by Will Rea
Amongst the Igbo people of South Eastern Nigeria there is a tradition of building a two-story shrine house, known as Mbari, to appease the goddess Ala. She, the goddess of the earth, is the central figure of representation, sculpted in clay and dressed in her finery. There is no convention to her representation and through time she has been portrayed in various contemporary guises. Mbari is also the name given to the club of writers and artists that formed in the Yoruba town of Ibadan in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The name was suggested by Chinua Achebe. In 1958 Achebe published Things Fall Apart and revolutionised writing in, about and from Africa.Things Fall Apart is not simply an ‘African’ novel. It is a novel firmly located within a specific time and a specific place in Africa. The story is one of universal human tragedy, but the characters, the events, the place are all a part of Achebe’s own culture and what he knows. Set within the fictional village Umuofia, in the eastern region of Nigeria, the novel is Igbo in its genesis and its philosophy. Although a fictional text its engagement is in the articulation between that philosophy and the imposition of colonial structures of knowledge.
Those same structures of knowledge still persist in the categorisation of contemporary art from Africa. The legacy of naming ethnicity, a categorisation of artists from Africa, still persists. The identities of individual artists from Africa are still too often subordinated to identification with a social group; labelled, bounded, administered. The social identity of the individual is no longer at stake because membership of an ethnicity always already presumes that identity. It is a labelling that denies two things; the first is the actual lived identity of the individual and the second is the historical processes by which an identity comes to be formed.
Adaeze Ihebom is Igbo. Yet to state such is not to make external claim on her ‘ethnographic’ identity. It is Ihebom who puts this identity at the centre of her work and refuses external definition. In Igbo Women she has produced a series of portraits that are both portraits of self and also of an imagined Igbo lineage. Spanning the twentieth century each work imagines a woman one generation on from the last. In working thus Ihebom brings forward an imagined history, but it is one that works within the historical time that Achebe draws from Igbo time – it is circular and mythical as well as grounded in the time of now. Taking Achebe’s novel as a point of departure, she imagines the future generations of the Okwonkwo lineage as they pass through Ezinma, the feisty and much-loved daughter of Okwonkwo, the central, tragic, protagonist of the novel. The photographs, unlike photographic forms of anthropological recording, refuse and refute the simple anonymity of ethnic ascription. Ihebom’s photographs admit no such claim and assert a multiplicity of identity within each work and as a whole. The self of the artist is both to the fore and also fractured into a profusion of historical moments. A distributed identity that runs across generations. In this work the process of becoming, the play of time, is made evident.
The identities placed before the viewer’s gaze are vital and present, but they also witness the place of women as Igbo society changes in the face of colonial policy. The work is subtle, reliant on gesture and body, on the fine detail of clothing and expression and above all the performative gaze of differing identities. There is no generalisation. The role and position of women in Nigeria is one of ambiguity. Ihebom performs a reconfiguration of Achebe, representing the novel against itself, restoring women to the centre. She recognises in Ezinma, the daughter that Okwonkwo wanted as a son, a more powerful figure. Here the female deity Ala, the central figure of the Mbari shrine house, or Anyanwu (the goddess of the sun, memorably sculpted by Ben Enwonwu) is made manifest in the white robes and red beads of Igbo sanctity and power. Then, in her imagined historical lineage Ihebom brings a circularity to bear, through the changes wrought by Christianity, the subordination of women within a colonial/postcolonial patriarchy and, in the final iterations, women looking into a future, one that is not irredeemably marked by an inevitable sexism. Ihebom reconfigures a founding moment in Nigerian modernism and places female identity back at its core.
As such the work draws out a commentary on the way in which identity remains grounded even as it moves through time. More it is a refutation of the old colonial / ethnographic trope – that Africa remains bound by its tradition. Each one of these portraits presents the subject as modern – in its original sense – of the now. Each portrait is of a modern woman in their time and place and each is also the same – a recursive circularity – none of these images allow the idea of the ‘traditional’.
In these portraits, there is the making of a nation. In the close attention to the detail of dress, the absolute specificity of each portrait of its time, a history of the Igbo woman in the twentieth century is ‘written’: represented. This is a history of a nation, Nigeria, given vital witness through these images of Igbo womanhood. At each point the attention to identity allows that history to emerge, the women of an emergent state. And, yet, even here, in most subtle form, Ihebom manages to convey the pain and suffering through which that nation emerged. To date one of the works (Amuchechukwu Gloria Okonkwo 1967) is to inevitably invoke memories of Biafra. There is no outward commentary, no didactic insistence on the pain of that moment, but it is there, in these works, a haunting ghost sitting on the shoulders of the women portrayed here.
Achebe wrote that "Mbari was a celebration through art of the world and of life lived in it. It was performed by the community on command by its presiding deity, the Earth goddess, Ala, who combined two formidable roles in the Igbo pantheon as fountain of creativity in the world and custodian of the moral order in human society." In Ihebom’s work this celebration continues. In each of her portraits, Ala, goddess of creativity and moral order is given form, given identity.