When London-based artist and researcher Onyeka Igwe first began exploring her Nigerian ancestry, she came across a film that detailed a British queen’s visit to Nigeria. One scene of a Nigerian woman dancing caught her eye, reminding her of her own family’s traditions and she immediately felt a sense of connection.
“In watching that film, I got interested in looking for more of that in the archive, even though I knew that it came in this framework… that, at its ground, is racist ideology,” Igwe said.
As Igwe continued to explore archival material, she eventually created her own 25-minute film, titled “the names have changed, including my own and truths have been altered.” Through a combination of archival footage, narration, text overlays, interview clips and dance, she conveyed her family history and the impacts of British colonialism.
Igwe’s film, initially released in 2019, was included in the series “The Loose Ends of Empire: Unforgetting Colonialism,” which debuted for Northwestern students and staff on Thursday night. Three Northwestern graduate students – Gervais Marsh from the performance studies department, Tyler Talbott from the English department, and Madison Alan-Lee from the screen cultures program – served as guest curators in partnership with the Block Museum of Art and the Center of Civic Engagement’s Chicago Humanity Initiative.
“The series aims to bring together artists, scholars and activists to discuss the legacies of Black filmmaking traditions and activist practices… while also expanding to a more global and cross-generational conversation,” Marsh said.
Aside from Igwe’s work, the series also featured films from two other Black British artists, “The Trophies of Empire” by Keith Piper and “Promised Lands” by Emma Wolukau-Wanambwa. Like Igwe, both Piper and Wolukau-Wanambwa used archival material and experimental filmmaking techniques to better understand British colonialism and critique its historical perception.
“The Trophies of Empire,” released in 1985, is a 15-minute series of slides overlaid with text that connects present-day London to its colonial past. The film begins in the present, showing modern-day images such as racist graffiti promoting the British National Party. It then goes to the past, using archival images of slavery, colonialism, and African culture, before cutting back to the present, where the same initial segment is repeated but with a new significance.
“Just as we finally thought that the sun had set, the Empire strikes back,” the slides read, displaying images of police and Black Londoners. “The same old tune, the same old popular morality… has come to define Black people as an alien wedge swamping British culture, and the police no longer just reflect that morality. They recreate it.”
While the film is mostly silent, aside from the occasional military drum beats, one echoing soundbite stood out: a quote from former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, whose grainy image gradually drew closer on screen.
“People are rather afraid that this country might be swamped by people of a different culture,” Thatcher said. “If there is any fear that we might be swamped, then people are going to get rather hostile.”
Wolukau-Wanambwa’s “The Promised Lands” explores similar topics with a different approach. Released in 2018, the film is a 20-minute continuous long shot of trees by a body of water at dusk. The sounds of nature accompany words on screen, interspersed with narration that reflects on colonialism and its continued impact on the present-day.
“One of the ways that my father and his brothers master the world and make it their own is by willfully mispronouncing certain words,” Wolukau-Wanambwa narrated. “This is about power, about insisting that you, the listener, encounter the world on their terms and from their own point of view.”
Wolukau-Wanambwa drew connections between the idea of a utopia and settler-colonial relations and told stories of people evicted from their island homes as the camera remained on the same image, gradually growing darker.
After the screenings ended, Performance Studies Professor Bimbola Akinbola hosted a discussion with Igwe.
“All three of the films that have been included in this series are grappling with violent legacies of colonialism, the act of remembering, land and the construction of nation and then of course the archive,” Akinbola said.
Igwe agreed, expressing hopes that she and her fellow filmmakers could counter traditional interpretations of history through their work. In particular, by combining a variety of mediums alongside archival footage, she used the racism of the archive against itself.
“This legitimizing force that the archive has enables particular stories to become the story of an event, bypassing lots of other narratives,” Igwe said. “There’s something I like about the idea of this film sitting next to the original films, so they can be seen in tandem. It offers a space to reinterpret or to dislodge the orthodoxy of that one way of telling that the archive often promotes.”
*Article Thumbnail courtesy of The Block Museum of Art