Invisible Borders: An Interview With Jumoke Sanwo



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Jumoke Sanwo is a photographer based in the Nigerian capital of Lagos. After replying to an online call for photographers from the Invisible Borders Trans-African Photography Project in 2011, Sanwo was part of that year’s 45-day group road trip from Lagos to the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa. That same year, her work was part of female photography group X-perspective’s fall exhibition in Lagos. The group was founded to help encourage female photographers, much like the U.S.-founded Black Female Photographers Association, of which Sanwo is also a member. Her photography series on ritual scarification of women in Western and Central Africa included the black & white shot, Pele, which was shortlisted for the Hamden International Photography Award 2012 Beauty of Light prize. In 2014, in response to the abduction of 276 schoolgirls in the Northeastern Nigerian town of Chibok by members of Boko Haram, Sanwo created the mixed media video project Le Silence Des Femme. The 10-minute video incorporates a swirl of audible female whispers over images of Chadian artist Salma Khalil Alio with pink tape covering various parts of her exposed body – most prominently, her mouth. Of the women in conflict zones whose torture and rape the project is meant to highlight, Sanwo writes, “Most of these women in order to move on with their lives often remain 'Silent' and have to pick up new identities to remain in their societies hiding the shame of these acts under veils of suppressed emotions." Sanwo’s work exploring African identity and aesthetics was demonstrated on her 2011 journey from Nigeria to Ethiopia, with The Faces Project – a series of candid street portraits of locals from different countries, demonstrating facial diversity and relationships, which was included in the Invisible Borders installation at this year’s 56th Venice Biennale of Arts, titled “A Trans-African Worldspace.” I interviewed Sanwo about her various exhibitions, programs she has participating in photo programs in Africa and the U.S. (including Harlem Postcard Project), her work with Invisible Borders, and promoting the cause of women through photography.


What follows are her words, adapted from our conversation.



On Her Invisible Borders Experience

The road trip went from Lagos to Addis Ababa. At that point, I think they were looking for female photographers. So I saw a post that was on my [Facebook] timeline, and then I just took it up and applied for it. Before then, I’d been working as a photographer, but in Lagos. I’d been doing projects by myself, and then also with other female photographers. Before I applied, I’d just finished having a series of exhibitions in Lagos. So I felt like it was going to be an interesting experience, because I’d never done road travel within Africa before, although I’ve done it within Nigeria. So I felt it was going to be a very interesting experience. Then I applied for it, and I wasn’t sure whether or not I was going to make the cut. But I just went with it, and that was that. I think there was about ten of us. It was quite interesting, because one of the things that I realized is that not everyone had the temperament to go through with the road trip. So my first encounter was a few of the photographers dropped off once we arrived at Abuja. Now, Abuja is probably about 700 kilometers from Lagos. So taking off from Lagos, about four people dropped off once we arrived in Abuja, because they didn’t think they were going to make it. That was probably about less than a week into the 45-day road trip. But I was pretty determined to go on the trip. So all that did not faze me in any way at all. I thought it was interesting, but I was pretty much determined to see it until the end.


With Invisible Borders, aside from being an artist, I’m also in charge of administration. So [for the Venice Biennale] we started off with the whole design concept, and tried to translate the trip in the last five years into a Trans-African Worldspace. What we tried to do with that is simulate the road trip. So anybody that comes in there can sort of experience what it’s like to be on the road trip, while also pointing to certain things that we’re very particular about, and that has been our focus in the organization in the last five years. That’s about borders, movement, and also internal and external migration. So that’s one aspect. The second aspect had to do with the work that I contributed. I had a project that I did on the 2011 road trip, which was the Faces project. On that one, it had to do with identity. I was trying to highlight how the facial features sort of change as you’re crossing from one city to another. You can sort of tell, in terms of migration and how people are moving, how that affects the facial features. Sometimes you find people in cities far away with the same facial structure and the same aesthetics, and you realize that, probably, the person migrated, or their grandparents migrated a long time ago. But they still sort of retain the aesthetics. 



Faces, Addis Ababa



On Taking up Photography

I’m a self-taught photographer. I grew up around the culture of photography in my house. I started off quite early when my dad was one of those very enthusiastic individuals who wanted to document every aspect of our lives. So it was pretty much always photography around the house. Then I also had an uncle who was a medical doctor, but he was also a very good photographer, which he did privately on his own. So I was surrounded by the culture of photography in my family. That’s pretty much how I got into it. I think I had my first point and shoot when I was at university. I started off writing actually, because my major was in English. But I felt like artistically, writing wasn’t sufficient to get all my artistic vibes. I couldn’t do all that with writing. I felt something was missing. So I pretty much started off taking pictures, and gradually things started getting better and better. 


On Her Photo, Pele

Pele was part of a series that I did on scarification in 2012. I basically focused on the art of scarification, which is gradually being phased out now, because it was basically used for identity at some point. But now, obviously there are different modes of people identifying themselves. So you don’t need to put a mark on your face to be able to identify yourself. Then also, people are sort of moving away from the traditional and cultural aspect of things, due to modernization. So I did a project on that. You find now that, especially in Nigeria, because the scarification thing cuts across from West into Central Africa, that there are a few countries still practicing this art. I realized that in Nigeria it’s gradually being phased out. There are just three or four states left still practicing that art. So I went in search of people that conduct the act. They actually put the mark on. I met this gentleman who was about 120 years old, but he’s passed on now, and he had been doing the practice for about 80 years. So the lady in that particular picture, Pele, was actually his granddaughter. Basically, it was just to highlight the fact that now people have sort of moved away from the traditional ways of marking, to a more aesthetically pleasing way, which is what she had done – which is just slight, and it’s simply for beautification. Pele is actually the name of the marker. Each mark has a name specific to it. The one that she has on is called Pele, and it cuts across a lot of tribes, especially within the West of Nigeria. So you find a lot of tribes locally still putting on the Pele mark. It’s not typical to a particular region in Nigeria, but it actually extends across a lot of cities in the West of Nigeria.


Identity and aesthetics – I think that’s probably the trend that runs through all my projects that I’ve worked on in the last few years. So [Pele] was on identity, and it’s basically just about how we identify culturally in Africa. That also has to do with the traditional aesthetics, and what is considered beautiful. Now those things are being phased out. They’re no longer considered as being aesthetically pleasing. But back at some point, it used to be the people that were like of royal lineage, or people that had influence in the society that used to be marked. So you find that with modernization we will lose a certain value system that we put on certain traditional practices. 



Pele, part of Sunwo's series on scarification.



On X-perspective

X-perspective was a group of female photographers in Nigeria, and it was run by a lady called Yetunde Babaeko. I met Yetunde Babaeko in 2011, and she told me about this group that she was starting. She wanted it to be just all female photographers, because in a way she felt like female photographers were sort of marginalized – especially within the context of Nigerian photography. She wanted to set up this base with female photographers. So she approached me, and I was interested, and that’s how we started. So after we had a couple of meetings, we had a master class, then subsequently we did a project, and then the project culminated into an exhibition. So that was pretty much my involvement with X-perspective. But we’ve since done other projects. We did a project recently in 2014, Battle Scars, which was targeted at women battling breast cancer. The project was solely a focus to raise awareness about breast cancer, and also to use our works to raise funds for women battling breast cancer. So, we did that in conjunction with Sebeccly Cancer Center in Lagos.



Portrait of an Artist



On the Black Female Photographers Association

I would say female photographers are, I won’t say marginalized, but you don’t have a lot of them in the industry. So you find now that female artists are making conscience efforts to make sure that they come together as a group, encourage each other, and do projects together – and through this, try to get visibility. So I think now there’s a conscience effort, and that is also what I found with the Black Female Photographers. Now, Black Female Photographers exist as an online platform for women to come together to sort of share their works, share techniques, talk about projects and things, but with female artists from all across the world. This was started by [Kym Scott], based in the United States. She started getting a lot of female photographers from all across the world to come in and be supportive and share ideas, and techniques, and projects, and what they’re working on. That’s how I joined it. Because I see women need to come together. I work with a lot of male artists. But it’s a different vibe when you work with women. I guess women sort of meet this in between trying to get on with life, families, kids and things like that. People sort of tend to lose focus on their ideas, on their passions, especially with photography. So I those sort of platforms help to encourage women, because they’re specifically tailored to the needs of female artists. Is there a need for more of that? I would say yes, there should be more of those types of platforms to encourage women to go on with their art. Because there are a lot of very talented female artists out there, but they just sort of lose it after a while, because there are no platforms. They can’t travel. They don’t get the encouragement they need. They’re not sure of their techniques, and things like that. So we need more of that.



On La Silence des Femmes

I did it to focus on the silence of women, and to talk about issues around women, but with specific interest in women in conflict zones. I came about the project while I was in Chad, which is a region that has gone through civil war for the last few years. Speaking to a lot of women that I came across on the trip, I realized that there was so much that went on, especially during the time of war, that people don’t even want to talk about. So I created a video art project. My subject for that project was a local Chadian artist, Salma Alio. She was just a visual representation of women, especially in conflict zones, that have gone through certain trauma, rape and things like that. But it was quite interesting, because while I was working on the project, the issue of the Chibok girls came up a lot. That is basically about Nigeria, where about 276 girls were abducted. There was this video that came out of the girls after they had been abducted. So I sort of used that to highlight the challenges that women go through, especially in the hands of perpetrators. They’re more or less used as pawns to negotiate between governments and rebels, and things like that. They get caught up in between. 


I think, in a way, [Boko Haram] sharpens my sensibilities. I wouldn’t say it’s affected my work. But it’s more or less made me more aware about issues, especially surrounding women. I am also trying to focus on other things as well. For example, domestic abuse is another project that I would like to go into now because there’s a huge rise in that in the last few years. I think that’s also a function of economic challenges. Women get the shorter end of the stick once there’s a shortfall in the economy. Things are not going well, the men get frustrated, and then we see the women become the punching bag. So that’s another project that I’m researching right now. I haven’t quite come up with the images yet, but I’m sort of going through that at the moment. 


I use my work as a means to highlight issues within the society. Sometimes, those issues are sort of gender-based. Because I’m a woman sometimes I tend to focus on things that directly affect the female gender. Those are issues about abuse and things like that. But I wouldn’t say that I’m an activist. I would say I’m more using my art for social good. So maybe that’s activism. I don’t know. I think in a way it is. But I wouldn’t call myself one.





On Living in Lagos

I think most people in Lagos, they believe they’re on an island. Lagos is very cosmopolitan. If you come to Lagos, basically you have the whole of Nigeria and the world living there. But the thing about it is that most Lagosians are sort of detached from the realities of the rest of the country, and that is basically because of the way that Lagos is. Because it’s cosmopolitan, it’s modern, and you find that a lot of people are well-travelled. So they’re sort of detached from the rest of the world. In Lagos, it’s very ironic that you find two sides. I live on the mainland. Then you find the people that live on the island. You find some people on the island who say they will never come to the mainland, because according to them they don’t cross the bridge unless they want to travel. So it’s a very interesting space. Also, in a way that makes people less aware of what goes on in the rest of the world. Now, I didn’t grow up in Lagos, although I was born in Lagos. I grew up in a city that is about 100 kilometers away from Lagos. So it’s a bit more reserved and tame. I think because of that, I grew up with the sensibility to be aware. We used to do a lot of road travel when I was younger with my dad within Nigeria. We’d just go to neighboring towns and cities, and see what’s going on there. So I think that made me conscious that there’s still other sides to Nigeria, and it’s not just about my immediate environment, and to be conscious of what’s going on around me. But I would not say that’s the same with the Lagosians. Now, I think what we do with photography is we sort of bring that awareness in through the images that we capture, or through the projects that we do, so that people still have a sense of what’s going on elsewhere. Even if they never make the trip, or they never go to all the spaces. But they have an idea of what goes on there in those areas. 






On the Harlem Postcard Project

The Harlem Postcard Project had been going on for about ten years when I participated in 2012. Basically what they do is invite artists to come there and participate, and give their own interpretation of what Harlem means to them. So I was invited to be part of that project, and I spent a long time trying to explore Harlem. Obviously Harlem also is relevant to art, especially to black art, and how that sort of resonates with creators all across the world. I would even say it transcends just the visual arts. It goes also into music, into performance, and things like that. So what the project does is you represent your idea of Harlem by a single image – which is quite difficult – of which they now put on a postcard. So I took thousands of images before I finally arrived at that single one, which is quite ironic really. But at the time, there was so much talk going on about Trayvon Martin, which was this gentleman that got killed. I was walking, and then I found this gentleman who was selling buttons on the street, and I was just very fascinated about the way that he arranged the buttons. Because he had the buttons saying different things, and then you had Trayvon Martin, you had Malcolm X. For me, I just felt that that was just the best interpretation of Harlem that I could put in a single image. Eventually, it became a project in which young kids were invited to come in and try and recreate their own type of buttons. It was quite interesting, and a great experience as well because I’m used to doing a series of images. So to come up with just one single image was quite challenging for me as an artist. But eventually, I crafted it. 



Harlem Postcard project



Invisible Borders, Nigeria, Ethiopia