IN THE NAVEL OF OUR SOUL

(Photo essay)

Photocredits: Michael Larri
If madness nurtures such lucidity
God, make us mad –
Make us even more mad
- Kobena

When he asked "Which is older, the pot or the hole inside it?" the woman, manifestly vexed, unpacked her displeasure in a fitting hiss and, sparing enough seconds, blasted the response: "don’t ask what you know". Her reply is reproof screened by difficult diplomacy; a lecture perceptibly scathing, exerting, and demanding, so much that something is birthed in the interstice between query and reply. Something non-visual. But not till she adds, "It’s the hole", do we register any agency of demand precipitated on shared experience, of communal memory uncovering its weight in dialogic spaces. What transpires between this generic man and woman is simply expectation running masked or undercurrent: the expectation of a memory effectuating for cultural rejuvenation. But dismiss the generic, as we should, the man and woman, respectively, become Ajagemo, the Yoruba deity from Ede province, and Iya Moopo, the ancient supreme trinity of the female bearing totemic features of Iyamowo, Iyaloode, and Nana Ibukun, and the great potter. What transpires then transmutes into a dais for postcolonial evangelism.

Thanks to folklore, this is what we know of Iya Moopo: a Yoruba orisa, she is well represented by the Edon, the sacred bronze casting that de-materializes her as holding one child to her breasts while tying another to her back with an oja, with the child’s head downward and the feet rising to the sky (an emblem of true child-bearing process). She is the patron of all women’s trade, childbearing, and birth. A sister to Iyemowo, and close to Odu (ifa) in thought and word formation. A cotton spinner and weaver of cloth and hair, cooker of black soap and palm oil. Patron goddess of robbers and thieves because she owns the indigo dye, which is black and obscure in darkness. And a potter. While these denote her industry and persona, which, reaching outwardly, contextually, implicate women, the philosophy by which she’s known packs everything into focus: To her, all bodies are pots and form is a later addition.

In Yoruba cosmology, the potter wheel, represented by the navel (idodo), is fixed at a standstill, while the potter woman encircles it with her body, her awareness hassle-free, preserving the idea of form. Iya Moopo, a formalist by implication, is a potter woman known for moulding forms around pre-existing holes or spaces. Contextualize this in terms of human ontology and the navel acquires requisite agency. The first time I came across this monochrome of a hairy torso, with an almost unrevealed navel, on a tired evening, flipping through a page on IG, I knew I would write about it. The second time and Kobena Acquah’s famous poem "In the navel of the soul" bobbled in my mind.

Kobena’s poem is not without perceptible campaign, diagnostic or prophetic, against postcolonial disquiet, against brigands of the soul he declaims as "experts", inept, misleading by design, intransigent, and myopic. Words like "undone, heat, indulgence, drowned, birth" all signify beyond themselves. But at the heart of the poetic is an attempt at theorizing: "Yet in their finger upon / our navel / the midwives of the spirit say / they feel a foetal throb. Much of the match of philosophy and ontology signals the primal place of the eyes as some sort of lamp-post illuminating through endless anarchy over other body parts. While the premise can be sacrosanct, the hierarchical posture I reject. Biology, Holy Scriptures, Yoruba mythic-history, even Kobena testifies. I find Yoruba ontology apt for several reasons, and because much of human is moulded dust/divine clay/primordial element, the idea that the navel as pre-existing hole exists first and form—the human body as it were—is the later addition acquires certain urgency. Biology educates that by the 5th week the umbilical cord or navel string forms and connects the embryo (via the abdomen) to the forming placenta joined to the mother. Week 6, the body is shaped like a tadpole, with eyes and limb buds forming. Weeks 7 and 8, the embryo develops into a foetus. Development of arms, hands, fingers, feet, toes, and reproductive organs, with general body development, follows as the week progresses. Accordingly then, and however you spin it, the charge that human body forms around a pre-existing hole is no conjecture.

A little wonder is it then that Kobena’s collective—for it is a collective voice that beckons onto our humanity—ascribes hope undying to the throb of the navel. The navel transforms into an emblem of renewal, a pod of redemptive power casting to the byways all forms of oppression. From it emerges some sort of assurance which only the perceptive, the visionaries whom Kobena has smartly designated "Midwives of the spirit", can perceive even just via tactile examination. But while the navel can be agentive in constructive terms, it is also the doorpost of hunger. The collective doesn’t just beckon so fervently for cosmetic or aesthetic purposes; the repression is real. So real in fact that survival (and the reification of the hope it brings) is compared to madness. The basis for such comparison denies any sort of intelligence at the non-figural level. Clarity of purpose, lucidity, and exigency—the metaphor works only when both items are weighted on these terms. The agency of—in fact at all times true—madness is pure and complete: it speaks for itself. Same goes for survival. The desire for madness then is utilitarian. As in reality, sometimes it takes measures the level of insanity to jinx the status quo.

Yet, despite the obvious, this navel is not merely physical, and it is this figuration of the navel that batters the barrier between navel-as-body-part and navel-as-pre-existing-hole around which the body, its essence even, is formed and operates. I have seen humans without eyes, with cosmetic nose, hacked off lips and ears, or specific limbs. Not one without the navel. (And Kyle XY doesn’t count. Because, even at that, he is defined by the absence of the navel.) No wonder Kobena says of the navel "a spirit refusing to drown..." For in no little way does it symbolize the very life it supports, in the case of a foetus, and the form it births, in the case of the post-baby human.

Photocredit: Oke Tolulope

If Death—as constantly theorized by the majority—were a leveller in real life, monochrome would in visual art. And the background would be the hell where identity goes to rot. I like to think much of postmodernism is unstable. That, I think, is its essence: it keeps unfurling and folding at all possible instances and awkward angles, and at the same time keeps defying possibilities to the point of absurdity, trying to be limitlessness but becoming farcical. But then, for all its aesthetics of indeterminacy, variability, volatility, and other "-ties" that repel constancy in ideation and performance across all manifestations of life and art, post-modernism can be (for the sake of argument) whittled down to one thing: identity aporia. Hence the self-phrased idiom: where identity is lost (or knotty), post-modernism is gained.

Diversity eliminates the tendency toward existential flatness, where humanity can be approached in practical terms of affordability, an instance the symptom of identity commoditization. Yet, however unwitting, diversity, especially in the post-modernist sense, where it is missing concretized design or defined use, without instruction or program and without an unambiguous logic, like a thing spiralling on and on, endlessly, refusing to ground itself, refusing to be understood—like chaos—beyond itself or its indeterminacy, has its misuse. Chaos has little to no pragmatic use, likewise diversity with a markedly abstracting base. Hence, monochrome.
Idealizing frames are never ungrounded in reality, and their justification is enclosed in the institutions they help define.

Monochromes sum diversity for instructive reasons: to purge the chaos that borders pointless diffusion; to reveal the soul of humanity even in miscellaneous contexts like a market place or, as in the picture, a busy street in Abeokuta; to dialogue with observers and other cultural participants without noises (pictorial and identity-related) obstructing. Humanity is then seen for what it is absent enclosing noises. The navel of the soul emerges for appropriate engagement.

An image is a visual rhetoric. Existing in a pathway of motions that are contextually implicated, it relates codes and principles that are existentially relevant and culturally pedagogic. Each element in an image, such as the men on the bikes, or the pedestrians, are themselves objects in a network that, independently and otherwise, signal extra-textual gist. By being rendered in the neutral, erasing noises of whatever forms, these gist are harvestable, sometimes, although rarely, nearly exhaustible. The objects then become symbolic of collective, or universal, thought, actively signifying more than themselves. Functionally, just as it is obtainable in Yoruba visual art aesthetics as Idogba, a leveller in/of compositional appearance, and Ijora, relative mimesis, monochrome tempers the sharp contours of personal identity to fit an ideal frame instructive and essential to the soul of the collective. To the navel of our soul, that is.