In 2005, then 25-year-old Imo created a monstrosity of an artwork that I titled Guardian: Self-portrait with Dividing Sentinels. It was a pivotal work for me, combining and mixing mediums, along with research, writing, and art. I was a graduate student at Yale then, but very much attempting to understand who I was – my present, my past, and everything in between. Guardian exists in a conceptual space of its own. I have never worked on another artwork quite like it since.
Soon after creating Guardian, I put to words the many fragmented thoughts I was having at its time of development. The following words were written by a 25-year-old version of me about this extraordinary painting.
Reading The Guardian
Sing, O barren, thou that didst not bear; break forth into singing, and cry aloud, thou that didst not travail with child: for more are the children of the desolate than the children of the married wife, saith the LORD (Isaiah Chapter 54 Verse 1; Bible, KGV).
The textual expanse of Guardian: Self-Portrait with Dividing Sentinels addresses the triumph of the African Diaspora in a number of interesting ways. Using three main themes—fertility, barrenness, and performative sign language—Guardian speaks prophetically about the believed inactivity of the African Diaspora and the promise of their imminent productivity. This acrylic-based collage can be divided into three main components: the “dividing sentinels,” the interlaid text, and the partial, yet monumental, self-portrait at the image’s center. Although these three elements of the artwork are each philosophically captivating in their own right, it is their interfacing with one another and the resulting dialogue at precise visual and philosophical junctures that cause the artwork to speak in such sonorous tones.
With the theme of fertility, Guardian recalls Mbopo, the Ibibio prenuptial fattening house tradition and initiation ceremony. In this ceremony, maidens were secluded in so-called “fattening houses” for an indefinite period of time where they underwent a process of ritual fattening. Gaining weight enabled the maiden to attain the aestheticized corpulent stature that married Ibibio women were expected to posses in order to endure the rigors of childbearing and motherhood. In the fattening house the girl learned the secrets of womanhood. It is a space of performative transformation which employs isolation, hardship, and humiliation to transform the mind, body, and spirit of the young woman. Yet, accompanying the hardship is the promise of imminent emergence and triumph.
The concept of barrenness is one that is antithetical to fattening house ritual, which is about fertility. Yet, there are interesting parallels between barrenness as discussed in Isaiah 54, fertility, and the future of the African Diaspora. In Isaiah 54 the nation of Israel is instructed to “sing” even in the face of their purported barrenness, because of the promise of future fecundity. Israel is instructed about a part of themselves that can only be perceived prophetically; namely, the future “children” that Israel will bear in the wake of barrenness will be their triumph. They will overcome hardships by waiting on the Lord and remaining in seclusion with Him. Isolation with the Lord will transform the nation into victorious bearers of future “children.” The seemingly impossible will occur…Israel, the barren one, will yield good fruit.
The African Diaspora & The Dividing Sentinels
Guardian employs these notions of fertility, barrenness, hardship, and triumph to the historical experience of the African Diaspora. The sentinels represent people of African descent. Their division speaks of the expansion of the African Diaspora. In Guardian, the sentinels replace the downtrodden Israelites and the inactive, immobile maidens of the fattening house, and these discussions of barrenness and fertility become their own. The African Diaspora are a people who are perceived to be barren, but who still continue to yield fruit in large and tremendous portions. This fruit-bearing does not come without its costs. Hardships, trials, humiliation, and death compose the prelude to a melodious score of fecundity and promise. Guardian is about the possibilities of fecundity in the face of barrenness, birth in the face of miscarriage, resuscitation in the face of abortion, breathing life into bodies and visions that need life with hope that new promise will be born.
While the verse in Isaiah instructs the “barren ones” to “sing,” through their apparent barrenness, most of the sentinels in Guardian do not emote in any way. With the exception of the screaming sentinels, who are symbolic of the torturous pain involved in dividing (growing, expanding), the sentinels maintain stoic disengaged gazes that in no way reflect the violent series of events which are enacted on their bodies. Their bodies are twisted, broken, stretched, and pulled apart to create an impenetrable screen of interwoven forms that guard the massive image, effectively preventing the viewer from engaging with whatever is beyond the surface of the canvas. The stoicism in the faces of these charged, active sentinels is culturally and historically rooted in southeastern Nigerian secret societies that use Nsibidi, a coded writing system consisting of ideographs. For Guardian, Nsibidi is significant, not only as a writing system, but also as a set of symbols that were both written and signed during competitive performances. In silence, two performers would use their bodies as signing devices, striking poses and inscribing encoded messages into the air, speaking with their bodies without lingual utterance. Here the body becomes performative text and must be read.
It the same light, Guardian’s sentinels, who are engaged in such a physical mode of communication, do not “sing” with open mouths. Instead, they use their bodies. They do not sing…they sign…because for them the singing is in the signing. The words “sing” and “sign” are found within each other (by switching the n and the g), and in Guardian, these terms are appropriately conflated (as seen in new words like “ngiSing”). Like the Nsibisi masters, we must learn to read the bodies that engage in such methods of message-making. The torn, flayed, destroyed, and divided bodies of the African Diaspora still ngiSing loudly, especially in the face of believed barrenness. Because in the singing and the signing victory emerges.