Onyeka Igwe is a London-born and raised artist filmmaker, programmer and researcher. Using dance, voice, text and archive material her films aim to expose and explore multiple narratives.
With seven other artists, in 2017 Igwe was selected for The Showroom’s artist associates programme, Holding Space. An exhibition of all the artists’ work, ‘There’s something in the conversation that is more interesting than the finality of (a title)’, took place at The Showroom earlier this year.
Igwe is also one of six artists selected for the inaugural FLAMIN Fellowship, a new scheme for early-career artist filmmakers. Her films have been screened at various events and international festivals and a solo exhibition, ‘No Dance, No Palaver’, is currently being presented by Alchemy Film & Arts in Hawick, Scotland.
The exhibition features three short films – Her Name in My Mouth (2017), Sitting on a Man, and Specialised Technique (both 2018) – which stem from Igwe’s research into the Aba Women’s War of 1929, considered to be the first major challenge to British authority in west Africa during the colonial period.
What can you tell us about the Aba Women’s War?
Well, I found out about it when making this work because I was reading my great uncle’s autobiography and he dated his birth around [the war]. It was one of the first major anti-colonial protests and led pretty exclusively by women in south eastern Nigeria. They were protesting the collection of taxes and in general the colonial district officer system.
It’s not widely known in the UK, like so many anti-colonial movements and protests. Is it well-known in Nigeria?
To some extent, I’m not so sure with the current generation and even my mother’s – it doesn’t seem to be that well remembered. I think there are particular cultural amnesias in Nigerian history because of the Biafran war and the military government. Collective memory seems to start later in the seventies. But I am really no expert on this; I haven’t lived in Nigeria, so everything is kind of an anecdotal understanding from my family or friends.
What contemporary resonances can you find with the position of Black women within leadership today, globally or specifically on the African continent?
I think that I was attracted to the protest because it was an anti-colonial protest led by women and that seemed so obviously to be the case… Black women have always been and always are at the forefront of political movements but they are not the names we know. I also guess the collective aspect of it… resonated in terms of the women being a group, having strength in that group. The way in which they organised in women-only meetings and how the protests grew from place to place through word of mouth reflected my experience of activism and reminded me of groups today like Sisters Uncut.
What is your relationship to archive material?
My relationship to the archive is a complicated one; I guess I can just begin by saying that I am attracted to it. The experience of seeing the past, or experiencing what has come before, has always interested me and I try sometimes to tease out exactly why that is. Sometimes I think it’s about a general interest in history or the experience, the joys of seeing yourself represented in history or touching the past through the materiality of archival film or documents.
At the same time, I know that the archive is problematic; it misses a lot, it lies, it tells the story of the powerful in their own words and purports to be truth. And specifically looking at the colonial moving image archives is often visual trauma. So there is a tension in my exploration in the archive – pleasure at the same time as political and social concerns. I guess it’s important this tension is evident in the work, that the archive cannot just be re-represented or reimagined without context, without manipulation; that the images are in some way or can be too dangerous to be left alone.
I guess there’s just an ethical question at the heart of my engagement with the archive.
Can you take me through your process technically? How much time to you spend with the materials? Do you go looking for something in particular, or is it more a case of the materials influencing the performative?
I think I am led by the [particular] archive. The series started with me wanting to find out about the Aba Women’s War, going to the National Archives and then finding this Commission Report and reading the testimonies of some of the women. That experience of feeling the pages, smelling the must and reading the words of the protesters transformed into start ink on paper prompted me to want to attempt to show the protest in another way, outside of colonial ways of knowing. So that’s how Her Name in My Mouth started.
For the archival material, I spent a couple of weeks in Bristol auditing the former Bristol and Empire Museum Collection and spent a lot of time with different films. The whole experience of being there, the impulses I felt when watching the material and conversations I had with the archivist and a friend who was with me, also coloured the archives in some way and made me see it differently. I therefore wanted to highlight more things. Through this experience, dance, movement and gesture became important lenses through which I saw the archive and also mediated it.
Speaking of showing protest in another way, your work addresses the notion of structure and form in a really fascinating, subversive way. Can you speak to how you came about the Colonial Film Unit’s ‘rules’ and how you effectively developed dance out of them?
I guess I noticed in a lot of the Colonial Film Unit‘s work a certain grammar to the filmmaking. Just from watching a lot you could see the patterns. And for me one of them was the dance break, so to speak. It happened in a lot of the films, positioned at the beginning or end and acting as a morality device. There was always a scene of ‘Africans’ dancing which either signalled to their heathen-ness/basic-ness or was in praise of something the British had done. The thing is, despite knowing this, I often enjoyed these bits the best, which reminded me of ideas that Saidiya Hartman talks about in her book, Scenes of Subjection, in terms of slaves having their enjoyment, their dances co-opted and exploited by their masters.
Anyway, I was struggling with how to approach [my film] Specialised Technique and went back to the archives to see if I could find out something explicit about this grammar I was noticing. I found documents written up by [CFU head] William Sellers that laid out the rules, as well as surveys carried out by governors across colonial Africa which deigned to know that Africans ‘watched films differently’. Seeing it so explicitly [stated] encouraged me to structure the work thinking around those rules. Like breaking them!
Going back to this idea that Africans watched films differently, who is being addressed by the text in Specialised Technique? Do you feel we have escaped the colonial gaze, or does it just mutate into new forms?
I wanted the text to address squarely the audience and bearing in mind who often sees the kind of work I make – that is, a predominately white audience. Her Name in My Mouth was the opposite; I was almost making that film for a very specific [African] diasporic audience.
But with Specialised Technique, the ‘I’ and the ‘you’ swap around because I am also aware that the colonial gaze is in me. I have been brought up in London and have been taught in a society still very much in the wake of colonialism, to borrow from Christina Sharpe. In an older film, We Need New Names (2015), I was attempting to address this because it had struck me watching my grandmother’s funeral celebrations on DVD how alien it was to me, how detached I was from my kin, and how I looked at it with an ethnographic studied eye. I guess it was pretty shocking to realise that about myself.
There has been a lot of interest in the ‘archival turn’ in recent years – so much of Empire history is quite hidden, and yet to be uncovered. Do you see the archive as a source you will return to again in the future?
I think so but maybe not in the way I have approached it now. I have collaborated with an artist, J.D Stokely, on their theatre projects that have touched on the archive and we’ve talked about the idea of adding fiction into the archive to kind of infect it. Going back to this idea that the archive purports to be truth and tells one person’s story, how can that be destabilised by revealing those untruths through a multiplicity of fictions? I am interested in playing with myth and fiction to allow the archive to be seen again, differently.
I’m really interested in how you work with temporality in the films. By transposing, I presume, your body onto the archival materials it becomes a conversation with time, with the ancestors. How were you were thinking of time when making these works?
One of the things I like about film is that multiple times can exist at once in the same frame. There’s a lot of freedom in that. I was struck when talking to one of the dancers I was working with on Sitting on a Man. I had given them some of the archive material that I was going to be using as reference and it was silent. She remarked that her intentions with the dance were to bring the sound of syncopation back to the women dancing in silence. I think this captures something important that I then tried to bring out in the music. And actually, I think the sound is where temporality is most at work in the films. Creating this space, a dissonance of disjuncture through the sound, allows for some kind of passing through from past to present and future – but not in a straight line, I hope!
‘No Dance, No Palaver‘ continues until 19 September 2018 at Unit 4: The Cornucopia Room, 4 Towerdykeside, Hawick, TD9 7EA.
The FLAMIN Fellowship Screenings, featuring work by Onyeka Igwe and five other artists, takes place on 15 September 2018 at Whitechapel Gallery, London
1. Onyeka Igwe. Photo: Sarah Bodri; Courtesy: the artist
2. Onyeka Igwe, We Need New Names, film still, 2015. Courtesy: the artist
3. Onyeka Igwe, Her Name in My Mouth, film still, 2017. Courtesy: the artist
4. Onyeka Igwe, Sitting on a Man, HD video, 2018. Courtesy: the artist
5. Onyeka Igwe, We Need New Names, film still, 2015. Courtesy: the artist
6. Onyeka Igwe, Specialised Technique, still, 2018. Courtesy: the artist and BFI Archive