Every city has its own sounds, its distinct murmur and roar of voices and traffic. At the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art in Washington, DC, you can submerge in the soundscape of an open-air market in Lagos through Nigerian artist Emeka Ogboh’s Market Symphony.
The installation in the small gallery is visually simple, with enamelware trays adorned with fish, flowers, fruit, and 28 speakers lining the walls. Depending on where you stand, the rhythmic yelling of a hawker rises above the horns and shuffle of feet, or quieter discussions between shoppers emerge from the whoosh of buses or metallic noises of traders’ bells. Ogboh sampled hours of sounds from the Lagos markets, mostly in the large Balogun market that crosses numerous streets in the city with a lively flow of vendors selling cloth, food, produce, and other wares. There’s a small photograph of the market on the wall text, but otherwise the whole perception of the market is auditory. When you close your eyes — even if the air around you remains still, the museum carpet below your feet unchanged — it really feels as if you’re right in the center of the market.
Market Symphony is the first sound art commissioned and exhibited by the museum. The installation is more personal and less political than some of Ogboh’s previous work, such as his The Song of the Germans (Deutschlandlied) at the 2015 Venice Biennale in which African refugees sang the German national anthem in their first languages, their voices aching with loss. Market Symphony feels almost like a phantom memory of home, with Ogboh now mostly living and working in Berlin.
Our minds might not be able to cobble together a complete sonic experience of the places where we once lived, but the minute we hear them again, it’s like they were always lodged in our brains. Market Symphony, for most visitors, will be an experience in an unfamiliar place, with its sounds that can seem like total chaos. Yet after a few moments in the room, the diverse character of the sound emerges, and you find your place as a listener amidst the clamor.
Emeka Ogboh’s Market Symphony continues at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art (950 Independence Avenue SW, Washington, DC) through September 24.