Interview with Artist in Residence: Nii Obodai

Posted on 18.02.2019

Ghanaian photographer Nii Obodai, is our current artist in residence, exploring the waterways of the East Riding of Yorkshire, as part of Invisible Dust’s wider three-year Surroundings project, with the Humber Museums Partnership. On his last visit back in December, we managed to have a sit down with Nii and learn a bit more about his photography process and current work with Invisible Dust.

Interview: Martha Cattell, Dorcas Taylor (ID) and Nii Obodai (NO)

ID: Tell us a bit about your practice?

NO: I love exploring, I love traveling and photography allows me to do that. But I also like the idea that I see myself as somebody who is contributing to the conversations about the earth and its relationship with human beings.

ID: You have worked a lot with communities in Ghana, so here you are in Yorkshire. So why did you want to take this project on?

NO: I think it is really important as an artist, especially as a photographer, to travel a lot. It is important to take yourself from the spaces that you are used to and immerse yourself in an experience that you will find challenging because that is also going to bring out aspects of yourself that you are definitely not going to ever experience on your home turf when you are in your comfort zone.

I think there is also the desire to not be fixed. To see the planet as my home and not get locked into this thing that, oh, I’m Ghanaian, and so I should only be able to work in Africa or in Ghana, but that actually, I should be able to work anywhere on the planet. So I think that is really important and that is what this commission allows me to do.

ID: What were your first impressions of the East Riding region?

NO: First, we start with the landscape because I met the landscape before I met the people, I was intrigued by it, because I came with my own imagination of it, I have been doing a lot of reading on the English countryside. I was really amazed at the number of farms that had swallowed up this beautiful countryside, it looked like England had stripped itself of its countryside and gone industrial with farming which I think probably on the extreme end, makes me feel very sad. I think that the sort of transformation that has taken place probably in the last 100 years is quite significant.

ID: So at what point then did you decide to focus on water and why water?

NO:Gradually water is becoming more of a focal point as an artist working with the landscape and trying to understand the landscape, water is very crucial to who we are. We as human beings are held together by water, consciousness is affected by it. I just felt water was a good starting point because we are under stress on the planet, and water is a big factor in this. Where I live the ocean is full of plastic, it is so bad that I have not swam in the Atlantic Ocean on the Ghana side, in 10 years. And I have been photographing and sharing it, but it has not worked, at least I know the photographs are a testimony to a point in time.

I have also been working on what has happened to the rivers in Ghana due to illegal mining. To actually see a main river come to a standstill because of our actions is quite a devastating experience, especially if you have grown up playing in rivers and streams as a child and accustomed to the sound and feel of the water.

ID: How did water help you make sense of the East Riding? And can you, talk about the different water sources that you have encountered?

NO: It is interesting that the East Riding is so alive because of all these rivers and streams that are going through it and even the agricultural canals that link it all up. There is just so much energy that is coming from the waters in East Riding. We started with the North Sea, the beauty of the light on the Sea is something spectacular. Then it carries me into the inland waters where one of the first stories is the Gypsy race. I think first the name was striking, and two the history behind it and the different histories of it, because one person has a story here and another there. Another waterscape is Top Hill Low, a large area that has been designated as a natural reserve for wild species, the management is so critical to the point that even the glass they use in the buildings is such that it does not reflect, so there is a lot of thoughtfulness in setting up the space. This, of course, counters what is happening outside the reserve, where capitalism thrives and exerts a lot of influence on challenging the wild.

ID: Why have you chosen to use an eight by ten format to capture your work?

NO: One was that England has the privilege of being one of the first places that modern photography evolved from, especially using the silver process. On the other side, there was this need to slow down and help the world slow down. We have this digital phenomenon that is taking place at the moment where everything is about newness which is exhausting.

I have always shot with film and so how can I tie the environmental concern to the historical, and I think that is what the eight by ten does. It also allows me to eliminate as much technology as possible. Environmentally I wanted to look for nontoxic ways or the least toxic ways of production. I have coated paper with salt, applied silver nitrate, which also comes out from the ground, and set the images using beeswax.

You also have to become very patient to the process, which means you become very much aware of your own physicality in the space and how your body will translat e and anticipate the landscape. A productive day doesn’t have to end up in me taking a picture, as it may just be an acknowledgement of what I have or have not seen.

ID: You are also interested in using sound in the project, what have you been doing with audio?

NO: When I go to places and I am photographing, I am inspired by the sounds around me to make the photograph. For this project I have been recording the rivers as they run, as they flow through different spaces, the environment around the rivers. I have been recording the sea and its relationship with the sand and the surf. I also went on a barge in Goole, and I did all these recordings on the river Ouse, the boat going through the water, and recording from inside the vessel.

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