Every now and then there are assignments coming along the way that are mind altering and leave you a changed man, I am privileged this way. One of these assignments was Stretched Terrains. A project of the Goethe Institute (the cultural institute of Germany) and curator Emeka Udemba. A mobile art residency on wheels with artists from Africa and Germany, plus me, who was supposed to make a film documentary about it for a German TV channel.
I had worked with the Goethe Institute before love them as a client. They always have fantastic artistic projects, anywhere on the globe and are great in handling and objectives. And over the past years I collected the kind of expertise to make these documentaries a win-win for everyone, especially for the tv audience that ought to re-live my experience in the most vibrant way.
As I knew that we will off the grid for several weeks, sleeping in the bus, having no running water, no access to technical equipment and internet connections, preparation had to be good. I took many essentials in pairs in case anything would break not to endanger the shooting. So I brought a second body for my Canon 5D Mark IV, double sound equipment, a drone and of course my analogue cameras and films. Altogether I gathered more than 50 kilos in three bags. As we basically lived in the bus, I gladly didn’t have to carry it around, though.
Lagos/ Nigeria – Emerging Metropolis
The origin of Stretched Terrains lays in Nigeria. Emeka Udemba is an artist and curator from Lagos, the up and coming megapolis at the coastside. Together with the local Goethe Institute he purchased the bus and organized projects in the area. For some time they pondered about to expand the project and to drive to the most important art event of the continent, the Dak’art in Senegal. You have to realize that this is an insane 5.000 km of mostly bad roads and six cruel borders. But it is the obvious challenges that make this project to art itself.
The timing was intense. I had only planned to stay 1½ days in Lagos, before the bus departed. Collecting all visas was already a tight race. Fortunately I was able to acquire four essential visas in Berlin. Two missing ones, I had to get on the go.
But even within that very short time I got a taste of the creative energy of the city and it bountiful possibilities. Already short after my arrival I became friends with a group of awesome tv hosts, who are producing a very personal travel show. I am trying to take them to Europe soon.
After organizing the last bits and pieces for the trip, our bus was ready to leave the planet that is Lagos. There were already three artist on board, among them were Gabriel from Germany, Bay from Dakar and Monsuru from Lagos – all champions of different genres and experience. Also on board the driver Ephraim and the mechanic John, essential for a roadtrip with a beast made of steel.
The adventure could start. We knew, it takes already one day to leave the megapolis with 22 million inhabitants and 1000 square kilometers. It’s the second largest city of Africa and a endless stream of concrete and cars.
I got an early sense of what was going to happen on the trip when we stopped at a roadside workshop, already after a few hours on the road. A fearless repair mechanic soldered a quadruple ensemble of headlights to the car front, just with his sun glasses on and with a free swinging wire connecting it with the battery. So I had three early learnings: Everything can be repaired in Africa, preparation is nothing and nothing is built to last forever.
Contonou/ Benin – Crossing the South
There it was, the first big border to Benin. Just a matter of hours. A giant queue of cars and trucks with great unclarity of who is who and what is what. Along the way people jumped into the bus, looked at things and offered services to speed up the process. As there was rain, driving became even slower and we saw cars vanishing in giant puddles. Some people started conducting traffic. Out of personal motivation and maybe for a little banknote.
At night the border is closed and you just stay in the bus, trying to sleep. But as we were super excited and in an interesting group, things never started to get boring. Emeka handled the mess, collected passports and vaccination documents and off we went into Benin.
The roads quickly became clearer and and better and we headed to Cotonou to collect a new artist for our journey. It was the painter Yam, quite the character, colourful personality and always an eye for the ladies.
The old Mercedes Benz was a living creature of its own. Like a camel on speed he was bouncing all the time, making noises and blowing quite a bit of black smoke out of the engine. But we got used to it soon. But it was not easy to photograph or film in the bus.
When we almost reached the border of Togo we looked for a new battery. It became obvious that all repairs would be done on the fly. Like a pitstop at a formula one race. But theses stops gave me always an opportunities for photographs. Eventually I only shot on the LCA 120 on this trip. I sometimes had very limited time to photograph on film, due to my filming. And my other cameras were hidden somewhere in my luggage, where I couldn’t access it swiftly. So eventually Westafrica will heavily be connected to the brilliant medium format beast that is the LCA 120.
Lomé/ Togo – The cute capital
Togo was one of the visa pain points for me. I had one for Benin and one for Ghana, but not for the sandwich state Togo. I tried to acquire it in Lagos, but it would have taken five days, because they would have had to send my passport to the capital Abuja. Nonetheless I went anyway to the consulate in Lagos, which was a tiny shed at the roadside, to ask how complicated it would be to get a transit visa directly at the border. They assured me that it is no problem, I took a deep look into the eyes of the consul and trusted him.
Border controls in Westafrica have a very similar scheme. First you show papers for your vehicle and then you walk through the border, passing first the checkpoint of the country you leave and then the country you enter. Great opportunity to collect bakshish. But as we were always in a group and Emeka was very patient and experienced, things were mostly very smooth. Even with my experience I was very glad to be in such good company. In Togo we paid something like 20 Euros for the visa, which was much cheaper than it would have been in Europe, I got a stamp and off we went. Still I would recommend everyone, who wants to repeat this trip, to get as many visas in advance as you can.
Like Benin, Togo is a rather small country. It has a short German and longer French colonial history. Lomé is a cute capital city and we were supposed to stay not too long. But after roughly three days on the road the crew decided to get a new engine for the bus. I repeat: a new engine!
So they checked the offers in the suburb markets of Lomé and came back with a used Mercedes Benz bus engine. The whole process was fantastic drama for my documentary. And we learn, it’s no biggie to get an engine on the fly, if you ask around in Lomé.
We used the time to explore some of the lagoons and beaches of Lomé and I always felt super relaxed. What a difference it makes, if you explore African cities with a group of Africans, even if they are visiting the new place as well. The bus was parked in the coolest small street. So many things were happening there. Motorbikes running through the narrow alleys, beautiful women with goods balanced on their heads doing the catwalk of life on hot asphalt.
I placed myself at a crossroad and waited for something to happen. Street Photography, especially in exotic places, is a constant battle. Once you see something interesting it is gone already. You want to respect everyone, but once you ask, to take the interesting shot, the magic is gone.
I personally just go for it and ease the situation with a friendly smile afterwards. You kind of get a feeling and flow for it. In some places it works better than in others and I love the little adrenaline rush of freezing a great moment.
Accra/ Ghana – The state of coolness
The repairs at the engine took longer than anticipated, but there was already a programme for us set up in Accra, Ghana. So the artists and me went by foot over the border in Lomé and fetched a Taxi for the 3h ride to Accra.
We stayed in some sort of a family resort, not far from the Goethe Institute Accra. Plenty of room, almost a bit too much. I loved the crew in this place. One of the cooks especially caught my eyes: Adelide looked brilliant with her uniform and her great hair. So I asked her for a portrait and she gladly agreed.
We got together with many other cool artists of Accra, which has a very vivid and contemporary scene. Everybody knows each other and I felt very inspired. We explored galleries and got a gret feeling for the place.
But there was a lot of uncoordinated waiting, which I knew would happen and it didn’t really bother me. One free day, Monsuru had a massive urge to go to a pool and it became a huge project. First we went to the market to get trunks and then went to the university pool, all with uber rides.
First they told us, that the pool is closed for the day. But more and more students showed up and they finally opened it. The weather was great and I shot some of the best portraits on this journey with Monsuru and other great folks around the water. There was David, the student that lurked out of the water and the Ukrainian girl Natalie, who moved to Accra, because she fell in love with a Ghanian doctor.
In Accra we were joined by a very impressive and mysterious artist called Ray. With his mighty rastas and quirky personality he really was a great add to the group.
On our route further to Dakar we stopped at his studio in Sekondi-Takoradi, a smaller city close to the coastline. Here he has a residency and produces sculptures of all kinds, but he also does great performance art and during our trip always presented powerful ideas. While we were there, he started his project about the genocide in the East of Congo and therefore forming skulls out of foam material.
Ray was pretty good with french as well, not common in Ghana and Nigeria, were everybody speaks one or more dialects and english. This language border between the francophone and anglophone countries is also represented in lifestyle and cuisine. And it is a great obstacle for cooperation within Africa, all due to colonization of the Europeans. Our project also wanted to break these barriers and stereotypes, by driving through theses borders in a joined group of each of those countries.
Abidjan/ Côte d’Ivoire – Intense Kindness
Next stop: Côte d’Ivoire. This time the border really was a pain in the neck. Our bus was a great piece of patchwork, a puzzle of scrap metal. Already on our trip we added and changed so many parts. Now at the border they held us back, because they wanted to find the chassis number of the vehicle. Impossible to find, really, nobody knew, were the thing was and honestly, it was just a scheme to receive an extra “tax”. After hours and hours the problem was resolved with cash. But it was already pretty late for us to cross the border. And then our German artist Gabriel was the cause of trouble.
They had told him at the Ivorian embassy in Germany that is sufficient to have a visa by entry at the airport, even if you are on the road. They soldiers didn’t accept it, and their colleagues on the landline in the capital Abidjan, already went home.
The prudent mentioning, if there were ways to settle this, didn’t work. So we left him and Emeka behind for a night, were they witnessed not so very prudent contraband. We drove with the giant bus through the night and had police controls every half hour, and every time you left a little banknote behind.
But we arrived and were joined by Souleymane, a great painter from Abidjan.
One of the days we could see his studio, which is rare for local artists. It’s tough to find places with cheap rent. He got lucky, because a friend, who was on residency in Marseile, left it for him.
I understood that contemporary artists face the same problems everywhere. Income comes only if you sell a piece, but you have to take care about the everyday costs. No matter if you are in Africa or any other place on the planet.
Abidjan had a special significance for the project Stretched Terrains. The mobile residency was already planned two years prior. But Henrike Grohs, the chief of the local Goethe Institute was murdered in a terror attack at a café, which was regularly frequented by artists and westerners. After this tragic event, the project was reduced to only a few stops and they established a great artist scholarship in the name of Henrike. To her honor a rising angel was placed at the wall of the Goethe Institute. A great piece of art with a powerful story.
Let’s talk about the cuisine of Westafrica. It’s quite common to take your meals in little open restaurants on the street. The weather is mostly great, so you don’t need a roof over your head most of the time. Therefore the meals are also more affordable. Quite a basic staple food is fufu or foufou in the area, a kind of doughy mash from yam, manioc or green plantain flour.
It has a unique smooth texture and you eat it with your hands. You mix it with all kinds of soups and sauces. Western Africans love it and eat it all the time. Quite popular is also some sort of ramen noodles. It’s called Idomie and doesn't save on spice and grease. And you will find huge amounts of eggs and therefore omelettes in Africa. you will see chicken running around everywehere, such a great domestic animal for the domestic kittchen.
I found these open restaurants always great places to meet others in a relaxed atmosphere. In retrospective it even seems crazy, that for three weeks on tour we were eating everywhere on the road. It passed by so quickly, like a dream.
This is part one of my travelogue about this epic journey through Westafrica. In part two we will be heading north of the Côte d’Ivoire, through the desert of Mali and finally entering Senegal and discovering the great city of Dakar.
And by the way, here is the film:
Stretched Terrains from willie schumann on Vimeo.
Stay tuned for part two.