by Emmanuel Iduma


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Sokari Ekine

A dream of life, but not hers: A man is sitting so still in a classroom it is as if breath has been taken from him. On the chalkboard the year of his birth has been written, as well as a dash. The year of death is also written, but soon after it is rubbed off. Much of the dream is structured as such, writing and rubbing-off, a negotiation of the final year: 2017, 2018… It seems that, given the way he sits, he will accept the result meekly, his days measured by a writing hand on the chalkboard.

Could this dream mean anything to her?

What might matter is the dash, the intervening years, outside the scope of negotiation. It is as if she has fallen in the crack between birth and death, like everyone who is born to live and die, an interregnum we try to stretch as far as possible. Life in the dash, time measured within it. Considered on this basis, the dream is proffered regardless of its morbid allusions. It is proffered, in fact, in lieu of mortality, and also for how an immortal light falls through the crack of a life that melts like sheets of ice.

She is about seventy. Her age is insignificant as far as enumeration goes, but matters in relation to evolution. She’ll agree with this idea because her life can be summed as a seven-decade instance of evolution. She is a Nigerian born in London who has lived in Florida and now in New Orleans. She has been a blogger, a freelance researcher, a teacher of adult students, a mother, an editor, an activist, a writer, a journalist, and so forth, each instance succeeding or intersecting with another. She considers these transitions, and asks, “How do I become free of age?” Not trite, and not a blind wish. In a biological sense she can never outwit age—only in a mental sense. In this light we acknowledge that it is possible for her to be free of age.

In person, she presents you with an immediate sense of vigor; she shies from wielding the experience of her many years as a weapon, probing instead for what might yet be done or learnt, as if tentative. What is learnt is that to evolve is to move cyclically in time, like a repeated renewal of youth, or a death-year being negotiated.

Far from imagining that she dabbled into photography later on in her life, after years of being everything else besides an artist, it is useful to imagine art as one of many, total lives she has lived.

Nine photographs, which she took in 2011, were published in the History issue of Saraba Magazine. They are informed by a tragedy too spacious to narrow into words or pictures. At the beginning of the previous year, 250,000 people were estimated to have died in an earthquake. And the photographs were taken during the annual Fête Gede, a feast of the dead, at a grand cemetery and its immediate surroundings in Port-au-Prince. It is one of the earliest attempts she makes to publish her Haitian photographs. Might we hold them up close to see what themes appear, in lieu of the greater promise of her work?

The photographs were distributed across the magazine, in sequences of four, three, and two respectively. Consider the first paragraph of her introduction to “Ways of Dying,” as she titled the series: “The January 2010 earthquake destroyed many of the tombs leaving the remains of the old dead scattered amongst those who died on the day. 250,000 people lost their lives making the city itself a giant cemetery. Those who were found were cremated in mass funeral pyres. The rest lie under the rubble of thousands of homes, schools and public spaces, haunting the living who knows their loved ones lie crushed beneath the stones.”

The first sequence is of graves. The composition of the photographs, which appear to have been taken in a hurry, reveal nothing spectacular, besides the recurrence of crosses, whether welded against metal surfaces, or placed atop concrete slabs. It is as though they are to be taken collectively as evidence—of dying, and the longevity of death. For her, the lesson is historical: the Grand Cemetière predates the earthquake, bearing bodies that include those of enslaved Africans who first moored on the bay. Notice a goat that has placed its nose against a grave, mid-sniff. The concrete is littered with fresh and stale food, a calabash of offering, a surface smudged by repeated libations. Almost two years have passed since the earthquake when the Fête Gede of 2011 is celebrated. It would seem ironic to the uninitiated that death is looked at with such frankness, even ululation, in a city with rubbles, underneath which untold number of bodies lie unidentified. She is attentive to this, and writes: “For a moment in history Port-au-Prince became a monument of death but remains a monument to life, it’s a cycle.”

(In this parenthesis, we raise our voice in a dirge for her friend and comrade, Serge Supri, who died on February 2, 2016. He had been a guide and confidant in her first years in Haiti. During his funeral, she took photographs of the procession, “Ways of Dying II,” his body lying in repose, and as the coffin is hurled up—the most stirring is of hands lifting the silver-lined pistachio green coffin towards two men who receive it. His body will be placed in the upper deck of two graves.)

The second sequence in “Ways of Dying” is of a lone tree, up-close in one photograph and distant in another, which she realizes is situated in the center of the cemetery. It is there as a symbol of the Lwa, or spirit, of Ghede, who keeps guard at majority of Haitian cemeteries. Against the trunk of the tree worshippers have placed dolls, as an additional way to protect the spirit of the dead from evil, or from those who might scheme to use the dead to harm the living. There is no way to miss vodoun in Haiti, or its syncretic history with Christianity. In the years since her first visit to the country, the space between observation and participation in rites and ceremonies has shrunk; on many occasions she has been a participant herself, her keen observation informing her eager participation. The real point to be made could be the nature of belief itself. What do I believe in? Those who are syncretic in the practice of their faith—wearing a cross while presenting an offering to Baron Semedi, the Lwa of life and death, for instance—are not testing to see which religion is potent enough, or how one differs from the other. Potency, while important, is often tested in times of crises. The rituals of syncretic believers are born from the womb of belief itself. When she saw the tree, and the ongoing festivities for the dead, what might have seemed worthy of veneration was their deep conviction, not the method or addressee of worship.

In the final sequence of two photographs, the battered city is framed. The composition is more assured, likely given the distance from which she holds up her camera, and the fact that she is unperturbed by onlookers. She takes a photograph of the ruined Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption, seen from the side, bearing juts of broken concrete and serrated metal, with high walls like a shell. The other is a view of the Massif de la Selle foregrounded by a corrugated fence, barricading the Presidential Palace. The photograph is centered on the crumbling façade of the building. Here’s the landscape, then, against which the cycle of life and death is enacted. It is as well a setting as a background. The life she depicts in Port-au-Prince that year, and when she returns for years after, is the foreground.

The preceding paragraphs are written in lieu of the greater promise of her work, an instance of finding thematic through-lines. But that would not suffice. What you have read so far is an outline. It is so because her work is in the first and maybe final analysis, an exploration of desire—a desire for freedom, as she says to an interviewer, in a broad, holistic sense. Until this text brings such desire to light, its criticism is blunted. Yet desire is no easy concept to write about. It occurs at the precise space thinking meets feeling, without any margin of error or insufficiency. How to illuminate this space in the writing, how to determine the conditions by which it can be illuminated—this is the rhetoric.

She gives us a way out, in the interim, because she has written about her desire for V, with whom she is in love. (Her essay appears in Sista! An Anthology of Writing by and about Same Gender Loving of Africa/Caribbean Descent with a UK Connection.)

We love, and part of that love is not accepting the monotony of normative language but instead inventing our own language. We love to name objects, events, ways of being. This is what black queer and evolving love does: it pushes language so language is radicalized by queerness, always pushing the boundaries of what and who we are. What is queer is the question we constantly ask, rather than who is queer. And that includes being an evolving person.

A preceding paragraph reads: …and suddenly our eyes met… She was shorter than I expected, and wearing a huge and enveloping black fake-fur winter coat. We both smiled and then exploded into laughter, covering up our first-contact ‘check her out’ moment. It was a mild, sunny winter day and we decided to walk to the restaurant of her choosing. I can’t remember what we talked about but there were no silences. I had this fresh open light feeling, flush, and very much in the presence of the moment.

In the presence of the moment very much: her declaration is affecting and conscientious. As the reader might know, she has spent over a decade to and fro Haiti. In the months of her first arrival, when Port-au-Prince was yet to settle from the stuporous gloom of the earthquake, she knew without doubt what photographs needn’t be taken. This could be a realization due in part to her years working with civil societies (her time in Haiti that first year was sponsored by a fellowship in which she was expected to report about sexual health.) The photographs, when she took them, could not depict destitution, or the disfigured streets. And so she turned to the interior, a spiritual landscape.

Please note: to refuse to take photographs that depict suffering, destitution, or NGO-neediness, is, as far as photography criticism is concerned, a cliché, in the sense of how often photographers who go abroad repeat the sentiment. Yet we have to be less terrified of clichés. The overfamiliar and overused, the banal and trite, the commonplace, an idea lacking in originality—could we save a cliché for keep? If this were possible, it would suggest a further possibility: the cliché as nucleus for subjective truth. Around this nucleus is, in Svetlana Alexievich’s words, “a miniature expanse.” And that expanse is within an individual.

That expanse is in the presence of the moment. Take a careful look at the photograph that follows this paragraph, which she took at the Lakou Soukri “Seremoni” to celebrate the Lwa of the Lakou, Bazouwadewongol. There are two prefaces. First, the process: She has dressed as the initiated, struggled to hold herself in place while trance-like swaying and possessed dancing happens around her, and outmaneuvered her camera by refusing to use its flash in the low-lit room. Second: Two women have come so close it is possible to imagine that their breaths are of the same duration, and at the precise point one woman’s mouth huffs into the other’s.

This photograph and several others are collected in the series Spirit Desire: Resistance, Imagination, and Sacred Memories in Haitian Vodoun. Desire for a spirit… The spirit of desire… Sprits who desire… Permutations of a vast supernatural world colliding with the natural world, and relating in harmony.

When we triangulate the fact of her queerness, the queer-friendly Vodoun ceremonies she attended, and the photographs of such sacred, non-gendered, intimate spaces she presents to the world, we ought to speak about how we understand in part. We are reminded that neither spirituality nor sexuality can be examined in a hurry, even for priests and lovers. This could be why she has chosen to speak of herself as evolving. ︎

Postscript: Sokari Ekine has written widely about her time in Haiti, the earliest of which are on Black Looks, the blog she ran from June 2004 until August 2014. It is also an extensive archive of her work as an activist, a visual scholar, and a supporter of writing on the African continent (some of my earliest work is published there). Her current website highlights her photographic work, and includes a link to her photo-book, Spirit Desire, for which she is deserving of continued support.

(All photographs courtesy Sokari Ekine, from the series Spirit Desire: Resistance, Imagination, and Sacred Memories in Haitian Vodoun.)
January 2019

A Sum of Encounters is a year-long blog by Emmanuel Iduma featuring intimate portraits of Nigerian artists based in Nigeria or the United States. With support from the Creative Capital | Andy Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant Program.