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A Nigerian artist's COVID soundscape

July 9, 2021

"This too shall pass," a sound installation by Nigeria-born artist Emeka Ogboh in the city of Frankfurt, comments on life during and after the pandemic.

Emeka Ogboh standing in front an art work shown at the Tate Modern in London
Emeka Ogboh creates art for the senses, focusing mostly on immersive soundscapesImage: Philip Toscano/empics/picture alliance

"This too shall pass," is a simple phrase that serves as a brief affirmation of hope during dark and challenging times. While its exact origins are up for debate, the expression has been attributed to different cultures and traditions, ranging from the Persian poet and Sufi mystic Rumi to Native American lore to the New Testament.

But even in modern times, those four words can lend comfort to those in suffering — especially in the midst of a global pandemic. It is in this intercultural spirit that Nigerian artist Emeka Ogboh created his mesmerizing soundscape using this title. The installation, which has been set up in the center of the German financial hub of Frankfurt, deals with the COVID-19 pandemic year 2020.

Römer city hall in Frankfurt am Main
'This too shall pass' travels past some of the most visited tourist spots in Frankfurt, including the Römer city hallImage: Torsten Krüger/imageBROKER/picture alliance

"This too shall pass” has been described as a sound tapestry that travels from Frankfurt's iconic "Römer" city hall across the River Main to the Church of the Three Kings on the South Bank of the river in the festive borough of Sachsenhausen.

The immersive artwork consists of a piece of music composed specifically for the citywide exhibition, and performed and recorded by choirs both in Nigeria's capital Lagos and Frankfurt for the occasion.

The anthem-like choral piece evokes the idea of a new beginning, following in the tradition of countless works of music that have encapsulated themes of revolution, upheaval and radical change throughout the ages. The opening of the sound installation, which runs from July 9 until October 3, however also coincided with the day on which 4 million official COVID deaths were reported globally.

Speakers on stands playing sound pieces from "This Too Shall Pass" in Frankfurt
These speakers are placed strategically across Frankfurt and are embellished with traditional Nigerian fabricsImage: Wolfgang Günzel/Emeka Ogboh

Change as the only constant

Ogboh explains that the aim of the sound installation is to transcend the definitions of spaces that are defined as either secular or sacred. The 44-year-old sound artist says he wants to use sound as a means to push through such definitions and boundaries, creating a cosmopolitan space that is defined by a state of flow — much like the River Main, which runs through the center of Frankfurt.

Skyline of Frankfurt am Main with the River Main at the center of the image
The River Main, which flows through Frankfurt, is now also bridged by Ogboh's sound tapestryImage: Boris Roessler/dpa/picture alliance

In addition to the physical distance between Lagos and Frankfurt, Ogboh seeks to shine light on the perceived distance between people living in these two cultures, focusing on commonalities rather than differences.

Ogboh says his work is designed to reflect on themes of migration and movement of people along with their cultural assets, raising questions of equality, identity and participation in society, while juxtaposing these against the principle of cultural appropriation in a world that is in a constant state of flux.

Portrait of Emeka Ogboh
Migration is one of the recurrent themes in Ogboh's workImage: Uli Deck/dpa/picture alliance

"Everything is transitory, not just the bad things but also the good. Nothing remains as it is," Ogboh says.

He adds that in Nigeria, there is a common saying that is rather similar to the phrase "this too shall pass," from which he also drew inspiration to create this unique work of art: "No condition is permanent," is an "omnipresent" expression used in his native country — and it also seems to be a motto that has been following him in recent years.

In 2018, he created an exhibition using the expression as a title, in which he captured the transformation of the Nigerian capital Lagos over the decades, not realizing at the time that a global pandemic would bring even more change not just to the African continent

Nigerian choir recording passages for the soundscape "This Too Shall Pass"
Choirs in Nigeria also contributed to the multilingual recording of 'This too shall pass'Image: Adolphus Opara/Emeka Ogboh

Meta-references to COVID

His Frankfurt sound exhibition "This too shall pass" is not only a continuation on that theme but is also an extension that explores highly contemporary issues linked to COVID-19.

Ogboh's work presents multiple layers of meaning pertaining to social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic by forcing the audience to be "social" and "distant" at the same time: While the experience is immersive and almost like a sonic treasure hunt through the alleyways of Frankfurt that brings people together in the open air, Ogboh's soundscape also keeps the source of the music deliberately distant from the audience.

Emeka Ogboh photograph in which five people of color are seen in traditional Bavarian clothes holding beer mugs
Cultural appropriation illustrated: Ogboh likes to challenge his audiences to think again about certain double-standardsImage: Emeka Ogbo

You are not in a concert hall or an arena with an audience co-creating the atmosphere of a certain moment. Instead of going to a place to seek music, the music seeks you. And unless you start to sing along publicly, there is nothing participatory about the experience, further highlighting the oxymoronic dimension of the term "social distancing."

And finally, the fact that choral music is at the heart of Ogboh's installation is also a reference to culture in COVID times, as collective singing was often banned during the peak of the pandemic due to the potential spreading of aerosols.

Art for the senses

Emeka Ogboh uses songs, music, white noise, speeches, utterances and much more to create various layers of perception; his work has been described as "sensual," allowing audiences to get to experience their own vulnerability.

And public spaces, as is the case in the Frankfurt show, play a big part in Ogboh's work: His aim is also to explore the meaning of public versus private, and to — once again — tear down perceived boundaries and distances in the minds of people.

But Ogboh also reaches beyond abstract concepts defining what is and what isn't public. For instance, he has been an outspoken advocate of the return of African artifacts from European museums that were taken during colonial times, such as the Benin bronzes held in Germany. 

Nigerian tapestries seen hanging in the Dreikönigskirche in Frankfurt's Sachsenhausen borough
Nigerian fabrics adorn the Dreikönigskirche as Ogboh seeks to break the boundaries between sacred and secular spacesImage: Wolfgang Günzel/Emeka Ogboh

The artist has participated in numerous international exhibitions, including the Venice Biennale and Documenta 14, which was held in Athens and Kassel. He splits his time between Lagos and Berlin, referring to both cities as his homes.

Emeka Ogboh's installation "This too shall pass" is co-sponsored by Deutsche Bank and was commissioned by the EKHN Foundation (the Lutheran Church in the dioceses of Hesse and Nassau), and was curated and realized by the Euphoria Gesellschaft für Kunst im urbanen Raum and is also supported by the Alfred Herrhausen Society. 

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