Omu and the red cap controversy in Okpanam

Northcote Thomas photograph of Omu, Okpanam, 1912
The Omu of Okpanam, photographed by Northcote Thomas in September 1912. NWT 4107 and 4108 (MAA P.32118 and P.32119)

Over the last ten months, as part of our fieldwork for the [Re:]Entanglements project, we have been conducting research with 17 communities in present-day Anambra and Delta states in Nigeria. We have been revisiting locations that formed part of Northcote Thomas’s itineraries during his 1910-11 and 1912-13 anthropological surveys of Igbo-speaking peoples, equipped with copies of Thomas’s photographs, phonograph recordings and images of artefact collections.

During our conversations and interviews with community members, and through setting up informal ‘pop-up’ exhibitions in these locations, Thomas’s photographs have elicited a wide spectrum of reactions, ranging from rejection and indifference to excitement, emotional connection, inquisitiveness, contestation and much more. In particular, we have been struck by how local people use their mobile phones to re-photograph the prints of Thomas’s photographs that we bring with us when visiting a community and how quickly these new digital copies circulate on WhatsApp, Facebook and other social media to extended family and community networks internationally.

Sometimes a single photograph can provoke especially strong responses, often because it touches on a ‘raw nerve’ or intervenes in contemporary issues, reminding us how history matters in the present. Thomas’s photograph no.4108 is one such case.

NWT 4108. Northcote Thomas’s photograph of the Omu of Okpanam, 1912. Scanned from glass plate negative. (RAI 400.38268)

Photograph no.4108 is a portrait of a woman with white marks around her eyes and on her forehead created with nzu (kaolin chalk). Around her neck she wears an assortment of necklaces made from various beads and shells. On her head is a cap that has a band with a series of small triangular blades and feathers sticking out of it. According to the brief note in Thomas’s photo register, the subject of the photograph is the ‘Omu’ of Okpanam, in present-day Delta State, Nigeria.

Excerpt from Northcote Thomas Igbo Report on Omu
Excerpt from Northcote Thomas’s Anthropological Report on Ibo-speaking Peoples of Nigeria, Part IV, Law and Custom of the Ibo of the Asaba District, S. Nigeria, p.189.

In volume four of his Anthropological Report on Ibo-speaking Peoples of Nigeria, Thomas gives some explanation of the role of the Omu in various communities in Anioma – the territory of the Igbo-speaking population West of the Niger River, which was the focus of Thomas’s 1912-13 tour. According to Report, Omu is the ‘market queen’, who presides over the market and serves the shrine in it. She enforces order, collects dues and controls the prices of goods for sale. In some places, Thomas records that the market cannot begin until the Omu arrives, and that she may fine the women of her town for non-attendance and forbid them to go to more distant markets instead of attending that in their own town. At Okpanam, Thomas tells us that the Omu sent her stool to the market as a sign for it to begin.

Northcote Thomas made around 30 photographs in Okpanam, many recording the title-taking ceremony of Obi Mgbeze that was happening when he visited in September 1912. However, during our fieldwork in Okpanam, it was the photograph of the Omu that consistently attracted most attention and elicited the most comment.

Photo elicitation in Okpanam
Photo elicitation fieldwork in Okpanam. Left: great grandchildren of Obi Mgbeze re-photographing Thomas’s photographs of their great-grandfather’s Obi title-taking ceremony; middle: the present-day Omu of Okpanam, HRM Obi Martha Dunkwu, examining Northcote Thomas’s Anthropological Report and photographs; right: community members discussing Thomas controversial 1912 photograph of the Omu of Okpanam during the 2019 Iwaji (New Yam Festival). Photographs by George Agbo.

As Thomas’ photograph of the Omu was viewed and re-photographed, the recurring comment it produced was: Okwa ha si na Omu adi ekpu okpu ododo? (‘Why do people argue that the Omu does not wear a red cap?’) The comment indexes an ongoing contestation about the right to wear the red cap in the community.

Red cap worn by the Omu of Okpanam
The okpu ododo or red cap of the present-day Omu of Okpanam. Photograph by George Agbo.

During colonial times in Igbo-speaking areas of Nigeria, the red cap became part of the regalia of office for senior title holders, including the so-called ‘Red Cap Chiefs’ or warrant chiefs. More recently, concern has been expressed that this symbol of authority is being worn by those who have no right to wear it.

Premium Times Red Cap article
Article from the Premium Times discussing the appropriation of the red cap by those who are not entitled to wear it.

In Okpanam the issue of the okpu ododo or red cap has become entangled in local political disputes. Traditionally, Okpanam’s community was headed by the Diokpa-Isi, the eldest man in the community. As the administrative demands on the Diokpa-Isi grew, and considering his old age, members of Okpanam community at home and in the diaspora agreed to institute the new post of Ugoani. The process, which began in 2004 and was approved by Delta State government in 2009, was followed by the election of Dr Michael Mbanefo Ogbolu as Ugoani in May 2010. Following the performance of the associated rite in 2011, he was given staff of office by the government. The Ugoani was intended to act as the representative of the Diokpa-Isi and Izu Ani (General Assembly), but remain answerable to them. Over the past few years, however the Ugoani and his council have assumed greater power, such that the Ugoani has come to be recognized as the modern political head of Okpanam by the State, while the Diokpa-Isi, Izu Ani, Obi titled men and Omu have become regarded as ‘traditional’ roles. This has led to tensions and the red cap has become a symbol of the squabble.

Nigerian Voice red cap article
Article from The Nigerian Voice reporting on the Ugoani and Ugoani-in-Council position on the Omu’s entitlement to wear the red cap.

Against the custom of the community, which stipulates that only Obi title holders and the Omu (whose status is equivalent to that of an Obi) are eligible to wear the red cap, the Ugoani and his cabinet members began to incorporate the red cap into their regalia, even though they do not hold the Obi title. The Obis then sued the Ugoani and his council, demanding that they stop wearing the red cap. As the contestations escalated, both sides issued statements and counter-statements in the Nigerian press and in various online forums. Responses of the Ugoani and Ugoani-in-Council were reported in The Nigerian Voice, for example, stating that the Omu is only a chief (albeit a ‘respected and revered one’), not of equivalent status as an Obi, and is therefore not entitled to wear the red cap either.

These statements were refuted strongly by Obi title holders in Okpanam, who drew attention to the ancient institution of the Omu compared to the recent establishment of the Ugoani role. In a lengthy post to the Anioma Trust Facebook page, Obi Nwaokobia was reported as stating that the ‘Ugoani has no authority to make a statement on Omu Okpanam’. Obi Nwaokobia further explained that ‘the institution of Omu has existed [since] the founding of Okpanam’ and that she is ‘the Traditional Mother of the community and she enjoys all the rights and privileges of a Royal Mother’. When an Omu dies, like Obis, she is buried in a sitting position, and in Okpanam, the Omu is more than a chief but in the same rank as Obis.

When we came to Okpanam, we were not aware of the contestation around the Omu’s status or her right to wear the red cap. When we learnt of the controversy, however, it was not surprising to find that the Thomas’s photograph of the Omu in 1912 elicited such a powerful response. Although the photographs are monochrome, the style of the hat with its band and feathers is clear. Here was irrefutable evidence that the Omu traditionally wore the red cap.

Agala Emma Facebook post, Omu of Okpanam 1912 and 2019
Images uploaded to the Okpanam Indigene Facebook page juxtaposing Northcote Thomas’s photograph of the Omu of Okpanam, taking in 1912, and a portrait photograph of the present-day Omu, HRM Obi Martha Dunkwu. The post has elicited much comment.

For many, the ‘red cap controversy’ has been settled by an archival image. Photographs of Thomas’s photograph soon began circulating on social media after our visit, bringing it to the attention of the international Anioma community. At the ‘Okpanam Indigene’ Facebook page, for example, Emma Agala juxtaposed Thomas’s 1912 photograph with that of the current Omu, HRM Obi Martha Dunkwu, and included a long extract from Thomas’s Anthropological Report on the role of the Omu. The extensive research of the [Re:]Entanglements project itself was cited as confirming its authenticity. Among the 59 comments to the post, Martha Dunkwu herself remarks: ‘You are right. The red cap is there, the feather, the beads, the Akwa Ocha. Did you notice that the Aziza [that] the male Obis use is on her red cap? It’s wonderful that the British in 1912 recorded Omu-ship in Okpanam’.

No doubt the debates will continue in Okpanam, but the incident demonstrates how the ethnographic archive may intervene in contemporary events in ways that we have not anticipated. Our fieldwork following Northcote Thomas’s itineraries in West Africa can present many challenges, but the story of Omu and her red cap reminds us of the importance of bringing back this archive to the communities whose histories it documents.

Colonial Indexicality

Kelani Abass, Stamping History series, National Museum, Lagos
Four of Kelani Abass’s ‘stamping history’ works, which form part of his Colonial Indexicality series, for the [Re:]Entanglements exhibition at the National Museum, Lagos.

On 21 September 2019, the [Re:]Entanglements: Contemporary Art & Colonial Archives exhibition opened at the National Museum, Lagos. The opening event was attended by an estimated 300 people, including many from Nigeria’s vibrant arts scene. Following on from our successful exhibition in Benin City, this collaboration between the [Re:]Entanglements project, the National Museum, and the Lagos-based artist Kelani Abass continues our exploration of artistic engagements with the archival traces of Northcote Thomas’s anthropological surveys.

Scenes from opening of [Re:]Entanglements exhibition, National Museum, Lagos
Scenes from the [Re:]Entanglements exhibition opening, National Museum, Lagos, 21 September 2019. Photographs by Paul Basu and Nnaemezie Asogwa.

Unlike the Benin exhibition, this initiative focused specifically on the photograph albums from Thomas’s three Nigerian surveys, which we have discovered in the National Museum library and archive collections. Indeed, these albums, dating from 1909 to 1913, appear to be the only substantial archival traces of Thomas’s anthropological surveys to have survived in Nigeria. The initiative is also different insofar as it features the work of a single artist rather than a collective.

Pages from one of the photograph albums from Northcote Thomas’s 1909-10 survey of Edo-speaking peoples. Note the index panel at the bottom right of each page. National Museum, Lagos.

Over the course of a year, Kelani Abass has produced two series of works for the exhibition under the common title of Colonial Indexicality. These both employ techniques developed in earlier works by Abass, including his Calendar and Stamping History series, first exhibited at exhibitions at the Centre for Contemporary Art, Lagos in 2013 and 2016 respectively. In both of these series, Abass explored a more personal history through sifting through the archives of his parent’s printing business in Abeokuta, incorporating both the technologies of hand-operated letter-press printing and the accumulated materials – photographs, leaflets, design motifs – deposited at the press by customers. The Colonial Indexicality series produced for the [Re:]Entanglements exhibition connects this family history with a broader cultural history as refracted through Northcote Thomas’s colonial anthropological lens.

Indexicality in its most literal sense. Northcote Thomas took over 8,000 photographs during his four anthropological surveys. Each was individually numbered and entered in a pre-numbered photograph register book. We know that negative No.649 is of a boy named Ike, and that this was one of 122 photographs Thomas made in Okpe.

The pervasiveness of numbering systems and indexes are, of course, characteristics of all archives, and the archives of Thomas’s anthropological tours are no exception. Thomas numbered each of his photographic negatives, for example, and he made notes about each negative in a series of pre-numbered photographic register books. Most literally, the negative number acts as an index in relation to corresponding prints, but also indexes other information, for instance, the identity of the person photographed, where the photograph was taken, and places the particular photograph in relation to a sequence. We know, for example, that Thomas’s negative number 649 is of a boy named Ike, and is one of a series of 122 photographs that Thomas made in Okpe in present-day Edo North in 1909. There is a further note in the corresponding photographic register – ‘meas.’ – short-hand for ‘measurement’, recording that Thomas also recorded Ike’s anthropometric measurements, indexing how this young man entered other forms of colonial scientific calculation.

It is no surprise, then, that the theme of numbers and numbering emerges prominently in Abass’s artistic responses to the albums in the National Museum. Indeed, each work in the Colonial Indexicality series bears a simple number as its title – the number of the particular photograph the work itself indexes.

[Re:]Entanglements exhibition view, National Museum, Lagos
Installation view. Room 1 of the [Re:]Entanglements: Contemporary Art & Colonial Archives exhibition, National Museum, Lagos. Note the juxtaposition of Thomas’s original photograph albums, the large-scale digital prints and Kelani Abass’s paintings. Photograph by Paul Basu.

The principle of indexicality is also evident in the very grammar of the exhibition. In the first room of the exhibition, we brought three elements into relation: examples of the original photograph albums from Thomas’s 1909-10 Edo tour; enlarged digital prints of a selection of pages from these albums; and a series of 12 mixed media paintings by Abass that respond to the particular qualities of these albums.

Kelani Abass, Colonial Indexicality series, National Museum, Lagos
A page from Northcote Thomas’s 1909-10 Edo album alongside one of Kelani Abass’s Colonial Indexicality paintings (No.256). The index panel on the album page provides the inspiration for Abass’s background, while Thomas’s neg.256 (top left) is the source for the foreground figures.

The pages of the Edo albums are arranged in a uniform manner, with five photographs in a grid with a paper index panel cut to the same size as the prints and pasted in the grid. For each of the 55×68 cm paintings, created in acrylic and oil on canvas, mounted onto board, Abass reproduces these index panels as his backgrounds. He captures the ‘texture’ of the yellowed parchment-like paper panels, complete with Thomas’s handwriting and various other ticks, annotations and crossings-out that have been added in different coloured inks. He then selects one of the photographs from the same album page, which he paints in tones which evoke the photographic originals. The number of the photograph is used as a title for the work, which is also inset into the painting either using letterpress types or components of a numbering machine.

Kelani Abass, Colonial Indexicality series, National Museum, Lagos
Six of Kelani Abass’s Colonial Indexicality portraits, clockwise from top left, No.130, No.237A, No.239, No.248, No.245 and No.243. Acrylic, oil on canvas mounted on board with either letterpress type or numbering machine inserts.

In the second room of the exhibition, the juxtaposition of original archives, digital prints and Abass’s contemporary artworks continues. Additional themes of disintegration and dissolution are invoked here, pointing to the fragility of the archive and the impermanence of memory. In one 105×127 cm digital print of an album page from Thomas’s 1912-13 tour of Igbo-speaking peoples, for example, the faces in Thomas’s physical type photographs have faded to little more than ghostly impressions. Indeed, one objective of the exhibition was to draw attention to the urgent need for better storage and conservation of the National Museum’s important archival collections.

[Re:]Entanglements exhibition view, National Museum, Lagos
Installation view. Room 2 of the exhibition. Enlarged, ghost-like images from the Northcote Thomas albums are juxtaposed with addition examples of the historical albums themselves and with the second part of Kelani Abass’s Colonial Indexicality series. This room also featured enlarged digital prints of some of Thomas’s remarkable panoramic photoagraphs. Photograph by Paul Basu.
Broken pages from one of the albums from Northcote Thomas’s 1910-11 tour of Igbo-speaking peoples. Some of the albums in the National Museum are in extremely poor condition and in urgent need of conservation.

Abass refers to the second series of works in Colonial Indexicality as a continuation of a ‘performative oeuvre’ that ‘calls attention to the interplay of manual and mechanical processes involved in the production of printed works, photographs and drawings’. This work comprises of five interlinked 126×90 cm ‘drawings’ of Northcote Thomas photographs, which have been laboriously made using a hand numbering machine.

Kelani Abass’s hand numbering machines. He used such stamping machines as a child in his parents’ printing company, now he uses them as a medium for his performative art practice.

The use of the numbering machine as a medium again relates to Abass’s family history and childhood memories. After a day at school, Abass and his siblings would help out in their parents’ print shop, using these automatic numberers to stamp sequences of numbers in newly printed invoice books and other stationery. In relation to the [Re:]Entanglements project, Abass was struck by the sequential printed numbers evident in the stationery used by Northcote Thomas. Indeed, to create these ‘stamping history’ drawings he used stamping machines with a similar font style to the numbers used in Thomas’s photographic registers.

Kelani Abass, Stamping History series, National Museum, Lagos
Juxtaposing Northcote Thomas’s photograph no.1639 (top left) with Kelani Abass’s Colonial Indexicality No.1639 (top right). Below are details of the work, showing how the image is made up of multiple stamped numbers.

The numbers that Abass stamps in these works are not arbitrary either. They index both the specific photographs from the Thomas archives that Abass reproduces, but also act as a form of accountancy, allowing Abass to quantify his artistic labour and reflecting the labour entailed in producing the anthropological archive in the first place. Thus, Abass’s first impression in this work was the number 1155, corresponding with Thomas’s negative number 1155. After each impression, the number on the stamping machine increases by a digit to 1156, then 1157 and so on. At the end of the process of creating these five works, the final number stamped was 85,867. Thus Abass is able to quantify the work as representing 84,710 acts of stamping – this Abass conceptualises as a process of ‘stamping history’, and of ‘making or marking time’.

The grid-like layout of these five ‘drawings’ echoes the layout of the photographs in Thomas’s albums, but also speaks to the fragmentary nature of the archive – an assemblage of parts that must be assembled together in order to make sense. The actual archive is rarely so complete, and the bigger picture is often based on as much conjecture as it is evidence.

Northcote Thomas Igbo Report Part 1, Plate XIV, halftone printing
Left: Plate XIV from Northcote Thomas’s Anthropological Report on the Ibo-speaking Peoples of Nigeria, Part 1. Right: Enlarged detail of the same photograph showing the halftone printing technique.

It is, of course, only when one stands back from Abass’s large-scale stamped drawings that the picture, quoted from Thomas’s archive, becomes clear. Up close, one sees a mess of over-lapping stamped numbers. Seen from a distance, however, the individual numbers from which the pictures are made disappear and the eye perceives the pattern. It is the same principle as halftone printing – the technique used to print Thomas’s photographic plates in his published reports (a set of which also resides in the National Museum library). Indeed, the same principle applies to Thomas’s original photographic negatives and our digital scans of them today, in which the coating of granular light-sensitive crystals is translated, imperfectly, into pixels. Switching to a metaphorical register, Abass’s work reminds us that what we perceive in the colonial archive depends on where we stand, as well as how close we look.

Video documentation of the [Re:]Entanglements: Contemporary Art & Colonial Archives exhibition, National Museum, Lagos.

[Re:]Entanglements: Contemporary Art & Colonial Archives is open at the National Museum, Lagos until 27 October 2019. Do go along if you can and let us know what you think!