The images of Igbo before | An interview with the founder of Ukpuru
I’m really moved by putting faces to ‘pre-Europeanised’ Igbo people, what I mean by that is specifically Igbo people who have lived their lives in a world completely dictated by us in terms of religion, fashion, art, everything. There’s also a lot of misinformation about the past, I’ve heard Nigerians refer to cloth as a European import to Nigeria, I like showing more than telling, so instead of lamenting the fact that traditional African architecture isn’t or wasn’t just basic huts (nothing wrong with that), I’ll make a post about “upscale” traditional houses in Africa. — Chiadikobi
Culture is always evolving and changing. Like Chimamanda Adichie said, “Culture does not make people, people make culture.”
As great as it is to make our own culture, it is important to know how those that came before lived their lives. Preservation of cultural history gives us a glimpse of what the past looked like. Just like a time capsule, it makes it possible to see how the society has changed since then. This is why it is keeping records and archiving history is very vital.
In this age of the internet, when a vast potpourri of information is available to us, there are still some things that are not easy to come by. Documentation of Nigerian history between the 17th and early 20th century is an example of that. Thanks to a few selfless individuals who have dedicated their time to sourcing for and curating these scarcely available materials, and sharing them on various platforms, they’ve been made it easier to read up on or find materials for research.
One of such is Ukpuru, a blog dedicated to Igbo culture — the community, art and way of living, from way back in the past to the present. Started by Chiadikobi Nwaubani, better known as Gin by religious followers of his works, Ukpuru has become a destination for those (both the Igbo and non-Igbo) who want to learn about the “Antique images and videos of Alaigbo/Ala Igbo (Igboland)”. Ukpuru is like a photographic and literary museum dedicated to cultural documentation, preservation and awareness.
In our interview with him, Chiadikobi shares how he started the blog, his source of inspiration, what he hopes to achieve through it and more.
TIG: Though you have a loyal readership, not much is known about you. Please tell us about yourself.
Chiadikobi: My name is Chiadikobi, I live in London and I do Graphics Design, but I do other things on the side really. My ancestral hometown is Umuahia, specifically the village of Umukabia in the Ohuhu community towards the north. I’ve lived in both the UK and Nigeria as a child. While in Nigeria, I lived in Lagos, Enugu and Umuahia.
Though Ukpuru is well-known, the brilliant mind behind the project has been anonymous. Is there a particular reason for that?
There’s no particular reason, I just never shared anything apart from some history and opinions. I made it about the content.
How and when did Ukpuru get started?
I’ve been collecting interesting — or what I thought were interesting — historical pictures on my computer for a while, sometimes for references because I draw, but mostly because I like history and historical pictures. Many old Igbo pictures before 1930 were rare to find online and the local library wasn’t exactly going to have them. Nowadays they’re easier to find because of digitization of old and new books. I was on blogger just to comment on other Nigerian blogs, so I just thought it would be fun to share the photos and information I’d found online and from old books. I was also inspired by a blog called oldphotosjapan.com, the site actually has a similar look to Ukpuru on Blogger.
What is the meaning behind the name ‘Ukpuru’?
Ukpuru (ụ́kpụ́rụ́ or ụ́kpụ́lụ́) in Igbo means ‘footprints’. It’s probably obvious why I chose this name, but I chose it quite quickly and I’m actually happy that I chose that word. I consciously made a decision to choose a word that was Igbo but also generally more ambiguous so I wouldn’t have to be tied down, for example if I called it ‘Igbo history blog’ I’d have this responsibility and I’d have to be really serious, the blog is really a personal one where I post generally anything related to eastern Nigeria or Africa, especially on Tumblr.
Where do you get inspiration for your posts from?
I’d say everything follows the other, so my initial inspiration was indigenous technology and masquerades, a weird mix, but my fascination for indigenous technology comes from the fact that those are some of the things that are brushed to side or even completely ignored or said to be absent in our culture. Masquerades are from my childhood in Umuahia, namely the Ekpe masks, great big masks which I’ve posted on the blog. I don’t know any child who hasn’t been obsessed with those masks.
After that I’m really moved by putting faces to ‘pre-Europeanised’ Igbo people, what I mean by that is specifically Igbo people who have lived their lives in a world completely dictated by us in terms of religion, fashion, art, everything. There’s also a lot of misinformation about the past, I’ve heard Nigerians refer to cloth as a European import to Nigeria, before then we’d been wearing leaves apparently! I’m not as purist as I think I am, but I do believe we are suffering from arrested development. I don’t like having my opinions be literal like that last sentence, I like showing more than telling, so instead of lamenting on the fact that traditional African architecture isn’t or wasn’t just basic huts (nothing wrong with that), I’ll make a post about “upscale” traditional houses in Africa. This is why I’ve sometimes described the blog as an extended ‘rant’, even if that sounds pretentious.
Your curations are vast and varied. It shows that a lot of time and research went into them. What is your research process like?
Mine comes from my family’s history foremost, I don’t have to do as much research for certain things because I’ve lived some of the cultures, like knowing about some Ekpe masquerades, so I actually look for a specific image sometimes. Other times, I will find a book and the old images I find striking will end up on the blog, like from Northcote Thomas’ Anthropological report on the Ibo-speaking peoples of Nigeria. I have to know the context of the image.
What do you hope to achieve through Ukpuru?
Although it’s a personal blog, I actually would like for it to inspire artists, writers, directors, or even people in school. A lot of people are made to read Chinua Achebe’s Thing’s Fall Apart, but they have no visuals of the culture. Most people on earth only have a limited view of what Africans cultures are today, let alone before.
How has the feedback for Ukpuru been?
It’s been quietly influential, some of the pictures I’ve dug up and I know came from the blog are around the internet.
You started with Blogger, but now share most of your curations on Tumblr. What is the reason for the switch?
It’s easier for image posting, and I can reblog images from other blogs. There’s also more interaction. I didn’t open the Tumblr page to replace blogger initially, it just became more convenient.
Apart from Ukpuru, you’re also working on the Nsibiri Project and its mission is “To record and appropriate Nsibidi ideographic symbols for a writing system to be used by the Igbo language and Cross River languages such as Efik, Ibibio and Ejagham. Nsibidi is also meant to inspire and encourage learning of the languages it will be used in.” That’s very impressive. What made you decide to take on the project?
It started of as an example of how Nsibidi can be used today, then I just made it into a full blown modern writing system and went on from there. I thought that there really wasn’t any need for Nsibidi to disappear as it has, even though some ‘secret societies’ still use it. It was taught in schools once.
How has the Nsibiri Project been so far? What has the reception been like?
This is probably the most influential thing I’ve done so far in terms of design because I’ve seen Nsibidi designs, again ones that I know I refashioned or modified (I made them public domain) used on Nigerian designers clothing, sometimes whole collections, I’ve seen them used by some organisations as well and some other places. People mostly like the idea even though it’s radical, some have attempted writing in it. I’ve seen some tattoos even.
It is fascinating that you have a career as a graphics designer. One would think that you are a historian, a literary buff or a linguist; or even a combination of the three. How do you reconcile your dedication to creating awareness about Igbo history and your career?
I have been partially obsessed with this subject for a while now, I have been collecting old books as well, over time I’ve picked up information from personal study. With Nsibidi I was learning as I went along, so the linguistics part was just as a result of trying to make Nsibidi fit with the structure of Igbo. Considering our history where every person is eventually a family historian, I would say being a historian is something that’s inevitable.
What are the setbacks or challenges you’ve faced while doing both projects?
Well, for Ukpuru, I wouldn’t say there are any major set backs, for Nsibidi, it’s mostly finding the time to write using the system or when I was uploading the designs I had to make 1400 vector drawings, things like that. The major drawback is that I can’t have Nsibidi as a writing system on the computer because you have to go to the people who encode every letter or symbol everyone who uses a computer types with, Unicode, but in order to have them take up a new symbol or a set of them you need to prove they are widely used, by thousands of people or more. I haven’t got to the point where I can focus on teaching or growing the system.
What would you say you’ve learnt in the years since you started these projects?
For both projects, I’ve learnt that there’s a lot of hidden history and stories, important ones included. Through the blog, I was able to verify an old story in my families history. It was one where my paternal ancestor was met by Europeans or European-led Africans who burnt his yams as an intimidation tactic because he refused to run away like everyone else. I’ve managed not only to find the date when that probably happened (Britain was invading the Umuahia area with European led African soldiers around 1902), but I found the name and picture of the man who led the campaign and his anecdote about ‘hostile’ Africans who had ‘problems’ with the soldiers.
It’s interesting that you were able to verify an old story in your family history through your work on Ukpuru. Most Nigerians don’t and probably won’t be able to do that. Others might not even know where to start. What advice would you give to such persons?
It was quite an obscure and hidden document so it was by chance. To find something like that, someone would have more success in reading more of the general history of their town, their people and the general area they’re from. From there you can piece things together. I wouldn’t have known about that story if I didn’t know that the British, for example, had invaded the town of Arochukwu that’s not too far away. Nowadays, there are so many free online resources including free online books and PDF’s, even JStor allows for the free viewing of their articles, with all of these resources some of the most obscure history can be found just by going online.
You’ve been working on Ukpuru for about six years now. Do you plan to continue with it or is there a time limit? What are your future plans for Ukpuru and Nsibiri?
I don’t have a time limit, I’m sure I won’t be posting the same kind of content for all eternity, but it could become a portal for cultural photography or something in that line, if I aimed really high enough it could become an online channel and portal for Igbo culture and a heritage organisation like English Heritage in the UK which looks after landmarks. With the Nsibiri Project, I’d like more people to learn the writing system, slowly gather up more people who are able to communicate with it, and then it could be taught in mainstream schools.
Are there other projects you’re working on?
I make art or draw, so I usually have something to work on in that respect, but nothing major.
Ukpuru and Nsibiri focuses on history, what role would you say that history plays in our lives?
I’ve heard people say history is a useless subject, but then again, those people are able to walk into a library in any part of the world and find a section in a history book that’s dedicated to them (can you guess the nationality?). And I think that’s the point, human beings learn things by association, it’s why we have pain. You’re not going to put your hand in fire after an initial experience, because your body will set off an alarm. Again, people have said we don’t learn from history, but I think history is more than learning, it’s something to remind you of where you are situated and where you may need to go. History impacts politics, in fact I’m not going to do a list of what it impacts because it impacts everything. I can compare it to being at a party and knowing what terms everyone in the room is on, what their given statuses are. If you don’t know history, you will end up lost and ostracized, if you know history you can move about the room with more security. Someone can say history is pointless either because they are showered with the knowledge of their own history or they do not consciously know the power it has.
Some would say Nigeria could do better with recording and preserving the annals of the country’s culture. What are your thoughts on that?
If Nigerians were simply neglecting history that would be less of a problem, what we sometimes have are people who purposefully vandalise and destroy cultural heritage, specifically those related to traditional religions. There are a lot of problems in Nigeria and people are wiling to go after any scapegoat. The main problem is that people in Nigeria especially, southern Nigeria, aren’t taught that their past has much value; and history isn’t a subject that’s given attention, most museums in Nigeria are shut for most of the year and some are dilapidated. People in Nigeria need to know that they are connected to their past and that those things represent their ancestors. I would raise awareness locally about the connection the community has to popular landmarks and artefacts and intangible culture, that way each community would naturally become a guardian of their own heritage.
How do you see the future of the Igbo language and culture?
I know many people, organisations even have said Igbo language and/or culture is all going down a sinkhole, but I think it’s fine. I think Igbo culture is something that has always expanded and contracted when it has needed to, that is why ‘Igbo’ covers so much diversity. What I do think about, though, is how the values and nuances and peculiarities of Igbo culture will hold up. I don’t want all of that to be sucked up into a globalised thing. It’s on the line of, yes, you can speak Igbo well or no you speak Engligbo. But besides all that, do we still have a mostly egalitarian society, a bìrí kàm bìrí (‘live-and-let-live’) outlook? Is the point of wealth still to help each other out or is it just to spray money at weddings? Do we have any selfless leaders left? Those sort of things underline and sort of act as the glue of our culture, especially in the Igbo sense in which some of those values manifest in the concepts of religion, of art, dance, music, poems and so on. The power to objectively self evaluate is the genius of Igbo society.
I think Igbo culture is something that has always expanded and contracted when it has needed to, that is why ‘Igbo’ covers so much diversity.
I also think we need to take more of our old stuff into today. We don’t value some of our stuff like architecture and the arts, we don’t appropriate those things for today. Even Nsibidi just faded away and a lot of that goes back to the arrested development and the shock of colonialism.
Where can we find you or view your portfolio on “The Internets”?
All images courtesy of Chiadikobi, Ukpuru and Nsibiri.