Interview by Denisa Tomkova // Jan. 31, 2020
Akinbode Akinbiyi is a Berlin-based street photographer who captures the city buzz of Bamako, Berlin, Cairo, Dakar, Johannesburg, Kinshasa or Lagos in his black-and-white photographs. Akinbiyi is attracted by the flow and the movement of human bodies in cities; his artistic process is characterized by wandering slowly and observing the experience of city life. Walking allows him to be aware of the deeper layers within these visual impressions.
We talked to Akinbiyi about his exhibition ‘Six Songs, Swirling Gracefully in the Taut Air,’ which opens on February 7th at Gropius Bau in Berlin. The way Akinibiyi describes his work is very poetic and his words are a beautiful complement his photographic visual narratives.
Denisa Tomkova: Why did you choose to depict these specific cities in your photography? What is it that attracts you about them?
Akinbode Akinbiyi: The cities chose me. They call out my name and if I am fully awake, I hear the call and gradually mend my way towards them. This is literally the case. You often think you are the motor behind a certain decision, the idea of going to visit, say, Lagos or Johannesburg, but in reality the named cities had already programmed me into their urban fabric, incorporated me into their daily vitality and dynamic.
So the attraction is initially from them towards me and thereafter, once there, a deepening of resonances and bonds, whereby after some time it is almost impossible to know when actually the connection came about.
Some time back I claimed that it was primarily large cities, megacities, that attracted me, or which I was drawn to. I have since realised that this is not necessarily the case. Berlin has some 3.5 million citizens, Lagos some twenty or more. So it’s not so much the size of the population that is the draw. It’s the buzz, the everyday coming-and-going that seemingly never, ever, stops. Like the sea that never, ever stops sending its waves shorewards. At least we still hope so, despite the worrying deposits of suffocating plastics and human rubbish.
The buzz, the flow of vehicular traffic, of human bodies scurrying and rushing to work, to schools, to institutions. The plethora of markets, shops, boutiques, malls, a seemingly endless flow of consumers, shoppers, hipsters walking the sidewalks and passageways. Eyes glued to their mobile screens, ears plugged into earpieces, some almost invisible under fashionable hair styles. Watching passengers, commuters, speaking out suddenly as if crazed, only to later slowly discern the almost hidden earpiece.
The Langston Hughes’ autobiography title: ‘I Wonder as I Wander’ is very much my template, the score in my feet as I walk the highways and byways. The wonder of the constantly impounding visuals, bystanders, passersby, billboards, the cars, lorries, of late, scooters and rollers. Only later, in the quiet of night, a few brief hours of dark solemnity, to be quickly upstaged by the early morning rush.
DT: Walking is an essential part of your artistic method. You wander through the cities with the aim to capture scenes of life. It seems to me like a very slow process. What are the advantages of this method?
AA: Walking, breathing consciously, taking each step in a quiet, very relaxed manner, is essential to my wandering. This I learnt over the many years, especially the quality rhythm of conscious breathing. The key is to breathe out fully, really emptying the lungs, thereafter to breathe in quietly and gently, savouring the fine chords of the elemental air. True, this is not often the case in the gritty streets of dust laden tropical cities, or the taut air of high plateau Johannesburg with her inner city rush hours full of minibuses and hustling commuters eager to get to work or return to far away townships. The blues of the everyday commute, public transport often a nightmare of cramped spaces and eking out a precarious economy.
The advantages of walking, working slowly and deliberately are many, most especially that of gradually perceiving, becoming aware of the deep layering inherent in visuals, the everyday of the urbanscape. In some ways it is a kind of privilege, having the time to really look into, see, the surroundings constantly morphing and changing.
Large, complex city hubs, railway stations, airports, high-end shopping streets and slowly meandering through, camera quietly to hand. This is much more than street photography, or photography taken, made on the fly. It is a philosophy of visualization, of wanting to see and eventually understand in depth.
Oftentimes I prefer not to take, make the image, but rather to just look on and try to see even further in depth. So too, at times, I find it is better to film the situation, the occurrence, than to take, make, that one or a few images.
The other day watching intently as a man also intently pressed the top of the injection downwards, spilling the drug into his veins, his trousers down at his ankles, as he sat there on the subway platform bench, all around him commuters, seemingly indifferent or unaware of what was going down. I had just come from an interview talking about the difficulty of taking, making, images of such situations and found myself unable to bring out the camera and possibly visualize this scene. At one end, the privileged observer; at the other, the junkie at his most vulnerable.
Filming might have done the situation better justice. The subways trains coming and then departing, commuters walking hurriedly by, some looking on, others engaged in their screens, heads locked into headsets. The question though that always haunts me in such or similar situations: why? For whom? To what purpose?
Slowing down, taking in, sometimes, taking, making a few images and gradually working out a sequential narrative, a story of our times. Images that hopefully resonate, echo down the passageways of our wanderings.
DT: In your photographic series ‘African Quarter,’ we can observe the African diaspora in Berlin. What is your perception of the life of the African diaspora in Berlin?
AA: I have been in Berlin almost thirty years and in this time Africans and people of African descent have really come to the fore. When I first came there were, if I remember correctly, only two or three African shops in the whole city. Today there are so many, almost too numerous to be counted.
Corn rows, African hairstyles, African restaurants and food, African textiles, the visuals are literally here to stay. So too, us. It is interesting watching indigenes looking at us. Years ago there was a kind of aversion, not knowing how to accommodate the stranger, the complete outsider. Today, there is much more of a tolerance, a willingness to listen to, understand.
Billboards with African Americans (Carl Lewis), with British Africans (Naomi Campbell). The Football World Cup in 2006 with five teams from the continent. Barack Obama being feted in Berlin.
The African Quarter in Berlin initially started out as an anomaly, the plan to set up a zoo for animals and peoples from exotic distances on the sandy dunes of Wedding. The quarter is today home to a diversity of peoples, many of whom see the appellation Africa only as a place name, vaguely aware of the real meaning of an African Quarter. Africans, though, and those from the diaspora are probably very much aware of the street names and the echoes inherent in speaking them out.