Meet the ladies of Nkem Life (pronounced en-khem meaning “my” or “my own”), a lifestyle blog that combines the artistry, culture, and intelligence of the Nigerian-American sister duo, Chidinma “Chi-Chi” Dureke and Chuckwunonso “Angel” Dureke. I had the opportunity of meeting them Saturday, June 27th, for their art showcase entitled “The Journey for Regina,” a visual conversation about blackness, culture, Africa and natural hair. The showcase was held in the ethnic apparel boutique Nubian Hueman within the Anacostia Arts Center, a center I plan to enjoy more of in the future.
What is the future of museums? Does it exist in the built structure, the artifacts or in the narrative? Is it in the neighborhood or the communities in which we belong? And in which direction do we look to the past to reflect on the future. “The Journey for Regina” was a journey in both directions for the young duo to explore their Nigerian roots as it often collides with their American identity. The art installation was composed of a series of photographs taken with their iPhones throughout their trip to Nigeria for the funeral in honor of their Grandmother, Regina; a trip they had not done in 10 years.
The photos depict the beauty in the everyday aesthetic that can be seen and appreciated in Nigeria if one is willing, of course the disclaimer is this installation does not represent all of Nigeria. What the photos are is both a nod to the Eurocentric perceptions of Africa and a defiance to those standards. The creators of Nkem Life composed an elegant story of the banal selling of fruit in a market, using public transportation or a haircut at the barbershop. A story not unlike the lives of many of us in the U.S. or wherever else. In a trip that proved to be a culture shock that forced them in their journey and us as observers to reassess the complexity in which we consider our identity as Americans in relationship to notions of Africa or what is perceived as inherently African.
Lesson 1: Nigeria does not need fixing. This exhibit challenged the Western predilection toward Africa in peril. Whether it be the media’s sole coverage of disease “outbreak” or terror groups, and the lack of follow-up to a continent made up of many diverse countries say, not unlike…Europe? To say that Nigeria or Africa does not need fixing does not disregard public health or other measures that would tremendously aid particular areas of the continent but tears the veil away from our ideals of what happiness can look like. And it was a gentle reminder again, these same economic disparities exist and can be seen here in the U.S., a crowd of black faces that have been disfigured by perception are the only thing that creates this odd distinction between us and them. I think about the ways in which I usually often hover over exhibits on Africa and consider how in that stark moment a degree of distance is created but I did not feel that here. Instead, I felt an attraction to color, vibrancy, and life. A moment in which I wanted to be in the conversation.
Lesson 2: The diaspora is ongoing, and museum exhibition should reflect that. I appreciated the sisters sharing their struggle to negotiate their Nigerian and American identities, and the inconsistencies that grew as they desired to ground themselves in their roots. One apparent irony is our American essentialist definition of “afrocentric.” Here, in the states, women of color rocking their natural hair and sporting ethnic clothing has become idealized as the norm directly related to Africa when in fact the young women found many of their relatives concerned with Big Sean’s new album or the latest with Amber Rose, or when taking their natural tresses to the salon for braids and being chided for choosing their kinky hair, a moment not unlike the one that appears in Nigerian novelist and feminist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah. I was struck by the ways we’ve held Africa as a still, a static imagination that despite our ongoing evolution, Africa is unchanging and unwavering. And, again, this is not say that all Africans desire a Westernized appearance but what should be obvious is the complexity in which we must assess our imagination in relationship to our American perceptions.
This exhibit brought about the ways in which museums and spaces such as this can enhance and deepen the visitor experience:
- Artist talks – allow audiences to understand the history and reference of the artist work. If you are fortunate to have the actual artist, even better.
- Community forums – exhibition is a conversation, provide space for visitors to discuss and exchange.
- Complexity – give your stories moving parts, depth. This showcase proves you don’t need a huge budget for multimedia, etc. but instead create contrast so that visitors can follow the narrative.
- Resist complacency – do your research. Don’t just read the history books but include historical fictions, speak to the communities your work involves, and continue to progress these narrative.
As a response to this showcase, this post is about understanding the nuances of black lives, blackness, and black culture; a conversation we must continually have as it constantly evolves. Here is a story of lineage and legacy that encourages us to learn where we come from, love who we are, and respect what we do not know.
I want to give a special thanks to Chi-Chi and Angel and Nubian Hueman Owner Anika Hobbs for doing the work, hosting this event, and sharing words with me. Basically these ladies are dope.