By Jessica Fijalkovich, Communications and External Relations
“There has to be a tree,” said artist Emeka Ogboh as he recounted planning the first commissioned artwork for the Ames Family Atrium, Ámà: The Gathering Place. A sculptural rendering of a tree, rooted in the east end of the atrium, serves as the anchor for this sweeping installation of sound, sculptures, and textiles that hark back to the artist’s birthplace in southeast Nigeria.
Ogboh discussed this site-specific project with Cleveland Museum of Art curator of contemporary art Emily Liebert and former curator of African art Ugochukwu-Smooth Nzewi in a conversation at the museum on Saturday, August 3, just after completing the installation of Ámà: The Gathering Place.
Recalling Ogboh’s first visit to the museum in February 2018, the artist and curators spoke about the connection Ogboh made between the atrium and the ámà — or village square — a central part of Igbo life in southeast Nigeria. What stood out to Ogboh most was how people were utilizing the atrium as a place to work, rest, meet, and share in conversation, much like in the Igbo ámà.
“I wanted to talk about where I’m from,” said Ogboh of his multisensory approach to interpreting place. By incorporating elements of Igbo culture from folk songs to akwétè cloth, one of West Africa’s oldest and most celebrated textile traditions, the artist created an immersive experience that traverses the reaches of the atrium and conveys three stories. “I wanted to navigate the whole atrium,” remarked Ogboh. “The idea is for people to use it fully.” The installation is arranged in three distinct zones of sound: the first beneath the large tree sculpture, the second in a circle of speakers in the atrium’s center, and the third among the bamboo trees. “The middle of the circle is the sweet spot,” remarked Ogboh. “It’s where all the sounds come together.” The songs are transmitted through multichannel speakers, traveling unpredictably from one zone to another, inviting visitors to follow the music across the atrium. According to curator Emily Liebert, the arrangement of sounds is designed to never be the same twice, providing a different experience with each visit to the museum.
Ámà: The Gathering Place is Ogboh’s largest sound installation to date; he managed a team of nearly 70 people to complete the project. Liebert likened him to a gentle guide, as he allowed each individual artist from the team to bring their expertise to the work. Collaborating with Nigerian producers and singers, Ogboh recorded 12 Igbo folk songs that he selected based on their popularity and connections to his childhood memory. “From the start, I wanted to create a multichannel installation and this meant that every single singer in the choir had to be recorded separately,” said Ogboh. The Igbo folk songs address universal themes such as hope, beauty, relationships, triumphs, and adversities.
The artist also worked with Nigerian graphic designers and weavers to develop traditional patterns and contemporary designs for the akwétè cloth. Maintaining its functional role, the cloth makes up the bark on the tree and wraps around comfortable seating dispersed throughout the atrium.
After discussing the site-specific installation of Ámà: The Gathering Place at the Cleveland Museum of Art, Emeka and the curators detailed the artist’s sound installations of the past, playing recordings from Logan Squared: Ode to Philly (2017), The Way Earthly Things Are Going (2017) at documenta 14, and The Song of the Germans (2015) at the Venice Biennale. When asked about the commonalities between the sonic landscapes created for these installations, Ogboh asserted that he comes to every city with an open mind: “In a way, cities speak to you if you listen.”
Ámà: The Gathering Place is the first of a series of site-specific contemporary art installations commissioned for the Ames Family Atrium. It’s on view through December 1, 2019.