This Is What Hatred Did

By Cristina de Middel
Including the full text of My Life in the Bush of Ghosts by Amos Tutuola (1954)
Archive of Modern Conflict 2015

Reviewed by Leo Hsu

Issue 86
 

When you hear or read a ghost story, what do the spirits look like to you?   How do they smell, how do they move through the world, and what do they want?  How are they like and not like an earthly person?  The very notion of spirits presents a challenge to the values and stability of our earthly world; the spirit world necessarily resembles or mirrors our own, but is imagined as a place that cannot be navigated safely using the kinds of judgments to which we are accustomed.

  from  This Is What Hatred Did  © Cristina de Middel

from This Is What Hatred Did © Cristina de Middel

Cristina de Middel’s This Is What Hatred Did is a re-imagination, set in contemporary Nigeria, of Amos Tutuola’s 1954 novel My Life in the Bush of Ghosts.  Tutuola’s novel is narrated by a seven year old boy living in 19th century colonial Nigeria who, not understanding “the meaning of ‘bad’ and ‘good’,” is betrayed by his father’s jealous wives and, fleeing slavers, escapes into the forbidden Bush of Ghosts: “I was too young to know that it was a dreadful bush or it was banned to be entered by any earthly person”.  He spends the next thirty years in the spirit world, meeting ghosts of all persuasions and undergoing many transformations, marrying and learning to be a ghost, and eventually returning to the earthly world.

 By the end of the story he has seen a lot of bad and good, and yet the demarcation between the two is, if anything, more ambiguous than it was at the beginning of the book.  We, the readers, are instructed by Tutuola that this adventure is the result of “what hatred did,” – not only the hatred of the jealous wives, but of the hierarchies, institutions and appetites that lead inevitably to abuse, cruelty and fear.  The novel is fantastic and surreal, bringing to my mind The Odyssey, Journey to the West, and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.  It is, however, couched specifically in Tutuola’s view from postwar, and soon to be postcolonial Nigeria onto its colonial past and future as a nation.

  from  This Is What Hatred Did  © Cristina de Middel

from This Is What Hatred Did © Cristina de Middel

De Middel’s photographs describe a Bush of Ghosts that may not be what Tutuola’s reader imagines.  Her photographs are vivid, hard, and elusive but revel in the mystery that they evoke.  Combining constructed images and using props and costumes, sometimes digitally altered, with observational street photography, she presents a world that is instantly recognizable as extraordinary even as the medium is clearly contemporary.   It’s a project of fantastic photographic description that does not seek to deny the earthly world in which it was produced.

The photographs refer to specific episodes in Tutoula’s novel, though the photographs are for the most part descriptive of spirits, people, and locations rather than of unfolding events.  They are slow pictures, full of detail and attention towards texture and surfaces, and they invite the viewer to dwell and wonder, whereas Tutuola’s story asks the reader to accept and proceed.  Where Tutuola’s Bush of Ghosts has the fairy tale quality of foregrounding only the information necessary to his unfolding story, de Middel’s world feels like a complete one; behind this wall, beyond this window, the Bush of Ghosts extends on and on, and as such, is unnerving in a way that Tutuola’s Bush is not. 

  from  This Is What Hatred Did  © Cristina de Middel

from This Is What Hatred Did © Cristina de Middel

It is difficult to know what the ghosts of de Middel’s This Is What Hatred Did want, but their spirit attributes – the characteristics that distinguish them from living people – cannot be ignored.  There is the ghost who uses a boa as a belt, ghosts who celebrate birthday with cake, ghosts with flashing eyes and, anachronistically, television hands.  For the most part we see the ghosts presenting themselves to us.  There are also photographs of the boy narrator of Tutuola’s novel as he makes his way through the ghost world: here is a reference to the spider web that captures him, and here is a reference to the “Methodist Church of the Bush of Ghosts” that struggled to grow its congregation. 

By riffing on the ways that the mystical and supernatural are presented and consumed in popular culture, de Middel extends This Is What Hatred Did beyond My Life in the Bush of Ghosts.  She includes hand-drawn and colored illustrations of web pages describing incidences of black magic, suggesting that magic and the spirit world continue to loom large in some part of a Nigerian popular consciousness.  The book also includes her sketches and drawings of ghosts, so we see a bit of the process made visible, and understand that the project is conceived of as a playful one, despite the demeanor of the ghosts.

  from  This Is What Hatred Did  © Cristina de Middel

from This Is What Hatred Did © Cristina de Middel

De Middel’s Bush of Ghosts feels like a place that one could visit, and it is: the photographs were made in Makoko, the “Venice of Africa” a floating village, population unknown, but possibly as high as 100,000, resting on stilts and plastic barrels in Lagos Lagoon on the Nigerian coast.  De Middel describes it as “a floating slum with its own rules, commanded by Kings and community leaders. A place where no logic seems to prevail and that is equally forbidden for those who do not belong.”  Makoko, in its organic, yet unlikely over-water sprawl has been photographed by both lifelong residents and visitors and tourists.  De Middel came to photograph in Makoko when the Lagos Photo Festival, after showing her acclaimed The Afronauts, invited her to stay and produce a project there.

  from  This Is What Hatred Did  © Cristina de Middel

from This Is What Hatred Did © Cristina de Middel

This Is What Hatred Did is an imaginative, visually intriguing response to Tutuola’s novel.  De Middel’s expansions creatively challenge the reader to connect Nigeria’s history and present, giving visual expression to the difficulties of living, of navigating trust, conflict, and power that connect the 19th century Nigeria invoked by Tutuola to contemporary Nigeria and beyond.  It is a challenging book to take on casually, but for the reader who invests in background research it will be rewarding and provocative.

It should be clear at this point that knowledge of the novel My Life in the Bush of Ghosts will greatly enhance a reader’s experience of This Is What Hatred Did, and possibly even is required to make sense of the photographs.  Anticipating this, the novel is included in its entirety, printed at 2 by 4 inches and bound together with the larger book of photographs within a hard cover.  The text flows down into the larger book for the first few pages and then text and images diverge, a nod to the relationship between the two works.  Like the Bush of Ghosts, the effect is disorienting, and when looking at the photographs, you realize that it’s impossible to keep track of your place in the text.  (The small edition of the novel is hard to read.  You may want to just get a hold of the novel to read on its own.)  This idea of parallel narratives, a relationship between image and text that is necessary but unstable, also mirrors the relationship between the earthly world and the Bush of Ghosts.

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Leo Hsu is a photographer and writer based in Toronto and Pittsburgh.
Contact Leo here.