It is the crack formed between feeling and thought, reflection and recollection.
It is the flash of memory I have of an evening as a little boy when there was no electricity, a lantern aglow on the dining table, and I was having a meal of beans. It is the realization that if my writing until now could be downsized to a crucible it would be of that lantern, that meal. Every notion I entertain of desire and loss, memory and prophecy, comes from being in a room so suffused with absence I remember being enshrouded by shadows.
It is the search for a “controlling image,” the axle on which meaning might turn. “The controlling image is useful, because it determines the language that informs the text,” said Toni Morrison in a 1987 interview. “Once I have the controlling image, which can also work as the metaphor—that is where the information lodges. When I know where the white space is, when I know where the broad strokes are.”
We took fine art classes in primary school, and I was terrible at drawing. I would excel at handwriting exercises, and years later in boarding school became a choice junior boy when senior students wanted to bring their notes up to date. I remember being flogged for both my poor sketches—a cow that looked like a goat, a bird with uneven wings—and for my refusal to copy out notes for a senior student. My anxieties today seem to be a holdover from those punishments. Why is the image sometimes difficult to conjure on the page? How do I keep the text cool and disaffected, yet free and exuberant? How do I write free from the compulsion of others, staking my own claims?
I first thought of the title “Sum of Encounters” when Ingrid Schaffner invited me to write a “travelogue” for this year’s Carnegie International. My friend, the artist Elka Krajewska, had recommended me to an editor who passed on my work to Ingrid.
Of Elka, I had written:
“A man. In Mongolia he sits alone in a tent. Elka goes in to sit with him. Outside, several feet away, she’d been told of his insanity. Not the man he was before, they said to her, but he’s been like this for a long time.
There is a cupboard, ajar when she enters. Within its shelves are empty tins, ashtrays unused for years, an eagle’s feather, a syringe, a jaded toortsog hat, a photo album. She says nothing, letting him speak, until spittle fills the corners of his lips, glistening like a newborn’s. She is silent although she understands no word in Mongolian. She is a Polish woman who knew nothing of the nomadic tribes of Mongolia and sought them in their desert tents. To make sense of things. As her feet wouldn’t keep still.
Presently the man speaks to Elka. He thumbs through the photo album. His excitement falters when he points out who’s who in the pictures. Mostly himself in a group, wearing military fatigues. Mostly groups of men. His buddies and co-fighters, deceased or unaccounted for, men reduced to flashes of memory. He was younger and wild-eyed. Now, despite his animated gestures, there is an unmistakable indication in his glances that time, in his world, has accreted slowly.
Where’s the future in nostalgia? A man gets tired, living in years of slow time. As if he has stayed so fixed to the past it has become interminable, eclipsing the present, guaranteeing no future.
He gets to the last picture in the album, wets a finger, and continues. Empty page after empty page, a tableau vivant of missing photographs. At this point, Elka remembers, he begins to cry. Fits of sneezing accompany his weeping. His is a broken sound: his voice like ceramic, shattering.”
What you know of Elka and me, equals, perhaps, what you know about the Mongolian man. The sum of our encounters is a triad: Elka met the man, I met Elka, and you meet me on the page.
When in July 1880 he introduced the theorems that inform what is known today as the Venn Diagram, John Venn was casting about for a “new scheme of diagrammatic representation…competent to indicate imperfect knowledge…” How could he indicate all the possible ways in which two, or three terms might stand in relation to one another? How could he make a logical proposition interlink with another, so that no one of them is disentangled and represented separately?
In his essay “On the Diagrammatic and Mechanical Representation of Propositions and Reasonings,” Venn wrote: “When I say that all X is Y, I simply do not know, in many cases, whether the class X comprises the whole of Y, or only a part of it. And even when I know how the facts are, I may not intend to be explicit, but may purposefully wish to leave this point uncertain.”
What does an artwork reveal about an artist, but only in part? What do artists, in making a life from day to day, reveal about their art, but only in part? How do I find a way between these two mysteries, lugging, inevitably, the weighted sack of my own life?
Anne Michaels writes, in Infinite Gradation, of Eva Hesse: “When we consider the details of an artist’s life in relation to her art, it must not be with the presumption of solving a mystery, but in order to place one mystery next to another. Comparison is a blunt instrument, connection is not. Biography is an iceberg; a life is mostly submerged beyond our knowing.”
A Sum of Encounters fits, I hope, in a tradition of literature and criticism amply described as Nigerian. I mean “Nigerian” in the sense of the civilization that has formed me. I want to listen to artists teach me how to understand events and their causes. I want to consider, in the images they proffer, “the reciprocal tension between past and future,” as David Levi Strauss writes of Ursula von Rydingsvard.
There are varying reasons why I chose the artists I’ll write about—their dazzling artworks, my proximity to them, our friendship, their relevance in art history, etc. I deem all those justifications as subjective, even a little simplistic. I am most interested in recording facsimiles of our encounters, paid passage to a world of greater clarity. ︎
1I consider what he tells me of his parents. Around the time we speak, he has returned to Berlin after spending two weeks with them in Lagos. They are over ninety, and he has just turned seventy. Those weeks felt like going back to the time of his birth in Oxford, in 1946, where, he says, “even though I wasn’t aware of things, we were a close-knit group of three human spirits.” He speaks about them this way—“their long-term memory is very sharp…they can remember things from those days”—to illustrate a point about the futility of presenting a biography in linear fashion, how stories from the past can swing into the present like improvised chord progressions. “I prefer the narrative to be very much like jazz,” he adds.
paraphrase something attributed to John Coltrane, who says to Wayne Shorter, as
they slam out clusters of notes on the piano: “See about starting a sentence in
the middle, and then go to the beginning and the end of it at the same time,
both directions at once.” I want to imagine that in the region where the
photographer’s life and mine intersects, we come from both directions at once;
life lived up until that moment, and life to be lived from then on. “I prefer
starting from the beginning, the end, back to the middle, back to two-thirds,
and so on,” he says to me. His unintentional affirmation of Coltrane’s ideas
makes me giddy.
could be that I am impatient. I ask him a tendentious question that frames his
answer: When we are asked to say who we are or to tell our stories, we often
move in a linear direction from point A to point B. I am interested in the
definitive moments of your life, less linear. How would you sum up your
experiences, your travels, so far?
up.” Could he? Are we our truest selves when considered in light of others? I
am beside him on a street in Bariga; I am with him in Emeka Okereke’s house in
Bariga; I am with him in a car en route to Osogbo; I am speaking with him on
phone for two hours. I don’t know what he thinks of me, but I know what I feel.
Later, I’ll write of how I spoke to him as one would to a grandparent, or a
fortune-teller, hoping that the prescient insights with which he responded
would subsequently inform the trajectory of my life. Those sentiments now
appear to me a little suspect. Is this what I think? Is this what I demand from
him? Is this what I hope for through him?
is a photographer. At the outset he wanted to become a writer.
says, “to look at one image I always say you need about a year.”
see how far wide the margin of meaning gets I choose to reflect on one
photograph in this essay. This might seem counterintuitive to what might be
best for his work—a monographic and retrospective evaluation of the several
hundred photographs he has taken since the 1970s. How to linger on the surface
of one image until it divulges sentiments of epochal proportions, however? It
is not one in place of many, but one as many.
8It’s a photograph from 2008, taken in Victoria Island, Lagos. On the first day I look at it I take note of what it records. A signpost; a car; a man and woman walking; a fence; a high-rise building stretches out of the frame; most shutters of its windows are open.
9To take the photograph he has walked, I sense, for few kilometers. Half the time during his ambulation he is not taking pictures. He is, as he says, taking part in an urban phenomenon. I cannot drive, so I really like to walk, he continues to say. “I find walking the best way of navigating urban spaces. From time to time, I try to make photographs.” Suppose the medium of photography is defined only in terms of a photographer’s roving eye, the frames per second of unrecorded experience. Much has been said about how street photographers are responsive to instinct, mastering premonition like second sight. In his case, in addition, it is important to emphasize a peculiar ethos. That he is a photographer who returns to the megacities his photographs emerge from, as if to rework and update his assumptions about place.
10He has taken several photographs in Johannesburg. The next time he’s there, would he be interested in visiting with one of my favorite writers, Ivan Vladislavić? The two men could take a walk in any overpopulated neighborhood, where people scurry about like ants on a veld. If I were to write an introductory email, I might be required to convince the men of their shared intellectual interests. To Ivan I’ll quote what Akinbode says to me in our conversation: “What I’m doing is observing, taking part in this urban phenomenon and trying to record documents. It is a kind of fine sensibility of understanding the passageways within the city.” To Akinbode I’ll quote a sentence from Ivan’s Portrait with Keys: The City of Johannesburg Unlocked: “I’m walking around with my eyes open, taking everything in like a vacuum cleaner, coughing bits of it out on paper.” I hope, I’ll write in my email, that you could begin your conversation by considering that the facts unavailable to the writer might be assuaged by the documents recorded by the photographer.
11Recall his interest as a young man in becoming a writer, for which he read as widely as possible. Is this desire carried through in his work as a photographer? (I have once recalled Gustave Flaubert’s unfinished novel while thinking of him. It is said that while writing Bouvard and Pécuchet, the French writer read up to one thousand and five hundred books, so he might get his characters to try—both of them failing—to apply that learning to their lives.)
12The city as an unfinished novel.
13When a photographer has worked with the same medium format camera for several decades, the camera is not so much a device that takes pictures of what is visible, but one through which a photographer learns what is peculiar about a place when he trains his eye on it. I make this proposition in response to his famous use of a Rollei twin reflex camera.
14Or perhaps it is that when a photographer has used a camera for that long he understands his special relationship with the world, as if the rays of light cast on his eye refracts in a unique manner. Think about this. When we look at our surroundings, while walking on a sidewalk for instance, does it occur to us that perhaps we append meaning to things in a way someone else, walking down that same street, wouldn’t? It is like two people reading the same book, imbibing its ideas in the same sequence. Would they raise their head in miscomprehension at the same phrase, or revel in the beauty of a certain sentence? Several decades later, the photographer is able to find a through line, a method to unite eye and heart.
15Only once have I walked on a street with him, in Lagos. When he took photographs that afternoon it seemed as commonplace and expected as our walking had been. Perhaps this was the guile, the method. Stay long enough in a place until its hesitations fold back in, in the manner of an unsuspecting touch-me-not flower. In April 2013, he says to Miriam Daepp: “I move very slowly and gently, I try not to invade other people’s spaces, while at the same time trying to take images. It is a sort of dance, a negotiation, meandering—a very sensitive way of moving through all kinds of spaces.”
16He titles a recent sequence of photographs like this: Passageways, Involuntary Narratives, and the Sound of Crowded Spaces.
17I look for the second time at his photograph from 2008, taken in Victoria Island: I am without doubt influenced by how it has been formatted in the issue of Chimurenga Chronic where it is published. It is larger than any of the other seven photographs included, covering three-quarters of the A2 newsprint. I try to imagine how he took it. “URGENT PHOTO HERE.” He stands as close to the signpost as possible, realizing that, framed properly, the declarative statement could say more than intended. Now that the signpost commands his attention, he looks up at the fenced building. That, too, with its seeming omnipresence, is necessary for the picture. He waits, hoping for someone with the right order of strides. He finds her. The woman in the photograph is pictured equidistant to the edge of the frame and the oncoming car.
18It is impossible for a touch-me-not flower to hold back from folding when exposed to touch. But it is possible for the flower to stay still when there is a variation in light or temperature. A city is of similar tactility, sensitive to the point of recoil, but could be, on occasion, in repose.
19I write to Anna, my friend in Berlin. Could you tell me, I say, since you know him better than I do, how you esteem him? He is, she writes, a “walking poet with a shutter release. He is a photographer with a kind eye for the seemingly banal, the allegedly ordinary…Avoiding the pitfalls of being didactic, engaging with his ‘Involuntary Narratives’ teaches us, and certainly me, the most valuable lessons about our being together: all knowledge and understanding of theory and critical thought is useless without true compassion and kindness.”
20I nod to Mimi Chereno N’gok, Aida Muluneh, Adeola Olagunju, Rahima Gambo, and every photographer who has attributed something of their maturity as artists to his kind eye. We may now think of him as a photographer’s photographer.
21Keep in mind that if Lagos does become the most populated city in the world, as it appears destined to become, there is no telling how the attempt to come to terms with it—photograph it, write about it, make policies for it—would be inflected on by whim. A small ache on the back; the slight gouge on the table from which an idea was teased out. Imagine, then, an exercise in which we describe Lagos without recourse to metaphor, using literal, concrete words. What would happen, and you can try, is that those descriptions, even if they begin with what is apparent, would slip almost immediately into the less concrete, infused with sentiment and memory. It is so on the third day of looking at his photograph from 2008, taken on a street in Victoria Island. And as it turns out, I have said much of what is possible to be said about the activity in the photograph. (To reiterate: two pedestrians walking on a sidewalk, just as a car approaches, with a fenced, shuttered building opposite them, and a signpost closer to the edge of the frame than either of them.) Does the photograph describe the urgent, speedy unraveling of life in Lagos? Does it depict distinct, individual lives unfolding against the concrete and steel of a city? Does it sublimate the city as poetry?
22The day before I completed a draft of these considerations, writing from New York City, I went to a Japanese café on 29th street to read and take notes. While doing so I kept thinking of my essay-in-progress; not the ideas in them per se, but the fact that I didn’t have my laptop with me, and so could not glance, as often as I wanted, while reading and taking notes, at what was so far written. I had the image of a sprawling piece of text in need of a rampart. But it was, in the most important sense, a thought about proximity, how close we need to be to the subject that occupies our thoughts. At the beginning of our conversation I wanted to know if it was an accurate assessment to consider him a Nigerian photographer, considering that he’s lived outside the country, and indeed the continent, for most of his life. “I see myself very much as a Nigerian photographer,” he begins to say, “a photographer who works within West Africa, but also on the African continent. But I understand, even more as I get older, the European ways of thinking or doing things, specifically because I grew up in Britain…France, Holland, Belgium. After a while it dissolves into one. I more or less know how to move through all these countries.”
23I write to ask for his blessing for this unconventional approach (is it, really?) to his work. He replies: “I cannot as such give you a ‘blessing,’ as this I perceive as a higher form of grace, given by a higher being to one below it in power and radiance. Since we are both human beings, or at least strive to be such, we cannot then give each other our blessing.” Thinking it over, I am convinced that he has taught himself to recoil from any flaunt of ego, any suggestion that he is larger than life. So humbled is he, it appears, by the bustle of life, by the bustling life of others. In most emails he writes to me, he appends a final wish, purposeful as a benediction. “Go very well Emmanuel.”
24The last sentence is yours. Dear reader, go very well. ︎
Between August 2016 and January 2017, I recorded two conversations with Akinbode Akinbiyi, reproduced in an interview published in Chimurenga Chronic. This Encounter revisits those conversations, adjusting the frame.
Photograph courtesy Akinbode Akinbiyi.
Imagine this text as a bouquet. Imagine that I place it in her hands after a performance.
She performs thrice in the course of an hour, in sequence, without pause. She sits on a high stool beside the stage, reading a story of itinerant ghosts in a Nigerian hinterland. On the stage a young girl is pacing, back and forth, back, and forth, holding a lamp—switching it on, and off, on and off. Afterimages fall from my eye. The light at once obscures and illumines the field of my vision. The entire theater, like a bad camera obscura, forms flitting images of the dancer and the girl. In each sequence, she stands from her reading stool and walks behind the young girl. Behind the young girl there is a barricade made from fabric, translucent bags. When she walks behind the barricade, her body, in the fierce redness of bright light, becomes amorphous. Her body takes no shape, and yet I can see it transform from shape to shape. Sometimes it seems like water overflowing its banks, as though she is tempestuous sea. Sometimes she becomes a snake, crawling on her belly. Sometimes her arms, suddenly visible, flays in protest, as if struggling to breathe when dumped in drowning sea. Sometimes her body tumbles like the wave of a giant blanket, covering my entire frame of sight—momentary blindness from too much light.
I first watched Okwui perform in downtown Brooklyn, an early version of Poor People’s TV. All these years later, what has returned my sight, these words, to me?
Words brash and insolent, sentences reposed or disquieted, they stay with me. I long for language not as comfort, not even as discomfort. A kind of home. The same way a traveling troubadour is content with walls made of translucent fabric. Words always make their way back. No etymology can say for certain all that a word testifies to, what journeys it has undertaken. To write a sentence in which this truth is revealed, a sentence that allows each part of the whole to do its fragmented work, as gestures are to a choreographer. The individual words then stumble into each other with something of a conflict to resolve, a hunch to test. Whether they agree or disagree is inconsequential. Imagine words fumbling for keys: they enter into the home of the sentence only to escape soon after, triggered by the memory of watching her perform. The words are often without shelter. They seek a home.
It’s St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Westchester Square, East Bronx. In the delirium of possibility for what’s to come, my mind’s eye conceives of the steeple on the same plane as the crosses on the graves beside the church. Meaning is low hanging and within reach. Okwui had invited me, and my first feeling in the gothic-styled cathedral is of being recognized, undergirded by kinship to her, however distant our affinity. The audience has gathered in an anteroom, which is too small for us to mill about, only wait. I confuse elation with expectation. I would only know later why the sentiments are mismatched, just when I enter the auditorium. Already, her body is in view. Bronx Gothic has begun: She is seen from behind, wearing a gown with thin straps. Her movement is of a sort that is intense, vigorous, quaky, a tremble, a rapture, small moans escaping her lips. The crowd settles into silence, as if cautioned by her vigor. This is the mix of feeling I’d had, eager for all, but in doubt of the measure I’ll see. She turns to us. The rest of the evening she invokes voices from the past: Two little girls in dialogue about their bodies, about the fate of self in a world of assaults and racism, a world lacking in tender love. She makes me want to cry for all the bodies I cannot inhabit, for the first time I caused pain to a woman, being born. It is in how she looks at me, at all of us. Everyone has lived in the body of a woman, but men forget too easily. In the years since that final presentation of Bronx Gothic I have wondered about the manner of her glance while she performed. I have wondered—and this might sound preposterous—what to do with that glance. Return it? Under what circumstances and in what guise? To who?
I’ll stretch the lining of the present. Just as the soldier who, as Andrei Tarkovsky recounts, is walking around in circles. He and others are about to be shot for treason in front of the ranks, by a hospital wall. They have been ordered to take off their coats and boots. But the ground is full of puddles. So the condemned man spends a long time looking for a dry place to put down his coat and boots, wearing socks full of holes—coats and boots he would have no need for a few minutes later. Like this man I intend to honor what outlives a moment.
I recall my first conversation with Okwui, after Judy Hussie-Taylor—who wrote, “You share Nigeria”—put us in touch. “The words that mean the most to me now,” I said to her, “is ‘intimate stranger.’”
Half an hour later, one evening during my first visit to New Orleans, I realized I had walked in a circle. And as I became aware of that—coming again to the place from which I saw the arched, towering entrance to the Louis Armstrong Park, and a hint of the red plaque of Congo Square—I recognized a couple, dressed in flowing black. They weren’t new to me, even if foreign, and certainly not random. They were there at the beginning of my walk. Having made the same small journey with them, I was tempted to give in to cliché, and think of moments in this world when lives intersect, or when strangers take intimate notice of each other. I find that a trifling assumption, barely adequate. Let me consider a small, confined world, small in size, and proceeding in a delineated orbit. I look up and see that the couple does not notice me. Not now, not earlier.
Andrew Rossi has made Bronx Gothic into a film. I see it twice in the summer of 2017. On the first evening I go Okwui is there. The audience feels their way through it—laughter and applause, as well as the unmistakable sound of sniffles. It is a film of her life in the course of her tour of Bronx Gothic, a film about all she has given to the calling, all who keep her going, including her partner Peter Born and daughter Umechi and parents and mentors, and, on the most tender of occasions, all with whom she weeps. It is while I watch her weep on screen, and later that evening when young women surround her, that I understand what Anne Michaels writes, of the difference between crying and weeping. The semantics is insignificant, only the slight turn in a conversation when an onrush of emotion can no longer be kept from bursting. One moment she is talking to three young women, who speak of what clarity and focus she has brought to their lives, and the next moment they hold each other in a grand embrace, in tears. I realize too late that I have been caught off-guard by this show of sentiment. I fear that the women have taken notice of my sheepish, obtrusive glare. During the film I’d felt admitted, part of an audience of many, a proximate witness, an approximate stance. Now I am close, just not close enough.
Also, I remember this: For most of the time I spent with my friend alleged to have violated a little girl, I held him while he wept. He wouldn’t say much. The questions formed uneasily around my lips, like water gurgled but not thrown out. I do not know to this day if he wept at his guilt or at the spun-out allegation. I do not know if he put up a show for me. I do not know how my rage lessened at the sight of his contrite, shamefaced demeanor. Before I went to him I’d thought, man to man, he wouldn’t lie to me. Then we became just that, man and man, men who reflect each other.
Other things to note:
On the last night Okwui performed Bronx Gothic at St. Peter’s, a receptionist from the church brought her a picture, thinking it showed her in confirmation class, with her brother. But the picture was so blurry she couldn’t tell.
Okwui has an experience of the Biafra War. This assertion would be incorrect if experience is void of history, if she were excused from Biafra given the date of her birth. But her proximity to the War—she was born two years after it ended, to parents who fled Nigeria during—concerns her in the way an opera star inhabits her role. Experience as secondhand, as inhabited in the second place. It is a version of the Biafra War yet to be fully considered: Biafra in the diaspora, only realizable there.
All the women who took part in the Women’s War of 1929, in the southeast of Nigeria, are alive still. They take up space in Okwui’s research, in her sense of being Igbo. She read of how they went into the home area of a particular person in power, singing and dancing, performing protest. They insulted the men, or bared their naked bodies. The men were shamed and scandalized. But the practice is not merely scatological, for her. It is how the body enacts belief, especially in public, especially when it performs.
See as many videos of Okwui performing as possible.
Memory is communal but it is being transmuted into self. ︎
Photograph of Okwui Okpokwasili by Ian Douglas.
(c) Danspace Project, 2012.
This digression is necessary. Lagos is a ramble, the rambunctious panther in a Nigerian jungle, but wild cats suckle first, and each ramble has an initial statement. Mine is: on my first evening in Lagos after I completed my studies, I arrived from Umuahia to attend a job interview, an administrative role in an arts organization. In the weeks that followed, I’d learn how unprepared I was to make a living from everything besides my degrees as a lawyer. But first I think of the air that night. Not so much the lights. Not so much that I could breathe easily. It was rather the realization that if I were blown away it must be in a whirlpool of my own making. Anyone who has left family in a small town to make life in a big city can attest to this. Such as him.
He was mentioned to me for the first time at the Center for Contemporary Art. The curator I assisted wanted me to help draft a proposal for an exhibition to be funded, and the scheme was to be targeted at one of the oil companies. Could I see if his artworks had anything to do with environmental justice?
Nothing came of that proposal; I do not recall if I even drafted it. But each unsteady step of those early weeks was fortuitous. A few years later I wrote an essay on his work at a Biennale in Indonesia. At the farthest end of a 20×10 room, three drums hung suspended above a tub: two red drums painted over with black, placed on either side of a middle drum, painted white. The tub below the drums was full of water. Black liquid from the middle drum dripped into the tub, pooling around a submerged and illuminated word: Oloibiri, the site of Nigeria’s first commercial oilfield. The letters were carved sharply on a glassy rectangular surface, lit from the bottom, giving off reddish glow.
Before that I lied to him. I now worked with him, managing projects at a branding company he co-owned. We spoke about his work often, and sometimes he nudged me to write press statements, short considerations of his work. On one such occasion his new work was the subject of an exhibition at an upscale lifestyle store in Victoria Island. Days after the opening he asked me why I had been absent. I muttered an excuse about an uncle’s illness. In fact I’d had no money to pay the transport fare.
When he reads this he’ll learn of my duplicitous statement for the first time, and I imagine his face would fold in agitated surprise. I have no idea whether this would be a matter of regret that I hadn’t confided in him about my financial difficulties, or a matter of gratitude that the circumstances of my life are improved. His next response will be a little laugh.
He is older than me by almost two decades. I could be daunted by the chasm age has cleaved between us. Or consider the worth of my life’s experience nonpareil to his. Instead I choose to articulate how for almost a decade I have been his minor disciple.
There’s evidence of that. Besides my writing on Invisible Borders, the trans-African organization I worked and traveled with for five years, I have published more essays on him than on any other artist. The earliest essay is an impressionistic web of the theory I’d been reading in graduate school that year, and the latest is a pared-down review that begins with a folktale. Despite my skepticism I see a marked improvement in my style. And my self-image notwithstanding, I can state for sure that his work has taught me how to look at art. His restless tinkering with form, the polychromatic surfaces of his paintings, and his consistent output, combine to make my devotion near total.
Note that he hadn’t trained professionally as an artist. He holds a bachelor’s degree in English and Literature, and a masters of fine arts in Creative Writing. This makes me suspect that his addressee is language, and his intention is to make secret alphabets, hieroglyphs that originate in Midwestern Nigeria. If I could spare hours and hours to draw I might be able to tell one character from the other. That’s unlikely, but I am able to understand his masterstrokes better. Besides age, another chasm is language; in order to feel as though I am saying anything noteworthy when I write about his work—especially because of our friendship—I have to imagine each sentiment I express as a hapax legomenon, a word used only once, created for that occasion.
The final rift exists in the zone between man and man, ambition and ambition. I sometimes feel I am unable to communicate the dilemma of my professional life as a writer interested in the world of images but hesitant to participate in the art world. In a dissimilar vein, despite our regular chats about his hopes and works-in-progress, and the potentials for our collaboration, what is the possibility that our individual paths will branch apart, one less in need of the other? When I think in this way I tend to feel sad. Yet “need” is a suspect word. To describe our many plans I study the patterns made by a flock of migrating hoopoes. One might perch before the other, but all have undertaken the same journey.
And the story of any success is a complex, tangled plot. By certain standards he is one of the most well-known artists working in Nigeria today. By what standards? I have a sense of how much his paintings cost, how expensive it is for him to rent a studio of that size in Ikoyi, and the roster of esteemed visitors to his studio. All that would count for something if I were to calculate his net worth. But how would the next decade of his life fulfill all the nonmaterial demands he makes for himself?
To be blown away in a whirlpool of one’s making, such a bleak thought. I doubt he’ll agree with a portentous metaphor to describe his time in Lagos. In fact I know he won’t. One reason is religious: being Christian he accepts that a lifebuoy would always be thrown in the midst of life’s troubled waters. One more reason is his craftsman flair—the many surfaces and objects he has drawn on, molded and contoured, painted upon, and sewn into shape. This exuberance could make him a “multidisciplinary artist,” but something of his faith in the extent of his abilities eludes definition. If that isn’t hope, the world is beyond repair. ︎
︎All drawings courtesy the artist.
For lengthier considerations of Victor Ehikhamenor’s work, I suggest three other essays I have written: “The Wealth of Nations,” “Making Time,” and “The Work of Time.”
Cover Image: Detail of I am Ogiso, the King from Heaven, 2017. Rosary beads on lace textile. Copyright the artist & Tyburn Gallery.
She sent photographs, and I sent back words.
May 7, 2018
May 10, 2018
When I met you for the first time in Abuja, just after you had come out of your little car, I wondered if it was appropriate to open my arms in the gesture of an embrace. I write to you in the light of my botched attempt at intimacy. I have a hunch that behind each of your photographs, a few words are scrawled in barely legible letters, to be read aloud in a whisper. If that were true, I would return to the moment of our initial encounter with a little smirk.
This is a nearby stream. The girls might know its ripples and turns the way they know the depth of a well in their homesteads. They acknowledge its beauty, the foliage that surrounds them, in a manner more practical than a visitor might. Perhaps they hide here when they cannot stand a lesson. Or they come to fetch water to wash a classroom floor. What is certain in the photograph isn’t merely that girls accompany each other to a stream. It is an image by a visitor who sees that happen, who might have asked to be taken to the stream. On the basis of this—the knowledge that there was an encounter between strangers, a collocation of the familiar and unfamiliar—I can speculate on what we might exchange in the coming days: missives vaulting any distance.
May 17, 2018
May 20, 2018
Tell me about your childhood, or let me speculate about it. Did you hold back your precocious mind, preferring to keep your own company, watching your playmates from a distance? How often did you do this?
What I do while writing these biographical sketches is guess at the logic of a life, imagine the subsurface of my encounters with others. In previous essays I managed to wonder about the artist in third person, staying with a gendered pronoun, not once mentioning a name. But here I have chosen the second person, writing about you to you. The distinction is not squarely conceited or whimsical. In the former case I write with a clear sense of an audience besides, or beyond, the artist. In this case I feel almost hemmed-in by the knowledge that the artist is an immediate addressee.
That’s parenthetical. My point is, a story is not one until there’s a sense of an ending or narrative arc. But this is an image of a small opening between things, story within story. The squiggly thread linking the moment of an experience with the moment of narrating it. In your encounters with the girls, you took note of those interstices. There were occasions when, right after speaking to you of a shooting or a death, a girl would laugh at an unrelated joke made by another girl sitting in a different corner of the classroom, and then continue. Most of the schools you visited for Education is Forbidden were schools that had been attacked by Boko Haram, in which students seemed to bear emotional scars beneath their sportive bodies.
How to tell a story within a story?
On an episodic level, the story is resolved: a school was attacked, students and teachers survived, some did not. But as soon as the narrative is stretched-out, it is revealed as overarching. The lives of the surviving girls are now constrained by the uncertainty of tomorrow.
Let’s consider for a brief moment how your life led to Education is Forbidden. I could present the facts of your schooling—undergraduate studies in Economics and Social Sciences with Development Studies, a masters in Gender and Social Politics, another masters in Journalism—but that would fail to highlight your reluctance to think of your work as having to do, in a strict sense, with education.
Instead I consider these understated facts, as signposts while you traversed an interior landscape: your return to Nigeria after girls from Chibok were kidnapped; wallowing in despair for a year in search of the right way to approach your work; a realization that a photojournalistic approach would limit you; funded by a grant, you begin visiting schools in Maiduguri that had been attacked by Boko Haram, and with each visit it becomes clearer that the representation of the place and people requires constellational thinking, an orbit of photographs, audio, videos, GIFs, textbook illustrations, installation, and performance. One unfinished thought leads to the next, until a course of action appears inevitable, as if guided by a premonitory hand.
“The experience of trying to tell a story about experience,” you told me. “Being aware of myself as a storyteller…and the futility of the act of trying to capture the truth of a subject…”
That guide is the genie of storytelling, visiting intermittently to make the story elliptical.
May 21, 2018
May 23, 2018
A photograph is also constituted by what’s outside the frame, maybe particularly so. This is why it is an image, part-document and part-specter, half-recalled and half-misremembered.
The word is “apperception”—hardly in use today, but referring to the process by which a person makes sense of an idea by assimilating it into a body of ideas already assimilated, or in relation to past experience. What your work does, poised at the intersection of fact and fable, is question assumptions made in relation to Boko Haram. The assumptions of proximity. In particular: when those who live outside the northeast consider the tragedy, how do they evaluate the experience? What is the estimable distance, for them, between the cause and effect of Boko Haram, event and consequence, disaster and trauma? What truths lie in those evaluations? For a tragedy so immense in scope and impact, defining truth as secondhand and subjective is almost a moral obligation.
Regarding the matter of technique, I recall you saying that Education is Forbidden taught you to unlearn everything you’d learnt about how to tell a story in linear fashion. In response I will like you to think about the character of an interlocutor. A photographer who takes a portrait is always making sense of a person other than herself, a you, someone between a we and an I. That act is one of interlocution, which really means “speaking between.”
I think of what a principal who spoke off the record said to you in Hausa. I paraphrase him: “Many of these girls you see will never go to a university. Their parents think the university is an immoral place, where men will take advantage of them. They are here to pass time while their parents are at work, to learn a smattering of English that would make them marriageable.”
While we talked about Education is Forbidden, we occasionally used the metaphor of a hum: a steady mumbling underneath daily life.
You wrote to me: “I think of this ‘hum’ as a sort of underlying tension, that people living in Nigeria have somehow gotten used to. It is the context by which we live. The hum is background noise, a discomfort, a dis-ease, a norm of people living in a place where at any moment the fragility of safety could be shattered.”
But all along I’d been wondering about an image of helplessness, the probability that the girls play predetermined roles in a tragic plot. This position is open to debate, and upon further reflection I turn away from deterministic thinking.
The image I prefer is the stump of a felled tree. I borrow this from you. During a walk you chanced upon a tree that seemed gouged by ants. Later you showed me a pile of wood in a corner of your compound, collected from several perambulations. An excavation: the remnants of stories of victimhood and loss. To excavate is to deepen, to make hollow. I imagine this is why you asked the girls to light candles. The atmosphere in the photograph recalls a starlit cave, pinpricks of light that prevent complete darkness.
(Today I reflected on the consolatory title of a painting by Peter Doig, dedicated to his deceased friend: I do not sing because I am happy. I sing the song because it is about happiness.)
Last year at the Lagos Biennale, you set up a classroom in the abandoned carriage of a train. The room was fitted with desks and a blackboard, and the surfaces were covered in words mimicking the obscenities and shenanigans of adolescent minds, written with chalk. But the most audacious thing you did was to include plants in the carriage, making it simultaneously a garden and an abandoned cemetery. By the time I visited the plants had turned deep brown. It’s what you speak of as an “emotional imprint.” Maybe a Lagos audience would turn away when faced with photographs of bloodied bodies, AK-47s waved in the air, or a swarm of displaced people. But standing in a make-believe classroom filled with overgrown weeds, a little shift occurs in our consciousness. The story is no longer as unspecific.
- “School Girls Crossing River II,” Tatsuniya/ Education is Forbidden series, 2017.
“Ruth, Amina and the three Aisha's play In and Out,” Tatsuniya/ Education is Forbidden series, 2017.
“School Girls with Candles I,” Tatsuniya/ Education is Forbidden series, 2017.
- Homepage image: “Rukkaya, 17, Senior Secondary School student at Shehu Garbai Secondary School.” Maiduguri, Nigeria, 2016.