Emeka Ogboh Installation Fills CMA Atrium With Sound Of Nigeria And Timely Message Of Diversity

Emeka Ogboh. Image via Cleveland

The Nigerian artist Emeka Ogboh, based in Lagos and Berlin, wasn’t trying to make an overtly political statement in his large-scale installation, “Ámà: The Gathering Place,” the first work commissioned by the Cleveland Museum of Art for its big central atrium.

But the timing and context of the work surround it with a swirl of political meanings that have local and global implications.

The installation gives pride of place in the heart of the museum for the first time to African art at a moment in which the institution — located in a majority black city — is trying harder to diversify an audience that has skewed largely white for decades.

In that sense, Ogboh’s installation neatly serves the institution’s need to make minorities, particularly blacks, feel more welcome.

Celebrating cultural pluralism

In a larger sense, Ogboh’s work celebrates globalism and cultural pluralism at a time when Western democracies —including the United States — are awash in right-wing nationalism, xenophobia, racial division and hostility to immigration.

Ogboh’s work consists of a 30-foot-tall replica of an African baobab tree, made with giant blocks of Styrofoam wrapped in earth-toned Akwete cloth, that towers over the east end of the atrium.

Arrayed on the granite floor in the center of the atrium is a circle of 14 black, rectangular loudspeakers that stand about 4 feet high. They fill the air intermittently with uplifting choral arrangements of traditional Igbo folk songs from southeastern Nigeria, Ogboh’s home region.

Visitors can sit or lie in the circle on beanbag chairs and cushioned boxes wrapped in Akwete cloth woven in colorful geometric patterns as they let the sound of Nigeria wash over them.

In the bamboo grove toward the west end of the atrium, which borders the museum’s cafe, Ogboh has installed a series of small loudspeakers amid the foliage.

The choral music flips back and forth from the bamboo grove to the center of the atrium and to speakers installed on the baobab tree, creating sonic experiences of intimacy, grandeur and ravishing beauty.

Ogboh, 42, is a rising global star whose work, focusing largely on recorded sound, has been featured in the prestigious Documenta 14 exhibition, held in Kassel, Germany, and Athens, Greece, and in displays at the Menil Collection in Houston and in Philadelphia’s Logan Square.

His show here was organized by Emily Liebert, the museum’s curator of contemporary art, and by Ugochukwu-Smooth C. Nzewi, who joined the museum in June, 2017 as its curator of African art, and its first black curator, and who left earlier this year for a post at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Public space at the center

Ogboh’s goal in Cleveland is to draw a comparison between the art museum’s atrium and traditional village squares in southeast Nigeria, which function as places for commerce, people-watching, relaxation and ritual ceremonies.

But Ogboh’s work has other, obvious meanings in a country whose president has described Latin American immigrants and asylum-seekers as part of an “invasion” and an “infestation,” and who described immigrants from Haiti, El Salvador and Africa as coming from “s---hole” countries.

Well, here is an artist from one of those countries, bringing a profound sense of humanity and joy into the light-washed core of the museum, one of Cleveland’s biggest public rooms.

The museum started laying plans for the Ogboh installation in 2017, before Trump’s reported epithet about Haiti, El Salvador and Africa. But the mood of division and fear stoked by the president was certainly apparent as the museum prepared to give an African artist a highly visible exhibit.

Then, as now, the decision to display Ogboh’s work so prominently affirms the role of the museum as a safehouse for cultural expression of all kinds.

Beauty of listening
That doesn’t make the institution a politically motivated island of resistance. But it makes it a place that aims to treat all people and cultures with receptivity and respect. It’s a place where the shouting can stop and, especially in the case of Ogboh’s installation, people can just listen.

In America today, that in itself can be considered a political statement.

Ogboh himself recognizes the inherent tensions in his Cleveland debut at this particular moment.

The gregarious, 6-foot-6 artist firmly declined to say anything about Trump in an interview. But he’s certainly aware of the global climate in which his career is unfolding.

“I mean, right now around the world we have nationalists and right wings rising,” he said. “It’s happening in Germany, but I think it’s not as bad as in America.”

The artist used to describe himself as a migrant or an immigrant, but lately he’s come to use the word “expatriate.”

“They shove ‘migrants’ and ‘immigrants’ down our throats,” he said, speaking of xenophobes everywhere. “So yeah, I want to be an expatriate, living outside my country, working and paying taxes and employing Germans.”

In the current climate, he said he considers his work an invitation to “be more open,” and to realize “there’s nothing wrong with movement of people.”

Ogboh’s act of resistance is to reject the idea of racial or cultural purity. He wants to celebrate exchange, appreciation, understanding.

“There is really no pure form of human culture,” he said. “We’ve been intermixing for thousands of years. So maybe this is the next new wave of the mix.”

udging by the audience reaction to Ogboh’s installation, it’s an instant hit. Visitors have enthusiastically accepted the artist’s invitation to lounge on the Akwete cushions under the big atrium skylight and bathe in 12 compositions performed by 12 Nigerian singers.

Transcending a gap

Ogboh’s recordings are vivid and vital, and they create an aural space that is contained by the museum’s architecture, but also easy to perceive as an embodiment of another place, another society.

The work transcends the gap between here and there, which is what makes it so enthralling, especially now.

It also brings a welcome artistic dimension to the entire atrium, the centerpiece of the museum’s 2013 expansion and renovation designed by architect Rafael Vinoly.

In a more utilitarian way, Ogboh’s work is portable. Its pieces and parts can be moved from time to time during the show’s run between now and Dec. 1, enabling the museum to continue to rent the space for special events.

Until then, music and textiles from Nigeria will serve as a point of entry before visitors explore galleries surrounding the atrium that are devoted to 5,000 years of art from cultures around the world.

Making such a statement at any time would be notable at the museum. But the present political and cultural circumstances in the United States make it especially important now.