Growing up in Lagos, my mother was a seamstress. She made the most peculiar-looking clothes at the back of our house with her faithful apprentice Kalu NtaKalu. Kalu was lazy but he had the right craftsmanship for my mother’s taste: excessive frills and Shakespearean sleeves. As if the styling was not strange enough, the clothes all arrived in our hands with ‘Made in the USA’ tacked into their necklines. As a child, I took these itchy lying tags seriously and found it overwhelmingly confusing because ‘didn’t I just see Kalu sewing this dress in the backyard last week?’. As an adult though, I cannot stop laughing at my mother’s nerve. The sheer nerve.
It wasn’t all our clothes that we got this way, sha. Some of them really were made in the United States. On Saturdays, she would tell the housegirl to prepare one of those rare gems so that when Sundays arrived, I would be prepped to become the prime joy of my mother’s eyes. Everything had to be perfect in the eyes of the Lord and every other church-goer pretending to dress for the eyes of the Lord. My shoes, my socks, my nails and most of all, my hair—all perfect. If, by any chance, the house-girl had not managed to capture all the strands of my thick brown hair into two very long white silk ribbons, my mother would take matters into her own hands, performing her disgust at imperfection by viciously pulling my hair into a perfect teacup and saucer.
Of course, there were many other holiday hairstyles that reigned supreme back then: There was Telephone Wire; a shiny garden of coily kanekalon that you could stretch from Jerusalem to Jericho. Then there were those short, asymmetrical braids cut into a bob with ends burnt into a solid crust that had you smelling like somebody’s burnt refuse. That one was lyrically named Bob Marley…because it was a Bob. But you see that Teacup and Saucer? That was my mother’s favourite. Something about the way the ball of hair at the back couldn’t breathe beneath the strangulation of silk ribbons took her own breath away. I’d say it was the discipline inflicted on each wild strand of chemically relaxed hair that impressed her. There was something military yet docile about both the maker of the hairstyle and the carrier that kept her steadfast in the illusion that the Buckingham palace could also be a small house in Surulere, off Babs Animashaun. And so what that she didn’t have Elizabethan blue-blood? She had the red one. After a lifetime of having very little yet making enough, battling through forests of low-income grass to make it into middle-income grace, she knew how far and how fast that red one could run under the pressure of ambition, the practice of restraint and a cocktail of catholic prayers. Her life was made up of effort and therefore, the careless loose strands of hair on my head were unwelcome guests in her vision.
My mother is at most 5 foot 3 inches, with no family wealth to propel her into an understanding of Self as valid by Nigerian standards. Luckily, her small strong hands always won the war between my over-oiled hair and the slippery silk ribbons. ‘Small but mighty’ was my unspoken nickname for her. ‘Afufumalarum’ was hers for herself. It means suffering knows my body. She would pat the orderly ball of hair supposed to be the teacup and say to our faces in the mirror, ‘Now, do you see that you are like a human being?’
‘Ee fu k’idi ka mmadu?’
‘Pictures Or It Didn’t Happen…’
Photography is the newest and most relevant perceptual apparatus of existence. In this digital world, it is through a variety of lenses and screens that we regard and renegotiate our ideals of human and cultural achievement. Unfortunately, in the case of a post-colonial society like Nigeria, the ideal image is tied to a historically infested obsession with Self-dissociation, which we inherited from authorities that claimed our natural inclinations, rituals and tastes were the source of our downfall. Our food smelly and our clothing, just too sparse. They promised to improve the specie of us by teaching us how to acquire Otherness. Through education, missionary activity and even legislation, they established their taste as a self-respecting one. Colonial preferences were made into scientific standards. And in order to win safety and Self-respect, we began to participate in what Chinese cultural critic Rey Chow calls ‘self-recognition [through] deletion’. In other words, what we would like to think of as the perfect version of ourselves, is probably most unnatural to us. It’s basically my aunty pointing at my God-given nappy fro and screaming at me ‘Chiamaka, what are you doing to your hair?’ when in fact, it was hers that was glistening from a two-week-old chemical straightening.
‘When the Zulus produce a Tolstoy, we will read him…’ — Saul Bellow
In 2017, moving image artist Akinola Davies and photographer Ruth Ossai were commissioned by Kenzo to shoot a fashion film for the brand’s new line. When the series of pictures were released, there was a range of comments: Few on Twitter applauded Davies and Ossai’s efforts; and when Bella Naija reposted the images, majority of the website’s visitors found the entire thing to be a joke. The most striking response, however, was an article titled in all caps: ‘WE NEED TO TAKE THIS NEW KENZO PHOTO SERIES ABOUT NIGERIA AND SET IT ON FIRE’ written by Edwin Okolo. The article crowns the video, ‘the ugliest, most inaccurate representation of contemporary Nigerian youth…ever seen’.
In his perspective, the photos were a delegitimization of the lived experiences of Nigerians; a reduction of those lives into ‘harmful stereotypes of illiterate noble savages’. He then concluded that the images put the rest of us at risk for what the world will think about the subjects that Davies and Ossai chose for their work: ‘This is the first image of Nigeria some people will ever interact with and this in no way represents even the poorest parts of Nigeria’, he said.
In his message, Okolo claimed that the directors of the video did not provide what is sincere to the lived experience of a Nigerian youth. But, I’ve wondered since: what idea will ever be sincere enough to represent the lived experience of a Nigerian youth? How can we point to an idea of Self and nationalize it enough to contain something as erratic and diverse as ‘Nigerian Youth’? What is thoroughly Nigerian enough to contain the violent amalgamation of more than 250 ethnic groups? And even when we drop the contentious question of what really and truly does or does not make ‘Nigerian’ a singular identity, we might still pick up the other contentious question of what Art making means.
What is the work of Art? To soothe the senses or to re-introduce an audience to the full range of their senses? Is Art made to reassure a person of their belief systems or to remind them of the multitudes of perceptions available? But most specifically, in response to Okolo’s declarations I’ve wondered, what are the aesthetics of a ‘savage’? Where does the savage lie? in the being of the savage or in the eye of the one who beholds the savage?
‘The formation [Bildung] of the five senses is the work of all previous history…’ — Karl Marx
Without addressing the cultural attitudes of shame and guilt, we have let the regard(ing) of ourselves as Nigerians get away from beneath us. The implication of this is that the seeming transcendence of aesthetics then allows histories of class discrimination and cultural marginalization crystallize far away from its source, even pretending not to be related to any source at all, yet, only to become ‘ugly’. Although we would love to believe that aesthetics have nothing to do with ethics, they do. Aesthetics signify and simplify ethics. Like swallowing a malaria drug hidden inside eba, ethics are smuggled beneath aesthetics.
‘If You No Get Money, Hide Your Face’
In the realm of aesthetics, the concept of taste is an implicit class war. There is the belief that people without money should be focused on necessity and not frivolity. And since fashion is perceived as a game of leisure not of labour, it seems to clash with our perceptions of people without wealth, suggesting them to be those who take with nothing to give. Unfortunately, many of us do not have any perceptual apparatus through which to consider and contain something as oxymoronic as taste without wealth.
In Edwin Okolo’s article, there is a paragraph that illustrates how strongly the Nigerian society does not think it possible for people without money to settle into a style that’s not aspiring to an imported fashion etiquette. Okolo writes:
‘The only reason the ‘village’ people in Eastern Nigeria dress the way they do is because they don’t have the economic privilege to afford any better. It is not an aesthetic they are aiming for, like the Harajuku Barbies of Japan or the Native American nations. Their poverty denies them access to even the cheapest clothes, this is why they dress in second-hand clothes from the 80’s and 90’s, because no one else with means willingly buy them. To commodify their poverty and package it to appeal to western audiences is the worst kind of representation, devoid of context, empathy or respect for these people’s circumstances.’
The taste of the poor is consistently written off as poor taste. However, historically, function has often been ahead of form. Take the Timberland boots for instance. Timberland boots were originally constructed for New England construction workers, not famous rappers. In 1973, American blue-collar factory workers were the single demographic for the six-inch rugged boot, made to withstand harsh use, but most of all, to keep their feet warm and dry during the winter. Soon enough, the New York drug dealers who would stand on the cold streets all night, discovered these boots.
As consumer journalist Rob Walker reports in his book Buying In, ‘the legend goes that the first ‘urban’ buyers of Timberland boots were New York drug dealers – guys who had to stand on the street all night and needed the best possible footwear to keep them warm and dry.’ Ever keen to enhance their hustler credentials, the city’s rappers followed suit, and soon the boot was everywhere; on Tupac’s feet, in Biggie’s lyrics, on Wu Tang’s feet and in Mobb Deep’s artwork. Rap magazine Vibe reported that ‘everyone from thugs to step teams were stalking, walking in their six-inch construction boot,’ as they ‘stood up beautifully to urban elements like concrete, barbed wire, and broken glass.’
Funny enough, the Timberland company—made up of white men at the time— actively tried to distance themselves from their growing popularity with the gang subcultures catching on to the function and form of the boots:
‘Timberland’s CEO Jeffrey Swartz (and grandson of the company’s founder Nathan Swarz) told The New York Times in the early ’90s that ‘If you want to buy us and you are not our target customer, we don’t have a point of distribution that speaks to your lifestyle.’
Eventually, the market proved stronger than racism. The company had to realize that the subculture did not need their approval or disapproval to wear the boots because they were now speaking to each other. Theses rappers and dealers had created references to the boots that even their makers could not decode. Soon enough, the founding company had to rise up to the subculture’s level and ride its wave. Timberland has since collaborated with tons of rap artists like Outkast and streetwear brands like Billionaire Boys Club founded by Pharrell Williams.
There are too many other similar stories of aestheticized goods formed because of necessity—necessity being a realm that no one knows better than working-class people. Okada men in Benin who need sunglasses more than your average data analyst who sits in an office all day; Rwandese moto men who need the gloves and the puffy winter jackets that they hold on to so that when the night wind comes, they are not unprepared to earn a living. Theirs is an admirable fortitude and one often envied by those of an upper class, who seem to have been handed the keys to a happy life and still can’t find happiness. So, isn’t it a mistake to believe that the poor cannot settle in the other side of their ethical necessity? Isn’t it a mistake to believe that they cannot—and should not—exercise aesthetic flamboyance?
As a society, many Nigerians are riddled with cultural narcissism and a post-colonial appetite for things that are not of us. As a result, we have come to assume that people without money are unable and unauthorized to have a taste that does not aspire. But with the way the poor are (mis)treated in Nigeria, it is easy to believe that money is the only currency with which one can claim dignity. Due to the inefficiency of systems, the poor are subjugated to a level of uncertainty that removes guilt from the system and, in fact, blames the individual as the source of all their misery.
The major fault of people without money, it seems, is that they are not wealthier. For instance, if my car gets stopped on the road by the Vehicle Inspection Officers, for no particular reason, it happens to be my fault that I do not know anybody in the police or the navy to help me out. If I go to a public hospital and the nurses are rude and there are no supplies, it happens to be my fault that I did not make enough money to afford a private hospital. If my children do not get well-paying jobs, it is my fault that I do not have connections or did not make enough money to send them to better schools in America or the UK. Confronting delegates at a party congress in 1977, Congolese President, Mobutu Sese Seko, addressed a similar epidemic. Denouncing it as the ‘invisible tax,’ he (hypocritically) complained about the magnitude with which it had halted all areas of life in the Congo. According to Sese Seko:
‘…Everything is for sale, anything can be bought in our country. And in this traffic, he who holds the slightest cover of public authority uses it illegally to acquire money, goods, prestige, or to avoid all kinds of obligations. Even worse, the citizen who simply asks for his most legitimate rights to be respected is subjected to an invisible tax, which is then openly pocketed by officials. Thus the right to be heard by a public servant, to register one’s children in school or to obtain report cards at the end of the year, to obtain medical care, a seat on an airplane, an import licence, a diploma—and I could go on—are all subject to this tax.’
However, talk is cheap they say. Mobutu himself was a devoted, yet unwelcome hand in the soup of his country’s finances. According to Martin Meredith’s phenomenal narrative in his book, The Fate of Africa, about 40 per cent of Kinshasa’s population suffered from severe malnutrition after ten years of Mobutu’s reign. Meanwhile, Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu Wa Za Banga himself was living lavishly.
With a name that meant ‘Invincible warrior; cock who leaves no chick intact’, one needed the lifestyle to match. Meredith reports that in 1977 alone, some $300 million in export proceeds had been looted by 50 companies run by Mobutu’s inner ring. In one transaction alone, Sese Seko moved $1 million to his Swiss Bank account. In that kind of environment, a principle of ‘Debrouillez-Vous’ (Fend for Yourself) was wielded by everyone as a mantra and a weapon; dismantling systems of compassion and trust in a place and time of a scarcity that was dishonest, manufactured by the greed of a few through the work of many. Ilunga Kabongo— a Zaire intellectual— described Zaire as a two zoned country: One, ‘a zone of existence occupied by the political elite; and two, a zone of nonexistence for the rest’.
Through unseen, yet significant barriers like the invisible tax, poor people are burdened by realities of what they have not done instead of acknowledgements of what they have. Their survival is seen as something they must earn before they can finally start living. Most specifically in Nigerian fashion, the innovations of poor people are burdened by theories of what they don’t know rather than acknowledgment of what they do know. As opposed to Fact, their considerations are often discounted as rumour—petty, flighty, and unreliable.
In effect, the tastes of poor people come to be regarded as something that is simply uninformed and misguided, guilty of not knowing its place and subject to what Polish sociologist, Zygmunt Bauman, terms, ‘negative freedom’. According to Bauman, negative freedom is ‘freedom to refute and reject the differences [and values] enforced by others, and to resist being ‘socially recognized’ against their will for what they resent to be, and would actively refuse to be were it in their power.’ Basically, poor people in Nigeria are not easily given the permission to be recognized as brilliant and innovative.
When it comes to the question of whether poor people can have taste, the elites (educated and wealthy) cannot shake off what they consider the poor’s overcompensation for what they don’t have. And because the wealthy are in control of most of the resources, their standards are often legitimized as ‘the standard’. What is clear is that, once legitimized, aesthetic preferences can have non-aesthetic consequences. In his 1994 essay, ‘The Politics of Misrecognition’, Charles Taylor argues that our identity is partly shaped by recognition or its absence. Which means, he explains, ‘a person or a group of people can suffer real damage, real distortion, if the people or society around them mirror back to them a confirming or demeaning or contemptible picture of themselves’.
In other words, we do receive the gaze of others who surround us and help us make meaning of what it means to be ‘Human’. In Nigeria, the poor are seen as an underclass by systems and individuals. And since money dictates who is right or wrong in this country, we have become used to folding ourselves, dancing agreeably to the tune of upper-class authority. In A Short History of Progress, Ronald Wright’s 2004 book, Wright is convinced that socialism in America never took off because, in fact, ‘the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires’.
Ironically, when rich people come to place their whole identity in millions, they fear that they will be nothing if else. They often cannot imagine a life outside that wealth, which often makes them regard those living life without money as an impossible contradiction: ‘Living life’ ‘without money’ appears oxymoronic because, in fact, what kind of life does one live without money? The more they depend on money to define the meaning of life, the more they dehumanize the poor as lifeless. This becomes unfortunate when the lifeless may die and are not mourned because they were already thought to be dead anyway. For instance, in 2017, there was news that Nigerian soldiers dropped a bomb on an IDP camp in Nigeria that ‘mistakenly’ killed 200 people. The first thought I had was ‘how come that mistake never happens in Aso Rock or Banana Island?’ Secondly, and even more wounding, was the fact that President Buhari’s efforts at apologizing were late and impersonal to the many lives that had been lost.
The premise of a word like ‘taste’ is that there are those that have it and those that don’t. Like the word ‘excellent’ can only contain a select few, taste in the Nigerian society is premised on a hierarchy that makes taste, not a thing contested, but an idea that is either upheld or defiled, achieved or failed. It wasn’t a thing that was easy for us when I was growing up, affording trips to America. My relationship with TV steered me towards a formation of Self that was defined by my distance between where I was and where I wanted to be. This meant that what I came to term ‘good’ ‘better’ ‘best’, depended on my proximity towards America and away from my Self. I spent so many after-school moments stuck in a wishful daze of what my life would be like when I finally got to put my tongue on the kind of glassy jawbreakers that moved Ed, Edd and Eddy, out of their slothful resolve. When Sunny D adverts came on, and I saw all those children running outside their classrooms, I would picture myself gloriously quenching my thirst with an orange that had a real orange coloured peel, not the yellow kind that got peeled by Hausa men and teenage girls near my mother’s shoe shop.
In the way we believe it is inevitable for pepper to set the mouth on fire, we believe it is natural to see a girl wrapping her hair in thread as ‘razz’. But even the taste of the tongue is historically conditioned. The problem is that the histories that condition our sensing of some things as better or worse, wretched or noble, escape us easily. For my mother, the connection between her desire to fuse her beautiful handmade clothes with the aura of American production, will keep getting blurred. That is until she looks at me in the mirror, and pronounces that I am a human being when I look like perfectly and believably ‘Made in America’.
‘The formation [Bildung] of the five senses is the work of all previous history…’ — Karl Marx
The first time I travelled to the US, I was 10. But actually, I had spent 3 years before that lying that I had. I concocted these wonderful stories about where I had been, all the things I had done, all the famous people I met on my way. When I got into boarding school, I continued the lies. My stories got a little more desperate as the war to survive the brutality of adolescence got more dire. When I couldn’t find the comfort of love or consideration (at least), I fell back into an equation I had formed a long time ago: that if I became fully American, everyone would be my friend. That it was because I was too Nigerian, too lacking, that I was unlovable. It was childish logic, I see now. Yet, I also see how adults are simply people trying to recover from their childhood; people stuck with the memories of who we were as children and the angst of why we are not who we thought we would be by now.
The past is not so far gone as we like to think. Though I might be the only one confessing now, my childhood logic that proximity to America would earn me love while proximity to Nigeria would earn me humiliation, was viciously widespread in my boarding school. With so much taken away from us in the name of Catholic discipline, we had to turn to the most trivial ways of being to decide who was going to be the best of us and who was going to be the worst. Our school’s administration believed that it was possible to eliminate inequality by removing cash, or limiting underwear, or shaving hair, but the students proved otherwise. The brand of your shower gel could make it clear that you had many clothes that were really bought from America. The nylon bag where you kept your underwear was already telling of who knew what jawbreakers were. The lip balm you used, the pencil case you had, the WHSmith pen—these were all the ways of telling difference that mattered without anybody speaking a single word. And on Visiting Sundays, many of us felt embarrassed on behalf of students who had to eat the eba and soup their parents could afford to serve them.
School took cash away from us and, still, capital was always there to confidently look down or away from us. That is because the dynamics of equality and inequality do not simply rest in the materials themselves, but also in the perceptual apparatus through which we come to identify our Self as lacking, and an Other as having. The distinction between the haves and have-nots may originate from ideas of material wealth; but the difference is propagated more by a psychological insistence that a certain taste in a certain brand (of product, country, race, class) is what gives one the privilege to not only have taste, but to also dictate what counts as taste.
‘Monarchy is God’s sacred mission to grace and dignify the earth, to give ordinary people an idea to strive towards, an example of nobility and duty to raise them in their wretched lives. Monarchy is a calling from God…that is why you are anointed not appointed…’ — Queen Mary in the Netflix show, The Crown
We Use Our Minds to Make the Poor, But We Blame Our Eyes For Seeing Them
During colonization, Europeans worked on building an idea of Self for the colonized person, believing that she was not biologically evolved to know what that meant on her own terms. As the French believed an African was to be elevated through the strategy of ‘Assimilation’ into French culture, the North Americans built the concept of Manifest Destiny, which had white Americans convinced that it was their racial destiny to ‘redeem the Old World by High Example’. This concept of ‘Manifest Destiny’ was disseminated and made widely comprehensible through a painting by John Gast called American Progress in which a white woman in a white dress floats all over a farmland with a book in her arm.
European colonizers made a range of such images that showed them off as signals of global progress, and in turn, also made antithetical images of the colonized to validate us as symbols of stagnancy. In Zahid Chaudhary’s book—Afterimage of Empire: Photography in Nineteenth-Century India—he collects and analyzes a series of postcard photographs taken by the English colonials in India. He describes those postcard collections to have been ‘a growing archive of overarching rationality in which the colonized subjects figure as ‘other’, and English subjects figure as fully human.’ When they were not imposing their ideals, they were making spectacles of ours. Such that a sincere inhabitation of our natural selves was always spectacular and seemingly performative: Out of the ordinary but not extraordinary—simply abnormal.
Our fear to innovate our image is deeply tied to our fear to disrespect and to offend the powers that be. For us, thinking outside the box is to stand out of line. Historically, standing out of line has been not only discouraged, but threatened with severe consequences that affect the survival of individuals and communities alike. ‘Englishmen did not hesitate to boast or record their [killing] in writing,’ says JW Kaye, reflecting on the British counter-insurgency methods, writing, that they had ‘spared no one’ and that ‘peppering away at niggers was very pleasant pastime’. Their habit of looking at us with concepts that degrade us into other while inflating themselves into Human, made it easy to consider us game available for pleasurable hunting.
Eventually, in the wake of unforeseen uprisings, most of the colonialists left their projects of assimilation unfinished, leaving the colonized natives with the responsibility to then build a new Self— something that would represent the strength of our new independence, something that would be excellent. Not knowing that the word ‘excellent’ had already been compromised by years of us being forced to speak in the ways that ridiculed what our own form of excellence could ever be, the most sincere adaptation of ourselves looked to us like a spectacle that threatened not only respectability but also progress (read as colonial identity, authority, whiteness). As a result, terms like ‘authenticity’ and phrases like ‘our culture’ have come to locally manifest as a preservation of concepts and habits of looking that were passed down at first forcefully, then desperately by ancestors who were trying to become people of value, with value being defined by those who held capital, often formerly colonizers.
For too long, we have believed the effort it takes to become Other is the necessary purification that will eventually make us deserving of social status, financial stability and emotional intelligence. And in this digital age, it is through photography and image-making that we try to win validation for reaching perfection. Sadly, the narrative that photography is revolutionary overshadows the reality that our ideas of perfection are not. When my mother spoke her question, ‘Ee fu k’idi ka mmadu?’, she wasn’t asking anything at all. She was showing us—me who sat in the chair as the human being, and the house-girls who stood aside and watched—that this person, sitting pretty in an American dress with hairs tucked in breathlessly behind silk, is what a human being willing to be considered as one should feed to the eyes.
‘Now, you do see, that this is what a human being is, don’t you?’
If we cannot abstract ourselves from the aesthetics of that degradation, we can never truly innovate into a self-respecting culture that speaks only to its people for local understanding. It is not that Nigerians are not innovative, but it is that we have trapped ourselves within a lie that innovations must always fulfil a basic need, or be a provider of immense profit/capital. ‘It must be ‘practical’ because we are too poor to create for the sake of creation’ we believe. We are innovating constantly yet horizontally on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, reinventing the wheel over and over again and just hoping our new wheel is the one a tech company buys. Out of fear, disguised as respect, we stir ourselves in a culture burdened by a strenuous determination to transfer knowledge on a one-way stream—flowing down from our parents into us, and then from us into our children. Bracing a term like ‘authenticity’, we settle our future in the hands of the past, strapping ourselves away from any incentive to reflect and reconsider. I wonder if it is because we fear that in reconsideration, we might find an argument against the past which often seems like an argument against our elders. Are we unable to contest that what an elder can see sitting down, a child cannot even see standing up?
‘The familiar and the secure is always haunted by the strange and the unfamiliar, while the unfamiliar often has a troubling familiarity about it…the experience of the uncanny might be summed up as that moment when the seemingly natural reveals itself to be cultural after all…’
— Peter Buse and Andrew Stott
If You No Get Money….Ansofokwhat?
It’s easy to assume something that doesn’t pander to ‘perfection’ failed to reach it. But I don’t think this is the case with the video directed by Ruth Ossai and Akinola Davies in Gidi Gidi bu Ugwu Eze. I’ve decided to refer to such blaring imperfection, a directorial decision to turn away from ‘good’ or ‘pretty’ as the Stark Abstract. For the Stark Abstract to operate, creative direction must acknowledge that all work is dialogical in nature. Therefore, anything created will be in a conversation with all things before, around, and even against it. But, at the same time, the Stark Abstract should be a refusal to pander to the narrative of seamlessness; it should be an outright and deliberate rejection in the attempt to portray human beings as surficial creatures that can possibly signify authoritarian, omnipotent, and righteous perfection. The Stark Abstract is not an ‘almost perfect’ that never gets there; in fact, it is something that rejects seamlessness and union, and prefers to reveal stitches as design rather than collateral damage of the sewing machine.
I don’t know if this is particular to Dazed (where I first watched the video), or if this is a feature of this film everywhere, but the Kenzo video starts with a playful collage of still faces. And when I click play, my slow Internet allows me to watch the ‘wheel of death’ turn and turn in not so widening a gyre. This wheel of death is not just any rainbow circle: made up of the letters P.A.R.I.S, the wheel is a rotating reverence to the city of love and cafe culture. And if such a feature, that not many people with faster Internet might see, is so deliberately constructed, it leaves me without any option than to believe nothing about any of the video’s six minutes, forty-three seconds is a mistake.
The buffering ends and I am startled by sound before sight; images of skinny blades of grass coincide with the piercing shrill of the historic flute of the Igbos. Two men riding okadas stop to be adored by the gaze of the camera. I must ask myself, when has it ever been a camera-worthy occupation to ride an okada? The men, recently moving into our scope of sight, are now being ‘pieces-ed’ by our eyes. We size them into smaller bits to make smaller things bigger. This is not to reduce, but to acknowledge that we may miss something glorious if we do not peer. This is the moment we wish for when we walk pass a beautiful person wearing a beautiful scarf, and we can’t help ourselves from stealing glances, wishing we could stop the person and say to them ‘can I just look a little more closely for a little longer?’
The men have their necks iced with glittering broaches that fill the same screen that was once big enough to contain them, their okadas, and even the trees around. Now their shirts almost bleed out of the screen’s seams. Heavy must be the head that wears coloured light bulbs attached to white cowboy hats, for these men hold a stance that show no inclination to bend or bow. Neither smiling nor sad, they are simply just too ‘bad’ for a smile. I imagine the camera personified as someone yelling ‘NNA MEHN!! Unu dikwa too bad, di anyi!’. And as though of inverse relation, the more the hailing, the more they bone—knowing that all is as they expect it to be.
Black shoes covered, but not dirtied, in the red soil of eastern earth; the men acknowledge the eye of the lens and give it permission to enter, signalling for it to follow their flying capes into a patch of land, where a backdrop has been waiting for them all along. Let us understand: It is shocking to see a backdrop revealed as a backdrop, for the idea of a backdrop is to cover the reality and transport into the ideal. The backdrop is always supposed to cover a screen and conceal a scene behind what is seen. Before we can say Jack Robinson, the men are posing, chest to chest and heads turned toward the looking eye. They turn to hold hands while their names are provided in an electronic commentary box that looks like it jumped out of a mission impossible movie. Or that even, more impossibly, these two men were leads in their own movie as guardians of a seemingly impossible yet achieved future.
The next thing we see are hands that make. A girl is getting her head woven with Owu. From experience, I know it is painful as hell. So, while I want to read the calm expression on her face as serenity, I know that it might not be so simple after all—that she might be experiencing the storm before the slay. But she is alright though, we eventually see. She opens her eyes to look at our uncertain camera, wandering around like it has never seen the staple collection of pictures on the walls of salons, showing their very best and making it easy for us to ‘point and kill’.
And, like a blink, the camera switches from the formerly existing pictures to a newly created image of women’s faces in grids. Though the images are locked, the women inside them are free to wander. Two minutes have passed, and all the women are sashed with ‘Miss Nsukka’ but no two queens wear the same crown: one has beads streaming down her forehead like bangs, while the other has a net-like headdress. For a third queen, it is simply the upstanding jungle of Owu that constructs her own hair into a crown. As they stand in front of a new backdrop, all the queens get their separate moment to be seen by the gaze that looks.
Then, they all stand together. The same futuristic box that introduced the men to us does the same for the girls. They were never faceless but now, they are no longer nameless. Three new boys are introduced into the scene. Three of them are creatures with sunglasses for eyes: two sunglasses to one person seems to be the evolutionary preference of these creatures. Because they are non-human, do we assume they are subhuman?
Three minutes are left into the video and the subjects of the looking eye are already thirsty, filling themselves with the cheap, poorly filtered water that is, ironically, ‘Pure Water’. They all wear brandless sunglasses that are reminiscent of what was once popular in the era of Men in Black movies, but time is often merciless to those who try and catch up to it. It is in catching up that the supposed chaff is separated from the wealthy wheat. But it is during the separation that we realize the wealthy wheat are simply those who get tired of running with the chaff, drop out of the race, and build a new stadium where the game is completely different. In other words, when poor people start to attain certain signifiers of wealth, the rich often adopt a new way to make new signifiers—the unavailable—advertised as the exceptional.
The gazed are smiling now. Laughing, not for us, but with each other. A new backdrop is introduced: palm trees, white sands and blue waters are supposed to hold the weight of three Igbo babes (two standing, one sitting), tubers of yam, and jerry cans that hold almost any fluid that needs holding. The backdrop has white beach sand in a place where there is only the red dust and the obvious irony draws me. The blaring dissonance brings me to conclude that this is absurd. Not absurd as a negative ‘weird’, but absurd simply as a non-reality.
As a theatre maker, the absurd is appealing as a stylistic exaggeration of reality that creates something that is as ridiculous as it is threatening. It is especially threatening when everyone knows that the particular ridicule is a version of a current reality that underlies the imagined and performed hyper-reality. For example, the angst I feel watching the sci-fi TV series, Black Mirror, is from recognizing that it is a hyper-extension of realities that already exist. I cringe because the ridiculous is really possible. This discomfort I feel is what Freud calls uncanny, ‘that class of frightening which leads back to what is known of old and long familiar’.
Four minutes and eighteen seconds in the video is a magical turn of events where the women leave their sashes behind and pick up the horse tail that garnishes each step. The horsetail speaks fluent joy. The women are dancing to a different tune than what we are hearing. ‘Ije!’ I say to myself as I watch from the sidelines. Brown feet raising red dust, nothing here is dirty. Men shaking their waists and blowing their life into the flutes. ‘Egwu!’ I hail. Almost five minutes have gone into what we are calling the past and, now, the women are huddled together, looking where they want. Some people are looking at the camera, some aren’t. The Mmanwu pose pretty in front of a pink banner.
Chinua Achebe is known for revealing the etymology of the word ‘Mmadu’ (Human Being) as a combination of ‘Mmanwu’ (meaning Spirit) and ‘Ndu’ (meaning Life). Human beings are merely Spirits that are alive (in the now of our here). This etymology follows the historical Igbo philosophy that the realm of death is not the end of life, but a different axis of our existential journey. In fact, legend says that in the marketplace, you may find those who have retired from death, in nostalgia for the earth. I like to think that after all our nagging that the world is a terrible place filled with terrible people, in death, we may feel homesick for it. One of the Mmanwu still wears a wedding ring, death never took away the treasure of his* marital bliss.
At 5:43, all the gazed are enjoying an ecstasy that excludes us. Their mouths are moving, and I assume new sound is being produced. Unfortunately, the soundtrack of our experience doesn’t adjust for this new sound—whatever they have there is for them alone. We are reminded once again that our eyes may see the world, but not all the world is a sight for us. Such that if seeing is, indeed, believing and we know that what we are seeing is not everything, we must question what it is we end up believing. We often assume that sensing, (in other words, how we perceive) is common and, therefore, objective. However, what is present is not a synonym for what is seen because all-seeing is informed by desires of the future, bred by our notions of the past. As Zahid Chaudhary so exquisitely says, ‘while sensing the world is inseparable from (though not identical with) making sense of it, the traffic between sense perception and ideation is historically conditioned’.
Finally, at the end, Kenzo merchandise enjoys a moment of glory on a tree that has probably seen more about this life than we all have. And then, the two men who showed generous hospitality and invited us in at the beginning, appear. Their clothes are different, but their stance is a little less ‘cool’, a little more able to say what photographers love to hear: ‘cheese’⎈
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