Posted on May 8, 2017
Becky Nahom: Publishing Against the Grain is a traveling exhibition that calls attention to the current state of publishing as it exists in small journals, experimental publications, websites, radio and other innovative forms. Independent Curators International (ICI) is producing this exhibition at a time when free speech has been called into question all over the world and therefore independent publishing becomes even more important as a means of open dialogue. The Trans-African is one of the projects included in Publishing Against the Grain, which is the initiative of Invisible Borders, an artist led organization based in Nigeria. Could you give a little background about Invisible Borders and its relationship to The Trans-African?
Moses Serubiri: I got to know about Invisible Borders through an article written by Emmanuel Iduma who is my co-editor at The Trans-African. I found Iduma because I was writing poetry and the Kenyan poet, Keguro Macharia, encouraged me to submit to Iduma’s magazine. Iduma was running an online magazine called Saraba. It was very popular among poets in Kenya and elsewhere because it was possibly one of the only publications for African writers that took poetry seriously. Actually, it’s funny because I didn’t even publish poetry with them, I wrote an essay on photography. After a while, I think late 2012, I encountered Iduma’s travel writings. He wrote an essay called “Trans Wander” (2013) modeled on letters someone would write back home as he / she traveled. Iduma is now very much expanding his ideas about fiction and travel writing. I would describe The Trans-African as basically a journal that uses the travelogue format as a way of presenting reflections on visual art and culture.
In my piece on Iduma’s project, “Brooding Letters to Nigeria” (2013), I was interested in the letters he wrote back to Nigeria, and why he felt the way he did in this essay. This informed my initial impression of Invisible Borders as an outlet for not only Nigerian photographers, but also other photographers around the African continent who are interested in visiting regions in Africa where they had never been and finding some sort of connection between those places. In some of these letters, he’s concerned with Nigerian businessmen who migrated to Cameroon and how they are treated in parts of Buea, one of the cities of Cameroon. The Trans-African tends to take specific positions not just regarding travel, but also on what you discover when you travel to a new place, especially if that place is in Africa and you are also an African person encountering an unfamiliar culture.
BN: Was The Trans-African always a part of Invisible Borders?
MS: No, no. The essay “Trans Wander” was written separately from the work Iduma was doing with Invisible Borders. Iduma was invited as the first writer to participate in these trans-African road trips. He used to write a blog, and it was through that process (almost like sketching a set of ideas) that he started writing this other essay which I feel were modeled on Teju Cole’s writing, as Teju Cole also tends to write about his travels. Currently, Iduma is developing a book of travel writing based on three or four years of blogging during his road trips. The Trans-African is literally a version of that blog with two other writers. It’s more intentionally a journal because it has a thematic, a structure, and an identity of its own. A lot of the pieces weave into each other and there is a collective kind of thinking associated with it. There’s an interest in archival photography and personal photography, fiction, travel writing and a specific editorial position.
BN: In the Invisible Borders manifesto, the idea of audience in relation to content is written as a boundless group where the lines of class and proficiency in literacy dissipate and therefore art and images can extend to the local audience. Is it possible that The Trans-African as a publication has a focus on photography and images to further the ideas of Invisible Borders to expand engagement through every outlet, real and virtual regardless of familiarity with the larger topics and ideas of literacy?
MS: For a long time, only Iduma was writing for the Invisible Borders blog (from 2012 onwards). He was also in residency (Thread Residency in Sinthian, Senegal) with Emeka Okereke, the Director of Invisible Borders. Because of Invisible Borders, Iduma took a number of road trips and wrote on the image of Cheikh Ahmadou Bamba, a Senegalese saint. Iduma became kind of obsessed with Ahmadou Bamba’s image and tried to connect with it. He’s not Muslim; he’s not from Senegal; he’s not familiar with Senegal’s version of Sufi Islam. And so he was researching in order to write and uncover more about this figure. When he started writing, he realized he had so much to say that it became a recurring theme in his work because he hasn’t yet exhausted all the material he’s found. The Trans-African is interested in finding indexical images attached to a specific place and time, and then through fictive and journalistic approaches to writing, makes disparate connections. Iduma also felt a certain way while being in Senegal, being immersed in a culture that is mostly Muslim, which he is not. He has an interest in archival photography and in developing a language around archival photography that articulates first arriving in a new place and trying to connect with that place’s history, which is kind of a departure from Invisible Borders.
BN: On The Trans-African, different writing styles are used for various pieces in response to the content. Could you talk about this and your own writing style?
MS: The last essay that I published, “Dinka Woman with Baby,” (2016) started as a reflection on a painting that I had seen in an exhibition and became a reflection on the Venus figure and what the Venus figure represents. The text is also a reflection on the meaning of being a certain skin color in East Africa today. In particular, the people of Sudan have been stereotyped in a specific way particularly due to kinds of depictions in ethnographic photography. The image I write about is a particular image of a woman emerging from the river holding a baby from 1989 by Carol Beckwith and Angela Fisher from a book called African Ceremonies. I had no idea of the connection between the Venus image and the painting that I saw at first. I knew the painting was of a Dinka woman because the Dinka people wear similar beaded dress, wear necklaces like the ones in the painting, their children are also given beaded necklaces and arm bangles. Because of the facial structure and tone of the skin, I thought the woman was probably from Southern Sudan. I also knew the painter, Akot Deng, was from Southern Sudan where there’s currently a war happening. The more I read, the more I realized this was a painted reproduction.
When the reproduction becomes apparent in the essay, I describe the idea of exoticism of the black female body and the history of ethnography in East Africa, and how that is necessary to discuss when talking about contemporary art today. In a sense, this is an art criticism piece, but it doesn’t start out like a typical art criticism piece. It feels more like a narrative. While I’m not necessarily trained as an academic, I write with academic concepts of race, ethnography, and anthropology in mind. In a sense, you would not always find academic writing on these topics written in this narrative style. I’m trying to ask a lot of questions. My writing is meant to be jarring and provocative. I wrote this essay because I am interested in feminist practices. It does not seem apparent in this essay, but it is a feminist critique of the Akot Deng painting. Although, in the end, I propose that it’s possible that this artist painted this image because South Sudan is going through a crisis and this is an empowering image of a woman rising out of the river. But from what we know about ethnographic photography, the photographers that were pursuing the black body and so called “black Nuba warrior” portraiture, were reproducing an invention of the German photographer, Leni Riefenstahl in the book, The Last of the Nuba.
BN: How does your writing practice influence your curatorial practice and how do they align with each other?
MS: I’m very happy to have written this essay. Even though it is somewhat jarring and off-putting, it really establishes what kind of standpoint I want to take in terms of feminism. I want to think about feminism as a counter to ethnography; feminism in relation to the black body, but also about several unresolved and ongoing questions that people may have in relation to photography and painting in general. In writing this essay, I touched on something that is very uncomfortable for a lot of people in Africa, which is the concept of tribe. The concept of tribe, unlike the concept of race, is not as fully theorized. The whole tribal narrative or discourse of the tribes of the people of Africa is still something that people struggle with in various parts of the continent in everyday politics. The fact that this essay tries to connect tribe and feminism is actually very brave.
I do not think of my curatorial practice as being separate from my writing. For example, I’m writing for a lot of academic books where I have long interviews with artists in the process. The interesting thing is that my curatorial practice is a form of inquiry. It’s about asking difficult questions and entering into conversations that are uncomfortable. So if we are talking about tribal identity and why Dinka women are mythologized in the political imagination in Uganda or in Kenya, yes, let us by all means do it. I am also engaging with it as a curator in curatorial discourse. The thing that is curated becomes those feelings, then those feelings are the ones that take on other forms as interventions, actions, publications, or radio programs.
BN: With Publishing Against the Grain, your writing will be included in an exhibition as an object for people to engage with. As a curator, how do you feel about The Trans-African and your writing being experienced in a new context?
MS: Some of the writing is not as intense as this, so it’s interesting to pull some of it into a different context. For example, I am often asked about this piece, “Letter to My Niece,” which has a very different tone. It’s largely about mosque architecture and photography of specific mosques. The text is about a mosque in Sudan, The Great Mosque in Khartoum, and I discuss a mosque in Medina, and then a mosque in Wazir Khan in Lahore. I’m basically writing to my niece and telling her about these mosques. It reads:
In your life you will see many great mosques. This is just one of them. But you may get to see the mosque of Medina. You will see the photograph of the mosque of Mecca in the living room of your late jajja’s house. You will see the photographs of pilgrims in Mecca, and the stone of paradise, that the pilgrims kiss.
When your jajja-Hajji came back from Mecca, I asked him whether he, too, kissed this stone. He said then it was a huge struggle because there were thousands of pilgrims. In that conversation, I recalled the scent of myrrh, which he had in a bottle of oil perfume, said to be the scent of paradise. An Imam at the mosque of Kibuli, in one of his great sermons on Eid-el-Fitr, many years ago, declared that the air from the mouth of one who has fasted a whole day is foul to the human nose, but it is like myrrh of paradise to divine angels.
It’s a way of creating a narrative around images and trying to talk about images in a more nuanced way. This kind of writing is not necessarily part of a larger discourse. There’s an element of fiction with the letter format. Sai is a real person, but she hasn’t read this letter. Sai is three or four years old, so she doesn’t fully understand what this is about yet. I know that her father, who is a young middle class Muslim man, is often going to Mecca. Actually, I think he goes to Mecca every year. So of course at some point her father will show her a picture of a mosque or will maybe want to take her with him. I’m just trying to prepare her for this visual experience, which is kind of frightening.
BN: The letter format you have chosen is a direct response to the content of the piece and expands models of writing.
MS: It’s important to know various styles and ways of writing. But it is also important to explore them. I don’t think one should be limited to either scholarly writing or to fiction writing or to poetry. I try to blend all styles. I do have a poetic attitude towards scholarly material. It’s something that I play around with and it’s something we talk about with Iduma and Ndinda Kioko, who is the other co-editor of The Trans-African. We constantly talk about this blending of genres and styles and why it’s important for us to blur the lines more and more between visual analysis, fiction, scholarly writing and poetry.
BN: This blurring is a reoccurring thread through many of the publications included in Publishing Against the Grain that are not clearly defined and can respond to the needs of their communities in experimental forms. The publications included in the exhibition come from ICI’s international network of collaborators, but additional content includes nominations by the included publications themselves. It’s a way of opening up curatorial authorship, and at the same time, allowing the invited projects to share their own trajectory of thought. Could you tell me about the publication that has influenced you and that you chose to be included in the exhibition, African Cities Reader II: Mobilities & Fixtures?
MS: The African Cities Reader is another publication that like The Trans-African challenges the reader to go beyond what they think they know. Let me give an example by the third contributor to The Trans-African, Ndinda Kioko. “The Image of Life and Death” by Kioko is one of the most subtle essays I’ve read, period. Kioko has a way of taking the simplest detail – which is the mark of a great novelist actually – whether it’s a fly that landed on this table or a hat that was abandoned on the metro – and turning it into the most epic thing. The essay is about a death in her family, most of her essays are about the death of her mother. They are personal memoir essays, but they are at the same time visual analysis essays, and at the same time history of Kenya essays. She starts this essay with a quote, “Life is commemorated through photographs, why not death?” by Ray Ruby, and you think (of the photograph) okay this is an easy enough picture to look at. But then she goes ahead and writes:
“This way, the funeral photograph somehow reminds us that we too shall go this way. Here, the Latin expression, “momento mori,” comes to mind. Remember death. You too, shall die. It is as if by standing right next to the coffin and having our photo taken, we are all participating in this little dance between life and death.”
I mean, that could be Susan Sontag, or someone with that style. Kioko has a way of transforming that one thing we are familiar with into something deeper.
The African Cities Reader is important because I feel that it unites the three of us. The African Cities Reader II, the one that I nominated, is called Mobilities & Fixtures and has three important writers to us. “Kin la Belle: In the Clear Light of Song and Silence” is by Yvonne Owuor and very important to Ndinda Kioko. Chris Abani who wrote “Las Vegas: The Last African City” is a very important writer to Emmanuel Iduma. Teju Cole is a very important reader for Emmanuel Iduma, Ndinda Kioko, and myself and wrote “Everyday is for the Thief.” He’s a writer who’s expressed support for The Trans-African and reached out to us. These three writers write urban travelogues and are all novelists, but their novels are not traditional. In any case, this African Cities Reader published their work. An African Cities Reader was publishing novelists.
BN: Why is this so important to you?
MS: It’s really important to me because it challenges the whole idea of urbanism and what urbanism means. African literature in itself, African novels, were not always written with the city in mind because apparently African writers wanted to write about Africa before colonialism. They wanted to remove trace of whiteness from the novel. The political African novel became a book about African villages, huts, soldiers which appeared in the 1950s. These writers are in direct opposition to that kind of writing because they recognize the complexity of the African experience. While yes, we recognize a pre-colonial Africa, we also recognize a post-colonial Africa in which cities are so much a part of the every day experience. Yvonne Owuor’s piece is really nice because it is concerned with the relationship between Congolese music and Kinshasa – which is the capital city in Congo – and Nairobi, which is a place where a lot of Congolese musicians play their music.
At one point in the 90s, Congolese music was the most popular in East Africa, so Owuor grew up around this music. It’s like a pilgrimage of sorts because she’s going back in time to her childhood, but going to a city that she’s never been to at the same time.