“Sound for me became a barometer for measuring the changes in the city and its infrastructure.”
Car horns, popular music, electrical generators, engine roars, and voices of street vendors: these sounds knit together the sonic fabric of the city of Lagos, Nigeria. For those familiar with the place, the dynamism of this cosmopolitan center is committed to memory through these sounds of daily life. “The city is a composer,” says the artist Emeka Ogboh. “It composes based on how Lagos is planned structurally or managed. Sound for me became a barometer for measuring the changes in the city and its infrastructure.” Since 2008, Ogboh has used the technique of field recording to capture and then represent an experience of the place in his ongoing project Lagos Soundscapes (2008–).
Born in Nigeria and based between Lagos and Berlin, Ogboh creates multisensory work that takes the form of audio, installation, sculpture, and even beer. With an ear for the social and political life of sound, he creates and combines audio recordings that evoke rich personal and collective memories.
Ogboh studied art at the University of Nigeria in Nsukka. (Under the direction of the modern artist Uche Okeke, the art school has produced generations of foundational contemporary artists, including El Anatsui and Obiora Udechukwu.) Ogboh also attended the Winter Academy in Fayoum, Egypt, in 2008, where he was introduced to working with sound.
In interviews, Ogboh has often described a formative experience: while speaking on the phone with a friend who he thought was in the town of Abuja, he noticed an overwhelming amount of background noise. From this sound alone, Ogboh realized his friend was in Lagos. In this definitive moment, he realized how sound can create a “portrait” of a city.
Lagos Soundscapes, a series of more than 40 works in sound, video, and installation, is his most notable and ongoing project. Many works in the series combine recordings made by the artist with installation elements that visually represent a system of transportation. Ogboh often uses bright yellow, the color of Lagos’s most common form of transportation, the Volkswagen Danfo bus. This visual language of mass transit evokes the movement and flow of ideas, goods, and people with a distinctly Lagosian sensibility.
Many of the sounds are immediately recognizable to those familiar with the city. In his writing on the artist, the curator Ugochukwu-Smooth C. Nzewi discusses the notion of the “soundmark.” Like a “landmark” in audio form, this refers to a sound that possesses a unique quality that ties it to a particular place. The result is an auditory collage that produces an experience of dislocation and distance. Raising questions about site, representation, and translation, the Lagos Soundscapes explore how histories of modernization and the postcolonial city are encoded in and transmitted through sound.
Since he moved to Germany in 2014, much of Ogboh’s work has focused on the migration of African people to contemporary Europe. This theme is central to the work Lagos State of Mind III (2017/2020). This room-sized sculptural sound installation is the first of the artist’s works to combine recordings from two different cities. A personal work, it brings together his signature audio archive from Lagos with recordings made in Berlin (the latter include voiceover announcements from the Berlin train system and conversations between African expatriates in introductory German).
Lagos State of Mind III imagines a speculative version of Berlin public transit that connects to sites in Nigeria: Obalendeplatz and Lagosstrasse (names that combine Nigerian places with the German word for “square” or “street”) are prominently featured as imaginary train stations and street signs. Bringing together different sonic landscapes and visual languages of travel, this work speaks to the experience of living as an immigrant abroad. The artist calls the work, “a real and invented world . . . in which the viewer is invited to look at Lagos through Berlin’s eye and vice-versa.”
Martha Joseph, The Phyllis Ann and Walter Borten Assistant Curator, Department of Media and Performance, 2023