Emeka Ogboh, Global Citizen

From Lagos to Berlin and beyond

Nigerian-born, Lagos-, Berlin- and Paris-based sound and installation artist Emeka Ogboh talks about the sound of Lagos, finding Nigerian food in Berlin, his sure-fire way to get over jet lag and why a bus inspired him to collaborate with Horizn for the Lagos Edition.

Very few people come to Berlin to relax. As the nightlife capital of Europe, Berlin is more known for it’s weekend-long parties than it is as a place to stop, take stock and relax. That is, unless you’re coming from a city with a population of over 20 million people – an African city so loud, so busy, so hectic, that the German capital and home of techno music feels “too quiet” by comparison.

And yet that’s exactly how Emeka Ogboh, sound and installation artist, describes his second home city. When he first arrived 5 years ago, Ogboh had trouble sleeping, as the city was too quiet for him. Having spent ten years in the city on the African continent, Lagos, Ogboh missed the sounds and noises that had become his daily soundtrack.

Having trained as a graphic designer, Ogboh always felt the “classical arts”, such as painting and sculpture, were too static for him. It was at a workshop in Fayoum, Egypt that he was first introduced to sound. His return to Lagos was like a sensory and artistic awakening: he became more observant of the sound of his city, which he describes in one word: loud.

Ogboh remembers a turning point that would lead him to working with sound. He was talking on the phone to a friend from Abuja, the Nigerian capital, but his friend wasn’t in Abuja: “I can hear Lagos on the phone” he remembers telling him. Being able to recognize a city just by its sound triggered a curiosity in Ogboh. He began taking field recordings from the streets in Lagos, taking them back to his studio, and actively listening to what he had captured.

Since moving to Berlin, Ogboh also began working with food as a medium. “Food is one of the biggest challenges you face as a migrant – food grounds you, it connects to you to your roots, but it also helps you integrate into a new culture,” he says. Stepping into his favourite Nigerian restaurant in Berlin, Ebe Ano in Wilmersdorf, is like travelling back home, not only for the food, but the full auditory experience: customers conversing in pidgin English, music in the background playing the latest Afropop from Lagos, the television showing Nollywood movies – all at full volume.

Ogboh’s gastronomic works explore migration, assimilation and cultural identity, through his use of European ingredients to make traditional Nigerian dishes, or challenging the German Reinheitsgebot (translated: “Purity Law”), a Bavarian law mandating the four permissible ingredients to make beer. This lead him to create “Sufferhead Original”, a conceptual craft beer reflecting some of the stereotypes associated with Africans.

With homes and studios in Lagos, Berlin, Paris, and exhibitions in London, New York, Washington DC and Venice (not to mention an upcoming DJ gig in Marrakech), Ogboh has travelled so extensively that there are only two countries left on his bucket list: New Zealand and Australia. A frequent traveller, Ogboh has a tried and true trick for getting over jet lag a sensory deprivation tank. “It’s like floating in the womb; like a reset button”.

Along with good luggage, cash and credit cards, the one thing Ogboh cannot travel without his phone – not so that he can be contacted, but so that he always has music, podcasts and a binaural beat app with him wherever he travels. “Music is very important to me to settle into a place, or reconnect with home when I come back”, he says. For each trip he will curate a playlist, with music to guide his mood as he goes from taxi to airport, above the clouds, landing, immigration and beyond.

If migration is a common thread though many of Ogboh’s works, Lagos and it’s iconic yellow Danfo bus is another. One of the first things you notice about Lagos is the pervasiveness of the colour yellow; descending the clouds while flying into Lagos, a look out of the window reveals yellow dots scurrying like ants all over the cityscape. These are the Danfo buses.

The Danfo bus – an eight-to-ten-seater Volkswagen Transporter or Kombi Van repurposed to accommodate more people – is an identifier of the megacity Lagos. Smaller than a regular bus, the Danfo bus can penetrate just about any part of the city, and as such has become Lagos’ favourite mode of public transportation. But it’s not just its mobility that makes the Danfo so popular and iconic to Lagos: it is the day-to-day interactions with other passengers, and entertainment that comes with it; the inside of a danfo is like a mobile theatre. As Ogboh puts it:

Because the danfo can go anywhere, it is everywhere. It is small, portable, resilient, iconic, tough – just like Horizn luggage – and so was the natural inspiration for Ogboh when he collaborated with Horizn Studios, and Horizn’s friends at Beats by Dre, for a limited edition luggage series and one-off set of headphones. The Danfo’s iconic yellow with black stripes has inspired many of Ogboh’s works, and for Horizn he flipped the script, with two danfo-yellow stripes on an all black Horizn cabin case.

“Travel and see” is a popular Nigerian saying, meaning that travel will change how you view yourself and others. Both Emeka Ogboh and Horizn Studios see travel as the best education a person can get, one that you won’t get from school, or from a book. “Travel changes your reality and your perceptions of life and other human beings”.