The areas in which Northcote Thomas worked as a Government Anthropologist in Nigeria and Sierra Leone have, of course, changed a great deal in the 105 years since the end of his last tour. During 18 months of fieldwork, retracing the itineraries of Thomas, we have, however, also been struck by the many continuities. Despite urbanisation and Christianity, cultural traditions are strong! Take chalk, for example…
Thomas’s reports and fieldnotes on the Edo- and Igbo-speaking communities that he researched between 1909 and 1913 are full of references to the use of chalk in rituals, ceremonies and customs. This chalk is known variously as ‘calabash chalk‘ and ‘kaolin‘. In Igbo it isnzu, in Edo orhue. As Thomas documented, this chalk is used in multiple ways – as an offering to the deities and ancestors, as a medicine, as a symbol of purity, of good fortune and hospitality. It is a sacred substance.
Rites of passage
Chalk is used in many ceremonies and rituals, from birth to death. For example, Thomas describes the initiation of boys into the Ovia society in Iyowa, north of Benin City. ‘The boy joins the society’, Thomas writes in an unpublished manuscript, ‘by payment of a calabash of [palm] oil, 20 yams, a calabash of palm wine, 4 kola and 5 legs of Uzo [duiker]. The yams are cooked and fufu is sacrificed to Ovia. The boy marks his face with chalk and is then called Oviovia or the son of Ovia’.
Thomas recorded a number of what he labelled ‘birth songs’ in his travels in what is now the north of Edo State. The Omolotuo Cultural Group interpreted a number of these when we visited Otuo, explaining that they would be sung when the newly born child was presented to the community. To celebrate, both the child and the community members would mark their faces with chalk or arue as it is called in the Otuo dialect. The Omolotuo Cultural Group performed such a song for us, marking their faces accordingly…
Title-taking and kingship
During our fieldwork in Okpanam, in present-day Delta State, Obi Victor Nwokobia explained that nzu is part of the paraphernalia associated with royalty, signifying blessing and purity. It is used in the coronation of a new king (obi) and to invoke ancestral blessings on his guests at the palace.
With others in Okpanam, Obi Nwokobia was particularly interested in a series of photographs Northcote Thomas took in 1912 of an individual he identified as ‘Chief Mbweze’. The name, we were told, should be written ‘Mgbeze’, and what the photographs record is his title-taking ceremony. Thomas does not state what title Mgbeze was receiving, though he lists the highest titles a man may attain in Okpanam as being eze and obu.
Obi Nwokobia explained to us the use of nzu in the obi/eze coronation ceremonies. Prior to the conferment of the title, the initiand is rubbed with chalk all over his body. He also wears a white wrapper. The white of the chalk and cloth represents purity and sanctification. The candidate must then spend a period of 28 days in isolation. During this time, the white of the chalk connects the initiand to the ancestors. When the candidate emerges from this period of seclusion, he is considered pure and to have received ancestral validation of his coronation. The newly titled man dances and throws nzu on the people gathered as a mark of blessing on them. It is a moment that Thomas captured in his series of photographs of Mgbeze’s title-taking. These same practices are used in the coronation of an obi today.
Seeing beyond the visible
Among the hundreds of photographic portraits of individuals made by Thomas can be found many in which people have chalk smeared around one or both eyes. This could signify various things. The high female office of Omu, for example, was entitled to wear chalk around both eyes, as can be seen in Thomas’s photograph of the Omu of Okpanam (see centre photograph below).
Thomas notes that native doctors (dibia) were also entitled to wear chalk around either one or both eyes, depending on their seniority. The same was true of priests. Chalk around the eyes signifies an ability to see beyond the visible world and into the world of the spirits. Chalk is still used in this way among traditional doctors, diviners and priests, as we have often encountered during our travels in Thomas’s footsteps. They are sometimes called dibia anya nzu, meaning ‘native doctor with the eye of chalk’.
When we met Paul Okafor, chief priest of the Nge-Ndo Ngene shrine in Nibo, Anambra State, he wore chalk on his forehead and left eyelid. He explained that the mark on his forehead granted him access into the spirit world, while that on his eyelid allowed him to see into the spirit world so as to be able to solve his clients’ problems. Okafor further explained that he must wash the nzu off before going to bed, or else he would not be able to sleep, but rather continue to commune with the spirits until the next morning.
According to Nwandu, a dibia we met at Ebenebe, he uses nzu as a medium to communicate with the ancestors. He also applies nzu to part of his eyelid to be able to see the spirit world, and he demonstrated for us how he draws chalk lines on the ground when performing spiritual consultations – igba afa – for his clients.
Ọgbọ obodo and the Mkpitime cult
In the fourth part of his Anthropological Report on the Ibo-speaking People of Nigeria(1914), concerning the ‘laws and customs’ of the Western Igbo or Anioma people, Thomas provides an interesting account of the Nkpetime or Mkpitime cult. Mkpitime is the name of a female deity associated with a small lake close to Onitsha Olona, now Delta State, which Thomas visited in October 1912. Thomas evidently spent time with the orhene or priest of Mkpitime, a man named Mokweni, whom he also photographed. His visit coincided with the annual Iwaji (New Yam Festival).
During the festival, the orhene is said to ‘go into nzu (chalk)’. This is a period of seclusion during which no one is allowed to make a noise, quarrel or fire a gun. Three days after going ‘into nzu‘, the orhene is supposed to make offerings at Lake Mkpitime and swim in its waters. On the fourth day, the orhene comes out of seclusion, accompanied by drumming and dancing before the mmanwu (spirits manifest as masquerades). Thomas describes how a woman created figureson the earth of the dancing ground using chalk, but also charcoal, red mud and ashes. Thomas notes that this is called obwo [ọgbọ] obodo – translating as ‘circle of dance’. The motifs represent various ‘totemic’ animals and other aspects of local cosmology, including a leopard, ‘tiger cat’, pangolin, monkey, viper, cross-roads, mirror, the sun, moon and Mkpitime herself. According to Thomas, domestic animals such as goats, ducks and fowls must not step on the figures. However, they are soon obliterated by the dancing feet of the celebrants.
Chalk at shrines
Chalk is associated with many deities throughout Southern Nigeria, including Ovia, Ngene and Mkpitime, mentioned above, but also Olokun, Ake, Imoka and others. Artist-educator, Norma Rosen, has written about chalk iconography in Olokun worship, for example, and some of the designs she discusses are not dissimilar to those Thomas photographed in Onitsha Olona. In an article Rosen wrote with the art historian Joseph Nevadomsky, the scene is described in which this ‘elaborately drawn chalk iconography’ is similarly ‘obliterated by dancing feet’, sending ‘vaporous messages fly[ing] back and forth … between the other world and earth’.
We witnessed something similar – and, indeed, participated in the dancing – when we visited the Ake shrine at Idumowina, on the outskirts of Benin City. We had created an album of Thomas’s photographs, which documented the shrine in 1909, and presented copies to the community and the Ake priest. A special ceremony was held in which the album was presented to the deity. As can be seen in the photograph above, adjacent to the altar was a pile of molded chalk blocks and a dish of powdered chalk. The powdered chalk was sprinkled on the altar on which the album was placed, and was used to create patterns on the ground, which were subsequently erased by our dancing.
In his fieldnotes about the Ake Festival that he documented at at Idumowina in 1909, Thomas describes how women would come to the shrine asking the deity to bless them with children, and also to thank the deity if they had recently given birth. (Ake, like Olokun, is a deity associated with fertility.) He records that children were given chalk to eat.
Indeed, chalk is traditionally ingested by pregnant women and as a medicine for various complaints. We have eaten nzu, too, during our fieldwork, after seeking blessings at the Imoka shrine, during the Imoka Festival in Awka.
A symbol of goodwill, friendship and hospitality
In some areas of Igboland, nzu is used instead of or alongside kola-nut in traditional hospitality ceremonies. The most senior man or traditional priest will draw or sprinkle lines of chalk on the ground while uttering a prayer. The number of lines drawn is often four, corresponding to the four deities or market days of the week – eke, oye, afo and nkwo. The prayer is addressed to Chukwu (the supreme God), lesser deities and the ancestors, asking for long life, wealth, peace and fairness. At the end of each prayer, those present will respond by saying Ise!
After the prayer, the chalk will be rolled across the ground from the feet of one person to the next in order of seniority (and social/geographical proximity to the host). It is important that the chalk is not passed hand to hand. Each will then make a mark on the ground before him, again often four lines. Ozo title holders are entitled to mark eight lines. Before rolling the nzu to the next person, each will take a small piece of chalk and mark one of their feet, or an eyelid and put a little in their mouth.
Nevadomsky, J. & N. Rosen, 1988. ‘The Initiation of a Priestess: Performance and Imagery in Olokun Ritual’, The Drama Review 32(2): 186-207.
Rosen, N. 1989. ‘Chalk Iconography in Olokun Worship’, African Arts 22(3): 44-53.
For 10 days in February 2020, the University of Nigeria, Nsukka hosted the third [Re:]Entanglements project exhibition to take place in Nigeria. The exhibition, ‘[Re:]Entangled Traditions: Nsukka Experiments with an Anthropological Archive’, was the culmination of a collaboration between the project and eleven artists associated with the famous ‘Nsukka Art School‘, as well as colleagues from the departments of Music and Linguistics.
Nsukka’s Department of Fine and Applied Arts was established in 1961 by Ben Enwonwu and was one of the earliest departments of the University of Nigeria. The Department became famous in the years following the Biafran War (1967-70) when luminaries such as Uche Okeke, Chike Aniakor and Obiora Udechukwu began turning away from Western art traditions and finding inspiration in indigenous art, culture and philosophy. In particular a number of artists began rediscovering and experimenting with Igbo uli body and wall art traditions. Northcote Thomas‘s photographs are some of the earliest and most comprehensive visual documentations of uli wall paintings. This represents an important new reservoir of traditional uli work and, not surprisingly, a number of the participating artists drew upon these photographs in their contemporary works in different media.
As with earlier exhibitions in Benin City and Lagos, the objective of the collaboration was to explore the ‘creative affordances‘ of the photographs, sound recordings and artefact collections produced during Northcote Thomas’s anthropological surveys in Nigeria between 1909 and 1913. As the leading university in the Igbo-speaking region of Nigeria, the Nsukka collaboration focused on materials assembled by Thomas during his second and third tours – those focusing on areas of what are now Anambra and Delta states.
The collaboration began in 2018 with an open workshop to introduce prospective participants to the [Re:]Entanglements project and Thomas’s archival materials. Following a call to submit proposals, projects were given the go-ahead and provided with a budget to cover materials and expenses. A follow-up workshop took place in 2019 in which participants presented their works-in-progress.
The exhibition was opened by HRM Obi Martha Dunkwu, the Omu Anioma, a well known female chief from Delta State. The Omu has been a close friend of the [Re:]Entanglements project since our visit to Okpanam. In a very moving speech Obi Martha Dunkwu told the story of how Northcote Thomas’s 1912 photograph of the Omu of Okpanam settled a dispute in which the Omu’s right to wear the red cap of chiefly office had been contested. The story illustrated powerfully how these colonial era archives could intervene in contemporary issues. The Omu explained that this was no small matter.
There was a lively and well-attended opening ceremony in which each of the artists presented their work to the Omu and her entourage. The event was accompanied by a traditional music ensemble made up of students of the Department of Music under the direction of Ikenna Onwuegbuna, Head of the Department of Music. The music included versions of songs originally recorded by Northcote Thomas himself.
In ‘[Re:]Entangled Traditions’, each of the artists took on a particular Igbo cultural ‘tradition’ – uli body and wall painting, ichi scarification, hair-styles, clothing, wrestling – that featured in Northcote Thomas’s photographic archive. These visual references formed the basis of their experiments. In the following sections we present each of the participating artists’ works juxtaposed with some of the Northcote Thomas photographs that inspired them. The musicological and linguistic contributions to the exhibition are the subject of separate blog posts (see Revisiting some Awka folksongs).
Chijioke Onuora, Ezeana Obidigbo
Chijioke Onuora is Head of the Department of Fine and Applied Arts at University of Nigeria, Nsukka. He initially trained at Nsukka as a sculptor in the early 1980s and was taught and influenced by many of the leading figures of the ‘Nsukka School’. Through this training he came to appreciate the traditional Igbo art that was fast disappearing in his village in the Awka area and made studies of shrine carvings. For his PhD in Art History, Onuora made an extensive study of ikolo drums, including their sculptural, musical and socio-cultural dimensions.
Onuora works across many different media, though he regards drawing – the line – as fundamental to all these. For the ‘[Re:]Entangled Traditions’ collaboration, he was particularly interested in re-engaging with Igbo ichi scarification, with its linear markings. As a child, Onuora encountered men – and, indeed, one woman – bearing these marks. Now he believes there is just one elderly man in his village who has still has the marks.
When he was introduced to the Northcote Thomas archives as part of the [Re:]Entanglements project, he was struck by the large number of photographs of men of all ages with ichi scarification. This has inspired him to focus on ichi in his ongoing work.
Onuora produced two monumental batik works for the ‘[Re:]Entangled Traditions’ exhibition. The first is a portrait of Ezeana Obidigbo of Neni, originally photographed by Thomas in 1911. Onuora’s village was close to Neni and his grandparents walked every week to the Oye market there – the scene of some of Thomas’s most memorable photographs. The Umudioka community of Neni were specialist surgeons who travelled throughout the region making the ichi marks.
Onuora’s second batik, ‘Nze na Nwunye ya’, is based on a photograph taken by Thomas in Agulu of a mud relief sculpture of a male and female figure, and marks a return to Onuora’s earlier work on shrine figures. The male figure again wears the ichi scarification marks. In both ‘Ezeana Obidigbo’ and ‘Nze na Nwunye ya’, the central panel is flanked by two panels evoking traditional wood carving – symbols of prestige and status – also photographed by Thomas during his 1910-11 survey of what was then Awka District.
Chuu Krydz Ikwuemesi, Playing with Time and Memory
Chuu Krydz Ikwuemesi is a painter and Associate Professor in the Department of Fine and Applied Arts at Nsukka. He joined the Department as an undergraduate in 1987 and, like many students of his generation, was influenced by Uche Okeke and others who had rediscovered the uli painting tradition as a demonstration of Igbo cultural resilience, first as an indigenous response to European colonialism and subsequently in the wake of the traumatic defeat of the Nigerian Civil War. Ikwuemesi was encouraged to continue the work Okeke’s generation had begun and to conduct research with the last generation of women who created uli wall paintings in the traditional setting of the village.
Although much of Ikwuemesi’s work is more overt in its political engagement, providing commentary on the violence and corruption of contemporary Nigeria, alongside this, he continues to draw upon uli explicitly in his paintings. This he sees as a form of cultural activism. In particular, Ikwuemesi is keen to promote the popularisation of uli design, so that it reaches beyond elite art audiences and collectors, and returns as a popular form.
For the ‘[Re:]Entangled Traditions’ exhibition, Ikwuemesi drew upon Northcote Thomas’s photographs of uli wall paintings, merging motifs and linear forms from different locations, to produce a series of four acrylic paintings on canvas. The title of the series, ‘Playing with Time and Memory’, reflects both the long history of uli painting among Igbo-speaking people and his own part in that history.
Exploring Thomas’s photographs of uli wall painting, Ikwuemesi was struck by the continuities and changes in the art form. Despite the ruptures of colonialism and war, he celebrates the resilience of cultural traditions, how people continue ‘to do old things in new ways’. ‘Colonialisation’, he argues, ‘did not take away the soul of the people or the soul of their culture’.
RitaDoris Edumchieke Ubah, Igbo Kwenu
RitaDoris Ubah is a Lecturer in Textile Art. She completed her BA, MFA and PhD all at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. Ubah’s aunt was herself a traditional uli artist. When Ubah started teaching at Nsukka, she realised that while uli traditions had been incorporated into other forms of contemporary art practice, including painting, ceramics and other graphic arts, they had not been explored in textiles. Thus Ubah was keen to bring uli into the curriculum, whether through weaving, embroidery, knitting or appliqué.
Ubah was particularly excited to discover the rich historical documentation of uli in Northcote Thomas’s photographs. As well as inspiring her own work, she has introduced her students to the archive and it now the subject of various class assignments. She describes the photographs as a ‘landmark resource’ and explains that every student passing through Nsukka is taught about it.
For the ‘[Re:]Entangled Traditions’ exhibition, Ubah produced several works, including a large appliqué panel entitled ‘Igbo Kwenu’, a second appliqué of a masquerade figure photographed by Thomas, and fashion collection featuring uli motifs from Thomas’s photographs. Ubah is particularly interested in the history of uli as a women’s art form, originally painted on the body. (The word uli comes from the plant from which the dye is made.) Ubah’s fashion collection, which was worn by models at the exhibition opening, represents an interesting return of uli to ‘clothing’ the body.
Chinyere Odinukwe, Akwamkosa Achalugonwayi
Chinyere Odinukwe took her BA and MA in the Department of Fine and Applied Art, Nsukka. She works mainly with acrylic paint on canvas, but also incorporates other materials in her work, notably salvaged plastics and metal foils.
For her [Re:]Entanglements project, Odinukwe wanted to juxtapose the historical and the contemporary by transforming the appearance of a woman named Nwambeke, photographed by Thomas in Nibo in 1911. (Odinukwe’s maternal home town is Nibo.) In order to do this, Odinukwe subtly altered the Nwambeke’s dress and jewellery – adding earrings, make-up and bra-top, for instance. In particular, she transformed her wrapper from a locally-made plain cotton garment (akwamkosa) into a dazzling contemporary fabric.
Odinukwe replaces Thomas’s plain photographic backdrop with a background inspired by one of Thomas’s photographs of uli wall painting.
In re-imagining Nwambeke as a modern Nigerian woman, albeit one framed by her indigenous culture, Odinukwe draws attention to the transformed place of women in Nigerian society today. Odinukwe says that she has given this woman her freedom. She observes that, even today, some people are enslaved in their different ways of life, whether religiously, politically or pyschologically. Odinukwe argues that we should not be chained by our traditions.
Chikaogwu Kanu, Isi Mgbe Ochie
Chikaowu Kanu trained at Nsukka as a sculptor. He is now pursuing a PhD in Art History, while continuing to develop his skills as a photographer, videographer and graphic designer. Familiar with the Nsukka School’s long-standing engagement with traditional uli art, Kanu was impressed by another form of body art that was very evident in Northcote Thomas’s photographs – hair dressing.
In his project for the ‘[Re:]Entangled Traditions’ exhibition, Kanu sought to recreate some of the hairstyles that Thomas photographed. This proved to be a challenging task. It was not easy, for example, to find models willing to have their hair dressed in such remarkable styles. Others – barbers and models alike – assumed that Kanu would make lots of money from the photographs he was taking and thus demanded high fees that Kanu could not pay. Eventually, however, Kanu succeeded in collaborating with barbers and models, and displayed the results as a photo-montage in the exhibition. Kanu’s display drew a great deal of interest from visitors.
Ngozi Omeje, Eriri ji obele
There is a long tradition in ceramics and installation art at the Department of Fine and Applied Arts at University of Nigeria, Nsukka, associated with artists such as El Anatsui and Ozioma Onuzulike. Ngozi Omeje is foremost in the younger generation of ceramicists at Nsukka. In 2018, when the [Re:]Entanglements project collaboration with Nsukka began, she was in the middle of producing work for her highly successful exhibition, ‘Connecting Deep’, at the Centre for Contemporary Art in Lagos.
Omeje creates sculptures by suspending small clay pieces – miniature cups, leaves, rings, balls, etc. – on nylon threads. Often her works are of monumental proportions. For the ‘[Re:]Entangled Traditions’ exhibition, Omeje echoed the form of an elaborated decorated clay pot photographed by Northcote Thomas by suspending miniature leaves made from clay. On the one hand, her use of leaves fashioned from clay allowed her to follow the form of the linear patterns on the pot; on the other hand they are expressive of the temporality of the archive – the play of ephemerality and permanence.
The title of Omeje’s piece, Eriri ji obele, refers to an Igbo aphorism – ‘the string that holds the pot’ (or, more correctly, ‘the string that holds the calabash’). Our lives are in God’s hands.
Chukwunonso Uzoagba, Ogu Mnwere Onwe
Chukwunonso Uzoagba in a Lecturer in the Department of Fine and Applied Arts at Nsukka, specialising in graphics and art education. He has a particular research interest in Igbo rites of passage and ritual practice – aspects of traditional life that were thoroughly documented by Northcote Thomas.
When Uzoagba encountered the Northcote Thomas archives as part of the [Re:]Entanglements workshop at Nsukka, he was immediately drawn to Thomas’s photographs of wrestling matches. Wrestling was very much a traditional art form and part of festivals marking coming of age ceremonies. Combining various elements from different photographs, including a portrait of Thomas himself, Uzoagba wanted to use the wrestling match as a metaphor for the struggle of Igbo people with the forces of colonialism. The title ‘Ogo Mnwere Onwe’ translates into English as the ‘Struggle for Freedom’.
Chukwuemeka Nwigwe, Nibo Lady Fashionista, The Last Sacrifice, Eze Nri
Chukwuemeka Nwigwe teaches art history, textiles and fashion at Nsukka. He has a particular interest in the history of Igbo dress and had already drawn upon the work of Northcote Thomas and other colonial-era publications in his PhD research. While Nwigwe made use of the small selection of photographs published in Thomas’s Anthropological Report of the Igbo-speaking Peoples of Nigeria, through the [Re:]Entanglements project he was able to access a vast archive of thousands of images relevant to his research. He was able to utilise these in a recent postdoctoral fellowship.
For the ‘[Re:]Entangled Traditions’ exhibition, Nwigwe produced three mixed media works, experimenting with weaving techniques inspired by the nest-building techniques of the village weaverbird to create silhouetted figures of characters from the Thomas archive. He used silhouettes to reflect the mystery surrounding these characters, which can only be seen imperfectly in Thomas’s monochrome images.
The backgrounds of each panel are made from discarded poly materials – especially brightly-coloured polythene strips used to wrap motorbike tyres. Nwigwe explains how he collected these from roadside mechanics’ shops.
Jennifer Ogochukwu Okpoko, The Beauty Within
Jennifer Ogochukwu Okpoko graduated from the University of Nigeria, Nsukka in 2018 just before the collaboration with the [Re:]Entanglements project began. She specialises in textile design. As part of her undergraduate studies, she conducted research with traditional Igbo weavers in Delta State.
When Okpoko started exploring the Northcote Thomas archives after the initial [Re:]Entanglements collaboration workshop, she was excited to see photographs of uli murals from her hometown, Agulu, in Anambra State. She chose to feature one of these in her work for the exhibition.
Her piece, entitled The Beauty Within, comprises three large panels, each reproducing the uli mural using different textile materials and techniques. The first uses tapestry weaving using a limited palette of earth colours, similar to the colours that are likely to have been used in the original wall paintings. The second panel has a tiled form, in which vibrant colours are used in the tapestry woven squares, juxtaposed with the earth colours in the other sections. The third panel is mixed media using tapestry weaving and embroidery techniques to recreate the mural in bright contemporary colours.
Ugonna Umeike, Renewal
Ugonna Umeike majored in sculpture at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, but he has a wide range of interests including illustration, painting and digital art. Umeike was particularly interested in Northcote Thomas’s artefact collections and field photographs of traditional material culture. These he brought to life in a series of digital illustrations that were exhibited in the ‘[Re:]Entangled Traditions’ show.
Umeike also exhibited an illustration of one of the stories that Northcote Thomas recorded and transcribed – ‘The Blind Man, the Cripple, the Poor Man, the Thief and the King’ – which will be the subject of a separate blog post. Finally. he is working on a comic strip of another story recorded by Thomas.
Livinus Kenechi Ngwu, Mask with ichi
Livinus Kenechi Ngwu is a Lecturer in Sculpture at Nsukka. He works in various materials. For the ‘[Re:]Entangled Traditions’ exhibition Ngwu carved a wooden mask using traditional tools and techniques inspired by one of the masks collected by Northcote Thomas in 1911.
The original mask, which was collected in Ugwoba in present-day Anambra State, is described by Thomas as ‘isi maun apipi’. On its forehead are representations of the ichi scarification marks.
‘[Re:]Entangled Traditions: Nsukka Experiments with an Anthropological Archive’ was curated by George Agbo and Paul Basu. We would like to thank all the artists who participated in the collaboration. Especial thanks to Chijioke Onuora and Krydz Ikwuemesi for championing the project within the Department of Fine and Applied Arts; to Chika Kanu for designing the exhibition catalogue; to Glory Onwuasoanya Kanu for coordinating catering at the exhibition launch; to HRM Obi Martha Dunkwu for travelling from Okpanam to open the exhibition; to Emmanuel Ifoegbuike for his invaluable assistance; and to Charles Igwe, Vice Chancellor of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka for supporting the initiative.
See also the following posts on other contributors to the exhibition:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.