Thursday, July 12, 2012

The Drama of Oil Production in the Niger Delta: An Obsession with the Spectacular

Philip Aghoghovwia responds to the The catalogue Last Rites Niger Delta. The Drama of Oil Production in Contemporary Photographs from the exhibition on which Delta Remix was based. The catalogue was edited by Christine Stelzig, Eva Ursprung and Stefan Eisenhofer; English ISBN 9 783927 270657

As one leafs through the pages of the catalogue, it is curious to note that the first sixteen pictures do not capture the major concerns of environmental pollution which provoke those instances of violence and scavenging that these pictures depict. It seems to me that the catalogue, while artistically telling the story of the oil encounter in a reverse manner, subtly sets out to mislead, if not misinform, the reader. I thought the catalogue should be able to tell the reader, in a chronological order, possibly, how the Delta has come to find itself in that atmosphere of commoditised violence and brazen criminality. 

What hits the eyes in the first page is a captured white man in the midst of gun-toting young black men. This picture no doubt, prejudices the reader’s judgement, for it invokes the now familiar (image) critique of Africa by the West: a crises-redden outback of filth, violence, sickness, hunger, insurgents, war and death. The Niger Delta embodies all these! From which perspective might we tell the story of the Oil Encounter in the Niger Delta? What happened to the polluted landscape, the farmlands, and the spilled-oil floating on the rivers, sea and the water bodies? Are these not compelling enough to be captured in the first pages of this catalogue? Why the obsession with the spectacle of survivalist fervour — which verges on the ridiculous — with which the poor people, the very wretched scramble to help themselves to the crumbs from burst petro-pipes? What’s with this obsession with the dramatic images of youth violence, which Michael Watts has described as “the masked militant armed with the ubiquitous Kalashnikov, the typewriter of the illiterate”? The catalogue confirms this romance with the spectacular by its laconic caption: “The Drama of Oil Production”.   
The picture which depicts the signpost that describes the first oil well in the region is captured without the weight of its significance. One notices the sorry state of the signpost: the fast-fading inscriptions, the rusty white board, which describes a supposedly significant beginning of oil exploration in Nigeria, and the bush growing around this signpost, that makes the board increasingly invincible. Isn’t this symptomatic of the invincibility of Oloibri — and perhaps the entire Niger Delta — in the context of social development, even when it [this village] bore the first fruits of the oil wealth for the Nigerian state?
It is hard not to notice the visible absence of the over 12, 000 gas flares that light up the Delta landscape; flares that burn off more than 70 million cubic meters of gas per day in this region that is so richly blessed, yet cursed, with fossil-fuel.
The picture I find most fascinating in this catalogue is that which juxtaposes a dilapidated, decrepit major ‘expressway’ that connects Lagos with the Niger Delta, and the well paved route of the pipelines in the heart of the delta. Ironically, that well-demarcated pipeline route now serves as a footpath for the villagers.
Philip Aghoghovwia is from the Niger Delta, and is a PhD student at the English Department, University of Stellenbosch


helen said...

hi philip,
i have to disagree with your critique of the catalogue. the picture of the captured white man is on the 11th page of the catalogue, not the first, & is the 6th photo - previous pictures depict smoke, aerial landscapes, & the entrance to a refinery. the image of the captured white man is juxtaposed with images of local protesters holding handwritten signs, one of which reads "our people have been kidnapped & killed." for me, seeing these images together allows me to understand the depth of violence that has already been perpetrated on the area by the oil companies, which has created the conditions for local militant groups to emerge.

you note the "visible absence" of images of gas flares - but both the front & back cover of the catalogue feature the gas flares (6 colour photos - 7 if you include the image of the smoke) & there are full-page 4 colour images of gas flares inside the book. this doesn't really strike me as an absence.

i found the exhibition very moving in that it showed both the detail and the extend of the impact of the oil companies in the niger delta, in a very direct way. for western people whose lives depend very much on oil, and who mostly don't ever think about where oil comes from when they fill up their petrol tank, this is a very provocative and powerful telling of the story of oil in the niger delta. we don't have to have chronological facts to recognise the scale of the disaster & the urgent need for action.

Anonymous said...

thanks for sharing.

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