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A cooperation with writer Maryan Abdulkarim, the work is, ultimately, regarding presence and the act associated with belonging
“Thank you for your fearlessness” reads the final line of the project text. “And for the sacrifices you made for those that came after you. For us. ”
This is the sentiment shared by Finnish-Nigerian image-maker Uwa Iduozee and writer Maryan Abdulkarim, in their collaborative book task, They Walked on Water . Developed over two years and showed in-part at this summer’s Helsinki Biennial, the project ruminates on the experience of those who immigrated to Finland between 1950-1990: the “trailblazers” who arrived through the US, the UK, Somalia, Sudan, Ethiopia, and Nigeria. Most are the same generation as Iduozee’s parents.
“We would often have conversations about our own past with our parents”, Iduozee reflects, “about how in a different way our lives had panned out”. But beyond discussions kept in the close-knit community of Afro-Fins, Iduozee was hit by the reductive dialogue close to Black people in Finland, a history originating in 1899, the entire year Rosa Emilia Clay grew to become the first person of Africa descent to claim Finnish citizenship. “There is an inclination to erase people’s tales, ” Iduozee laments, specially when those stories lack the “newsworthiness” demanded of mainstream media. His instinct was to take the opposite emotional add. “We weren’t inclined to look for the more sensationalist narratives”, Iduozee recounts. “We wanted to focus on the middle ground – the ‘normal’ experience – that people hadn’t heard growing up. ”
Conversations between Iduozee and Abdulkarim had been making for half a year just before they took the dive and reached out to their system of friends and family. Many had been immediately eager to lend their contributions. “[They were] happy to live through their experiences with us, ” Iduozee recalls. Not guided by crisis or incident, Iduozee plus Abdulkarim spent time getting to know each of their nine participants day-to-day, even accompanying two individuals on their personal moves from Finland to Nigeria. From research, to shooting and editing, it was a procedure of “relinquishing control” plus “trial and error”.
Still, precision and focus lies central to the success of this project. It was important for Iduozee to operate with consistency throughout, taking a consciously “mindful” stance which – when in Nigeria as a foreigner – avoided “photographing in an eroticising way”. His authorship is neutralised, contexts plus geographies rendered ambiguous. In one image, a figure floats in milky water, seemingly renewed in its opaque accept. In another, a woman can be spellbound against the scarlet plus indigo of an evening skies – eyes closed, solitary. Yet soon narratives emerge – the placid surface area of images broken with flowing rivulets of personal story; details of lived experience glinting through the gauze of the daily.
From a dark woodland, one of his subjects turns to face the flare of Iduozee’s flash – he could be Chauncey, it transpires, foraging for mushrooms. Nature regarding him is a “reprieve”, the “safe space” free of human gaze, that “takes you in and accepts you in as it would anybody else”. Then we meet Khadra, windswept in the long summer grass. It is the first week of Ramadan in fact it is already the afternoon – Iduozee captures her as a figure of strength, selflessness and perseverance, emblematic associated with her role as the matriarch of her family.
Since long-time friends, They Wandered on Water is Iduozee and Abdulkarim’s first combined project. The value of collaboration has been immediately plain – through the “extra pair of eyes” towards the critical element of storytelling, gathered through in-depth interviews (mostly by Abdulkarim). “There had been questions I might not have questioned because I was so engulfed in the visuals, ” Iduozee admits, conceding further which he “wouldn’t have done the tales justice” without this composed component. The project can also be Iduozee’s first documentary collection. His background in photojournalism saw him on a constant trajectory from “raw” factuality to a more “meditative” aesthetic.
Still, certain styles persist: personal narrative, the particular everyday, and a search for an awareness of Blackness. Questions of “how certain decisions plus environments influence how we watch ourselves in a larger context”, he describes. Yet his approach here is more circumspect, informed by the realisation that each of his participants’ stories were “very different – and what we wanted to express wasn’t the state of their present lives, but the larger histories of these people”. His process became slowed, his look more considered, such that “when the moment presented itself… I would be receptive towards this, rather than compulsively documenting everything”.
This behave of “being present” in the moment speaks not only to Iduozee’s process but also to the project’s conceptual ground. The work can be, ultimately, about presence – about the act of that belong in the world, about feeling the particular closeness of a place despite its great physical distance, and about visibility and portrayal. Yet there is an active procedure at play, too. They Walk on Water talks not only to “being present” in an environment, but to the experience of “navigating that reality”, and “re-evaluating” one’s objectives.
They Walk on Water allowed Iduozee to tilt his zoom lens up above the everyday routine of his participants, to the realm of their hopes plus dreams; and then back down to earth, in a “reconstitution associated with dreams… realising that misconceptions were myths”. We have all had unrealistic expectations, Iduozee notes – whether graduating university with improbable notions of adulthood, or migrating half-way across the world with unfounded visions of a new world. Crucially, the project is about those who have come to terms with reality. A life session for us all, he surmises: “to take what is given and make the best of it”.
Fantasies may be fragile, hopes dangerous, but on occasion expectations are exceeded. When Iduozee’s dad arrived in Finland, he had sent news to friends at home in Nigeria of this unusual new land. It was winter, and several of them had taken a journey, on foot, on the frozen sea. “They strolled on water!, ” he gasped in awe. Pure, inconceivable magic; an behave of fearlessness; the things of dreams.