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Book Review: This is What Hatred Did


Book Review This is What Hatred Did By Cristina De Middel Reviewed by Karen Jenkins A five-year-old boy flees his Nigerian town, slipping into the Bush to avoid capture by invading soldiers. He’s crossed a proverbial line, entering a Bush of Ghosts, where no humans are welcome.
This Is What Hatred DidBy Cristina De Middel
RM Editorial / Archive of Modern Conflict, 2015.
 
This Is What Hatred Did
Reviewed by Karen Jenkins

This Is What Hatred Did
Photographs by Cristina De Middel. Text by Amos Tutuola.
RM Editorial / Archive of Modern Conflict, 2015. 178 pp., 66 illustrations, 5¼x11¼".


A five-year-old boy flees his Nigerian town, slipping into the Bush to avoid capture by invading soldiers. He’s crossed a proverbial line, entering a Bush of Ghosts, where no humans are welcome. Not yet understanding bad and good, an innocent bursts unwittingly into a forbidden realm. Here he wanders, lost and searching for home, for thirty years, enduing all manner of peril, punishment and physical manipulation by a fantastical line-up of spirits. He tells his tale in the 1954 Nigerian novel My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, written by Amos Tutuola, describing each episode in an almost affectless tone. Fear, disgust, hunger and the occasional relief and reward are acknowledged, but within a matter-of-fact description of events, amplifying their impact. The words of the novel open Cristina De Middel’s collection This is What Hatred Did, trailing down its split-format interior in an oversized font. After a few pages, words scale back and branch off; we follow Tutuola’s story in a small, detached section at the top of the volume and are introduced to De Middel’s photographs and sketches spanning the larger spread below. While her 2012 work The Afronauts was the first leg of De Middel’s conceptual travel to the continent, Tutuola’s magical tale and an invitation to show her work at the Lagos Photo Festival in Nigeria were the catalyst for her actual visit to Africa.

This Is What Hatred DidBy Cristina De MiddelRM Editorial / Archive of Modern Conflict, 2015.
This Is What Hatred DidBy Cristina De MiddelRM Editorial / Archive of Modern Conflict, 2015.

In a line-up of color photographs, sketches, whimsical storyboarded scenes and even a few hand-drawn website news stories, De Middel blends her photojournalistic roots and an inventive art practice to create a companion take on Tutuola’s Bush. Her parallel plane in the Makoko slum of Lagos is counterpoint to both the novel and the existing catalog of (often sensational) photo reportage from this area of entrenched poverty. The Bush of Ghosts is populated by shape-shifting and patchwork protagonists who manipulate the human boy, psychologically and physically. Being turned into a cow provides an upper hand when fleeing a kidnapper, but fortunes are reversed when our transformed boy is then captured by herders who force him into their fold. De Middel’s photographs do not literally illustrate these misadventures, but are her own reimagined Nigerian tale that draws upon such demonstrations of relative value and circumstantial agency. Scenes that feel like street photography mingle with staged tableaux set with props designed by De Middel and enacted by the inhabitants of Makoko. In her images, form is mutable; characters are presented in shifting configurations of exaggerated features and costume, underlining the dualities and contradictions of human nature and creating a physical presence for the story’s ghosts. Figures are encrusted, and enveloped in mist, web, mask and net. Heads are prone to transfer or detachment. Glowing eyes project outward as full moon or flashlight beam, or are the blank recesses cut out of fabric sheets that give spirits a tangible (if cartoonish) ghostly form. Real turtles are confined to a cramped cage, while a figure in a turtle costume crawls free along a beach.

This Is What Hatred DidBy Cristina De MiddelRM Editorial / Archive of Modern Conflict, 2015.

In the two photographs that begin De Middel’s sequence, a mirror reflects a blinding light on its opaque surface and a revelatory shaft opens up the sky. Points of illumination are striking throughout the book, appearing as dapple, glow and beam. Whether as portal or pathway, these recurrences underscore a dual or layered reality in this place. There, but perhaps not for all to see. In Tutuola’s novel, a Television-handed Ghostess tells the young lost boy, “you are seeing the way every day and you do not know it, because every earthly person gets eyes but cannot see.” There is a great deal of misunderstanding in the Bush of Ghosts; its clash of cultures and power struggles may be otherworldly, but are nonetheless familiar to those human players that occupy its parallel reality. De Middel’s photographs may be rooted in a fictional past, but they rattle contemporary assumptions about the people and place she depicts. A journey of hardship and triumph, and a burgeoning self-awareness need not be tied to measurable distance or conventional time. We are both confined and liberated by our own true nature. What is true, and what is true here and now. What we learn when an outsider finds a way in.—KAREN JENKINS

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KAREN JENKINS earned a Master's degree in Art History, specializing in the History of Photography from the University of Arizona. She has held curatorial positions at the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson, AZ and the Demuth Museum in Lancaster, PA. Most recently she helped to debut a new arts project, Art in the Open Philadelphia, that challenges contemporary artists to reimagine the tradition of creating works of art en plein air for the 21st century.


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