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.