Emeka Ogboh's beer inspired by experiences of African migrants in Europe has been nominated for Designs of the Year.
The Reinheitsgebot, which in Germany stipulates that beer can only contain water, barley, yeast, and hops, is a norm. “There’s also a very clear connection between norms and fortresses. So a norm is a fortress, in a way, because it keeps certain people and things in and leaves certain things out”, explains curator Bonaventure Ndikung on the Sufferhead beer website.
Sufferhead beer is a project by artist Emeka Ogboh, who brewed 50,000 bottles for documenta 14 in Kassel. The beer is inspired by the experiences of African migrants in Europe, and has also been nominated for the 2017 Beazley Designs of the Year award.
The Berlin-based Nigerian first aired the concept in a 2015 video work commissioned by Ludlow 38, a Goethe-Institut-funded project space in New York. Shot as part mockumentary, part-infomercial, it depicts a near future in which green and brown bottles of bland lager have been completely superseded by the exotic black-bottled Sufferhead, whose name is taken from a Fela Kuti song about the 1980s economic and political situation that resulted in mass Nigerian emigration.
A craft beer enthusiast, Ogboh then brewed a first batch of the beer based on data obtained from interviewing Africans living in Germany. Topics that included migration, assimilation, and multiculturalism were matched with beer characteristics such as appearance, strength, feel, and flavour, to guide the composition of the recipe. Chilli is also added because of the widely held opinion in Africa that European food is too bland. It is intended to taste like home to African migrants.
Each time the beer is brewed, it adapts to its surroundings. For documenta 14, Ogboh determined that most Africans in Kassel are from Somalia, Eritrea, and Ethiopia. Distinctive flavours from this sub-Saharan region include coffee as well as a particular honey-wine flavoured with leaves and stems from the gesho plant. A combination of hops, roasted malts, chilli, and summer honey was brewed in collaboration with craftBEE especially to emulate the sub-Saharan flavours.
Beyond just the beer, the billboards, video commercials, and a radio jingle also play-on racial stereotypes with slogans like “once you go black, you never go back”. That this pseudo-marketing campaign can be so easily assimilated into the mass media is uncanny, given the questions it raises about racial purity and the politics of migration. The convincing design may have to do with Ogboh’s graphic design training and has not gone unnoticed by the Design Museum London, which nominated Sufferhead for its Designs of the Year awards.
“Sufferhead beer is subversive”, Ndikung delights in saying. “It finds its way around things. Even in the toughest market, in the most difficult spaces, it was able to find a space and hustle its way in.”