Karimah Ashadu
by Dominic van den Boogerd
DOMINIC VAN DEN BOOGERD

Commençons par l’une de vos premières œuvres, Pace—part 5 (2011). Le film enregistre votre corps en mouvement sous les arches d’un viaduc londonien désaffecté. Ce film semble être le point de départ de vos recherches sur le positionnement et le mouvement de la caméra. Comment ce film est-il né ?

KARIMAH ASHADU

I wanted to propose the camera as an extension of my body, with its own point of view. At the time, architecture was central to my thinking because I was studying it, so the viaduct was a great focus for this project. As an extension of my body, I thought the camera should literally be on my body, so I created a harness to wear with a couple of cameras attached to it.
In the subsequent films, there is a strange layering and mirroring with aspects of my body; for instance, an ear against the hollow of an arch. This gave me the feeling that the camera was somehow “alive” with its own compulsions, reasoning, and language. This piece was directional because it marked the beginning of creating devices for filming, which really opened up considerations of perspective and ideas of the camera in flux. There’s something exciting and immersive about the camera moving in unexpected ways, and I began to think about how this could play a central role in the stories I wanted to tell.

 

DvdB: In Hindsight—a horse’s tale (2012), the camera is attached to a horse. The subtitles suggest an interior monologue of the horse walking to the beach, toward freedom. We see streets, sidewalks, and the seaside from an unusually low viewpoint. The camera doesn’t appear in the image, but visualizes itself through the movements. How does the camera angle influence our apprehension of the “story”?

KA: I imagined myself as this horse, and thus the camera took this position. I wanted the audience to see things from this point of view, so it made sense that the perspective would fuel the narrative. Positioning the viewer in a way that feels like they are part of the story is exciting, and the camera angle is a golden opportunity for this. Then I wanted to add another layer, and the narration provides a way for the viewer to relate to this horse, as if somehow it’s a fellow human being. The horse dreams of escaping its humdrum life as a polo horse and the sea becomes the representation of freedom. Hindsight is definitely symbolic of a desire for autonomy.

DvdB: In Lagos Island (2012) the camera registers tumbling views of the Lagos coastline, with places, people, and objects falling in and out of the frame continuously. The sequence raises questions of where the camera might be. There is a clue in the connection between the squeaking noise, suggesting the rotation of wheels, and the looping horizon in the image. What do the mechanical aspects of the camera work tell us about this specific location?

KA: The Lagos state government recently developed this particular site into luxury housing. But when I filmed there back in 2012, it was precariously occupied by a group of illegal immigrants from Togo, who’d been having huge clashes with the authorities. Unexpected signs of domesticity drew my attention to this place: makeshift shelters at the water’s edge, children playing, and women washing laundry at the shore while their men kept a lookout. I wanted to capture this sense of displacement, and to reiterate it. In Lagos, a lot of laborers and peddlers push their materials in carts. This arduous motion intrigued me, so I found an old tire and created a device that I could push along the shore. I filmed it in one take, and it was quite stiff to maneuver, hence the noise. What I had in the end was a work that encapsulated this sense of instability and uncertainty that I imagined the immigrants felt.

DvdB: Your recent film King of Boys (Abattoir of Makoko) (2015) is like a descent into hell. The film is shot in Makoko, where we experience a typical crude Lagosian open-air abattoir. We see men butchering heads of bulls and rams with raging horns. The rhythm of the film is dictated by the deft wielding of heavy axes and large, sharp knives. The raw and strong imagery is emotionally charged, not least because we see large parts of the film as if through a red filter. Can you explain how you shot the footage?

KA: I found a peculiar red plastic barrel on the street in Amsterdam and decided to modify it, cutting a section for the camera to film through. I took it to Lagos, and when I encountered this abattoir, I knew it was the right fit. I shot the footage over a couple of days, crouched, operating the mechanism, with bits of flesh and blood flying at me in the intense Lagos heat! King of Boys positions itself somewhere between fiction and documentary. The red filter creates this “fictional” world that dramatizes, then at the moment you begin to suspend disbelief, you’re taken back to reality for a few seconds. The curiosity of this color is its impact as instigator of narrative, to immersive and all-consuming effect.

DvdB: Makoko Sawmill (2015) shows employees of a sawmill at work. Interestingly, the device you built to hold the camera is visible inside the frame: two planks stick into the image, one from above and one from below. The planks seem to function as primitive robotics for measuring, surveilling, controlling.

KA: These blue planks were born out of idiosyncratic expression. They are nothing and everything at once. Their intrusive presence makes us feel as though they are directional, therefore we wait for a sense of guidance. The film is twenty minutes long and unfolds quite slowly. It requires a level of patience, because somewhere, at some point, you’re left with this realization that it’s probing and questioning just as much as you are. I love this sense of expectation because it makes you aware of the impositions we place on things.

DvdB: Destiny (2016), the last film you made at De Ateliers, portrays a worker in his hut at the Makoko sawmill. The film is projected on oxidized steel plates, the rusty patina absorbing the image and providing a layer of materiality. The sound of the sawing machines is loud and jarring. There is an entrancing interplay between interior and exterior views, between pitch dark and bright daylight. I wonder to what degree the film describes reality and to what degree it transcends the here and now?

KA: Framing the film between the two windows of the hut is a way of communicating and containing the intimacy of this place. I shot it all in natural light at different times of day, mostly against the light, so you often see silhouettes, which is quite enigmatic. Light is a great way to draw attention to shifts in time, revealing the working day. And then you have the repetitive panning, which also echoes a kind of never-ending cycle.

DvdB: According to the French film critic Serge Daney, cinema has the magical power to show time itself, revealing how time actually works. He called this capacity the true nobility of film. Most of your films show activities in real time, without a clear beginning or end. One gets a sense of infinite repetition, of uninterrupted duration. Many of your films show men at work—often physically hard work. What makes the subject of labor interesting for film?

KA: Labor is an act of beauty, even more so when the person is autonomous. When a person learns a craft and masters it, they work intuitively and purposefully. There’s something fascinating about this, something symbolic for one’s relationship with life. I choose to make a lot of my work in Nigeria, where I am from. Labor is ubiquitous in such a developing country. In this circumstance, and also in the country’s socioeconomic context, it’s a way for me to grasp and relay ideas about independence and value, both central themes in Nigeria’s history.

DvdB: You also worked on a film on West African contract workers employed in the Dutch building industry, though this film was never completed. While working in Amsterdam, you traveled to Nigeria regularly for shooting on location.

KA: When I first arrived in Amsterdam, I wanted to find something familiar in such an unfamiliar situation. When I stumbled on this building site with West African immigrants and a British guy as their supervisor—being British and West African myself, and thinking about all that history between the United Kingdom and West Africa—it piqued my interest, so I began observing them. Ultimately I just wasn’t sure what the angle was, so I left it. I came to the realization that it was much more important to continue making work in Nigeria. It was obvious that I needed to delve deeper. I didn’t come to Amsterdam with the intention of flying back and forth every time I wanted to make work; I figured that would be absurd. But that’s exactly what I ended up doing. I think my work has more to do with my relationship with the country and my understanding of its principles, politics, and people, and where I fit in all of that. Making work in Nigeria feels like an affirmation, like gaining a richer understanding of my history.

DvdB: Thinking of your part of the exhibition Potlatch at De Ateliers in 2016, curated by Ian Kiaer, I recall a semi-dark room where scenes do not necessarily ensue from previous scenes, where spaces become disconnected, where acts of seeing and hearing interfere, rendering the experience of the work compelling, not only visually but also aurally and haptically. Although there is a slight sense of theatricality to it, I would argue that your mode of presenting film is more closely linked to sculpture: a mise-en-scène anticipating the movements of the visitor through space, triggering an almost bodily experience. What are your concerns when presenting your films within a spatial installation?

KA: In Potlatch the beam of one projection was used to illuminate a group of sculptures. The heavy, grating sound from Destiny reverberated throughout like an echo; the filter from King of Boys tinged the corridor red before you entered the viewing space. I anticipated how the visitor’s experience could be defined by experiential elements like light, color, or sound. I like to show my work in a way that allows much room for contemplation, and while it’s essential to create a situation where the work thrives collectively, I am also keen that each part can be considered independently. Composition is key.

DvdB: You are currently working on a commission for the Biennale de l’Image en Mouvement at the Centre d’Art Contemporain Genève. Central to the new film is the production of palm oil and its socioeconomic implications in Nigeria. Can you tell us about this work?

KA: Before Nigeria’s independence in the 1960s, the country was one of the world’s biggest cultivators and exporters of palm oil. But in the wake of the discovery of crude oil, that sector was abandoned and farmers were forgotten. The Nigerian government now says it promotes renewed support for the agricultural industry, but this has never transpired. Red Gold centers on a group of farmers working independently to produce palm oil in Ekiti, a state in western Nigeria. They lease the land from a prince whose family has ruled the area for generations. The work is a two-channel presentation, with one part portraying the farmers, the other the prince, Mr. Sesan. These farmers are proudly self-sufficient and work tremendously without any support from the government. My work has always shied away from being overtly political. Red Gold is filmed in a way that reflects poignantly and metaphorically on notions of independence and value within this history of Nigeria.