Onyeka Igwe, Specialised Technique, 2018, HD video, black-and-white, sound, 6 minutes 36 seconds.
“PULSE, PULSE, PULSE, PULSE, hold, and pause,” a voice-over evenly calls out as monochrome footage rapidly intercuts between a black woman alone on a stretch of grass—arms out and angular, the top of her body pulling toward the ground and her legs partially bent—and stick-figure notations of her dance. Minutes later, a clip of women swirling the voluminous white clothes tied at their waists unfolds, instead, at a mesmerizing and unsettling molasses pace. This archival footage is punctuated with intertitles: “What happened when you looked down the lens? Or did they tell you not to?” “I want to make the camera move too. At the same time.” These words appear as white text on a plain black screen, episodes of visual pause and verbal emphasis in the stunning assemblage of Specialised Technique (2018). The video is by Onyeka Igwe, a London-based artist whose practice is shaped around challenges to visual domination and an enduring desire for movement. Grounded in black women’s embodiment, her exhibition “A Repertoire of Protest (No Dance, No Palaver),” currently on view at MoMA PS1 in New York, reclaims a feminist inheritance of anticolonial resistance in Nigeria through reimagined choreographies of liberation. Igwe does not look at the archive, she sways and speaks with it, resurrecting what has long been sealed away in forgotten documents and dusty storage rooms.
Curated by Kari Rittenbach, the exhibition is composed of the new animation Notes on dancing with the archive (2023) and a triad of videos: Her Name in My Mouth (2017), Sitting on a Man (2018), and the aforementioned Specialised Technique. The three shorts are displayed, respectively, on a floor-bound TV monitor, a suspended three-channel installation, and a large projection which takes up the entirety of the back wall. Igwe’s cycle of three films has been shown in full twice before: at the Alchemy Film and Moving Image Festival in Scotland, in 2018, and at the MUNTREF Museum of Immigration in Buenos Aires the following year. The evolving reassembly of these three pieces enacts a process of ongoing, open-ended revision that mimics Igwe’s insurgent approach toward history: studying dominant colonial forms and producing alternatives both invented and rooted in epistemologies that precede colonization.
View of “Onyeka Igwe: A Repertoire of Protest (No Dance, No Palaver),” 2023, MoMA PS1, New York. Photo: Steven Paneccasio.
The polymorphic nature of Igwe’s work presses on a cyclical and vacuous preoccupation with classification and legibility that circumscribes the reception of many black artists, particularly women, whose aesthetic grammars intentionally evade containment by received categories of artistic expression. A productive, if still inadequate, framing is that of “expanded cinema.” This slippery term—which emerged in the mid-1960s to describe experimental practices that cannot be accommodated by the medium’s conventional exhibition model and that incorporate multimedia elements, restructure spectatorship toward participation, and trouble the framework of the filmic experience—is an apt one for an Igwe’s art, which shifts between cinematic and museum protocols.
The three videos play sequentially (simultaneity would have produced an unhappy cacophony, and headphones would have meant sacrificing the potent effects of sonic immersion). In between, the fragmentary Notes on dancing with the archive (2023) takes over every screen, a riff on a countdown which also acts as a palate cleanser. During this seven-second video, animated stick figures act out the polyrhythmic dance notation developed by Nigerian playwright and choreographer Felix A. Akinsipe, infusing the show with a sense of playfulness and offering a perfect description of Igwe’s practice: dancing with the archive. The MoMA PS1 presentation was preceded by an evening of screenings for the museum’s Modern Mondays, including a so-called archive (2020). That video concludes with Igwe’s solo dance party in an empty warehouse of the Bristol Museums and Bristol Archives, where she was auditing material from the British Empire and Commonwealth Collection—the contents of which are scattered across the show at PS1.
View of “Onyeka Igwe: A Repertoire of Protest (No Dance, No Palaver),” 2023, MoMA PS1, New York. Photo: Marissa Alper.
At the heart of the exhibition’s historical intervention is the 1929 Aba “Women’s War” in Igboland (Southeastern Nigeria), which the artist first learned of through her uncle’s memoir. The Women’s War was an early anticolonial uprising against the taxation and administration systems of British occupying forces. Within the larger framework of militant histories, which are frequently and inaccurately masculinized, Igwe’s resurfacing of this insurrection honors cultures of resistance that were women-led. These women rebelled not only against economic subjugation, but against the desacralization of Indigenous knowledge and annihilation of the very lifeways anchoring their sense of womanhood, which involved not only reproductive and domestic labors but also agricultural production and their central roles in sociopolitical activity. Essential to this struggle was the mobilization of precolonial customs: The Women’s War involved chanting, dancing, mocking, breaking out prisoners, burning buildings, and testifying to generate public demands for autonomy. These gestural and vocal manifestations rerouted the social practice of “sitting on a man,” an assertion of women’s collective power involving song, dance, grievances, and insults communally expressed against a target of ire—conventionally, a man, in this case the (certainly patriarchal) British colonial system.
The 1929 uprising was never committed to film, and so the artist grafts, recites, and detourns archival footage taken by the British Colonial Film Unit (CFU), established a decade later. The early cinematic representation of what came to be called Nigeria is inextricable from the propagandistic educational films made by the CFU for African audiences. Onyeka’s critical fabulations challenge precisely these historical regimes of colonial visual control and their perniciously enduring afterimages. In Specialised Technique, she grounds her unruly formalism historically by situating it against what African film scholar Manthia Diawara has referred to as the “colonizer’s technological paternalism,” which involved the production of cultural objects presumed to be universally intelligible for people they viewed as incapable of cinematic literacy. Refusing to cede to these stagnant, falsely neutral visual codes, Igwe’s moving images become conjoined, across time, to a long arc of Igbo women’s anticolonial consciousness.
View of “Onyeka Igwe: A Repertoire of Protest (No Dance, No Palaver),” 2023, MoMA PS1, New York. Photo: Steven Paneccasio.
Her Name in My Mouth extends the artist’s attention to embodiment as an archiving modality and telluric layering of history. We open on a close-up of Igwe’s hands leafing through a stack of cloth, then cut to the British state’s documentation of the “Women’s War”: a thick folder titled “NIGERIA: REPORT OF THE ABA COMMISSION OF INQUIRY.” The artist appears throughout the video, wearing a white T-shirt imprinted with a close-up portrait of one of the women documented in the repurposed CFU footage, one of the cloths from the opening shot tied around her waist as a pagne. Igwe makes a similar maneuver in Specialised Technique, when a colonial archival clip of a dancer is projected onto her leather-skirted midriff, literalizing the corpus of history as her body becomes an undulating screen for a past that will not be still nor silent. The unorthodox projection unsettles the hierarchy between the projected image and the material screen, breaking the separation between Igwe and the women pictured as she physically involves herself with the archival footage—again, dancing with them. The ethics and self-implication of the artist resonate with those of the late Senegalese filmmaker Safi Faye, whose anticolonial subversion of ethnographic documentaries in the 1970s can be seen as precedent for her work. The voice in the video, belonging to Igwe’s mother, performs Igbo sayings and songs that the protesting women in 1929 may have deployed. Igwe uses a strategy of speculative reenactment, made intimate by her mother’s participation in the vocal recording, to honor the Women’s War.
Onyeka Igwe, Sitting on a Man, 2018, 3-channel HD video, black-and-white and color, sound, 6 minutes 41 seconds.
Drawing on the eponymous Igbo women’s practice, Igwe’s Sitting on a Man is a three-channel video featuring dancers Emmanuella Idris and Amarnath Amuludun, shot in color and in black-and-white, respectively. The work’s three rear-projected screens are suspended from the ceiling and arranged with the right and left angled slightly toward the middle, suggesting the hospitality of a dance circle left ajar. The two-sided screens act as mirrors of one another, creating a phantasmatic circuitry of doublings in the dark cavern of the gallery. Exalting, sensuous close-ups of Idris and Amuludun are intercut with those of the women in the archival footage, issuing a formal challenge to coloniality’s visual lexicon of informational extraction and cold documentation. Deft visual rhymes ricochet within this work and beyond it, such as a moment when Idris and women in the older footage enact a similar jumping motion, as though they are dancing together, or another when Amuludun, rubbing her abdomen, recalls Igwe’s own swaying midriff in Specialised Technique. Sound is another avenue of critical play in Sitting on a Man, which includes a polyvocal recitation of a desiccated anthropological treatise on Nigerian women, the ethnographic authority of the text bending under the reading’s wayward repetitions and lags.
In a way, Specialised Technique is the most straightforward piece in the show: a montage of clips of dances shot by the CFU, as well as for newsreels and Christian missions, in Nigeria, Sudan, and Tanzania between 1930 and 1956, written over with short captions that also appear as white text on a black screen. The text simultaneously underscores and denaturalizes the images, amplifying their violently inscribed legitimacy, as if the sneaky fine print were blown up to become unmissable. The captions switch confusingly between “you” and “I” in a way that cannot be coherently mapped but productively unsettles the power differential those two positions signify on either side of the camera.
Onyeka Igwe, Her Name in My Mouth, 2017, video, color, sound, 5 minutes 51 seconds.
Igwe ultimately holds an ambivalent relationship to colonial archival materials. She selectively integrates them into her work with a sense of active friction and dynamic recontextualization, never overlooking the structures of power that produced them or neutralizing their representational harm. At times, she deliberately turns away from the aesthetic markers and memorializing vehicles of the colonial apparatus. Her Name in My Mouth is in fact structured around such an absence. Although Igwe did find collected verbal testimonies from the women involved in the “Women’s War,” she chose not to use them in the film because she felt they were too tightly regulated by bureaucratic documentation, having been translated, not just linguistically into English, but formally into the rhetoric of British colonial administration. While this is certainly also true of many of the moving images in Igwe’s arsenal, these carry for the artist an insubordinate intensity and material surplus that, although never innocent, exceed the discursive capture of governmentality and domination. In the film’s closing seconds, we find two elderly women engaged in domestic tasks. The first woman sits on a low stool, stirring and tending to an array of pots and bowls arranged in front of her in a semicircle. The second is bent at the waist, her back perfectly horizonal, vigorously scrubbing a wet tangle of washing, so quickly that it appears as though the footage had been lightly sped up. She looks up and stares directly at the camera, continuing to move, carrying out her prosaic choreography as the viewer becomes caught in her gaze.
“A Repertoire of Protest (No Dance, No Palaver)” is on view at MoMA PS1 in New York until August 21.