On Imagetext

Another concept Morgan discusses and that might proof useful for the analysis of some forms of contemporary visual arts in northern Nigeria is imagetext. Popularised by J. Thomas Mitchell in order to challenge disciplinary divides between the study of visal and verbal media and most prominently employed in the study of graphic novels/comics andrelated arts, Morgan employs it to designate

… representations that are neither image nor text alone, but a synthesis that needs to be classified separately because it is experienced neither as merely text nor as merely image. (p. 65)

Here, he considers what ‘their owner called her “Judaic Wall,”’ on which framed and elaborately decorated calligraphy of Hebrew texts are artfully arranged at the wall, complemented by the stylised images of the hand, also known as hamsa. Morgan argues that

These items … intermingle symbol, word, and mage to create discrete objects that are more than the sum of their parts. The calligraphy of Hebrew text is also highly decorated “image,” and the stylized image of the hand … serves as surface for the display of text. Image and text combine in the case of the hamsa in a very traditional device of popular Jewish culture. […] Whether composed entirely of text or portrayed in highly simplified form, these hybrids of text and image avoid the injunction against the use of figural images, yet visualize sacred text in a manner that allows its display as an object for the purpose of aesthetic contemplation as well as veneration. (p. 65-66)

As such the notion of imagetext, in the sense that Morgan uses the term, emphasises the aesthetics of, in particular, calligraphic works - individually as well as collectively in combination with other works of calligraphy and/or images. It, however, also creates room for further levels of ‘meaning’ that move beyond the textual but to varying degrees still derive significance from the text. Here, consider Morgan’s further analysis of the above mentioned ‘Judaic Wall’:

The hamsa is an amulet displayed in the home, on one’s person, or in synagogues on such liturgical objects as lamps to guard against spells and the Evil Eye. Inscriptions on the metal surface of the hand amulet form consist of the many names of God and quotations from scripture that are invested with mystical and symbolic significance. … Displayed in the homes of modern Jews, the objects acquire another layer of meaning as “Judaica,” artifacts from the history of the Jewish people that can be separated from the original magical, mystical, or theological meanings and seen as crafts that affirm the ethnic identity of their owners. Even in this case, however, the value of imagetext persists, since avoidance of highly pictoral imagery remains for many Jews, secular or pious, a touchstone of Jewish tradition. (p. 66)

Education and Islamic Trends in Northern Nigeria: 1970s-1990sEducation and Islamic Trends in Northern Nigeria: 1970s-1990s

There are several ideas in Morgan’s analysis of the ‘Judaic Wall’ that could berelevant for my own research as well. What I have been thinking about here are the calligraphic works artfully rendering verses from the Quran I have seen displayed in the houses of Nigerian Muslim friends, the inscriptions modelled in mud documented in Friedrich Schwerdtfeger’s discussion of wall decoration in Zaria as well as the calligraphic stickers I have occasionally seen on cars. (cf. here for a flicker image of a sticker of the kind I’m thinking about here, although this one is not from Nigeria; the calligraphy works illlustrated here have been photographed in Maiduguri)

While I am pretty sure that the vast majority of the populace in Kano, Maiduguri and Zaria has attended the makaranta allo, i.e. the primary level of Islamic education focusing on Arabic literacy and the memorisation of the Qur’an, it has on the other hand been suggested on more than one occasion that the actual ability of many northern Nigerian Muslims to read and understand Arabic is rather limited. While this is certainly a question I will have to consider further (i.e. verify the actual degree of Arabic literacy in the towns in question), I do believe that the notion of imagetext in the sense that is is employed by Morgan provides great potential for the analysis of these calligraphic works. Let’s reconsider his analysis of the ‘Judaic Wall’: On the one hand, there are the varying layers of ‘meaning’ associated with the owners’ particular regime of visual piety: there is, on one level, the association with synagogues and liturgical objects such as the lamps directly pointing towards Jewish religious practice, on another a certain, for lack of a better term, talismanic dimension. On the other hand, there is a rather (and once again I’m at lack of a more appropriate term) secular layer of meaning that derives from the works association with Judaism that renders them into symbols of a (also secular) Jewish identity. While I was reading his analysis I was wondering whether these two could not provide two ends of a spectrum of significances that might as well be attached to the above mentioned calligraphic works executed in Arabica that can be encountered in northern Nigeria: the religious dimension directly derived from a literal reading of the text on the end, the secularised association of the imagetext with the religion as basis or aspect of an ethnic identity – not that I am (yet) actually convinced that in particular the latter can be applied to the Nigerian context straightforwardly, rather I wonder whether this might provide a useful model to be further explored and adapted in the process: such, providing for different degrees of Arabic literacy to which extent then these pieces derive their significance for the customer/spectator from his/her reading of the Arabic text, his/her knowledge of which verse has been ‘depicted’ independently of his/her ability to actually read what has been written, or a general association of Arabic writing with Islam. In addition, I believe the analysis of any particular piece needs to take in account the context in which it is encountered, (e.g. public vs. private, individually vs. collectively), the diverse regimes of visual piety different spectators subscribe to as well as their personal involvement with the works (e.g. as an owner, as something that has been given as a present etc.)

An interestingexample of imagetext conceptually corresponding to some works I have encountered in the academic context is a work by Serigne Gueye Morgan discusses: a reverse-glass painting of the Senegalese sheikh Amadou Bamba ‘transfigured into Arabic script.’ (p. 67, image source: Passport to Paradise hosted by the Fowler Museum at UCLA) The text, Morgan explains

… consists of praises of Allah, thus transforming what one sees into a devotional reading, implying, perhaps, that the body of the saint is the Word of God as well as a kind of visual presence, since the devout viewer of the image is also the reader of the text and worshipper of God. … Although the devout Mouride cannot see and read simultaneously – since the markings are either word or image, but not both at the same time – it is the proximity of form and content, word and image, Word and body, that the imagetext enables, suggesting inimitably the proximity of the saint and his living praise of Allah. The intermingling of the sheikh’s form and the Arabic text suggests that life and his Mouride follower’s veneration of him are conjoint acts of veneration of Allah. (p. 67-68)

Now, I have not come across such a calligram outside the academic context where, I suspect, it reflects a rather recent development and maybe a conscious engagement of artists with their identity as Muslim artists. But I do think that this example clearly illustrates the cultural embeddedness of imagetexts as well as regimes of visual piety: Such, while it is certainly possible to the cultural outsider to discern a face in the above depicted calligram, it requires familiarity with canonical depictions of the sheikh to identify the portrait as that of Amadou Bamba. And while, as Morgan indicates and Mary Nooter Roberts & Allen F. Roberts have documented in greater detail, Senegal’s Mouride culture is characterised by well expressed notions of visual piety in which images of sheikhs, in particular Sheikh Amadou Bamba, play a prominent role, it appears doubtful whether any conclusions drawn from this example can be generalised and/or directly applied to the northern Nigerian context. While I am not yet sure how to conceptualise a or, more likely, an existing variety of regimes of visual piety as they certainly exist in the towns under investigation in my research, I wonder whether the different images indeed imagetexts play as significant a role as Roberts & Roberts’ research of Mouride visual piety suggests.

But, while I once again have to admit to a question I cannot (yet) answer – partly because I didn’t know how to ask the right questions and the general distrust towards me as the outsider (non-Nigerian, non-Muslim) that the local socio- and religio-political climate appears to encourage – just while I was writing this I have had an idea of how to go about this question when (hopefully soon) I am back in Nigeria. > Yippy! <


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