden City Gates Excellence Award at ITB Berlin in 2018. The film, which culminates from his BC1 project, has also been screened at Mash and David Krut Projects in South Africa and the Senate of Nigeria to encourage a dialogue about environmental change in the Niger Delta. He received his BA and Master’s Degree with distinction from Ecole Supérieure d’Art Lorient, France. He is currently a PhD candidate at Oxford Brookes University, United Kingdom. His research is focused on developing a model process by creating innovative artistic strategies and creative processes as tools for empowerment and development. Ukpong is the founder and director of Blazing Century Studios Nigeria, France and USA.
Follow Wilfred Ukpong on Instagram: @wilfredukpong
Blazing Century 1 is the first installment in my ten-part art project entitled Blazing Century. The project was conceived and developed between 2010 and 2021 in the Niger Delta – my place of birth in Southern Nigeria. Blazing Century 1 is a multifaceted art project that consists of a series of art photography, film, sound/music, sculpture installations, short films, practice-led research, creative workshop, and community art interventions. Each Blazing Century series – titled BC1 to BC10 – is site-specific and set within a geographical location often embroiled in socio-political and environmental issues. The works are filtered through fictional and futuristic lenses that redefine art’s role in building and shaping a viable and generative future.
To address historical and contemporary socio-environmental issues in the oil-rich region, I have worked with more than one hundred local youths in creative workshops, mostly in marginalized oil-producing communities. The works created during these workshops are a series of Afro-futuristic staged photographic works, film, sound/music, and sculpture installations developed with local participants as subjects, artists, and actors. The artistic project, which is a culmination of community art workshops, employs the art of performance and visual storytelling to create poetic reflections on cosmological paradigms, regional myths, and real-life experiences to envision a speculative dimension of the Niger Delta.
As a way of survival and empowerment through creative visions, my work explores ideas of the mythic and the speculative dimensions that boldly explore the aesthetic concept of Afrofuturism – the cultural movement that conjures otherworldly visions out of everyday Black/African experience – and beyond. While also looking at how art, culture, and technological progress in the region are boldly reimagining perspectives on environmental crises, social injustice, race, gender, identity, and the body in the 21st century.
Drawing on my personal archives, community history, ecology politics, indigenous environmentalism, capitalism, and cultural evolution, these meditations on my homeland demonstrate how the art and filmmaking process can be employed to challenge colonial narratives and disrupt systems of knowledge production. Blazing Century 1 boldly reimagines alternative histories of the region with visual metaphors and fantasies across different spaces, temporalities, and universes to present a sense of black speculative futures while activating conversations grounded in the heavyweight socio-political demographics of the Niger Delta and beyond. – Wilfred Ukpong
This work deals with the contemporary social issues facing the Niger Delta, a petroleum-rich territory in Southern Nigeria. The region is considered the mainstay of the Nigerian economy for its large oil reserves and its rich biodiversity due to rivers, mangroves, freshwater forests, and marine estuaries. Niger Delta was a major palm oil producer for British colonizers. The region has become an essential crude oil exporter to the United States and European countries over the past five decades. Yet the Niger Delta is impoverished and historically distressed with decades of political corruption, inadequate infrastructures, community disputes, youth restiveness, unemployment, and more than fifty years of environmental degradation.
Greg Banks: Can you talk about how your upbringing in the Niger Delta influenced the art you are making?
Wilfred Ukpong: I was born in the early seventies in Southern Nigeria in a time that can be characterized as the post-colonial/post-civil war era. I was brought up in Eket, a major oil exploration and producing town in the Niger Delta. My parents were science-oriented, my father a manager at the time at ExxonMobil, and my mother, a practicing medical anesthetist working in a general hospital. Growing up in the 80s, I was a big fan of the American hip-hop culture, an essential export to Nigeria, and had a considerable impact and influence on the music scene. The visual graffiti genre was significantly an integral part of that movement and thus a fascinating and foremost impulsion for me at that time. My father was interested in photography and video as leisure pursuits. He would encourage his children to watch western films and learn music in their free time. At home, the presence of a keyboard, a synthesizer, analog photograph, and video cameras – which he brought back from the United States during his career posting – was creatively stimulating. At the same time, my mother was an avid lover of fashion and design and would spend her free time sewing clothes for her family and friends. Interestingly, my cousin and a renowned Nigerian visual artist now based in Washington DC, Victor Ekpuk, also played a significant role in my budding career. Ekpuk, then an art student at the University of Ile Ife (Obafemi Awolowo University) in South-Western Nigeria, was interested in African literature, poetry, and music. He will proudly display his impressive mastery of modern drawing and painting during holidays with us, while also listening to American Jazz and West African world music. In such a broad cultural and creative environment, there was always an air of exciting materials and resources for me. Thus, offering a fresh impetus for artistic development throughout my teen till my early twenties. I was interested in music, art, fashion, design, filmmaking, and the use of poetry and storytelling as forms of social critique. I guess this broad impetus formed a seminal ground that influenced my decision to become an interdisciplinary artist.
GB: You come from a family who made their living working for ExxonMobil and you could have as well. How did your transition from an engineer to artist happen?
WU: My parents wore a strong subscription and direction in my secondary education. I was persuaded to a science school, even though I had exhibited a deep artistic inclination that spans various art media. My father was strongly bent on his three sons following his lucrative footsteps in the oil and gas industry. He wanted me, my senior and junior brother, to study engineering. Ultimately his aspiration for his children partly came to fruition as two of my brothers studied chemical engineering and went on to work for ExxonMobil and Shell corporation. I was a pure science student and was eventually admitted to the university to study electrical/electronic engineering. Yet during this same period, a series of strange encounters completely changed the course of my career.
In the early 90s, I traveled to Lagos to visit my cousin Victor Ekpuk. During my stay in his flat/studio, I came across an art history book Flash of the Spirit, by a Yale professor Robert Farris Thompson. This landmark book on African and Black Atlantic aesthetics and philosophy became my best-read companion. It propelled me to desert my engineering studies and tread the highly spirited frenzied artistic path. My parents and Ekpuk were furious, but finally, Ekpuk advised me to consider a course in fine arts at his Alma mater, the University of Ile Ife. While making admission inquiries at the Fine Art department, I came across Bolaji Campbell, a senior lecturer and a friend to Ekpuk. Campbell is now a professor of African & African diaspora art at the history of art and visual culture department at the Rhode Island School of design. He was fascinated by my seemingly deep interest in the art scholarship. He wasn’t motivated by my decision to study fine art in Nigeria. He then invited me to his library and encouraged me to read art books while suggesting that I could explore the possibility of studying art abroad. I suppose part of Campbell’s concern for me was that he was increasingly becoming wary of the Nigerian educational system, which was in decline. Perhaps, he thought I needed a more liberal, creative, and academic environment to grow. Because he feared that the rare artistic vibrancy he discerned in me might be in jeopardy in the Nigerian art schools. At this point, I was perplexed and wondered how best to precede toward a serious artistic development after my parents dismissed the idea of studying art abroad. However, reading art and art history books and visiting art and cultural institutions helped broaden my interest and exposure to contemporary art practice over the years. I can say that I was self-taught with the support of two private tutors, one on art history and the other on anthropology/sociology. Over the years, I would spend a significant amount of time experimenting with various artistic materials and concepts to develop a portfolio of work for gallery presentations. And with a sheer good fortune and merit, a top-tier Swedish-owned gallery in Nigeria called Quintessence accepted my dossier immediately. They hosted my debut solo exhibition titled “Emblems of Prowess” on the Lagos art scene. This exhibition, made in the late summer of 1999, was successful and acclaimed. And from that point on, precisely twenty-two years ago, I felt the validity of being designated an artist.
GB: The work has a political and environmental component. Were you ever concerned there would be backlash? Also, you recently had an exhibition in Nigeria what has been the response?
WU: I think the best approach to making art is to be true to oneself and convictions. My art-making process endures my beliefs and values for a democratic, just, humane, and ecologically sustainable future. However, my work is never about protesting against the oil industry or the Nigerian government but as a catalyst to enact progressive and constructive conversations and actions towards future change.
These days an artist’s obligation and identity are increasingly redefined and tested by social conditions and societal challenges. And thus, we are forced to reconsider new positions and alternative approaches. It became imperative for a social practice artist like myself to explore ways of addressing pressing issues in any given context. Hence, I have been forced to work outside the studio to create platforms that promote creative development, cultural evolution, youth empowerment, and environmental consciousness. I have used my position as an artist and the privilege of studying art abroad and having a relationship with the oil and gas industry to broker a dialogue process between the industrial stakeholders and host communities. And over the years, I have been propelled to conceptualize projects that can mediate studio-based art and social practice frameworks, inviting community engagement, participation, and interventions. I am drawn to developing ways in which such a model process can engage in the transformation process of the region. And in a sense, most viewers are drawn to the compelling aesthetic and transformative structures in work than simply looking at it as a radical activist or protest work. The current ongoing exhibition at The Institut Français Abuja Nigeria has been a success. Viewers are attracted to the visually seductive elements referencing African traditional and cultural paradigms, making my work compelling. In addition, developing participatory and collaborative practice with local communities tends to give my work a worthy cause. I employ visual metaphors and fantasies to present serious issues grounded in heavyweight socio-political demographics. I don’t really care so much about institutional backlash. Still, I am more concerned about effecting change and creating a social exchange.
GB: This multidisciplinary project which uses not only photography, but installation, sculpture, video and performance, also uses color in and local symbols in an interesting way. Could you explain more about your approach?
WU: My extensive background and interest in the visual arts and culture foreground a multi-dimensional space in my work and embodies the “expanded conceptions of art” developed by Joseph Beuys. In my work, the site of installation and performance exhibits fundamental interrelationships between sculpture, photography, the moving image, and sound. The sites of encounter tend to combine discrete yet interrelated forms developed during performative actions and filming. Some objects and props used in these performances and the film’s mise-en-scène end up as relics of those events displayed as visual assemblages. The relationship between the secondary materials and the actual events or between secondary events and original materials becomes complementary. Hence, the moving image or the photographic documentation of these events envelope the whole structure of the project. This approach reflects my background and interest in transdisciplinary and cross-cultural intersections.
GB: Involving the youth and community in the project is a way of effecting change. Talk about that experience of making the work with collaborators and what effect it might have had on them?
WU: First and foremost, I think it is essential to understand the context of the Niger Delta and why this kind of community-based socially-engaged project is essential. The Niger Delta is an impoverished oil-rich region in southern Nigeria. This embattled region has been distressed by decades of political corruption, poor governance, inadequate infrastructures, community disputes, youth restiveness, unemployment, and more than fifty years of environmental degradation caused by major multinational oil and gas corporations. On the one hand, I was looking at how creative art can be used as a tool to affect change. And beyond being a reflective work, it could be an active apparatus in responding to the region’s social issues. And on the other hand, I was interested in employing my projects as experimental scoops and as part of my practice-led doctoral research at Oxford Brookes University. In this research framework, I was exploring ways in which the projects can help in answering some of my questions. Firstly, what forms of collaborative engagement can facilitate the immediacy of social exchange while trying to retain the processual aesthetic structure of the ongoing work evolution? Secondly, in a context where conventional social work apparatus seems impractical, can the intersection of studio-based work and social practice be transformative and responsive? I was also interested in developing new and alternative forms of artistic practice in Nigeria while exploring collaborative and participatory encounters with engaged subjects, objects, and their environment. After a year of experimenting and understanding the broader socio-cultural, economic and political dynamics of the region, I felt the best and most appropriate way to engage the youth and community was to draw a series of tested methodologies from contemporary social sculpture and socially engaged art practice with reference to connective and relational aesthetics. These research experiments developed a participatory process with talented local youths: aspiring visual artists, designers, musicians, filmmakers, writers, architects, photographers, dancers, curators, and audiovisual technicians from marginalized oil-producing communities. These workshops help broaden the horizons for local youths to gain self-reliance and creative skills for future employment opportunities and development in the local art and cultural sector.
Within the framework of contemporary social sculpture, an artist like myself is primarily interested in exploring trans-disciplinary creativity and vision with a social focus. We emphasize the need and potential for humans to recognize an expanded form of social art that includes shaping new social forms and structures as artworks. Although socially engaged, new creative skills were acquired during the workshop while creating photographic, film, and sculptural work. Yet emphasis was placed on capacity-building objectives that help recognize society’s real ‘capital.’ The processes and experiences of community collaboration and engagement were quite empowering, insightful, and dialogical. This way of working is underdeveloped in Nigeria, and I felt it was essential to engage in the process. In conceiving Social Sculpture, Joseph Beuys envisioned this as creating the ‘social capital’ of an expended understanding of art.
GB: In the best-case scenario, how do you want this work to impact Nigeria?
WU: In the best-case scenario, I want my art to be highly impactful as an ethical-social imperative and critical emergency response to problematic social conditions of an engaged community. I also desire my practice to be significant for youth empowerment, creative development, and environmental change while creatively responding to topical issues of the context. Finally, I envision my exhibition space in Nigeria or abroad to be a catalyst for broader conversations that can activate social change and generative futures in Nigeria and beyond.
Greg Banks is a photo-based artist and lecturer at Appalachian State University. He received his MFA in photography from East Carolina University in May 2017. He received a B.A. in photography and a B.A. in fine art from Virginia Intermont College in 1998. Greg combines everything from IPhone images to historic 19th century processes, gelatin silver printing, painting and digital printing. His current creative practice investigates family, folklore, memories, magic, history and religion in Appalachia.
Follow Greg Banks on Instagram: @gregbanksphoto
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