By Ishion Hutchinson
That the sea makes us think of eternity is commonplace. Photographs of the sea arrest and at the same time transfigure that commonplace, when successful. Such photographs are a kind of ecstasy. They are what Henri Cartier-Bresson said photography “could reach”: “eternity through the moment.”(1) Cartier-Bresson made this comment in 1932 upon seeing an image of frothing waves taken in 1930 by Hungarian photographer Martin Munkácsi at Lake Tanganyika in Liberia. Something else besides the crystalline burst of the surf shook Cartier-Bresson into his epiphany: Munkácsi’s photograph depicts three black boys rushing into the ripples, their backs toward us. Naked as their bodies is their elation, which marked Cartier-Bresson and, subsequently, marked the history of photography. Such is history. Black bodies, speculated upon, revivify what time and convention have frozen. In the case of photography, the camera brings the natural life of time back into what is thought of as timeless. The meeting of black bodies with crashing waters in Munkácsi’s photograph sees what might have remained a commonplace eternity transformed into Cartier-Bresson's suggestion of a moment’s eternity, the far reach of which is the sublime.
I can see – and I can “hear” – the elation of these long-ago boys in Akinbode Akinbiyi’s series, Sea Never Dry (1980-present). No bodies rush towards the sea in Akinbiyi’s photographs taken at Bar Beach in Lagos, Nigeria, yet their elation is there, embedded via different registers of photographic techniques: light, shadows, angles. And it is there too – even more vigorously – in the ways Akinbiyi captures black bodies on the move. Digressive yet determined, the artist’s bodies are always in stride – stride, in fact, is the Akinbiyi visual master stroke (he too is a great walker). Each step reminds us of a compass, parting and measuring the world, or worlds, for we sense in the enunciative clarity of his photographs that these bodies, striding in their routine going about, inhabit two or more realms at once. We can’t say how because Akinbiyi’s images refuse direct illustration; scenes of praying and makeshift altars in the sand, though powerful, are few. This refusal magnifies a certain sense of the numinous as inseparable from the everyday. The numinous is the sea, that visible spirit of place present in all of Akinbiyi’s images even when not shown, or when shown only in fade outs.
Though the sea never fades out. It is ruminative and everywhere. It is repeated by the bodies, both in their dress – mostly surplices, white-greyish like the breakers – and more significantly, the sea is repeated in the bodies’ intentness on elsewhere. Even when a figure stands still, he or she appears wavelike. There is always a slight tilt, a fugitive gesture breaking straight lines. We see a hand raised or another motioning; here a head turns aslant, there another bows, acknowledging something outside our view.
One magnificent photograph, Bar Beach, Victoria Island, Lagos (2001), depicts a crowd along the long shoreline in a a panoramic orchestration of these fugitive tilts: our eyes begin in the foreground, where two men stand, one in his resplendent white agbada (robe) and the other dressed more modestly in a white shirt. We then follow the ragged fluidity of bodies in the middle ground, bodies crouching, sitting, bending and striding. We convene in the far end of the image where two high-rises can be seen, poised slightly rakishly and yet elegantly like the men at the beginning. The high-rises strike a note of indistinct translucency. They appear as clear as they are blurred, charged with an evanescence which asks us to wonder whether they are foreboding or benign. Are they hotels or apartments? Is trouble passing them by, or are they occasioning it? It is hard to say and therein is the true tension of this photograph and others of the series: a downbeat of ambivalence, a conditional tense, which comes through because of Akinbiyi’s harmonic eye.
Ambivalence is not neutrality. Translucency is not transparency. It is a wisdom of seeing less the eternity through the moment and more the impossible “could” inherent in creating such a moment. Akinbiyi took these photographs, starting in the 1980s, under incredible stress. The heat. The crowd. Imagine the glare, the sweat. The sea relentless with wind. We can imagine other beach noises – of vendors, from stereos and stray animals. We can imagine too tempers flared, some directed at a photographer like Akinbiyi with his bulky medium-format analog camera. Yes, Akinbiyi was a black body and Nigerian photographing other black bodies and Nigerians, which meant, contrary to popular belief, he could never have been surreptitious or hidden. Over the decades of photographing Bar Beach, he would have had to be as exposed and vulnerable to his subjects as they were to him. His patience must have been tested. Yet, only an immense patience could see and capture in the Sea Never Dry series – in which, with two exceptions, we see only lone figures – the most intimate impossibility of all: quietude.
By quietude I mean what German theologian Albrecht Schönherr said when his friend and professor the great Dietrich Bonhoeffer led seminary meetings on meditation: that “a unifying arch swung from music and play to quietude and prayer.”(2) Quietude, then, is a subtle pendulum of elation. It is an emotion of closeness not often allowed the black body. Seeing it in Akinbiyi’s photographs – and here, again, I mean “hearing” – swung me back to my childhood in Port Antonio, a small coastal port in eastern Jamaica. Every weekend the beaches were a frenzy of bodies. The air thrummed with waves, music and voices. And yet, what I recall, by way of recognition in Akinbiyi’s photographs, is a suspended stillness in the midst of all that joy-making.
Such quietude was not melancholy; it did not counter the weekend’s joy-making. Rather, it anchored something unanticipated and inexpressible to most outsider’s gaze: survival. Not just surviving the middle passage and all its ensuing pain but, most profoundly, how those bodies I was raised with and by bore a collective remaking of losses. The levity of those beach gatherings – so common to the Caribbean, not just at weekends – was weighted by quietude, so each instance felt like a ceremony of remembrance. I have seen that quietude distilled in photographs of Vodoun ceremonies in Haiti, which is only 447 kilometres northeastern of Port Antonio, shot by Sokari Ekine, Akinbiyi’s Nigerian-born contemporary and a self-described modern nomad. Her photographs accurately document Vodoun rituals, their intensity of drumming, singing, dancing and possession. As such, hers are powerfully dramatic images, but what brings us closest into the invisible spirit of place and its survival is the intimacy Ekine quietly cultivates of black bodies, simultaneously at home and intent on elsewhere.
Akinbiyi seizes quietude as his unifying technique in Sea Never Dry. This impossibility, picked up from trawling over countless traces of human movements, becomes his indecisive decisiveness used to still their ineffable moments. With furious devotion – which is what quietude amounts to – Akinbiyi holds perpetual transience before it disappears, forever, into the soundless archive of the sand. Indeed, the supreme depiction of quietude is the sand, visible in its stark lucidity in all his photographs. There it is, grand and roughly hallowed by footprints or otherwise glimpsed in tiny slashes between bodies on a crowded beach day. We read the sand. Imprinted on it is the flotsam of modern life – rubber slippers, plastic bottles and tin cans – echoing, without irony, the makeshift altar of plastic jugs, white candles and calabash gourds laid in front of a woman prostrated towards the sea. These juxtapositions – alterity objects and a religious devotee’s relics casually installed – communicate not so much the difference between the sacred and the profane, but the fine line between past and fate. That between the one and the other exists a speck – a single, multitudinous grain of sand – building into a granular database of changing-but-ever-present human experiences. All of this Akinbiyi, with his camera, makes into immutable memory.
Beyond that, Akinbiyi’s genius is for photographing, with a loving radiance, the conditional. He shows us the “what could” of things seen. These pictures reveal to us journeys of myriad hope and futility to come. Bodies will be gone, too, like the joy of rushing towards the sea but, as in Akinbiyi’s photographic immersion, they’ll leave behind more than a single footprint melting into the wet sand. A single footprint is a kind of Crusoe-an mythmaking, a solitude nearing isolationism over which Akinbiyi triumphs. He works his way into the crowd so he can deepen the substance and spirit of a place and its people, and in so doing, arrives at artistic glory. Akinbiyi’s images “sing / tongue-tied without name or audience,”(3) as his countryman Christopher Okigbo once wrote, “making harmony among the branches”(4). Akinbiyi lifts his camera in praise of the sand, the sea, and above all, the solitary selves that people his vision.
Akinbode Akinbiyi's series Sea Never Dry was shown in the exhibition Akinbode Akinbiyi: Six Songs, Swirling Gracefully in the Taut Air at Gropius Bau from 7 February to 19 July 2020.
Ishion Hutchinson was born in Port Antonio, Jamaica. He is the author of two poetry collections: Far District and House of Lords and Commons. He is the recipient of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry, a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Joseph Brodsky Rome Prize, the Whiting Writers Award, the PEN/Joyce Osterweil Award, the Windham-Campbell Prize for Poetry and the American Academy of Arts and Letters Award in Literature, among others. He is a contributing editor to the literary journals The Common and Tongue: A Journal of Writing & Art and directs the graduate creative writing program at Cornell University.
1. Henri Cartier-Bresson, Scrapbook: Photographs, 1932–1946 (London: Thames & Hudson, 2007), 45.
2. Albrecht Schönherr, “The Single-Heartedness of the Provoked”, in Wolf-Dieter Zimmermann and Ronald Gregor Smith, eds., I Knew Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Reminiscences by his Friends (London: Collins, 1966), 126-129.
3. Christopher Okigbo, Collected Poems (Portsmouth: Heinemann Educational Books, 1986), 41.