Review; The gaze of a stranger by Emmanuel Iduma

The gaze of a stranger by Emmanuel Iduma

Sara Marzullo lives in Florence and writes about cities and fiction for various publications, including Harper’s Baazar and Esquire. He is editor-in-chief of The Architecture Player, a platform dedicated to architecture videos.

S.i enters Mauritania at sunset, on the first day of ‘Aid al-Fitr , only to find a moment later stuck at the Lomé bus station, waiting for a ride in the direction of Accra: Emmanuel Iduma writes The look of a stranger ( Francesco Brioschi Editore, trans. Gioia Guerzoni) crossing the African continent, without directions to follow, nor pre-established itineraries, between megalopolises and villages, between languages ​​and different places.

In order to follow this reportage, a poetic and photographic diary at the same time, one must abandon oneself to a narrative that mixes the horizons of Rabat and Nouakchott, the Atlantic coasts and the views of the Mediterranean, which from Cameroon moves to Lagos to watch the intercontinental flights that connect Nigeria to New York, California.

A constant movement that does not seem to contemplate stasis: I don’t remember where Emmanuel Iduma is when he writes in his diary “I sleep little. I change beds, and night after night I collect hope in bags of the unknown “, but his words seem to refer to another reportage of the disorientation of these years, I vagabondi, by Olga Tokarczuk, as if there could be a common ancestry that holds together the present of the African continent, more and more hyperconnected, more and more innervated by telephone networks, and the story of the nomadic childhood of a Polish writer who says that today she prefers to write on trains, in hotels, in waiting rooms, on airplanes: it is as if these reports said that movement and thought are the same action, that we can illuminate the world as it is, tell, but not explain, not starting from the beginning to get to the end, but only in a time that confuses the before with the after.

As in the Homo Urbanus series by Beka & Lemoine, the directors choose to tell the cities starting from unpredictable fragments and sequences, giving up an overall and ordered narration, so  The gaze of a stranger guides us through cities that we don’t have time to learn the name, towards others that we seem to learn to recognize a little at a time.

If I vagabondi and Homo Urbanus make their odyssey a positive, fully accepted trait, Emmanuel Iduma’s The Gaze of a Stranger is pervaded, on the other hand, by the specific sense of estrangement that is also found in Absolutely nothing. Stories and disappearances in the American deserts by Giorgio Vasta. In that travelogue in the North American continent – a sui generis journeybecause the impression is that each page contains not a report, but memories reconstructed over time, with the same sense of imprecision as when you want to tell a dream, while it vanishes – Giorgio Vasta crossed thousands of kilometers of desert, without having the possibility of communicating with anyone, except for the presence of Giovanna Silva, who lends herself to being his interpreter.

The inability to speak a language made Vasta a stranger everywhere, with no holds, he who explains the world with words: in the same way, Emmanuel Iduma, a Nigerian, every time the interpreter leaves him alone, he discovers himself a stranger, his knowledge of French and Wolof insufficient to form a meaningful sentence.

I was a nobody without the interpreters to whom I entrusted my questions, whether I was in Bamako, Abidjan or Casablanca. And alone, as I often happened to be, I wondered how I would survive without them.

Unable to anchor himself to the present, to the real – “I did not understand what world was possible without English words” – his story then moves between past and present, between memory and physical perception, constantly poised between dream and wakefulness.

Vasta’s journey took place in absolute nothingness, in a space that almost resembles an abstraction of itself (lines, horizons, vanishing points), while Emmanuel Iduma’s journey moves from Morocco, to Ethiopia, through Mauritania and its Nigeria, between buses, markets and hotel rooms.

Yet, with the boundless absence on one side and a constantly changing landscape on the other, the two travel notebooks – in which words and photographs are juxtaposed – share the same sense of helplessness that is sometimes felt in dreams, of missed landing. . What determines this feeling in Emmanuel Iduma is his condition as a man without roots, at home nowhere: even his childhood in Nigeria is characterized by continuous transfers, between the paternal home and that of his uncle, in a disorientation that translates here in a progressive but incessant loss of a country to come from.

Describing a childhood photo contained in the volume – his sister standing between him and his brother wearing a white agbada , in front of his uncle’s car – he writes

I realize that my pose as a child and then as a boy represents the restlessness that I have carried with me all that time: the tension of belonging to a place only partially, of always being certain of departure. This attempt to find balance is the destiny of those who are here one day and elsewhere the next. Of the countless travelers on this planet, the crowd of migrants.

What remains when the rest disappears, when everything changes? The body, the names. Almost all the photographs that dot The gaze of a stranger are of people, as if the photograph maintained an original ritual function, as if it were necessary to prevent one’s body from disappearing, a confirmation of existence.

Starting from his own image, from the portraits that he gets taken by other photographers, to the description of the faces of the men he meets, the portraits of the slaves collected in the books of Samuel Cotton, up to the boys who in Ceuta are waiting, camped behind a hill, for her. opportunity to cross the border that divides Africa from Europe, photographed by his friend Lejam, but never shown. The gaze of a stranger is the attempt at balance that Iduma talks about in that passage. “Maybe my taste is now antiquated,” he comments, “but in a sense I expect that a project that tries to bring distances closer, to bring strangers closer, will show my face up close, even if in the photo I am looking from a other side, or my face is not fully visible. ”

In the photograph chosen to appear on the cover (and contained within the volume), a man holds a mirror on his shoulder, so instead of his face we see the reflection of other people. A question seems to resonate here that Iduma asks elsewhere: “If we looked long enough at others to discover their secret impulses, could we understand ours too?”

The result of solitary travels and a trans-African collective photography project, “Invisible Borders”, The gaze of a stranger by Emmanuel Iduma is a travel book that revolves around the images it contains, sometimes of Iduma, often of friends and fellow photographers , such as Dawit L. Petros, Emeka Okereke and Michael Tsegaye.

In addition to being a writer and poet, Iduma is also involved in curating art and photography (he currently teaches at the School of Visual Arts in New York): it is no coincidence that Teju Cole loved his book. In the preface he signs, he defines it as “a ballad in the form of a dream”.

Art critic and photographer in turn, Cole also wrote a book on the return and recognition of his native Nigeria ( Every day is for the thief , translated for Einaudi also by Gioia Guerzoni), accompanied by his photographs. If Iduma’s movement is within the continent, Cole’s is a homecoming from the United States, driven by a similar sense of vague déjà-vu. In one of the first chapters of Every day is for the thief , waking up in his father’s house in Lagos, he writes

it is as if I have shrunk since the last time I was here, or as if the house has slowly expanded from the heat, increasing by a few inches in each month of my absence, until it reaches this size.

In Vasta, in Teju Cole and in Iduma there is a similar sense of distance, of muted communication, as if they were texts composed of words too distant to be understood: as if these books – books about homelessness or impossible conversations – are not could fully grasp this feeling of loss and communicate it. They resemble dreams: they are urgent to tell, but difficult to understand, as if to do so one had fished from a dictionary and an inventory of images that are on the back of the head or that have remained on the tip of the tongue.

There are moments, however, in which Iduma’s writing manages to rise from the ground, as when it tells of the melancholy of relationships that crumble (never completely, never violently, always with infinite pain) under the transoceanic distance, of nostalgia of the bodies of those we love and that we see on PC screens. “Every conversation flourished in the certainty that the other was there,” he writes of Skype calls to his girlfriend. “She once asked me to stare at my webcam so that looking at the screen she would have the impression that I was looking at it. I had given her back a mirrored face, extending a phantom hand. ”

The gaze of a stranger succeeds, thanks to photography, the transmedia it uses, to tell, perhaps even better than others, the disorientation that the definition of afropolitans has perhaps removed in its cosmopolitan enthusiasm and the dripping of relationships that end, the engines of background of a novel like Chimamanda Adichie’s Americanah , of Chigozie Obioma’s novels, making them here the center of an investigation that begins and does not end, but continues, again, city after city.


by Abdullah Sam
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