Monday, 21 November 2011

Khartoum: Receptive Terrain - Emmanuel Iduma

Fresh Morning, Khartoum (Emeka Okereke)
Just as I began to write this, the noise of passing trucks on the road beneath our window ceased, and the noiselessness made me think of the words I had once seen, “No two days are the same.” Khartoum emphasizes these words, in ways I will speak of, and how different it is from other cities we have travelled through – nowhere else have I felt as honoured to be a visitor. Even being a stranger seems a good thing.

At the Khartoum International Airport, there is a huge welcome sign by MTN, ending with the words, “hope you brought your camera.” I notice this first, then the smartly dressed policemen, then a family returning from Ethiopia, I think. I am taken over by the inability to distinguish between the Sudan I expected to see and the Sudan I was seeing; I could tell from the excitement lingering on the faces of Jumoke and Kemi that it was the same for them, too.

Upon leaving the airport, we were driven at Ala Khier’s direction to an apartment which was unpainted from the outside, and which bore the look of an abandoned building. Ala had booked for us a different place, but when our plans changed, we lost the place. We climbed a flight of stairs, leading us into a newly furnished apartment, the opposite of what one expected after seeing the building from outside. A while later, we were taken by Ala and Fasial to a restaurant, where we ate – the food was so good Emeka joked that one of us could be found the next morning waiting for the restaurant to open.

There has not been much flurry of activities since then. When we woke the next morning, Ala helped with SIM cards, a wireless modem, and permits from the Sudanese government allowing us to make photos in the city. Emeka and Kemi went shopping; now that we had an apartment with a kitchen, we agreed that it would make so much sense to cook our own food. After the provisions and food stuff arrived, we made so much noise dividing the food between the guys and the ladies, disturbing the neighbours in the process. We apologised with gestures; Arabic is Sudan’s first language, English is second; most people we have met speak more Arabic than English. Being lost in translation reinforced my decision to learn Arabic, as I have been fascinated and interested in Arab culture since my third year in university.

We were taken to the market to make photos, joined by Ala, Fasial and Yasssir. The words “no two days are the same” is instructive in an attempt to tell how welcomed we were in the market. This is given the fact that we had just left Tchad, where carrying a camera automatically made us disadvantaged. Here, as we walked around the market with our guides, we were beckoned on, the martketpeople who were not shy wanted their photos taken.

Perhaps this results from Sudan’s culture of openness, and travelling culture. We are told that if we had travelled by road, there would have been no need to look for hotels at each stop – in each small town, a resting place was provided by the chief for travellers. I had mentioned in an earlier post how important it was that we sought to purge ourselves of every trait of strangeness, and find remain, simply, as visitors. In the face of things at the moment, given how no two days are the same, I am not sure that assertion should be taken cogently in Khartoum.

When those marketpeople beckoned on us, asking where we were from, smiling with us when they saw that we spoke no Arabic, being a stranger suddenly seemed novel. I do not argue that we should remain estranged from Khartoum’s way of seeing, or that we should remain irrelevant to Khartoum’s residents; I argue instead that our friction with Khartoum would be smooth and pleasurable, if the signs we are seeing remain.

I figure that when it is time to reminisce on this project, Sudan would be a ready example of a city that has made conscious effort to blur its borders. No lies should be told, these borders exist; Khartoum is an Islamized town, bursting forth with every dint of Islamic life. Yet, there seems to be a collective decision to hybridize, to welcome diversity.

The road beneath our window is a busy one. Every second a car zooms past. It reminds me of the work to be done. When a city opens itself so wide as Khartoum has done, what remains is the (sub)conscious affinity for creating work that tells in detail what it means to have crossed into a receptive terrain.

N'djamena, Tchad to Khartoum, Sudan: A Photo Essay

Images: Emeka Okereke, Ray-Daniels Okeugo, Jumoke Sanwo, Kemi Akin-Nibosun & Emmanuel Iduma
Text: Emmanuel Iduma

In telling our Tchadian story, I begin with the following premise: Our constant challenge was to find a way to see – to feel, to work – that shares rather than manipulates. It was a hoax, this. We are travelling these places without invitation, our work is premised on the spontaneity that accompanies the travelling artist. As travelling artists, therefore, our complete adventure may remain ‘unseen texts.’ Each time I try to fulfil my duty to this project, I find myself inadequate to wholesomely tell our experience. Which is why, I believe, the following images narrate better our story; and why I continually seek the language with which to navigate the terrain between an individualized context, and a pluralized one.

The pattern of this photo essay differs from the first in that I have taken the liberty to find a pattern in the hundreds of pictures I collected from my colleagues. This pattern, as you will see, makes the narration linear, and would, I believe, make me less meditative.

Here goes:





1. After our hotel search ended, we settled in a nice and homely place, which Nana described as ‘civilized.’ There was breakfast set before us every morning, a pool, a hammock, laundry, and the guys’ room had a bar. As is clear from 1A, Kemi looks contented, and we even made friends with the lady in 1B, who was day-worker, security, and helping hand. We got the hotel at a discount when we talked with the manager who happened to be a gospel artiste. Although he gave us a copy of his album, we never fulfilled our promise to interview him before leaving.
Before we moved to Hotel du Sahel, we stayed at a hotel, owned by a Chinese woman, managed by a Chinese guy who spoke only Chinese, and an impatient Tchadian man. In 1C, Nana and Ray eat the breakfast provided, which often came late, and sometimes accompanied by grumbling from the housekeeper, and the rest of us, except Ray, eat in 1D. The hammock in our new hotel is visible in 1E, overlooking the table where we usually had breakfast; this shot was taken at noonday, yet few hours earlier Jumoke could have been the first out (who knows how hungry she always was?)



2. N’djamena is replete with bars. I think of this as an identity shift. N’djamena, at face value, comes across as Islamized through and through. Yet, at night, several streets are lit up with bars and clubs, with makossa music, tarty dresses, and beers. Jumoke’s opinion is that Mr. Itno has given his people such freedom to stay wild so that protest and dissidence becomes unconceivable. 2A is the entrance to one of the bars, owned by a friend to some N’djamena artists. The bars were became the location for our artistic rendezvous; in 2B, our friends Bani Alain (left), Hyacinth Tobio (right), and a third friend share with us. I wonder if, in our short stay, N’djamena became a different town.



3. On Tom’s final day with us, we visited Libiyana, a Lebanese restaurant, for the first time. Good, too-expensive food, was served (3A). Our computers were open because we had become wifi-hunters, seeking for every spot in N’djamena where we would be favoured by whatever Greek god was responsible for ensuring the stability of the internet. we ate very little local food, more rice and chicken, and often as in 3B, Nana’s vegetarian food was hard to find. Our friend from the French Cultural Centre (3C), who was only a few months old in the town, did a fine job of taking us around the city.


4. One of the most productive things we did in Tchad (being hindered from doing much by the institutionalized paranoia) was a workshop with local photographers. Here, Emeka and Kemi are in conversation with two photographers. Bicrabe Bantola (stooping on the left) was also one of our guides.











5. Another productive stint was a presentation of the work of Invisible Borders from 2009 till date at the French Cultural Centre. 5A (Ray and Emeka preparing the slides for the presentation); 5B (computers ready); 5C (Marine Tesseyre, official of the Institut Francias, Tchad in charge of the cultural mission, and Emeka readying); 5D (Marine opening the presentation); 5E (cross section of the team); 5F (cross section of the audience – notice Bicrabe Bantola wearing our T-shirt); 5G (Emeka, pictured from behind, giving his speech); 5H (asking a question – One of the questions demanded an intricate consideration. In looking at the images, he said, he did not see anything invisible being made visible); 5I (Nana speaking); 5J & 5K (posing with and receiving our postcards).





6. Attending a dinner at the invitation of the French Ambassador to Tchad was another highlight of our stay. I regret when I say this without being able to produce a copy of the invitation I was given, as the soldiers at the gate to the Ambassador’s residence took the invitations and threw it in a box with a small opening. I agree that this sounds vain, but a careful look at all the images of the evening, suggests that our vanity had never been more pronounced. Notice Ray’s comportment as Nana talks with a top official from the German embassy (6A); 6B is the first time Kemi has been pictured wearing a skirt – unfortunately, there was no heir apparent (to the French Ambassador’s throne) as we had teased her about. And then, notice my sheepish smile with a man I barely know, who befriended me because of my tiguey (6C). Jumoke, in making a photo of Emeka and Ray with the Ambassador, is clever enough in emphasizing that the Ambassador was the cynosure of attention. Clearly, there was much grandeur to be photographed in the Ambassador’s residence, such as peacocks (6D) and antelopes (given my amateurishness, my photos of the antelope were not selected!)







7. Despite being held in the police station for 6 hours, we managed to defy the hostility of N’djamenians, producing works that made up for our alienhood. 7A is the image taken just before Emeka and Ray were arrested (there is a brief account of our arrest in a previous post). 7B is my favourite for this essay; Ray has done a good job of capturing us as we set to work in a town that seemed intent at stifling us. Emeka, definitely a workaholic (or photoholic, or videoholic), is pictured here (7C) carrying out a daily (early morning) routine of transferring images and video files from his camera onto his computer/hard drive. The room we shared was always a terrain of artists who cared less about their immediate environment – whatever explanation is given to this is fine, by me. 7D & 7E are classic works Emeka made on our final working day, as we walked the street of downtown N’djamena, seeking images. 7D is peculiar because Emeka’s subject sits atop some Dangote cement bags – The shrewd and ingenious businessman is conquering Africa, one country at a time. The Man is like the Chinese; please tell him I said so.
                And where are Igbos not to be found? Here in Tchad, Ray met some Igbo spare parts dealers, who were as enthusiastic as we were to meet our ‘brothers.’ (7F)
             In 7G, Emeka is making a video of a local musician whose music we stumbled across while we walked. Notice the gathering crowd – while some endorsed our activities, other shouted us down, buttressing the illegality of filming the musician. Sure enough, the musician himself (7H) was pleased by the attention, even more by the cash that we put in his breast pocket.





8. Jumoke’s work continued, on a small scale in Tchad. She is shown here making a portrait of two Tchadian women (8A & 8B), who like their LAWMA (Lagos) counterparts, are road-cleaners. What is interesting about these photos (8C & 8D) is that Jumoke ensured they were printed and given to the women. I hope it is a permanent keepsake; for I consider that our goal is not to narrate in complete detail the lives of others; but to show how, when our lives intersected with the lives of others, we were positioned to narrate the ensuing friction.






9. We decided to fly from N’djamena to Khartoum because the terrain was reputedly dangerous, even by local reports. Yes, we are intent on saving our lives! As is repeated continuously during this trip, we had to make certain explanations to the Tchadian immigration before we were allowed out – I wonder how different I would sound were we ordered to remain in Tchad or deported to Nigeria. Just before takeoff, Emeka takes a photo (9A) of Nana and myself (how I loathe how tired my eyes look in this photo). Here, Ray seems to be annoyed over his hard-hat that was forgotten at the airport’s security post (9B); pictured in 9C is one of the wings the airplane, and the aerial view that shows N’djamena reduced to a blur. Upon arrival at Khartoum International Airport (pictured in 9D), Jumoke and Kemi exclaimed that the airport could easily pass for Dubai’s. As we descended into Khartoum, the aerial view of the city did not present a wreckage or  torn apart by decades of conflict. Kemi's doll, Jumbo, is crossing borders with us - she had promised this to Lucy Azubuike, who gave each of us dolls, making us pledge to return the dolls after 10 years (9E). 
         True, Khartoum is the opposite of what we expected, given how Sudan is told as the dirt on global conscience (without any effort made to tell Khartoum and Port Sudan as exceptions). Our surprise did not end at the airport (9F), or after we met with Ala Khier and his friend, Faisal. (9G). The city itself is resplendent with splendid malls, well-furnished houses, clear roads, and all that points to a stable city.