It’s Saturday afternoon in Lagos, Nigeria, and crowds of people have descended on Balogun, one of the largest open-air markets in West Africa. Shoppers navigate through the masses, their flip flops smacking the ground as they move between the market’s stalls, where vendors selling fruits and vegetables, beaded jewelry and colorful Dutch wax cloth yell out to them.
The hum of the banter between customers and hawkers is punctuated every so often by the startling honk of a car’s horn from the nearby traffic. Chaotic? Yes. But when merged together this cacophony of voices, cars and moving bodies is nearly rhythmic. And now this medley of sounds finds a home at the National Museum of African Art in Washington, D.C.
Step across the threshold into the museum's "Point of View" gallery to be transported from the quiet of the museum into the ambiance of the bustling and vibrant city of Lagos as captured and reconstructed by Nigerian artist Emeka Ogboh in his exhibit “Market Symphony,” the first work of sound art to be featured at the museum.
There is an interactive element to the show, requiring a visitor to physically step into the gallery to jumpstart the 28-minute-long soundtrack, which begins with the market’s ambient noise emanating from the far corners of the room. An assemblage of 28 round black speakers, each set in the center of a colorfully painted enamelware tray typically used by market vendors to display their goods, hangs from three walls in the gallery. After a few minutes of the initial ambient noise, individual, detectable voices and sounds assemble themselves and transport the listener.
Ogboh, whose oeuvre also includes video installations and other visual art, captured the sounds of the Balogun market by wandering all over the market wearing over-the-ear microphones. This allowed him a type of 360-degree field of recording. There is no specific pattern to the sounds featured in the installation, he says. It’s random—just like it would be in the market.
The artist has been experimenting with “soundscapes” for many years. He first had the idea that the sounds of his hometown could be art when a friend guessed that he was in Lagos upon hearing the background noise during a phone call. Ogboh has exhibited his sound art all over the world from Addis Ababa to Seattle. In Helsinki, his work inspired a Nigerian student to visit home for the first time in three years when he overheard the sounds of Lagos seeping from the museum while waiting at a bus stop.
While he has been called a pioneer of this form of art in the African art world, Ogboh argues that there are sound artists everywhere in Africa even if their work does not appear in art galleries. Even the vendors’ yelling to customers is a form of art to Ogboh.
“Lagos is undergoing major infrastructural change,” he says, adding that his work is also a type of preservation. “The sounds are disappearing.” Noting the trend toward building indoor shopping malls in Nigeria, Ogboh thinks his art could one day be important for archiving the unique culture of the city before it falls under the spell of total modernization.
In a room full of sounds is there one “best” place to take everything in? Yes, he says. Right in the middle of the room.
The work of Emeka Ogboh’ in the exhibitions “Market Symphony” will be on view at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art through Sept. 24, 2016.