Ukara cloth

Ukara cloth
Ukara cloth detail, Etara community, Cross River State, Nigeria

Wednesday, 15 May 2019

Reconstructing early photographs from the Cross River region


Inter-generational 'second' burial rite, Ékpè hall, Akin Kúọ̀ ["Qua"], Calabar, 1905
       The small boys on either side of this photograph are great-grandsons of the late Ntoe ‘village head’, who was long since buried. This is his 'second' burial, where the lineage member to replace the deceased is invested in his title(s). The scene, in front of the community Ékpè hall, displays ritual costumes indicating rites of the Ékpè ‘leopard’ society, the traditional institution for community policing and justice.
    The man seated on the throne, crown on head and staff in hand, is the first son of the deceased, now being invested as Ntoe 'village head'. His sons stand on either side: at right one dressed as Ìsìm Ékpè ‘long tail leopard’, a privilege of his royal status, the other at left with 'London's finest' top hat sporting nkàndà ‘peacock’ feathers that indicate his initiation, while a boy next to him presents a small drum with a cross marked with kaolin on the skin.

Reconstructed from three sections
    This image demonstrates a royal family lineage in the port city of Calabar, visualizing the idea of generational continuity in leadership and cultural heritage. This also happens to be the oldest photograph I found in the Kúọ̀ (Qua) community. The devastation of the Nigerian civil war (1967-1970) assured the elimination of local archives and traditional architecture, never to be rebuilt. This photograph was hung in the visiting room of the palace of Ntoe Lawrence Ekong Etagbo IV (see my May 2016 post on his ‘second’ burial rites), who generously allowed me to scan it. I did, but in three pieces, since it was large and my scanner small.
      The support of the Nordic Africa Institute in Uppsala, Sweden, and specifically Henrik Alfredsson who trained me in photoshop, has enabled the reconstruction and repair of scores of photographs I scanned in Nigeria since 2004. These will contribute to a visual history of indigenous symbols of the Cross River region, offering clear evidence for cultural diffusion throughout southeastern Nigeria, Southwest Cameroon and later into Bioko and Cuba during the trans-Atlantic trade of the 1800s.
First daughter initiated into Ékpè society, Calabar. Etubom Bassey Ekpo Bassey archives. Date unknown. Image before and after repair
    Historic photographs of indigenous cultural displays offer meaningful perspectives into local values, especially when the photographs have been created and curated by the very subjects of the photographs. In the quest to understand the indigenous cultural networks of the Cross River region historically, I have archived photographs from scores of communities visited throughout the region. These collectively demonstrate a shared symbolic vocabulary developed through trade interactions over the centuries, both within Calabar and its hinterlands, as well as from trade with European merchants.
First daughter of late title-holder dressed as Abang 'pot' dancer. Muri Joseph Edem archives.
    This royal Abang dancer was photographed in front the mkpòtò, a display of wealth through prestige artifacts, traditionally created at the death of a title-holder. Brass pots, hand made ùkárá  cloth and other valued heritage items are seen behind the dancer, upon whose head is a red feathered rod, a symbol of the Ékpè society. 
Condition of photograph before repair
First daughter initiated to Ékpè before marriage. Fernandes Studio archives, Calabar, 1920s.


Daughter of Ékpá women's society leader initiated as Moninkem, a coming-of-age maiden's dance. Mbarakom community, Akamkpa L.G.A., Cross River State
 Inside the homes of indigenous community leaders in the Cross River region, photographs are commonly displayed in the visiting room to portray important ancestors and family members, particularly as they engage in public stages of initiation rites that invest a leader with authority granted by the community elders, who ultimate represent communal ancestors. These photographs contextualize the legitimacy of the leader through a display of core symbols used during rites of belonging, of maturity and finally of leadership within a community. 
Ékpè leader holds monyo staff during investiture as Iyamba or lodge leader. Úrúán community, Akwa Ibom State. date unknown.  Thanks to Iberedem Fred Essien, Uyo.
Yam farmer with award winning harvest. Agoi-Ibami community, Yakurr L.G.A., Cross River State
Teenage girls dressed in finery for New Yam festival, Agoi-Ibami community, Yakurr L.G.A., Cross River State
Elder with symbolic cap, Agoi-Ibami community, Yakurr L.G.A., Cross River State
Young siblings initiated as Ékpè members. Efut Ekondo Clan, Calabar South. Muri Joseph Bassey archives.
Photograph before repair



    The tropical heat, the humidity, the lack of matting and poor framing assure that the photographs deteriorate rapidly, and several images I attempted to scan fell apart in the process. Those presented here are the success stories, which can be returned to their respective communities. Because these images have been entrusted to me, they are watermarked to prevent unauthorized sharing.
Young first daughter initiated to Ékpè, Calabar. Etubom Bassey Ekpo Bassey archives.


King James Egbo Bassey (1824-1906), Calabar. Reconstructed from four sections. Etubom Bassey Ekpo Bassey archives.
Muri Cobham Antigha Edet IV, Efut Ifako Clan, Creek Town, Odukpani L.G.A., Cross River State, Nigeria. The Muri is surrounded with symbols of leadership : crown, staff, ùkárá cloth and a prepared calabash gourd
Photograph reconstructed from five sections.
These images are just a few of a huge archive I am assembling for a publication about heritage symbols, their meanings, and values. This premodern heritage continues to be practiced, in spite of the chaos of identity and economic pressures resulting from British colonialism, the warrant chief system, the Pentecostal churches, and global capitalism. The practice is diminished, and displayed in fragmented forms as fewer young people are enthusiastic about the sacrifices required to learn from elders. Nevertheless, the wisdom of Cross River region indigenous leaders reports that renewed awareness of inherited tradition and languages is fundamental to building a peaceful and balanced contemporary society.
A collage of some other restored photographs from the Cross River cultural region