19 December 2016

Meet Thompson S. Ekong, the opinionated Nigerian photographer elevating Africa

Africa has so much to say.

[T]hompson S. Ekong is a Nigerian photographer with a lot to say. As the Visual Director of the conglomerate Baroque Age, he is concerned with creating imagery that elevates Africa and interrogates the internet’s affect on our global consciousness. He says, “The world is more connected now due to the internet, there’s so much information which makes humanity more conscious and it’s perplexing to anyone who can’t understand this change and growth around them. It’s really peculiar in Africa, this rapid change from one generation to another.” Thompson explores humanity in his work through themes such as the unspoken issue of depression amongst young African creatives. His work also speaks to the unique experience of being born into a third world nation but being given access to the rest of the world via the web. Most of all, he is determined to show that excellence exists on the continent.

What is your process when beginning a new series? 

I meditate on what needs to be told. There’s a lot of information in the world now, the job of an innovator or creative is to relay the information needed to grow humanity and to navigate the world around us. I really want to know what I’m doing before I do it. When I can identify who I am currently and what I gravitate to the most, I can consciously direct the vision of every image and what it represents. Words are important to me, the image tells a story while the words help narrate the information surrounding it.

I bring the visions to life with Baroque Age. We take the idea, strip it down to its bare essence and remould it into a body of different steps. Like how each scene in a Tarantino movie seems completely random but it’s all still going in the same direction, I want each image to have its own symbol while pushing forth the general idea of the series.  

What would you say have been some of your influences? 

Great artists are influenced by the essence of life around them. I follow the same ideology. I’m influenced by what I see, the train of thought around me, the internet, the situations I place myself in. As a young creative from Nigeria, my story is different which gives me a new perspective on the influences around me. A mind in another part of the world can’t be the same as mine, we’re influenced in different ways but we’re still connected. Things of that nature speak to me a lot.

There’s a general consciousness among humanity now due to the connectivity and access that the internet brings; it’s so vast. Coming from a third world nation that’s just gaining its place in the world I have so much to say ‘cause I’ve been given a chance to talk now. The New Age of Africa is talking now and we’ve soaked up multiple influences from around the world which amplify the stories behind the visuals.

You can see multiple layers of influence in everything I do. A taste of fashion influence, a bit of music, a bit of art. I admire unique minds: Steve Jobs, Kanye West, Rog Walker, Nabil Elderkin, minds that innovate in their craft and add a layer of beauty to the world with their influence.

What would you like your work to say about where you’re from?

It’s all up for interpretation. It’s relative to how the kids behind the screen perceive it. When I die what my work will say can mean different things to those who view it depending on the time they’re from. Africa will also be a greater continent by then, so what will that Africa say of me?

I want to always just have the voice and tools needed to touch lives of Africans and everyone. That’s what my work will say: Africa spoke and I was a brand and a creative that helped spread Africa’s voice visually around the world, a mouthpiece for the kids ‘cause I broke every wall that kept us limited in Africa right now.

We’re growing as a continent and we’re breaking obstacles that’ve kept us in poverty and pain for so long. We’ve been suppressed, now it’s our time to change the world. We all see that, Africans are everywhere, they are many things. Africa has so much to say. For so long we’ve stayed in awe of the world and the amazing things humans from around the world have achieved. My work is showing that same thing happening in Africa now.

I’m always grateful to be born in this generation in Africa, the generation pioneering and moving forward. There’s a lot that needs to be documented and shown. My work always needs to be a “receipt” that shows our history is recorded.

You speak about creating paradigm shifts in what people see as ‘African’: How do you feel Africa is currently perceived and how would you like this to change? 

Basquiat’s work spoke a lot about the oppression of the black man and he wasn’t even in Africa. There’s a general way anyone with a black skin is viewed and it’s from a state of oppression. Kanye West compared himself to Steve Jobs and got ridiculed. Why? Because it’s absurd for a black individual to reach a certain height, and it’s worse in Africa. There’s a stigma on our skin that is synonymous with negative things. We’ve not been able to see the incredible potential we have. We’re never given respect because the outside world thinks less of us, and this has broken our spirit.

There’s pain and poverty around but there’s also innovation, beauty, culture and incredible people who, if given a chance can do so much. It hurts as a young creative African born into a third world nation and given access to the world via the internet yet your environment and the outside world won’t let you see your dream come to fruition. As an African it feels like you’re fighting on both ends, to be able to dream in Africa, to be able to speak in the world. Sometimes we still try and beat the odds, creating at the best level but the term ‘African’ always seems to make the outcome less appealing in the eyes of the outside world.

A vision we share at Baroque Age is to rebuild Africa from the ground up. We want to create the structures needed for an innovative future. Baroque Age is contributing in different ways through its different subsidiaries which range from Pith, the fashion house, Euphonic, the music company, Mushroom, the tech company and Jeunesse which is a culture brand. They’re all projecting a message that we too can achieve and create at such a level.

Some of your work deals with depression, specifically depression as experienced by young African creatives: could you please speak more about what you have observed? 

The problem is in Nigeria our culture doesn’t allow us to recognise depression as an illness, it’s not even treated like a problem. That makes it harder on depressed kids here. It’s triggered mostly by the sense of being lost in the world. Africa can sometimes be a bit stagnant and rarely accepts change. We want to do things differently but we have no tools, so first we have to create the tools. We have no stable government and policies, so we have to go through our growth without any stability. We have a lot of other obstacles and it takes a strong heart not to fall deeply into depression, the pain of not being free, free to create, free to innovate and live. Life is a depressing place, humanity and growth gives it beauty. Those that do suffer from depression should be offered more help, they shouldn’t be stigmatised. Let’s help them get rid of their pain so they can go on creating.

How would you describe your generation of Nigerian image-makers? 

We are rebellious and deeply interesting. We are ever-exploring, ever-innovating, always understanding. This generation will take everything.

Follow Thompson on Instagram or visit his website here.

This article is part of a guest column for Hunger TV created by Casimir, an online publication rooted in Africa, igniting adventure, and looking to the future. Follow Casimir on Instagram and Twitter for more.