Emeka Udemba

In Urban Scénos Johannesburg

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Mobile space project

As a parallel with Lagos (where he comes from) and in direct response to what Udemba perceived to be the most impressive and disturbing realities of the neighbourhood, Udemba constructed three mobile stalls, using umbrellas and a supporting structure, which he would take to the streets at different hours, selling a range of products and goods, such as (fake) guns, T-shirts that said ‘No, I Can’ and private space for sexual favours (not by him, but someone who needed private space). The guns were the most popular product and instigated passionate discussions and requests.

Emeka Udemba / Mobile space project / Johannesburg 2009 from Urban Scénos on Vimeo.

Emeka sort dans la rue avec son stand, un parasol sur roulettes. Il y a, suspendues dans des sacs plastiques, des armes, très bien imitées. L’attroupement est immédiat, virulent. En fait, la plupart des gens veulent en acheter une, jusque à ce qu’ils se rendent compte que c’est une performance d’artiste. Déception. Peu s’interrogent sur la nature du stand. C’est la surprise de cette performance, la principale réaction est que les gens veulent acheter un révolver.


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Emeka Udemba, MOBILE SPACES, Urban Scenography, Johannesburg, 2009 :

It became a routine waking up in the early hours of the mornings and peeing through the metal burglar protector grid of the library window of the Drill Hall, into the De Villers Street. The library of the Drill Hall was converted to a temporary accommodation space for me during the 2 week Urban Scenography project in Johannesburg. From around 4.30 am, one can literally observe how the Johannesburg inner city gradually comes to life. The first commuters trickle out and queue in lines, waiting to board the mini taxi buses that are being washed and cleaned before commencing the usual daily hectic business.
Regardless of their infamous reputation as being uncultured and unrepentant reckless drivers, it is fascinating to observe Johannesburg taxi drivers and the taxi washmen as they meticulously clean their taxis. This is the first time I saw the tires of taxis buses being brushed and shined with black polish. The idea they say is to make their taxis attractive to commuters. In Lagos commuters would be very content if the yellow painted rickety taxi buses with worn out tires get them to their destination.
 Some of these visual scenes reminded me of my home city, Lagos; a city that is very similar to Johannesburg. The same rules of survival apply here, only the degree varies.

What Lagos is for the West African sub region is Johannesburg for the South African sub region. Johannesburg attracts a constant stream of migrants from neighbouring towns and countries in search of jobs and opportunities. But the reality unfortunately is that there are neither enough jobs nor endless opportunities. Instead of jobs, there is mass unemployment. Instead of living in comfortable apartments with functional modern amenities, masses live in slums. Some squat in over crowded rooms, while some people sleep on the streets.
The consequence of this form of African urbanism is an extraordinary social, environmental and economic tension. Like the major streets in Lagos, the streets around the Drill Hall are congested with hawkers, taxis and pedestrians. The constant traffic hold-up becomes a big roaming market. In an environment where government is unable to provide jobs and amenities, people develop small informal business networks, allowing them to survive and profit.
The security situation in down town Johannesburg is a challenge. Noise of gun shots or the wailing of the police siren seems almost part of the usual urban acoustic vibe. Taking a walk along the streets after 7pm is almost an open invitation to be mugged.

Reflecting on the curatorial frame of the Johannesburg Urban Scenography, (the vicinity of the Drill Hall as a Stage, a Play ground, a Market place and a Battle field), I was interested in looking at Johannesburg as one big market and battle field.
In the context of searching and developing a survival strategy within the Drill Hall, my project, the MOBILE SPACES, reflected on the constant flexible negotiation of space for all kinds of informal commercial activity, with crime scenes, robbery, drugs, sex, despair, accidents, misfortune and other transgressions.
Recognizing the vicinity of the Drill hall as a living organic space, The MOBILE SPACE project was made up of three modules; DEATH, SEX, HOPE.
Each module consisted of a metal construction reminiscent of a tripod with wheels and a spanned umbrella attached on top.

The first module, (Death); attached and hanging down from the umbrella are six plastic guns that were very similar to real guns. Each of the guns was wrapped in transparent plastic.

The second module, (Hope); two sets of red and black t-shirts hung on the umbrella. Printed on one set were the words, “YES I CAN”. On the other set were the words “YES I CAN’T”.

The third module, (sex); consisted of cubicle like construct with transparent shower curtain. The curtain attached on the umbrella created a circular enclosure. On the shower curtain blind where drawings rendered with red ink. It also had the words, “CONDOMISE”, “TAKE A SHOWER”, “NO CREDIT TODAY, “COME TOMORROW”, and “CASH ONLY” inscribed on it.

Like products involved in a market survey, each module visualises and initiates links with the space and the people within the space. How would prospective customers and potential buyers react to these products and proposals? Which of these products would bring maximal profit within the shortest period?
It was exciting to experience how pedestrians responded differently to these three modules as they were pushed simultaneously on the busy streets around the Drill Hall.
The DEATH module with the guns was undoubtedly the ultimate sensation. People swarmed around it. The tension that it created was palpable. They wanted to know if they were actual real guns, how much it cost, if I sell the guns with the corresponding bullets, if I had more guns in stock, if they needed a police permit to use the guns? Some were lamenting that they did not have enough cash on them to buy one immediately. Could they come back tomorrow to buy one? Was I going to be at the same spot tomorrow? Some wanted my business card or my telephone number so that they can contact me later.
 Some police officers who were patrolling the vicinity of the Drill Hall were also interested. First I thought, shit, I am going to be in deep trouble. But I was dead wrong; after closely scrutinizing the guns they were just very disappointed it was not the real thing.
An interacting and engaging piece, the MOBILE SPACES seems to give reason to a common aspiration in down town Johannesburg: Survival.


Emeka Udemba


Artiste plasticien / visual artist