Tina McCallan headed up to Castellon to see Ana R. Leiva’s exhibition, “Osama, the King”, a photography and sound project about Osama, a Nigerian migrant, and his mud-built kingdom in Valencia; Leiva captures him as he physically builds the walls of the imaginary kingdom that exists in his mind..
This is a powerful, personal-turned-social project that raises many questions about power, mental health, borders, territory, migration and expression. His kingdom is not just his house, it is himself, his culture, his identity and his art. It is also published as a photobook by Tapas Duras, 2019.
How did you come across Osama?
I was cycling in Campanar on 1 November 2018 as I wanted to take pictures of cemeteries on All Souls Day when I noticed some mud buildings in the distance and recognised them from my time in Africa.
I was intrigued and I had my camera, so I approached them and shouted out “Hello, Salem Alaikum” and a man came out. His name was Osama and the house, which was made of mud, seemed to be in a state of construction but he was actually living there.
We communicated intuitively with sign language, a bit of English and Spanish. He invited me to sit down and contemplate the landscape; he told me he was growing corn in the garden of his neighbours, and he made me feel comfortable to take photos.
The title of the exhibition is “Osama, the King”, was he really a king?
He told me he was born a king in his own village, it’s likely to be true as it’s very normal in Africa, to be born a king. He was happy to tell me his story. As well as building his house, he drew on panels, made objects and had a diary in which he used to write everything in his own invented language.
When I asked him to read what was written on the panels he said: “I was born in a country called ‘Agbadé’ and now here, I have my kingdom.” I discovered there was a relationship between the invented language and English phonetics eg, KEE is king and QQTE, is country. He also drew a naïve-looking army with guns, and coins with his face on. For him, everything had its own reality rather than being a representation of something. He made thousands of mud balls which he called “Balls of Power”.
As you are talking, it makes me think of the artists that Dubuffet coined, “Outsider artists” or “Art Brut” (Raw Art), ie, untrained artists who compulsively make art or buildings out of concrete, shells or bottles. Did he have any mental issues?
I never thought he had mental issues until they took him.
Until they took him! What happened?
Some of the neighbours didn’t really approve of the fact that he was there and he had already been there for a year before I met him. They were afraid, so there were probably complaints. It was a long process, and I knew that social services were involved. They had offered him a place to live but he didn’t want to live in a real house, he was proud and happy with his kingdom and wanted to live in his mud house.
So, when he rejected their offer, they put him in a mental hospital?
Yes, they considered him to be a schizophrenic, living in another reality.
Did you think he was a schizophrenic?
I don’t know, all I know are the facts. When he was living by himself, you could see a happy person, with good body language and energy, he could look into your eyes when talking, but when he started psychiatric treatment, this all disappeared.
How did you find out he had been taken?
I went to the printers to pick up some of the images I had decided to produce and they said these are the houses that the police pulled down. There had been an article in the newspaper that day. I was shocked, I went immediately to the site but there was nothing left, it had all been demolished and he was gone.
You must have been so shocked.
Yes, I was but he was even more shocked. I searched all the hospitals in Valencia until I found him, he didn’t know they had pulled down the buildings so when I told him, he went into shock. This was July 2019. He just couldn’t understand why.
Where is he now?
After the hospital, he was moved to a psychiatric residence and about a month ago, they moved him to a flat with a social worker as he has no family here. The government is now his guardian and thankfully, now he seems happier.
Is he having psychiatric help? Is he drawing and painting?
Yes and no. While he was in the residence, I bought him materials, but he never painted. In the flat he told me he was starting to paint. Now, he is attending classes, he has a structure, his art is much more regular.
How did he arrive here?
He doesn’t like talking about his past, and I respect that, but I know a few things as he trusts me. He came 15 or 20 years ago to find a job. He has a brother in Seville who I am also in touch with. For me, the most important thing about this project are all the questions it invites you to reflect on.
As we have already said, you recognised the adobe mud buildings from your time in Africa. Tell me about your experience of travelling there.
The first time, 1996, I went with a friend and lived there for a year, in West Africa. Then I travelled alone, I felt very comfortable there.
You’ve made “Osama, the King” into a photo book. Have you made any others?
I have some published books, by others or by myself. Tapas Duras is the name of a photo-project collective I belong to, including photo book design and publishing. The second edition of “Osama, the King”, was made by Tapas Duras.
“Adduna” is the name of my project born from my trips to Africa, published as a result of a prize by Fundación Cañada Blanch and Club Diario Levante, in 1999. With this trip, I became fascinated by the African culture, mainly its animist religion.
How do you feel about the outcome, are you happy with it or do you think they should have left him alone?
If it were me, I would have left him alone, but it’s difficult to be objective to say what’s best for him. He was very exposed where he was living, but on the other hand, he was a free agent and now he’s dependent on the state.
Let’s look a little closer at the pictures, the first one is Osama clutching his diary.
For me, in this picture, he seems to look like a prophet, he looks so proud.
This one with the houses, I didn’t realise they were so big!
It was a complex, the writings outside were incredible, they were moulded. It’s a huge piece of work, the neighbours said he used to wake up very early to start building. It was a labyrinth, some parts had roofs, others didn’t.
In the photos he is often covered in mud.
Yes, it made me think of Dubuffet too. When he talks about Art Brut, he says the perfect piece of art is only made of mud. For Osama, the earth and mud were full of meaning. One day he told me about the power he gets from his ancestors, directly from the earth, so him building with it means he is communicating directly with them.
Tell me about this photo with the billboard.
Not long after the site was destroyed, I went back as I felt like the “guardian of his kingdom”. One day, I saw an empty billboard in the spot where his house was, and besides that an advert by Engel and Volkers. I phoned the agency and asked them how much it would cost to advertise on it.
My idea was to give back the kingdom to its place in photographic form and then to take him to see it, and with this gesture, give him back some dignity. At this time, he was feeling very disoriented, he had no papers, no house, no identity, so I thought it would help.
I knew it would be expensive but the woman who answered my call was so fascinated by the story that she gave me a discount. A few days later, the coronavirus arrived, and we went into lockdown, so the photo and billboard are still there one year later!
Since the demolition of the kingdom and the billboard, how has the project developed?
Since then, I go back from time to time to the place, and still discover some of his writings and some objects in the earth. Here, I have the second part of the project: searching for the footprints of the kingdom, so I go to dig and collect treasure and testimonies. I exhibit them as photos and physical objects with the idea of making an archaeological archive.
You have an exhibition of the project now on at the La Llotja del Cànem in Castellon. What was the function of the audio in your exhibition?
Working on the testimonial part I started visiting the place with a tape recorder to hear how people reacted to the billboard. The police were astonished by the billboard asking themselves: “Why is there a picture of the house we destroyed?” Around 90% of people didn’t understand why they destroyed it, they were fascinated. Some said it was OK but not the right place, and two of them said he was a little aggressive, taking water from the farmers without paying them.
This is such an incredible project which raises a lot of questions about immigration, power, control, philosophy, public space, religion. What are the next steps?
Well, as now he is in the flat and relatively secure and cared for, I want to follow his development, especially his artistic expression. I want to take the artistic practise of walking with him and go somewhere near a riverside and invite him to build again. The contact with the mud is important to him. Another aspect is to get him a passport. He is obsessed with leaving his fingerprint. Unfortunately, the bureaucracy of the Nigerian embassy is unbelievable.
The project has two parts, social and artistic. How is he doing now?
Sometimes, he says he would like to go back to Africa, but lately he seems happier, he said: “After this I will be free, won’t I?” so obviously part of him would like to live as he used to. He is on medication. I asked him recently: “On the day you are free, what will you do? He said: “I want to stay in Valencia and get a job.”
You mentioned that you are making a children’s book.
Another part of the project is that I would like to take this project to the schools, as it raises really important questions about home and migration. I am collaborating with Ivan Araujo who is doing the illustrations and we have made a children’s book with an adaptation of the story. The book starts in Africa, where he is a king, his mother is a queen, he learns from his father how to build mud houses and we follow his story to Valencia.
Has Osama ever seen the photos?
Yes, the photos were exhibited in Patraix, Valencia, he came and was so happy. He isn’t very expressive but he said he felt happiness and pride. It was a great day!
Thanks Ana, and it’s such an incredible story and project.
Osama the King, Ana R. Leiva, La Llotja del Cànem, in Calle Colón, 22 – Castellon de la Plana until 17 April 2021. The photo book is now sold out but a new edition is planned, please contact Ana R. Leiva at email@example.com to be put on the waiting list; www.anarleiva.com; illustrator Ivan Araujo, www.ivanaraujo.com
More Photographs on our Flickr page