Mourning Clothes

Nnaemezie Asogwa Mourning Clothes - Textile Design

Inspired by Northcote Thomas’s archival images, the Nigerian photographer Nnaemezie Asogwa has created a powerful photo series entitled Mourning Clothes that commemorates the anti-colonial Ekumeku movement. Ekumeku was an underground resistance movement, which sought to thwart British incursions into Anioma (Western Igboland) between 1883 and 1914. As documented by the historian Don Ohadike in his book The Ekumeku Movement, there was a succession of waves of Ekumeku activity over this thirty-year period. Ekumeku operated covertly, employing local knowledge of the forest environment to launch ambushes on its targets. Colonial forces retaliated disproportionately, destroying towns and communities thought to be associated with the movement.

Anioma was the focus of Northcote Thomas’s third anthropological survey, which took place between July 1912 and August 1913. Thomas’s itinerary included many towns in the Asaba hinterland that directly experienced the impact of the Ekumeku Movement, including Ogwashi-Ukwu, Onicha-Olona, Ubulu-Ukwu, Ukwunzu, Igbuzo, Idumuje-Ugboko, Ezi and Issele-Azagba. Despite the recentness of these events – Ogwashi-Ukwu, for instance, was the main locus of hostilities in the 1909-10 wave of Ekumeku – there is seemingly little overt trace of conflict in Thomas’s photographs. Indeed, one of the reasons why Asogwa thought it important to work on Ekumeku was the apparent absence of a visual record of the war, as well as its absence from national narratives and educational curricula in Nigeria today.

In this article, Nnaemezie Asogwa tells us more about the ideas behind the project, his use of Northcote Thomas’s photographs, and his reflections on the memory of colonial violence that continues to ‘live under the skin’.

Nnaemezie Asogwa Mourning Clothes - Mourning as Remembrance
‘MOURNING AS REMEMBRANCE’. Asogwa puts on the mourning cloth and places himself in the frame. ‘I had to ask myself a lot of questions. It was like blowing on something covered with dust and everything just flies up. The narrative of Ekumeku has accumulated a lot of dust because nobody is talking about it’. Photograph by Nnaemezie Asogwa.

Among the violences of colonialism was the destruction of traditional ways of transmitting knowledge of the past. In my recent practice as a photographer, I have been interested in exploring how the photographic image can open up other ways of thinking about the past. My work seeks to draw attention to what has been forgotten, what is being systematically erased, and what needs to be remembered.

The Ekumeku war was an anti-colonial struggle that took place in South-eastern Nigeria, where I come from. Yet Ekumeku was never mentioned during my formal education in Nigeria. It is absent in our school history books and our cultural institutions. In my research on the conflict so far, I have been unable to find any photographs documenting it.

Nnaemezie Asogwa Mourning Clothes - Family Reunion
‘FAMILY REUNION’. ‘I wondered what it would be like if I could freeze that moment in Anioma during the Ekumeku war and walk in there. What kind of conversation could I have with them? Who would I be to them?’ Photomontage including Northcote Thomas photographs by Nnaemezie Asogwa.

Mourning Clothes calls to mind not only those unnumbered and unnamed people who were killed while resisting the colonial invasion of their land, but also the loss of the memory of that war. When someone dies in my community, the family goes to the market and buys cloth – it might be plain white, or a printed Ankara cloth; wealthy families might even have a cloth designed for them. This is often distributed to members of the family, who will wear mourning garments made from the cloth for an agreed period, usually a year. The wearing of the clothes binds the bereaved together with each other, with the memory of their shared loss, and with the family home, no matter how far away that may be.

My idea, then, was to design a mourning cloth that would carry the memory of the Ekumeku war, and to photograph people wearing the cloth in different locations over a year. I developed the project while studying for an MA in Photography in the UK and I wanted to presence this forgotten war in the English landscape. There is another tradition in Igboland: if someone is killed, the body of the victim will be taken to the gates of the compound of the person who has perpetrated the crime. Through photography, I wanted to lay the body of this memory – the memory of Ekumeku – here in Britain, at the gates of those responsible for the colonisation of Nigeria.

‘MOURNING AS REMEMBRANCE’. Presencing the memory of Ekumeku in Britain: landscapes and architectures built on the profits of imperial exploitation. ‘In my place, there is a tradition. If someone is killed, you take the body of the victim to the gates of the perpetrator’s compound’. Photomontages including Northcote Thomas photographs by Nnaemezie Asogwa.

My original plan met with some challenges. Firstly, my intention had been to incorporate archive photographs documenting the Ekumeku conflict in the design of the cloth. As already mentioned, my search for such photographs drew a blank. Secondly, my work on the project in 2020 coincided with the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic and the consequent lockdown, which made it difficult for me to access certain technical facilities and also to work with models in different locations. While these circumstances imposed restrictions, I believe they also provided opportunities.

The lack of historical images documenting Ekumeku led to my working with Northcote Thomas’s photographs. I was engaged as a photographer at the opening of the [Re:]Entanglements project exhibition at the National Museum in Lagos in 2019. The exhibition featured Kelani Abass’s artistic engagements with photograph albums from Thomas’s anthropological surveys kept at the museum. This was my first introduction to Thomas’s photographs. Later, when I started work on Mourning Clothes, I contacted the [Re:]Entanglements team and was really excited when they sent me a link to the project Flickr site, where Thomas’s photographs are organised according to location. It was then I discovered that he spent a year working in the Anioma / Western Igbo area and there were hundreds of photographs taken in locations where the Ekumeku struggle took place.

I wondered how it was possible for a colonial anthropologist to roam around taking photographs in an area that had witnessed such strong anti-colonial resistance. It caused me to reflect upon the politics of dominance that came with colonialism. Although the photographs did not show the Ekumeku war explicitly, I believe there is an indexical relationship between them and the conflict. Ekumeku was organised in secret, and I have no doubt that some of those photographed were involved; others would certainly have lost family members to the struggle. Like the Ekumeku movement itself, the conflict, though not visible on the surface, is there in the ‘underneath’ of Thomas’s photographs. This added further poignancy to the images, and these became the photographs that I incorporated into the textile design for Mourning Clothes.

Nnaemezie Asogwa Mourning Clothes - Textile Design
Nnaemezie Asogwa’s textile design for Mourning Clothes, incorporating photographs taken by Northcote Thomas during his anthropological survey of Asaba District in 1912-13.

Due to the pandemic restrictions I was unable to print the cloth with Thomas’s photographs, so I had to improvise with another fabric. I see Mourning Clothes as a work-in-progress. I still intend to have the mourning cloth design printed and to make more photographs, building on the initial series. Another consequence of the pandemic restrictions was my inability to work with the range of models and locations that I had initially planned. Instead, I explored photomontage techniques to a greater degree. Here I was particularly inspired by the work of the Congolese artist Sammy Baloji.

Nnaemezie Asogwa Mourning Clothes - Erasures and Traces
‘ERASURES AND TRACES’. Palimpsests. ‘This history has been allowed to die. It is not completely dead, but it has been thrown away and trampled upon, discarded. But can you really erase that history? You can try to remove it, but no matter how obscured, you can still find traces of it. It lives in the minds of people who may be far removed from that time or that part of the world.’ Photomontages including Northcote Thomas photographs by Nnaemezie Asogwa.

In Mourning Clothes I have tried to create a monument to those who were killed in the anti-colonial struggle. Many would have died without receiving proper rites. In my community, if someone dies without a befitting funeral, they cannot rest in peace. In Igbo, they are known as ozu akwagihi akwa (a corpse whose funeral rites have not been completed). Their souls wander restlessly, haunting unoccupied places, trees, hilltops and other places. There is no limit to how far they can travel in time and space.

Memories of Ekumeku are like ozu akwagihi akwa. Even if they are not recognised as such, their trace lives on in unexpected places: in stories, in dispositions, in the minds of people far removed from the landscapes where the events happened. Repressed memories manifest in unpredictable ways. One might wonder, for example, whether some of the anger we saw in the recent Black Lives Matter riots, in the response to the killing of George Floyd, was not in some way a resurfacing of the memory of the violence that was used to suppress Ekumeku and other similar anti-colonial movements? These things are not entirely erased, but continue to live under the skin until they are divined in some sense.

‘MONUMENT’. ‘We have an obligation to the dead. I didn’t want to end this project without erecting a monument in honour of those who died in the anti-colonial struggle, those who were not mourned and who cannot rest in peace’. Photomontage including Northcote Thomas photographs by Nnaemezie Asogwa.

See an online exhibition of Nnaemezie Asogwa’s Mourning Clothes at https://artspaces.kunstmatrix.com/en/exhibition/1721249/mourning-clothes

Images: Nnaemezie Asogwa
Text: Nnaemezie Asogwa and Paul Basu

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.