Anunu: Notes on the Divine Feminine

Boys’ Quarters Project Space is proud to present “Anunu: Notes on the Divine Feminine”, a show that features a selection of works by US-based Nigerian artist Chioma Ebinama and Port Harcourt-native, Lubee Abubakar. In the main galleries Chioma Ebinama presents ten watercolor works on paper, a sculpture and a video collaboration shot and directed by Zina Saro-Wiwa. In the Windowall Gallery a video by Lubee Abubakar is installed. The show is made possible by the Mangrove Arts Foundation and we are also extremely grateful for the support of Jane Lombard.

Anunu is the first all-female show staged at the gallery and its unabashedly female-centred themes are very much necessary in a hyper-masculine environment such as the Niger Delta (and, more widely, Nigeria) where the feminine archetype is compromised and muted. Our relationship with mother earth has been desacralized and the acquisitive patriarchal dynamics of oil extraction, violence and male-dominated politics take centre stage in the region whilst the idea of female power has a comparatively weak and superficial imaginative hold. The work of Chioma Ebinama tackles this and re-imagines the divine feminine, drawing inspiration from pre-colonial Igbo cultural and spiritual traditions.

Chioma Ebinama is an artist based in Brooklyn, New York. Her practice includes work on paper, wearable art, sculpture and ceramics. She is interested in how the study and preservation of pre-colonial African wisdom, history and culture can be an asset in developing alternative identities within the Black diaspora. The idea of Chi is the focus of Ebinama’s enquiry in this show.

The concept of Chi is hugely complex but, put simply, Chi is the personal spirit of an individual in Igbo culture. It is the spirit which determines destiny. The divine agent assigned to each human from cradle to the coffin. Chi is also the spiritual connection between an individual and God and it dictates the trajectory of a person’s spiritual journey on earth. Unlike Chukwu (God) who is genderless, Chi can be either feminine or masculine.

Chioma Ebinama here re-imagines Chi for the twenty first century presenting ten watercolours named the “Chi Meditations”. This collection of drawings began after she came across an anthropological account of “iro” chi, an Igbo fertility ritual celebrating a woman’s chi. However a woman’s chi warranted special acknowledgement because, through marriage, a woman loses connection to her ancestral spirits. The chi is the only spirit that remains with her to assist and facilitate her management of daily problems. This discovery of the iro chi, led Ebinama to wonder what traditions exist today to uplift womanhood and feminine power within the Igbo community. Outside of celebrations for weddings and child births, there are none.

Inspired loosely by the work of Louise Bourgeois, each watercolor painting is a meditation on the idea of the feminine. The watercolours are depictions of the feminine that transgress stereotypical expectations of the black or African woman as one who is strong, loud and self-sacrificing. In contrast, these images are delicate, soft-spoken and unashamedly inward, telling another story of the interior life of the black African woman. Ebinama’s hand is deft and sure though the resulting works are delicate. There is a gentle but firm self-possession in each painting. They speak of a woman’s spiritual relationship with herself and, crucially, not a woman’s relationship with family or kinship group. The use of the color blue (which is referenced in the Igbo language title of the show “Anunu”) and the use of watercolor evoke amniotic fluid adding to the sense of embryonic, pre-natal origin in these works. It points to a layer of life that exists before flesh and fault can come into being. A spiritual layer where all is in balance.

In the vitrine we see “Chi-Doll” a sculpture Ebinama created to re-imagine the concept of the Chi. She explains: “Before colonization, Chi was a personal god, the spiritual embodiment of one’s will and destiny. By making a portable, soft object I sought to integrate it into our material culture. It is thus a physical reminder, a memento, that also incorporates other adulterated or fading African cultural traditions such as weaving, indigo dyeing, and clay sculpture.” Chi-Doll makes a fascinating commentary on the idea of animism and pagan or ritual objects. It makes us ask: what is a ritual object? Though animism is shunned by much of Nigeria that is Christian or Muslim, we must also concede that as modern humans many objects are animated or anthropomorphized. Modern humans everywhere attach animacy and personhood to objects. We talk to our cars, have favorite trees, houses and teddy bears. We curse at our computers and give our boats names. It seems that we might actually be wired to see life rather than no-life in things. The desires, hopes and dreams that are poured into objects render materialist cultures animist in a different way. Therefore Chi-doll is, in its own slyly mischievous way, neo-animist as it fuses the idea of a traditional figurine with the idea of a soft toy. The sculpture becomes a 21st Century symbol of post-rational, post-modern enchantment. An emblem of a time where the energies, agency and personhood of the earth are recognized anew though not necessarily rationalised as they may have been in the pre-scientific age. But this new age is one we must enter into as the anthropocene wanes and the limits of the earth’s tolerance of patriarchal exploitation stare us glibly in the face. We must learn to listen to mother earth again as we succumb to her catastrophic re-alignments. Chi-Doll is a challenge and opportunity for us to renegotiate our relationship with the sacred.

The video The Extraordinary Status of Womanhood in the second gallery is a collaboration between Zina Saro-Wiwa and Chioma Ebinama. The work is directed and edited by Saro-Wiwa and features Ebinama performing in the work. The diptych is about balance between male and female divine energies whilst also throwing into question the character of this binary. The text, read by Ebinama, is taken from Sabine Jell-Bahlsenn’s book The Water Goddess in Igbo Cosmology. These passages are ones that speak strongly to Ebinama and they explain the historical relationship between male and female energies in traditional Igbo society. Questions of what constitute the masculine and feminine are raised in this work as we hear cosmological tales of ruthless women warriors. In the left monitor Ebinama is looking after her chi-doll as if it were a baby, doll or teddy bear. In the right-hand screen she smears her body with palm oil. The palm oil being applied onto her body is an act of self love as well as, seemingly, a preparation for war. Palm oil is a defiant substance: strong and beautiful but controversial to non-Africans. It is the Other Oil of the Niger Delta region. By anointing herself with this oil it is akin to war paint. An act of gentle defiance and a symbol of self love. The two slow and deliberate actions in each monitor dance with each other evoking this idea of balance. Maternal self-care being demonstrated on one side and psychic protection on the other.

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In the video ‘Ameri’ by Lubee Abubakar we experience a different but complementary sense of the liminal. The visuals are set in Okene, Kogi State and focus on Ebira girls and women. Although born and brought up in Port Harcourt, Abubakar shot Ameri entirely in Kogi State, her state of origin. (Kogi is North of the Niger Delta States but south of Abuja). The work explores the biological or social roles attached to gender and how society’s perceptions affect women and their sense of themselves.

‘Ameri’ depicts scenes of women and girls in their daily lives performing simple everyay tasks such as trading, applying henna, travelling etc. Abubakar explains: “It was important to me that the visuals were a natural representation of how women behave and act. I didn’t want to glamourize the images or infer too much of myself into them.” The film makes startlingly effective use of the negative as a visual strategy. Abubakar says: “During the development of a photograph, negatives are processed with chemicals to form images. But the story behind Ameri is one that is raw, unprocessed and far from the way women are usually portrayed in the [Nigerian] media. Negatives invert the light & colors on an image, enough to smear the identity of each person, so that what you are focused on are the shapes and movement in each image.”

The negatives speak to a realm that exists coterminously and simultaneously with the one that exists ‘in the positive’. The human characteristics it brings out are not about the individual but about something else: the spirit. Indeed the visuals of the film brings to mind the African idea of the “spirit market” – the market that is said to take place when the human market has packed up in the village square. In “Ameri” character lives on but in a new way. Skin color is erased. So are eyes. But the living elemental energy that moves the clothes and propels the human figure are highlighted. Questions of self come to the fore as does the desire to express oneself and live more fully without being judged or oppressed.

Ameri is a film made out of love for the incredibly nurturing Ebira women in Lubee Abubakar’s world. But it is a film that is angry at the burdens women must carry. The name Ameri means “cheated” in Ebira dialect and for Abubakar this piece is a conversation starter that she hopes leads to justice for women in Kogi and Nigeria.

The pieces in this show do important work. They are digging into the subcutaneous layers of the divine feminine that have always existed in Nigeria and exist in all women and men in this country. The divine feminine has been buried and they are troubling this grave. They wish to ignite a conversation about true female and feminine empowerment and understand what that might look like from an indigenous perspective thereby also adding to global conversations about womanism or feminism. For us at Boys’ Quarters this work and the focus on the divine feminine allows us to examine the issue of environmentalism through a valuable lens. It brings to life our interest in invisible ecosystems and allows us to meditate on the intersection between feminine power and modern ecologies. To think about what parallels there might be between the domination of women and the domination of nature and to plant seeds for future discussions about the role of women in the future of the Niger Delta and Nigeria.

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Chioma Ebinama is an artist based in Brooklyn, NY. Her practice includes work on paper, narrative, wearable art, soft sculpture, and ceramics. She is currently interested in how the study and preservation of precolonial African wisdom, history, and culture can be an asset in developing alternative narratives of self-identity within the Black diaspora. Her work has been shown at Spring/Break Art Fair, Dak’art Biennale, and Lagos Fashion Week.

Lubee Abubakar is a photographer and art director born and raised in Port Harcourt, Nigeria. Her work centers around the use of color and light to tell stories and generate emotion. She has created visual content across different fields, including; portraiture, fashion, documentary, film and advertising. Her works have received recognition from platforms in the art and fashion industry like Vogue Italia, Dazed, OkayAfrica, LagosPhotoFestival, ArtxLagos, CNNAfrica and I-D magazine.