The Sum of Encounters
There, in Umuahia, on a rainy afternoon, a dead man was moved on a stretcher from the hospital ward to the morgue. The man was the age of my father, whom I was sitting beside. I remember noting, as I glanced at each man, that they radiated a similar serenity. One man breathless, his eyes closed; the other sitting in pain, without worry or pity in his eyes. The men who carried their dead nodded briefly to me, bridging, if that were possible, the chasm between bereaved and comforter.
In the hospital, a fortnight earlier, my father had cried in pain, requesting water. Those who know these things say a man must not be given water immediately after surgery, otherwise nothing but death. Yet my father was thirsty. Alone with him, a visitor, upon bringing a bottle of water toward him, suddenly heard a voice from behind. “STOP!” But when he turned, there was no one—it must have been the voice of God. He dropped the bottle and ran for the doctor, who told him he’d saved a man’s life. This is a story my mother told me. I believed her simply and fully. Despite her propensity to exaggerate, I knew her truest sentiment was also mine. A corpse is the quintessential expression of sedentary life. None of us had imagined my father unmoving.
My mother told me of my father crying when he saw the state of his house. For years, he had sent money from California to Afikpo for the building of the house in ancestral land. The house was to have planted his feet and my mother’s feet where they belonged. But his friends had been reckless with his money, and the house amounted only to a pile of blocks, spread out in ungainly fashion. He cried, she said, bent over a cornerstone. In the years that followed, he kept moving from place to place, from Abuja to Lagos to Ile-Ife to Ohafia to Umuahia, shifting between grounds known to an itinerant Presbyterian preacher.
If a dwelling could be permanent, it would be his soul.
In my family, though, a man’s soul was known as restless. My grandfather was pronounced dead more than once. Lying on a bed, he returned time and again to the world of the living. After his first death, he returned to name his debtors, who owed him a thousand naira and who’d sold his goats without giving account. After his second death, he came speaking of how he must be buried: no, he said, they shouldn’t worry my father much, but my grandfather insisted on a burial owed a man his age. There was a third, final death.
And then, what happens to an itinerant soul, one who does not dwell? There is hardly any way to tell. To dwell subtly shifts in meaning in different languages—in High German, Saxon, old English, and Arabic, for example: to stay in peace, to be in peace, to reflect, to settle, to be still, to stop. His soul had stopped; pain had departed him.
Which is perhaps why the artist Saba Innab, while in Marrakech, tells a story.
In AD 711–710, after landing on the coastal ship overlooking the rock later named as Jabal-ul Tariq, and later still Gilbraltar, the conqueror Tariq ibn Ziyād ordered the burning of the ships that had brought his troops from Africa.
Humankind is perhaps uncertain about wanderlust, how to mitigate the growing temptation to move. The ships must be burnt.
Saba Innab once drew a map based on Google maps of the Jordanian, Syrian, and Lebanese frontiers with Palestine. The border is unfolded and retraced from one side, the other side of Palestine. Underneath this map, she provides the etymology of dwell, for which there are a range of translations, expansions of meaning. There is no limit in words. And yet she wants the limit, this time a physical one, to be legible in her map.
The map is a space of limit, where lines are drawn.
One day at dinner, while Manthia Diawara was making One World in Relation, his film on Édouard Glissant, the filmmaker turned to the philosopher and asked, “How can I simplify your ideas for a wider audience?” Glissant looked at him and smiled. “If I were you, I would wait until we were in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, then point the camera at the mass of water, its abyssal expanse. And that would be the whole film in one shot.”
The ocean is the world, without partition and division, only depth and expanse. Because of its depth, it serves as a burial place. So if you point a camera at a mass of water, you get an opaque representation, of gods and languages and objects and songs, everything thrown in with bodies from the West African coast. The opacity of the sea is therefore its rich, dangerous promise. Some will drown, and some will reach harbor.
Ingrid and Carin, while in Gorée Island, saw little boys jump from moored ferries into the sea, reaching for coins thrown by tourists. They fell into the water like flashes of light, sparkling when sunlight reflected from their wet skin. The little boys returned with coins between their teeth. This tradition dates back to at least the late nineteenth century, when Dakar was founded. In all this time, it is probable, no little boy has returned without a coin between his teeth.
However deep the sea, the coin is fetched.
I imagine a little boy descending and ascending. Upright one moment, he holds the rails of the ferry, and in the next he dives. The reality of those who travel is that their bodies link the vertical with the horizontal. You float in the sky, or you walk with steadied feet. It is a world, as Saba Innab says, where the tower can also be a border, in which steps are an oxymoron.
There is no other way to understand the step as an oxymoron except by noting the difference between overland travel and travel by air. My body knows this difference. I have driven for days from Lagos to Dakar, and I have traversed the same distance in a few hours, flying across. I ask Ingrid and Carin, upon their return, if they know this difference.
Our traveling bodies are ultimately oxymoronic. We contain masses of time lost, time regained, distance compressed, distance expanded.
I relay to Ingrid and Carin the story of a Swedish woman in Dakar.
Me and L undress in front of each other in a bare room with yellow walls. My bra has left red marks on my back. My breasts have scars that I am so familiar with I don’t even think about them anymore. Skin is sticky and it takes time to get into the swimsuit, fat bulks up before it settles behind the fabric and stays. We smile at each other. We step outside, barefoot on a tiled floor, we crisscross parasols and plastic tables and then the swimming pool opens up in front of us and we become two white bodies in swimsuits moving in an open air room and we walk along the pool and the water where people hang out. And when we have walked all the way down to the end of the pool there is a ladder and we climb it down in to the water with our arses first and now I am in the water and I cut it with a stroke followed by my body dragging behind me. And now I’m swimming in an alley of people on both sides of me and they are looking at me. Halfway through I’m stopped by a young man who explains that I’m going in the wrong direction. I’m swimming along the pool when I should be swimming across the pool and my body grows. I am in the middle of a swimming lesson and therefore they swim across and not along as they are trying to learn how to swim and that’s why they cling to the sides when I cut the water in half and leave them with no choice but to watch how I claim space and how my volume raises the height of the water which makes it deeper and again my body takes up space that is not its to take.1
I could write an entire history of the West African coast based on the space foreigners take up. The economy of whiteness: Women visit studios in the artist village once used as barracks for Chinese construction workers. And then the hawking artists see the white women—who are artists, unknown to them—and think they have come to buy, not to gawkily wonder at art wares.
In the image of an encounter, a Nigerian man stares at a fair-haired man who has placed his knuckles on a door. The face of the Nigerian man contains a mélange of expressions, mainly startled and uncertain, even irritated, perhaps fearful. One foot has emerged out of the door. The other remains inside, bent backward as in a run. One hand holds the knob of the door. The other grasps the door frame. A part of his arm has held the curtain apart.
In The New Masquerades, a Nigerian television sitcom that aired during the 1980s, the character Gringory Akabogu is meeting a white man for the first time. The fair-haired man has just arrived. The photograph fills the entire frame of a wall at the entrance to Uche James Iroha’s house. Iroha’s father, who created the show in 1976, acted in it as Gringory Akabogu. The still image captures the moment of an encounter that foretells other encounters between stranger and host. It is as though all encounters of this kind are punctuated by a question: who loses, who gains?
There is a Lost or Gain Valley in Amos Tutuola’s My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. A slender stick enables travelers to walk over the valley, but it is so slender no one can walk on it with clothes on. So, before crossing over, you must take off your clothes. You arrive at the other side of the valley naked, hoping to pick up the clothes of those who have crossed in the opposite direction. Perhaps the clothes you pick up are worse than those you dropped, or perhaps they are better. This is why it is called the Lost or Gain Valley. Yet it is said that no stranger crosses the valley without a loss. All the ghosts and ghostesses of the area are very poor. They survive by exchanging their wretched clothes for the expensive apparel of travelers.
The man is in a place as the place is in him. He owns a prominent courtyard within a prominent atelier in Dakar’s Rue Jules Ferry. Born to a family of landowners, he knows the value of land, what permanence is worth. And he knows—there is no doubt he knows this—how discarded things can carry on with new life. For instance, on seeing the T-shirts in the courtyard strung on trees, you might think they have stayed that way for at least four decades. The dusty pieces of fabric are strewn, hanging, rotting, one with the earth. The T-shirts are like embodied memories of his dead companions. On one T-shirt are words about the poet and politician Aimé Césaire. On another, “It’s hard to sing with an empty glass.” At almost any given time, there are red flags, used shoes, dolls, discarded X-rays, drawings, or paintings. At one point, an enshrouded corpse-like frame lay in state. You could say the loitering spirit of the dead is welcome in the land of the living.
Issa Samb. Someone asks him, “What is an exhibition?” He says, “What we are doing right now. The link to the people and the place and the objects become witnesses.” And later, “Could you explain what spirit is?” He says, “No. If you talk about it, you’re not doing it, understand?”
Today’s word atelier is from the Middle French astelier, a carpenter’s workshop or woodpile. It also comes from the word astele: a piece of wood, a shaving of wood, a splinter. An atelier is an atelier because things are messy in it. Its effects aren’t arranged on the presumption of category. All items exist in potentia. An atelier is not a place people walk through without bumping into something. Unlike a museum.
“Lepp looy wut rekk am na marsé Colobane.” You can find anything in the world at Marché Colobane. Dakar people go there mostly for secondhand items. Shoes and clothing ferried across the Atlantic are arranged in rows for potential purchase. The world is passed down in these shoes and clothes. Bodies in Dakar bear the whiff of bodies elsewhere.
Ingrid and Carin visited Issa Samb’s atelier. I relay to them a dream. There are several versions, but in the frequent one it is dark and I walk with a camera in a courtyard. Only dolls and mannequins, propped on a tree or reclining on a chair or laid on a stool, are present. They are uncertain about my presence: are we safe, will he harm us, are we to be displaced? I am equally uncertain about my intentions, provocateur or friend, flaneur or voyeur. It is this uncertainty that made me bring the camera. In the dark, it is only possible that I take photographs with a flash. I know, for a reason I do not recall, that light should not fall on the dolls. They are owl-like, reclusive things. And it is a matter of their continued survival in the courtyard. Yet I do what I have been warned against. In the next scene of the dream, there is a large protest by dolls standing on the stairs of a museum. And in the final scene, I am whimpering in a corner, facing a wall of defaced paintings, shamed.
I put the dream away as confounding.
Once I relay my dream of maltreated dolls, I recall a strange hospital in a novel by Ahmed Bouanani. The patients are “porters, storekeepers, stevedores, the unemployed, smugglers of every kind, the cast-offs of incomprehensible wars and an aborted nationalist resistance, peasants without land, without bread, left behind by chance like febrile, routed castaways, with their cargo of off-seasons and coarse language, still smelling of corn bread and cow dung. Sickness has transformed them into diurnal specters, wobbling, spitting, always a spirited insult on their tongues.”2
“Le passé n’a aucune importance dans mon travail,” Issa Samb once said. The past has no importance in my work. In Dakar, you have to wrestle with demons of today’s incomprehensible wars, carried about on the bodies of those dispossessed and despairing. No one who visits the city fails to see the children begging on the street, or the Mouride with tattered shoes holding on to a vision of paradise.
Regarding their time at the Centre for Contemporary Art, Lagos, which houses a library of art books, I tell Ingrid and Carin the story of an illiterate man who lived close to the Atlas Mountains.
He inherited from his ancestors a chest full of books and manuscripts and spent entire nights reading them. Once he fell asleep, and when he woke up he went crazy. For fifteen days, he believed he was living in a very deep well. He dug, dug furiously, but he never managed to reach the groundwater. He was extremely thirsty. On the sixteenth day, his wife made him a precious talisman that restored his reason. Except that day, he became illiterate. He did not even know how to write his name. When he rediscovered the chest, he took an ax and smashed it to pieces. Later, when asked where the books and manuscripts went, he pondered for a long time and replied: I believe that I left them at the bottom of the well.3
Lagos, read like a book, is a mirror walking down the road. What’s reflected contains an outlandish narrative. Our wildest dreams converge on windowsills, where people will claim to have seen a woman morph into an owl and back to a woman. Or from that vantage point, an adolescent boy swears he’d seen a man stiffen to his death, accursed for sexual infidelity. In this city of no improbable tale, what are libraries good for?
There is an American artist who, every year, asks his students to illustrate any section from a novel he’s chosen. This year, he chose Amos Tutuola’s My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. I know a woman in his class.
She chose to illustrate the following passage:
And before they could come back to chase me again, as I was running helter-skelter in that bush for my life I mistakenly fell into a very deep pond which was full of water as it was in the rainy season and also covered by the weeds which disallowed me from seeing that there was a pond. But to my surprise, immediately I saw my shadow in this water that I was a cow in form I changed to a person as before I used the smelling-ghost’s juju which changed me so.4
In her illustration, the hero is half man, half cow. This is the moment of transformation, but it’s equally the split second in which he isn’t fully transformed. The difficulty of depicting a man with half a cow’s body makes the drawing irresolute. In fact, constrained by the amount of time her teacher has given her, she is unable to include in her sketch a depiction of the pond. The drawing fails in this respect. It is only possible to speak about the drawing based on her intentions.
She was raised in Nigeria, where Fulani herdsmen walk with cattle northward and southward, through the highways, toward oncoming traffic, with the swagger of pastoralists not beholden to urban land laws.
First she says, with a laugh, why she chose that passage. In a little surburb of Abuja known as Karshi, where she went to boarding school, cows constantly overran the neighboring farms. Herdsmen who settled with their families behind the school shepherded the cows. And there was constant news of adolescent herdsmen turning into cows when chased by angry farmhands.
“It’s remarkable, isn’t it?” she goes on to say. “They work with a different map. The lines date further than the amalgamation. It’s precolonial. It’s handed down by ancestors. Imagine a father describing to his son an entire town with the movement of his hands. Pointing to him where the coastline begins, so that he can avoid bringing the cows too close to the sea.”
“Imagine a map uttered in this way. It’s older than the Cantino Planisphere, the earliest map to show the entire coastline of Africa, made in Portugal in 1502.”
Legendary poets shed their borders.
Ingrid and Carin traveled from New York to Marrakech, then Dakar, and then Lagos. In all those places, they dined with artists and curators, walked through art exhibitions, and marveled at market stalls. They relayed their travel stories to me, and now I make fable out of fact. What I tell is, in the first place, a patchwork of roving sentiments.
In My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, there is an invisible magnetic missive sent to the hero from home. After over two decades of living in the bush of ghosts, he dreams a dream, which is that he is in his hometown, eating with his mother and brother, playing with his friends. In the morning, he remembers the dream and feels the need to return home. The dream recurs nightly, and with its recurrence the pressure to return intensifies. He becomes neurotic, always dreaming without sleeping or closing his eyes.
Unknown to him, his people at home go to a fortune-teller and ask if he is alive or dead. The fortune-teller confirms he is alive in a bush yet has no intention of returning home, and so the fortune-teller summons him with the power of an “Invisible Missive Magnetic Juju,” which can bring a lost person back home from an unknown place, however far away it might be, with or without the will of the lost person. The fortune-teller sends the juju every night.
The hero returns home. But one day, while with his mother and brother, he hints to them that he intends to return to the bush of ghosts. Once every century, the ghosts celebrate the “secret society of ghosts.” He wants to attend the festival, returning with its news to them and the rest of the world. His mother and brother warn against his attendance, yet the hero knows he will return to the world of ghosts. He’d dreamt of his presence at the festival. Regardless of their character, whether good or bad, his dreams come true.
To the reader, he says, “You will hear about this news in due course.”
This certainty—or, less optimistically, this resignation—is one shared by anyone who makes a life in the traffic of borders. A life of being away from home only to return tainted by wanderlust, unable to stay. A traveler for whom all restless cities appear similar in size and in labyrinth.
The final photograph Ingrid sends to me is of her in an airplane bound for Dakar, pictured by Carin. The window frames the sun in its midday glow, making Ingrid’s profile bear the hint of a silhouette. She has a notebook on the tray in front of her. Her ears are covered with headphones. She’s writing. Her hands give the photograph its character, in the way she holds the notebook in place with her left hand and inclines her pen rightward. What cannot be missed, given the placement of her hands, are the letters filling both pages of the notebook. Although indecipherable, and although a part of the notebook is obscured by dazzling light, her letters are visibly steadied and without slant. Steady letters of a woman on an airplane—the image it calls up is a person sure-footed in transit. I do not know how to deal with this. How is there steadiness in transit?
The paradox of Ingrid’s photograph is the paradox of being peripatetic. A flaneur is occasionally a vagabond.
I recall walking lost in Malaga, at the verge of despair. I’d knowingly made a detour, leading to another detour, an unfamiliar alleyway. I ascended hilly pathways, meandered through backyards. Five hours of walking this way, without my wallet, unable to communicate in Spanish. When I eventually found my way to the hostel, with hurting calves, I fell into a slumber. I woke forgetting lines of a poem I composed while walking, to keep angst away.
The Travelogue Series of commissioned essays is an initiative of the Carnegie Int’l, 57th ed., 2018 to open up the process of travel and research leading up to the exhibition.
Emmanuel Iduma’s Travelogue is based on the 14-day research trip Curator Ingrid Schaffner conducted with Companion Carin Kuoni to Morocco for the closing of the Marrakesh Biennial, Senegal for the opening of the Dakar Biennial, and Lagos, Nigeria in May 2016. Carin Kuoni is the Director of the Vera List Center for Art and Politics, The New School, New York.
- Johanna Gustavsson, after a trip to Dakar. “Johanna Gustavsson on Dakar,” Practice International, http://practiceinternational.org/research/johanna-gustavsson-on-dakar. ↵
- Ahmed Bouanani, excerpt from L’Hôpital (The Hospital), trans. Lara Vergnaud, http://intranslation.brooklynrail.org/french/excerpt-from-the-hospital. ↵
- Ahmed Bouanani, “The Illiterate Man,” World Literature Today 89, no. 6 (November 2015). ↵
- Amos Tutuola, The Palm-Wine Drinkard and My Life in the Bush of Ghosts (New York: Grove Press, 1994), 48. ↵