From managing bands and hosting festivals to creating art, Okhiogbe Omonblanks Omonhinmin has spent his life as a collaborator. But the pandemic meant he spent the past four months in isolation at home in Accra, Ghana, where he worked on the exhibition opening tonight (Friday, September 11) as part of Acud Macht Neu’s Collective Practices series. So how did he collaborate during a global lockdown? He went online, hitting up would-be participants over Instagram and email.
For his two-pronged exhibition, Archiving the Mo(ve)ment, Omonblanks will present two installations: a “Conversation Capsule, ” which presents taped conversations exploring Black and African perspectives, and a “Time Capsule,” a multimedia exhibit documenting Ghana in the 1950s, when it became the first Black African country to gain independence from colonial rule.
We called Omonblanks at his home in Accra ahead of this weekend’s opening to hear about the importance of music to his practice, the legacy of colonialism in Ghana and why it’s essential for Black people around the world reclaim their narrative.
How did you collect the material for this exhibition?
I’ve been having conversations, and documenting them, constantly since 2017. But for this exhibition, I messaged people online. I was supposed to be in Berlin, so the goal was to randomly meet people on the street and ask participate. But instead, I reached out to people over Instagram and email, which was still like bumping into people on the street. Everyone I spoke to I was meeting for the first time.
What’s the importance of music to your work?
If you’ve worked with music, you understand collaboration. And collaboration is the bedrock of my practice. Music is still a core aspect of what I do, even when I do exhibitions. At ACUD, there will be a DJ playing music. That’s how it goes for me. With one of the exhibitions, when you go through the time capsule, there’s music embedded. Music tells a story of time. People tell so many stories through music, and people live through so many things using music. And being Black, sound is an integral part of who we are and how we communicate.
Your exhibition focuses on the 1950s and 1960s. Do you see any similarities with that era and today?
Yes, music being a tool for protest and social narrative. When you look at what’s going on in the world today, the Black Lives Matter movement, you realise that if you were a musician who was just making music for parties’ sake, your music isn’t what was wanted. When you look into the pandemic period, even though people are sad and want to break from that sadness, they’re not using party and club music to do that. They come out of this with music that speaks and inspires. You see that people are tapping into music that has nuance, more than just common dance music. I even feel like that will trickle down into the books that people read. I don’t want to just read just anything – I want to read something that can boost me emotionally or with knowledge. In the ’50s, a lot of musicians spoke about the concept of freedom.
It was the same in movies and plays, even Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, which was published in 1958. He taught us that Black people can write about Black people. The first Black country in the continent gets its independence, then the strongest book arrives a year later. It shows we can control our narrative.
Reclaiming the narrative around Black people is a huge part of your work.
Reclaiming the narrative, reclaiming our body, our identity.
When did this kind of thinking become important to you?
It starts from me looking at my immediate environment and thinking that it’s not the right way. At first, it was about patriarchy and misogyny as a kid, identifying that women were not placed on the same pedestal as men. Why? Religion does the same thing. Why? My original fight was with patriarchy, and that led me to understand that it’s all connected to insecurity. That insecurity comes from somewhere, and I eventually figured out that patriarchy is heavily presented by white men. I realised that, while I wasn’t in a white-majority country, a lot of our battles were created by the white, illegal invaders who came here and built a system that wasn’t made for us to progress. I then travelled to Europe and realised, “Wow, this is the origin of what I’m fighting here.” The battle that a Black person is fighting in Germany, Brazil, America or Japan, is really connected to the battle that a Black person is fighting in terms of colourism, patriarchy and systemic oppression in Ghana.
Did visiting Europe make those feelings stronger?
No. I only came to Europe in December. It’s the same battle. It’s not just about Europe, America, Ghana or Nigeria – the battle is about the whole system. The system must change and be inclusive. It must stop seeing Black bodies as dangerous. I don’t trust the police to protect me. Even if a police officer is nice to me today, I won’t expect him to be the same tomorrow. I always go in cautious.
Do you see your art as educational?
I see myself as an educator, but I don’t see myself as an educator for white people. I don’t think it’s the responsibility of Black people to teach white people – white people should decide that themselves. As a Black person, I’m constantly educating myself. If you, as a white person, know that you’re somehow making a space less accessible and inclusive for non-white people, whose job is it to make that space inclusive? Black people are fighting every day to take ownership of space, so I think white people should fight every day to make their space accessible.