In this photo, a young man—maybe a boy—averts his gaze from the camera. Let’s call him Ahamefuna: let my name/legacy not be forgotten. The photographer did not catch him by surprise, for the young man had carried himself somewhere and insisted he would remain there.
The year is 1911 and the location is Awgbu, a town in present-day Anambra State, Nigeria. The photograph lives in one of the collections by the [Re:]Entanglements project, described as an attempt at “re-engaging with colonial archives in decolonial times.” 1 The project seeks to re-think the significance of the remarkable ethnographic archive assembled by N. W. Thomas, the first trained anthropologist appointed to the post of “Government Anthropologist” by the British Colonial Office. By re-contextualising the objects, sounds and photos in Thomas’s work, the project asks: “What actions do they make possible today?”
In the entire collection, many of the photographed people look directly at Thomas (and his Nigerian assistants) with indifference, irritation, suspicion, disgust, humor, calm, and rarely joy. The existence of these photos represents a colonial gaze, anthropology’s birth defect. But despite what the object of the photographs represents, the expressions in them destabilize the right to scrutiny that the colonial gaze claims as a sole proprietor. In fact, here is Ahamefuna, exercising his right to opacity, averting scrutiny altogether.
Looking at this photograph in 2022, Ahamefuna looked to me like a woman at first because of the headscarf. His cheekbones and forehead are like bruises on his face. Shoulders relaxed. Gaze soft—wherever he carried himself to had carried him to the divine boogaloo2, the place where flowers don’t have to look right to turn to the light.
The photo has a soft, grey texture. I feel like I can touch Ahamefuna and that when I do, he would feel like powder. Like dust, his body fades into the background at the bottom corners. Where he has gone in the photo, you only go in the company of love or the company of grief for a loss you must now avoid. That I have found him inside this moment feels like a miracle.
I want to trace his collarbones and the bruises of his cheekbones and forehead with my index finger. I want him to turn to me and tell me he was thinking about the white photographer who had made him pose.
Looking at the photograph, I am reminded that my grandfather had an interior life I will never know about. Whenever my parents, siblings, and I went to the village, we prayed the Rosary in Igbo every morning with the extended family but outside that, I could converse only in English, which my grandfather did not speak. One afternoon, I had been worried about something that needed to be tabled before God. While my mind went on its internal monologue in English, the thought occurred to me that my grandfather’s personal conversations with God must be in Igbo. In ways I could not fully articulate at the time, it dawned on me that if his mind spoke a different language, if he made sense of his reality through a different set of signifiers, then the internal world through which he saw the rest of the world probably looked like something I could not—may never—experience.
Some years after this thought, I found Chinua Achebe’s Home and Exile on the back shelves of my secondary school’s library. In it, Achebe, an Igbo man of my grandfather’s generation, recounts memories and folklore with which he made meaning of his Igbo identity before, during, and after British colonial rule. The collection’s final essay ends with a call to “others who may believe with me that a universal civilization is nowhere yet in sight” to join the “war against dispossession” which entailed a process of “re-storying” colonized people. And so began my fraught efforts to animate my personal sense of lineage. Yes, my history did not begin with colonization, but the colonial period stands between me and the part of my family’s past I don’t have access to.
With this photo, I extend my gaze towards my own interiority. The place where my Achebe-given purpose now lives its geriatric last days. What used to be a raging desire to know how my ancestors thought about justice, gender and depression is now the question: whom did my great-grandfather love?
Of course, it is an unanswerable question. Like asking what it means to die.
- “Phantom Regret by Jim,” Track 16 on The Weeknd’s album Dawn FM