an inheritance by Kosisochukwu Nnebe: Text
by Nya Lewis
The world has already begun to spin the grief of the last two years into a heroic tale of resilience. As a society we return to the compounded reckoning with anti-Blackness as a site of reflection and departure from what we considered a show of our worst. We’ve come to tout the spirit of our resistance, our communal drive for justice, our relentless search for the light at the end of the tunnel. When we recall the last two years, we will speak of the tireless endurance of Black communities, the indelible aspects of this uniquely difficult time, the sacrifices made, and the magnitude of the loss endured. I add, both in defence and critique of Black resilience, a reference to the hopeless, despairing, passionate grief that found a powerful and healing presence in rage. In an inheritance, Nigerian-Canadian, Ottawa-based artist Kosisochukwu Nnebe reclaims Afro-diasporic histories of rebellion by confronting the potential of rage to destroy and construct.
As a Black queer woman, I admit that the term grief carries an air of unfamiliarity and privilege. My Trinidadian grandmother had a saying for times of inexplicable sorrow: “Put grief in your pocket”—as if to note its uselessness and its tethered nature. I am oblivious to any true meaning of grief, but far too aware of its connotations. Grief and its complexities felt unavailable to me, missing from the cultural narratives that grounded my intersectionality. I understood there was no linear Kübler-Ross five- or six-stage process, no successful completion of grieving prescribed for Black folks like me. I consider Dionne Brand’s articulation of the pandemic of anti-Blackness—the ever-revolving state of grief—and its inextricable link to racism, sexism, homophobia, marginalization, violence, and oppression.1 Caught in a cycle of irresolution (mourn, rage, survive), I inherited a persistent grief, inveterate and disenfranchised. It feels foreign and then again too familiar to name. It is, for me, trite, par for the course, and in no uncertain terms a contradiction—unwanted and vital, mine and borrowed. In my attempts to define and understand my consuming grief, I examine the ways in which we realize and absorb devastation. If anti-Blackness is unrelenting, does rage for Black communities become synonymous with a deferred, ceaseless grief? I lean on the grief that is made alive in bell hooks’s demarcation of Black rage and Black deprivation as a vehicle for transformative revolutionary action,2 and in Lucille Clifton’s characterization of the luxury of forgetfulness for “Black and going on women.”3 I believe this distinctive persistent grief has shaped the potential for critical consciousness and commitment to justice.
Nnebe’s photo series positions rage as a necessary aspect of resistance for communities in constant mediation of racism. Her practice makes use of phenomenology as a methodology with which to work through themes of racialization, diasporic experience, and epistemic violence and restitution. Nnebe’s work speculates opacity (that which is undecipherable, hidden) and transparency (that which is legible, hypervisible) as mechanisms to obfuscate, transform, and reveal new ways of seeing and understanding.4 an inheritance turns to cassava—a crop native to South America that became an important food source for people of African descent in the Caribbean and on the continent through the Columbian exchange. A naturally poisonous root vegetable, cassava became, for some enslaved Africans and Indigenous people, a weapon with which to poison enslavers and colonialists. For those who made use of it in this way, it was the ultimate rejection of a world order premised on their dehumanization, their way of asserting their agency and subjectivity both covertly and revolutionarily. Nnebe mocks the societally ingrained, repetitive process of grieving, inviting Black audiences to confront the persistence of grief in “relation to the complexities of Blackness and the historical by any means necessary rhetoric.”5 Black rage is made visible, constructively defying Black victimization and passivity.
an inheritance depicts a step-by-step process for producing the cassava poison. Employing visual performance, image making, and narrative text, the vignette subtly reveals a dynamic interplay of retaliation and monotonous regularity. Cut, peel, grate, wring, putrefy, harvest, dry, powder, and load. The subject packs the cassava under their thumbnail. Historically, the poison from cassava was transferred from the thumbnail to the drink or meal of the person being poisoned. The insinuated performance ending functions as a phantom mark of exacerbation, and a defiant articulation of rage, memorializing the significance of the silent threat. In a world where Black and African people are incentivized to suppress rage, Nnebe captures an instance of “simmering rage”6 as a catalyst to reclaim Black emotional subjectivity. She manipulates grief as a legible and edifying practice of retribution. an inheritance asks us: in what ways must our rage be deliberately hidden, veiled, and choked down? In what ways can embracing this rage destroy those things which no longer (and never did) serve us and point us toward alternative courses of action, ones that create new possibilities for living?7
Living in the dissolving aftermath of 2020 is a new grief all its own. In my pocket I’m carrying the emotional manipulation, hurt, and rage from the veils of resolution and progress. I’m carrying Anique Jordan’s words, we have done enough,8 Ravyn Wngz’s calls to disarm, dismantle, demilitarize, destabilize,9 and Clifton’s “Black and going on women.” I am learning that for me grief is everyday dejection and anti-Black racism. Grief is not just a model for resistance but an obligatory condition.