Art by Virginia Katz
A Visit to the British Museum
I have been hearing it everywhere, but sadly, today it’s my first time to see the famed works known as the Benin Bronzes – which, despite the name, are not all bronzes, at least not by that name. That morning, I was sure I’d cry – I have wanted their memories all along but my ancestors were stolen – divvied up as spoils of war, without notion of piety. Catching my eyes suddenly on the brass plaques, I thought of all the institutions that still hold their gaze, the gravity of all they saw with their eyes, that strong habit of craftsmen, like a map for the illustrious forebears, leaving us no choice but to hold their motherly arms. After all these years, the past still haunts – like that sudden grief-burst from my grandmother’s throat; her skin too tender for battery. There is magic in the pendant mask. These were the fairy tales I was told that night: my girlish face in bright admiration, under a mango tree in the compound. And because these occasionally left me, all nostalgia, I knew enough to know that no amount of reparation could trim the leaf of secondary anguish, perpetually growing within us, and like in the lit-up wooden paneling on my left side, I look at the ceremonial brass heads up on high, their coral beads collect my seeing and sends back all the songs that cost them their lives. All the rhythms a pod of fish makes when it is darting under a thin ice. It is definitely worth saying, that so often, I thought that many chapters of our history book have already been removed, that I wonder the same of those back home.
after the Benin-Punitive Expedition, 1897 /
with a variation of line by Maya C. Popa
And because I mean to remember, vividly, I am here –
wandering the streets with someone else’s foot – in this
ancient city. The wind tilting, softly, even if only slightly,
sometimes in this northern rainforest. Bear with me –
I think of the old crucifixion trees. How everything is
a perturbation of the headless bodies dismembered and
wreathing the King’s estate. That pile of statues peeled away
from bloodstained royal altars. Like all uncomfortable truths:
what began it all is the Berlin act. How many times the day
threatened to overrule the night? I’ve tried, oh I’ve tried to
record but certain legacies lose their edges at the mound of
history. The sky is gray, and a troop of soldiers breathing through
the night bends in peculiar horror, a kingdom meant to conjure
exotic power. Isn’t this what father meant, about erasure being
like exploitation and theft? I think so. And I stretch all their forgotten
names through my mind – pictures of the heads of Queen Mothers
(no one can ever understand), and metal plaques, on which are
engraved various piccies of our exploits and battles. I am somehow
attuning to it all – their voices, a well of dark terror, a psalm and
I begin to tremble a bit closer to the darkness: the kingdom’s dissolution.
What runs through my body can hardly be called devotion. Maybe
I don’t know what I am becoming. Maybe I am capable of learning
that truth has grown on history’s absentia; traversing that vacuum
in my core and limbs, turning in good light, the fragile hopes of little
children gliding over fallen logs in these scarred and lonesome red hills.
And against all odds, the sun grows dim, in this exhibition hall, where
my mummified ancestors sit alive, filled with pain, memory rising like
prayer, and I can no longer hold my gaze: the present awash with the
stench of fallen bodies, beneath a mango tree the parts of sacrificial bodies,
blood all over the red earth. And as the stars hang brightly in the universe,
I understood that this could be the hour for it – and then I mourn. It did
appear to me, that home had been sliced without warning, without pity –
how I felt the shelling rush into my body, then out through my skin as loot –
I Can Tell You Why I Lack and What It Meant
These days, as a child, I trace the shape of home
and lie out under a separate moon. The soot this
evening, falls on the last portion of the Eagle Island.
There is no room for salvation for those who speak
the language of civilization or brought textbooks
promising hope. Like faces thought to be forgotten,
the world teaches us to heal, but instead, I slip into
the depth of the Kidaro creek, into the ecology of dead
tilapias and mullet. I can smell the stench river again,
and the spidery husks of dead mangroves been eased
down into the oily wasteland. The few land crabs we’ve
been allowed to keep are scurrying across the riverbank
with only a few young mudskippers for company. Here
in Gokana, I watch the ghost of periwinkles, whose carcass
litter the Goi creek, haunts me out of my sleep. I have seen
enough to say that my country does not care, if we live in
silent backyards or houses of zinc and wood, or breathe in
hostile air, or drink from rotten egg borehole. Some of this
is our doing, and the rest of it dash. Like us, they have no
shame, and we have no name for this hate but treachery.
These days, the sheer arms of this wetland are large, but
there are no more rooms to write sanctuary, and I wonder
how the oil-coated heron picks it way through the sludge.
I don’t know why I am walking out here, in these oil-drenched
puddles, with oil-soaked mud in my hands, and my feet thum-
ping through barren landscapes punctuated by abandoned
equipment and rusty pipes. What I know is that all my child-
hood, it’s hard not to think that the only way to make it big,
and escape the clutches of poverty, is through these transient
profits that leave nothing, but scarcity, blindness and stillbirths.
Fall / Winter 2023
Ojo Taiye is a Nigerian eco-artist and writer who uses poetry as a handy tool to hide his frustration with society. His practice is collaborative and often draws from personal experience or interpretation of climate change, homelessness, migration, as well as a breadth of transversal issues ranging from racism and black identity to mental health. His current project explores neocolonialism, institutionalized violence, and ecological trauma in the oil-rich, polluted Niger delta. His poems have been published or are forthcoming in Narrative Magazine, Mycelia, The Spectacle, Salamander, Consequence, Stinging Fly, Rattle, Cincinnati Review, Banshee, Willow Springs, Lambda Literary, Fiddlehead, Puritan, Frontier Poetry, Notre Dame Review, and Strange Horizon. Taiye worked on the Future(s) 2021 with Catalyst Arts and Belfast Photo Festival; 2021 Sustrans Black History Month Art Project; 2021–22 Scene Stirling COP26 Climate Commission; and switch art project 2022.
Virginia Katz is a process-based conceptual painter. Her landscape reliefs extend the traditional genre of two-dimensional landscape painting into three dimensions, reflecting our environment’s states of flux, upheaval, and regeneration. Katz’s work can be found in the permanent collections of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Long Beach Museum of Art, Riverside Art Museum, and numerous other public and private collections. Her work has been reviewed in the Los Angeles Times, Art in America, and LA Weekly. She lives in Irvine, California.