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Akinbode Akinbiyi listens to the city

Photographs are static, but they hold the potential to capture movement — a potential that Akinbode Akinbiyi employs. Figures fly through his frames — horses gallop, people saunter, buildings rise up into the sky as the landscapes that surround them shift and change in a constant cycle of renewal. The photographer surrenders his senses to the city, wanders and responds: capturing the rhythms of the spaces he traverses. “I always try and push myself to see further and to see more,” reflects Akinbiyi on the phone from his home in Berlin. His exhibition Six Songs, Swirling Gracefully in the Taut Air has recently re-opened at Gropius Bau, Berlin, following the easing-up of lockdown, and we discuss Akinbiyi’s experience of wandering the desolate city-streets at the height of the pandemic: “When the city is quiet you can see what it is trying to get across.”

The cities, which feature in the nearly four-decades of work that compose the solo show, express themselves in multiple ways: from the eclectic landscapes of Berlin and cacophonous passageways of Lagos to the grid-patterned streets of downtown-Johannesburg and coastal areas in West Africa and Europe. These cities come alive in Akinbiyi’s rhythmic, black-and-white photographs, which veer between close-up-street scenes and panoramic views of the environment. The five exhibited series — spanning locations also including Bamako, Dakar, Khartoum, Athens, and Chicago — illustrate Akinbiyi’s fascination with the seemingly mundane: the everyday ebb-and-flow of urban life, which the photographer allows to wash over him and which he elevates and unveils through his images.

Bar Beach. Victoria Island, Lagos. 2006. From the series Sea Never Dry © Akinbode Akinbiyi.

“When the city is quiet you can see what it is trying to get across”

Bar Beach, Victoria Island, Lagos. 2006 © Akinbode Akinbiyi.

In Berlin, for instance, where Akinbiyi has lived since the early nineties, he unravels the urban fabric of the African Quarter in an ongoing series of the same name (one of the five series and the film, which compose the exhibition). The neighbourhood, which is situated in Wedding, a locality of Mitte, Berlin, was — prior to World War I — to be the location of a human-zoo filled with those from Germany’s overseas colonies: Burundi, Rwanda, and other parts of Africa. The zoo was never built, however, many of Wedding’s streets remain named after places in Africa subject to German colonisation, and several German colonial figures themselves. Akinbiyi navigates this terrible history as it is inscribed into the area’s past — traversing locations historically-entwined with Germany’s colonial exploits, while also capturing streets — such as May-Ayim-Ufer and Martin-Luther-King-Weg, which recall figures who strove to combat racism and upheld the long history of anti-colonial struggle.

Akinbiyi, who currently resides in Berlin, was born in 1946 in Oxford, England, where his parents were students, before returning to Nigeria. He grew up in colonial Lagos during the fifties: “My parents were forging a path into what was then an uncertain future,” reflects Akinbiyi in a 2017 interview with Aperture. “The uncertainty made us—their four children—aware of our surroundings, looking, listening, trying to understand.” As a child and adolescent, Akinbiyi embarked on long, meandering journeys, often with no particular goal: “I was always inquisitive and curious about what was around the next corner.” He returned to England to attend boarding school and, aged 16, began frequenting London during the holidays. Here, Akinbiyi wandered, spending each day engrossed in the urban fabric of the city and soon began to take pictures as he walked. 

Akinbiyi — however — does not ‘take’ photographs, rather, he makes them. An important distinction for a photographer whose work gives form to the rhythms, the threads, the resonances, which weave through the fabric of a city. It is an approach that resembles that of David Goldblatt, whose work resonates with Akinbiyi deeply, alongside that of Ernest Cole, J.D. ‘Okhai Ojeikere, Peter Obey, and, later, Seydou Keïta, and Malick Sidibé. However, his methodology is distinct: “Every day you mature and develop, and find your way into your own kind of vision.” For Akinbiyi, that vision derives from every sense: he looks, listens, smells, touches, and even tastes the places through which he moves. Like a sponge — absorbing his surroundings completely, and only then translating them into his work.

Sao Paulo. Central/Republica. 2018. From the series Photography, Tobacco, Sweets, Condoms, and other Configurations © Akinbode Akinbiyi.

“I call it a dance; an open-ended dance”

Berline. Neukölln. 2018 © Akinbode Akinbiyi.

“On a usual day, I set off in the morning and just start wandering,” he tells me. “Sometimes I have a specific goal like I want to buy something from a nearby shop, but it might take me two hours to arrive there — I see things in the street, or I meet people and ask if I can make a portrait. It is a constant give-and-take — I call it a dance; an open-ended dance,” he continues, likening the process to jazz — “especially free jazz, where there is no particular tune and every person comes with the music that they have within them.” Nature, rubbish, signs, billboards, design, architecture, fashion, and also an absence of fashion and design — “homeless individuals or impoverished areas” — compel him on his slow wanderings. These details populate his images because they reveal the stories of the city and the people who inhabit it: “So many different types of people come to the city that one can experience so many different narratives and so many different situations,” he says. 

“Sometimes, when I wander, I hum a song to myself,” Akinbiyi continues, and that rhythm is tangible within his images. The exhibition — which is composed of six rooms, each of which refers to a different song —  takes its name from this approach, blended with the artist’s respect for the wind.“The wind is also a very powerful form of narrative,” continues Akinbiyi who unveils the interconnectedness of life, through which the wind also weaves, in his work. His images absorb the threads and nuances that give form to the world, elements that are magnified in the urban fabric of its teeming cities. His photographs tease out the beauty from the mundane. They listen to and discover: “The beauty of life for us all”.

Akinbode Akinbiyi: Six Songs, Swirling Gracefully in the Taut Air is open until 19 July at Gropius Bau, Berlin.

Bar Beach. Victoria Island, Lagos. 2003. From the series Sea Never Dry © Akinbode Akinbiyi.
Berlin, Weißensee,
2018 © Akinbode Akinbiyi.
Downtown. Johannesburg. 2013. From the series Adama in Wonderland © Akinbode Akinbiyi.
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