[Re:]Entanglements: Colonial Collections in Decolonial Times
A Review by Jeri Hilt
igbu ichi, a sign of nobility, “no one bearing the marks could be enslaved” of “mutilated, fragmented bodies and scarified faces.”
I am a Black Native from Louisiana, an Afro-Indigenous woman, named after my grandmother. My ancestry includes the survivors of colonization and the dehumanizing, capital enterprise known as chattel slavery. I was born on the occupied land called North America.
That said: the title is a trigger.
I prepared by studying the website, and familiarizing myself with the exhibition’s tonality; a “defanging” method I learned in South Sudan. Never allow yourself to [willingly] be caught off guard. No matter what violence lies ahead, always know exactly what you’re walking into. This only helped a little.
I am who I am.
In the end, I fought my way through it: triggers, traumas, and all. The first time I wanted to cry was at the sight of Osun’s Ukhurhe. The first tear fell when I read the words, “no one bearing the marks could be enslaved.”
I’ve since returned to myself.
Rather than offer a detailed accounting of the painful parts, I’d prefer to give a more transformative reflection. A roadmap through the enmeshment that allows for disentanglement, a railroad if you will, not only out, but also through. A maze of emotions, a haze of masks and red lines: with your permission, I’ll walk you through it. A web of my own weaving, I will attempt to name everything akin to God in the room.
Your guide, in spirit:
…Entangled at the gate is the face of the white man [British colonial anthropologist, N.W. Thomas] whose collections are displayed in this space. Don’t mind him, he’s just there on assignment. The post is recorded as no fault of his own.
Voices in Blue [Unspoken Stories: Five Archival Monologues]
…Before you see their faces, you will hear their voices (on your left). Monologues in blue, five to be specific: Onyeso [son of King Eze Nri Ènweleána], a curious child [unnamed], Yainkain [Head wife of the Chief], John Osagbo [colonial photography assistant], and the spirit of Ngene [divinity & keeper of the land].
Ngene’s voice is loudest among the monologues; personified by Usifah Jalloh, who tells us that Ngene lives. He is alive. Do not forget it. You will see him twice more in this space.
“…It is I, Ngene, keeper of the land. I breathe again.”
Wanka from Mamaka [Fieldnotes: protection from Witchcraft]
…Next, a case of strong magic, amulets of protection made of sticks and clay bound with string, a supernatural preservation. They must not be touched. Recognize them for their sacred power, and never touch them. They are found everywhere, if you know where to look. Remember, do not touch, lest they come undone and spill their poison.
Suspended above the case, is a cloak of Uli made by Rita Doris Edumchieke Ubah. Uli is a sacred art of Igbo women. The bright red and yellow designs are reflected in the glass encasement of “potent things.” Where you see the one, you will also see the other. Satka, wanka, kantha; strong protection from Mamaka[Sierra Leone].
Shrines of Onokwu and Ngene Ishiekpe [Shrine with Male and Female Mud Sculptures]
…The back wall is a monumental, prism of light, Ezeana Obidigbo; batik made by Chijoke Onuora. Jennifer Ogochukwu Okpoko created a panel of textile art titled called the “The Beauty Within.” The art is a covering to a pyramid of shrines. The first is the Shrine of Onokwu, an image of the deity of fertility from the Delta State of Nigeria. If you are hoping to get pregnant, honor her there. I pray, Onokwu remembers me.
There is also the story of two powerful Oba’s who found each other in exile, before they found their way home: Oba Okun, the king of Uzebba” (his grandson David Adelaja Okun holds his image) and Ovonramwen of Benin.
The Altar of Staffs [Ukhurhe of Ovia from Iyowa, Southern Nigeria]
…The altar of Ukhurhe [memorial rattle staffs] features the nearly complete Pantheon of Ifa, with Ogu’s wife at the helm. Baba Esu is there of course. If your eyes water when you see Osun, catch the tears in your mouth and taste the salt. Yemeya is also there, inside every drop, a strong potion. At the center of all, [to the right of Osun] stands Olokun; acknowledgement of the depths.
A Sign of Nobility: the Igbu ichi [Lines, faces, fragments]
…This one is a puzzle of broken pieces, made resurrect by Ozioma Onuzulike’s hands. He carved the igbo ichi marks onto the faces of the clay sculptures. Here, you will learn that “no one bearing the marks could be enslaved.”
This will be hard to swallow. Swallow it anyway. If your back itches, it is from scars of a different cut. Do not scratch at the scars. The itch is phantom, a memory of pain still healing. Feel it fully and remember; this scarification. Now do you see…the nobility of igbu ichi?
…By this time, the ancestors have already delivered you safely back to Ngene, keeper of the land. Ngene stands erect again; along with items 1-8 from the colonial collection. Remember, he is not dead; he told you so himself. Behind his newest shrine is a tapestry by Alafuro Sikoki-Coleman.
“I created a visual story to highlight the travels, interactions and experiences from various perspectives of the players in the story,” explains Sikoki-Coleman [Textile design, 2021].
“[Re]Entanglements” is a point of departure, an important presentation of an unprocessed web. It is a reminder of vulnerabilities, entitlements, agency, and an enduring antiquity. We are activated in our memory, our connectedness, and the inevitability of our eventual triumph. The re-imagining reveals a dynasty: still upright, very much alive, snatching breath and giving strength, a study of dominance and dominion.
With your own eyes, you’ve seen Ngene; keeper of the land.