'Portraits' of Sheikh Usman dan Fodio
When I flicked through the papers this morning – online, if you must know – I came across an article in the Daily Trust that extolls the virtues Usman dan Fodio and his generation of northern Nigerian political leaders. It sets them up as good examples of leadership and argues that current President of Nigeria Muhammad Buhari should take inspiration from them to solve the current crisis of leadership in his government.
Now, I don't want to get into political arguments here. I only mention this article – here, in a space that I said I'd use to organise my thoughts for my art historical writing – because it was illustrated by a photograph of a smiling elderly man. The caption underneath the photograph identifies the man in the picture as 'Shaikh Usumanu Danfodio'. Now, the founder of the Sokoto caliphate may not have been the only Sheikh named Usman (or Osman or Usumanu) in the family. However, the article makes it pretty clear that it is him that the author is concerned with. This makes it likely that the photograph has been included to illustrate that very Usman dan Fodio who in the early 19th century waged war against the established ruling dynasties in Hausaland, conquered most of what is now northern Nigeria and founded the Sokoto Caliphate.
Riding my art historian's hobby horse, I am currently more interested in this photograph than in the arguments of the article's author. I know, I know. I may have my priorities wrong here but, hey, this is what this space is about: thinking about visual culture in Nigeria and in particular the country's north. So, bear with me. I'll do engage with the politics of all of that later. And, I am afraid, in a different space.
|(source: Daily Trust, 22 October 2016)|
Now, this is not the first time I have seen purported photographs of the Sheikh Usman dan Fodio illustrating articles that I read online. And, indeed this is not the only photograph I have seen used in this context. In addition to the photographs there are a number of drawings. Now, I still would like to know what these artist's impressions of the Sheikh are based upon, since I am not aware of any published record of an artist or artistically inclined traveller visiting what is now northern Nigeria during the lifetime of the dan Fodio. But, please, do correct me if I am wrong. Clapperton visited Sokoto in 1824. If I remember correctly, dan Fodio died in 1817. So, they wouldn't have met.
|(source: Perspektif Jernih)|
There is a portrait of Muhammad Bello circulating on the internet, though, that has been attributed to Clapperton. Among others, it illustrated an article about Sheikh Muhammad al-Amin al-Kanemi of Borno's letters to Sultan Muhammad Bello in Leadership. And, then there is the iconic portrait of Sheikh Muhammad al-Amin al-Kanemi that originates in Denham-Dixon's writings about his travels with Clapperton and that has been reproduced and adapted widely -– so widely indeed that one of the artists that I spoke with in Maiduguri and who had produced a portrait of al-Kanemi for one of the local hotels wasn't aware of the image's origin in Denham's book.
|(source: Sakkwatanci Blogspot, also cf. Leadership)|
Anyway, as you can tell, I'm rather fascinated by this and other portraits of Usman dan Fodio. I am reminded of Allen F. Roberts' and Mary Nooter-Roberts' (2008) discussion (paywall) of a portrait photograph that had been identified as picture of 'the Prophet as a boy'. The photograph was originally taken by Rudolph Lehnert between 1904 and 1906 in Tunis. In 1914 it was published in National Geographic and illustrated an article by Frank Johnson entitled 'Here and There in Northern Africa.' In the 1920s and 1930s the picture circulated widely as a postcard with the caption 'Mohamed'. From there, Micheline Centlivres-Demont and Pierre Centlivres (open access) have traced the image's trajectory to Iran where it acquired new significances. The portrait of the Tunisian boy 'Mohamed' was reinvented as a portrait of the adolescent Prophet Muhammad. The picture was adapted to its new significance. In particular Iranian artists toned down the sexual overtones of Lehnert's original photograph.
|Rudolph Lehnert (c. 1904): Arab Youth, 'Mohamed' (source: Wikipedia)|
The image also acquired a new 'biography'. Centlivres and Centlivres-Demont (2006: 19) reported that in one of its reincarnations the caption read
'Blessed portrait of the Venerated Muhammad at the age of eighteen during a journey from Mecca to Damascus when he accompanied his venerated uncle on a trade expedition, Portrait due to the paintbrush of a Christian priest, the original painting is in a museum in Rum [Byzantine Empire].'
They have suggested that 'Christian origin and not an Islamic …exculpates the Muslim from non-observance of the image prohibition and from the sacrilege of representing the Prophet.' Meanwhile Roberts and Nooter-Roberts have argued that this biography suggested parallels with the 'biographies' of two pictures of the Christian Prophet Jesus.
The first concerns a portrait painting of the infant Jesus with his mother Mary that, it is said, was painted by the apostle Luke, perhaps while angels guided his hand – not unlike the role played by the 'Christian priest' in the origin story of the picture of 'the Prophet as a boy'.
The second story concerns the Mandylion of Edessa, a 'God-made image' that, according to its legend, had been created without the intervention of an artist. Instead, Jesus himself had 'created it' when he pressed his face into a cloth. The image was not recorded until the 6th century AD – again, a parallel with the biography of the portrait of the young Prophet Muhammad. These parallels are interesting in and of themselves.
Roberts and Nooter-Roberts, however, suggest a third, even more significant parallel: Just as Christians in the 6th century 'found a way to realize their "will to image figuratively – and even anthropomorphically" … through the "discovery" of the Mandylion,' so have the Iranian artists 'met their devotional needs in recognising "the Prophet as a boy" in the haunting features' of Lehnert's photograph of the Tunisian boy Mohamed. The story of the 'Christian priest' (possibly a reference to the monk Bahira who is said to have met the young Muhammad and recognised his prophethood), they argue, may just have provided 'enough intellectual "purchase" … that it becomes possible to ascribe to the monk this Luke-alike portrait.'
Now, of course, the 'portrait' of Sheikh Usman dan Fodio that illustrated the article in the Daily Trust that I came upon this morning is not a religious image in the way that the images are that Roberts and Nooter-Roberts write about. Whatever the significance of the Sheikh for the history and contemporary conceptualisations of Northern Nigeria, his is not a devotional image. Even less so in the context of the Daily Trust article.
|(source: Old Naija Wordpress)|
Still, there appear to me to be parallels worth exploring – by me if I find the time or by somebody else: Unlike Jesus or Muhammad, Sheikh Usman dan Fodio was no prophet – nor did he claim to be (although there was a claim, if I remember correctly and I'm not sure whether it was contemporary, that he may have been the Mahdi, a role almost as important as that of a prophet). He was, however, something of a founding father for Northern Nigeria and in that sense features prominently not only in historical accounts of the region but also in arguments about religion, politics and culture.
The United States have rather colossally realized their 'will to imagine figuratively – even anthropomorphically' their founding fathers in Mount Rushmore. Here in Berlin, a sculpture of Frederick the Great sat astride his horse stands prominently at the centre of the road that used to lead from the Brandenburg Gate towards the palace (the old Stadtschloss that was severely damaged in World War II and then torn down), in other words Berlin's equivalent of The Mall in London. Frederick the Great is something of a founding father in my part of Germany (Berlin used to be the capital of Prussia). Even the ideological founding fathers of the GDR, Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, are still publicly commemorated (is that the right word, I wonder) in prominent place at Alexander Platz.
I think what I am trying to get it is this. – There seems to be a desire for figurative and anthropomorphic images of founding fathers (and indeed other prominent historical figures) in nation states that is not at all unlike the desire of (some) religions and believers to imagine figuratively and anthropomorphically their prophets and, indeed, other historical religious leaders. I am sure someone has published a book or, indeed, books about this and I may follow that up if I ever feel inclined (and have the time) to pursue this line of inquiry any further. However, right now, I am just putting this out there as a question:
Might there not a similar 'will to imagine figuratively' the founding father of Northern Nigeria, Sheikh Usman dan Fodio, at work here that motivates not only the portrait drawings that I have mentioned above but also the 'reinvention' of suitable historical photographs?
|(source: Altanta Blackstar)|
So, in a nutshell: I'm rather fascinated by these portraits of Sheikh Usman dan Fodio, their trajectories, that I still don't know anything about, and the reasons why people would imagine them or reinvent existing photographs as portraits of dan Fodio. And, actually, what do people actually make of them? Hence, dear reader(s?), if you happen to know anything about the history of any of these images – or, indeed, know that I am wrong and there was a portraitist or photographer who took a picture of the Sheikh during his lifetime, do let me know! As I said, I'm rather fascinated but to occupied otherwise to delve into this myself right now.
Edited 30 June 2017: formatting adjusted for new blog design; used opportunity to correct date of Usman dan Fodio's death from 1917 to 1817, excuse the typo.