The Promise of Mutability
Most recently, I have written for and managed the monthly publication of essays on African art and visual culture in The Trans-African, a publication project by Invisible Borders. In my yearlong writing for The Trans-African, I often speculate about my scholarly lineage, to know what I work with, through, and against. These sources are contemporaneous. I recuperate or examine thinking that occurred in the century before my birth, and the century in which I work.
I am drawn to the notion of world-mentality. The premise of literature for me, as a reader and writer, is its empathetic reach towards the other. Every writer that matters to me matters because of a certain pulse of worldliness I feel in their work. In a wider sense, it is a pulse of the diasporic. I am interested in criticism as gift, as a world-making labor.
Criticism, as a literary form, holds in my estimation the promise of mutability. Until 2011, I had mainly written short stories, stories propelled by ideas and argument rather than characterization. That led me here, to a writing life that intends to eclipse the distinction between narrator, protagonist, and interlocutor. I think of criticism prominently as a foray into the argument as genre. When deepened, arguments pivot into narrative: the moral at the end of a parable, or fact at the end of fable.
I write about art, also, to come to terms with history. For the average Nigerian thinker, the study of history is an extracurricular, audacious vocation. The language of photography, in the way I approach it in my ongoing work, is framed by its relationship to historical dilemma. In fact, in a broader, metaphorical sense, the photographs of Nigerian life I write about are the remains of what has passed into history. The image, to recall Kracauer, wanders ghostlike through the present.
Writ large, I wonder about art criticism in a society “[…] whirling, stamping, swaying with the force of revolutionary change,” as Nadine Gordimer wrote in her 1982 essay “Living in the Interregnum.” “The vision is heady,” she writes, and adds, “the image of the demonic dance is accurate, not romantic: an image of actions springing from emotion, knocking deliberation aside.” She’s writing about South Africa, working with a quote from Antonio Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks: “The old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum there arises a great diversity of morbid symptoms.”
The demon is dancing on a mediatized rostrum. I watch, part of an audience of mainstream alibis. In the mainstream, we are likely to read things for the first time online.
What would art criticism look like, uncertain of publishing venues, compensation, and authority? Surely only, perhaps, of the high stakes of vulnerability and intimacy?
My criticism is a struggle to delimit the morbid symptoms, using an English language woven into useful Nigerian vernaculars. For now and the immediate future, my work seeks locality—as though I territorialize my despair. I work within literature and criticism that can be amply described as “Nigerian.” It’s an attempt to ensure, as Amiri Baraka once said, that the future is not born dead, born as a corpse.
EMMANUEL IDUMA is a writer and art critic. He is the author of the novel The Sound of Things to Come. Born in Nigeria, he co-founded Saraba Magazine, and has contributed essays and reviews to several magazines and journals. A Stranger’s Pose, his book of travel stories and meditations, is forthcoming. He graduated from the MFA program in Art Writing at the School of Visual Arts, and now teaches in it.