How can we come to terms with how everyday simplicity possesses a force that should be understood, investigated? We are in Calabar, the second day. I began to feel the need to speak to the ordinary things that we are seeing – our unique position is that no one expected us here, so we are here without fanfare, seeing things as they usually, ordinarily are. (Which was why when we went to the Obong of Calabar’s palace, guided by Elder Francis Eyo, the Secretary to the Council told us that the Monarch couldn’t see us, having just ended a meeting). But how do I use ‘ordinary’ without sounding condescending, derogatory, privileged? Because, if the truth is to be told, we are a group of artists funded to travel by road across Africa and make visual work that speaks to Africa’s present – there’s a tincture of privilege in that. Friends and family said to us that we should have ‘fun’ and take ‘loads of pictures,’ a blessing that does not hide its jealousy. Perhaps this is a form of limit that we must transcend if we would truly make lasting work about Calabar.
At the Millennium Park where we went next, I tweeted the following:
- In Calabar, history has been compressed into a public park where new generation dancers can rehearse, without fear.
- In Calabar. A 100-feet (or more?) flagpole. Only that the pole is without the flag.
- In Calabar, these guys don’t know if they’re on Facebook. It’s sort of a cool thing to know social media is not truly ‘global’
- They are called Dream Dance Crew. I want to think they’re (like) a dream
- In Calabar, Elder Francis Eyo hums the Cross River anthem. “Land of my birth…” He introduces music into the air.
I remember Elder Francis, in that park, noting how in just a few years former Governor Donald Duke changed the city into one with a touristical appeal. Then I had a quick discussion with Emeka about how easily the socio-cultural life of a place could change, how people can wake up to a different way of living, being, perceiving. We discussed this against the backdrop that leadership can make a difference, a measurable, tangible, physical, evident. We have met people here who say Donald Duke has been the state’s best Governor, unarguably. It was easy to see from their eyes, the tone of their voices, that they meant it. I find it interesting that there can be such consensus, politics as fiercely nuanced as it is.
At the market, there was a police van driving through. From the moving van I overhead a policeman saying “come snap policeman.” Although I immediately thought of systems of resistance, and how photography could enhance that (I wonder how relevant this is!), it made sense to me knowing how we have encountered many residents of Calabar who ran away from us not wanting to be photographed. I realized, immediately, how different the ‘photographic landscape’ was from, say, N’djamena. In N’djamena no one ran away from the gaze of our cameras. They warned us straight away, in French, not to take their photos, standing where they stood, fingers pointed towards our cameras. But here in Calabar, we are warned not to take photographs in a different way – people running, literarily fleeing, from us. In many instances this was so. This is the first city I have visited with photographers that react to photographs this way – shyly, as though if we captured their faces we would create an unintended moment. I haven’t found a cause for this. An easy way to investigate this would be to ask someone why s/he runs away from a lens. But another way would be to be blissfully ignorant about what makes Calabarians shy when approached by a camera – a hidden beauty they possess but do not want to share? Or could it be that they expect us to focus on the touristical appeal of their state? And not them?
I met a certain John, who is from Akwa Ibom, who sold me undershirts and helped me buy a hair brush. I asked him how business was and he lamented – business had been bad since last year. He’d been promised that after the 2011 elections things would improve, but since then nothing had changed. I asked what his plans were. He said he was planning to change lines of business, start selling women things. Women things always sold, women always bought things. It amused me, in some way. I can’t say why.
At the beach market, where we went to after the other market, I enquired from a fisherman, aided by Elder Eyo, if the declaration of sovereignty by Bakassi residents affected business. The fisherman said it didn’t. I wondered how I could have thought it would. Yet sitting there by the sheds in the shore, which would be filled with goods the next day, I recognized a form of superimposition – Lasedi, for instance, assisted by Rayo, tried to make one of the boys sing a song, as she’s interested in local music, the spaces of music. Mario and Jide and Ray kept clicking away, their cameras facing the river. I wondered what we would capture, and what we will leave behind. But we captured something of a myth – there’s a symbol of a mermaid (mammy water), towering in the dock, which was put up as a sort of appeasement to the water spirit who was said to have caused several boats to capsize, various havoc.
In thinking about today’s blog, I recalled an illustrator I’ve followed for four years – Becky Barnicoat, whose blog is titled Everyone Is Here Already. My tweet when I thought that had been: “In Calabar, you have to look between the touristical crevices to see reality. It’s waiting.” Everyone might have been here for tourism. But it is beautiful that we are here for something else – less sensational, more intricate.