In January of this year, Emmanuel Iduma (MFA ’15) and fellow writer/editors Serubiri Moses and Ndinda Kioko launched the online journal “The Trans-African,” dedicated to the reflections of independent art writers from Africa on the photographs, images, and other visual cultures of Africa. This project grew out of the work Emmanuel had already been doing, both as a writer on photography as well as a contributing/collaborating member of Invisible Borders, an artist-led initiative that provides a platform for exchange regarding the contemporary African experience. We asked Emmanuel to talk with us about the new publication, the necessity of imagination, and about what a photograph might have the power to elucidate for a writer.
DEGREE CRITICAL: Can you tell us more about the genesis of The Trans-African?
Emmanuel Iduma: It must have been sometime in late 2013. I had become interested in the sources of my scholarship, and when I began having conversations with Emeka Okereke [Artistic Director of Invisible Borders] about this, we agreed that there were pitiably few platforms for writing about African art outside the academia. I knew I was a product of the academy in terms of my education and research interests, but I also knew I belonged to a literary tradition invested in the mainstream, in writing that’s accessible in language and form. We decided that Invisible Borders—an organization already working to valorize what seemed otherwise mundane in African countries—could launch a journal that published art writing aspiring to literature. At this time I was neck-deep in the program at SVA. I wanted to apply all that knowledge and politics to my own concerns.
DC: In “Face In the Archive,” your first essay on the site, you write “I deal contemporaneously with the archive, and treat history with conceit and imagination.” Can you speak more about the necessity of conceit and imagination when thinking and writing about history and its documents?
EI: “Face In the Archive” is a manifesto for the yearlong work I’m doing. In university, as a law student, I did not take a course in Nigerian history. I was taught legal history, which traced the origin of our legal system back to the Norman Conquest. So I received an education that gave me, in a sense, an incomplete toolkit to question who I was.
I cannot escape what I have been named. I am Nigerian, which means I am the citizen imagined at the twilight of British colonialism. And yet to be Nigerian suggests that my identity is also a failure of the imagination. I don’t think Nigeria as it is today is what the nationalists envisioned. I can live with that, but I want to go back to the past to understand how I got here—the process of my naming, so to speak.
When I return to the past (and maybe this is just as a result of my laziness), I find few resources available. My writing and thinking is being formed in the age of Google, but we know that there are facts that are primarily material, outside the web. I have limited access to these materials—old newspapers, for instance. Once I find something that interests me, I begin the work of recuperation. This is an imaginative endeavor. It’s imaginative because I’m not merely thinking of linear time, but time as in a dream, or a photograph.
Also, it’s where these facts and histories take me that interests me. “History is really a study of the future not the past,” Arundhati Roy once said. No one knows the future, but we know enough of the past to realize events are cumulative and consequential. I think making those connections requires a significant amount of imagination and conceit. Otherwise I would have no business triangulating photos from 1899, 1967, and 2009 for my second essay.
DC: You also write “Language is always superfluous in relation to images,” though you are a writer who returns over and over again to photography. What is it about images that holds your attention—that keeps you looking and thinking about them?
EI: I am held by the fact that each time I return to the images of the Kamberi boys [from “Face In the Archive”], for instance, I see something I missed the last time. I think what happens with photographs of people’s faces, whether we know them or not, is an awareness that we cannot know their thoughts in full. Our photographs cannot escape being examined, whether on Instagram or in an essay. Maybe today, the Socratic idea that an examined life isn’t worth living can be rephrased as “an un-photographed life isn’t worth living.”
I write about photographs because in examining them, they refuse expert knowledge to accommodate impassioned scrutiny. There’s much more to be said, always. But I begin with where I am at the moment of writing.
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