Philips Akwari is a documentary photographer, well-known for his photography series, ‘The Rich Abiriba Heritage.’ They have been exhibited across Nigeria and showcase the cultural wealth of one of Nigeria’s south eastern communities. He was in Abuja recently for an edition of the exhibition, at the Thought Pyramid Art Centre, where he spoke about his works.
A most common narrative of the Abriba people in Nigeria’s south eastern state, Abia, is that they are business people across the world. Beyond this and in a bid to also correct misconceptions about them, a son of the soil, Philips Akwari took to photographing their rich cultural heritage.
He did so by capturing various tangible and intangible aspects of the people’s life and culture.
He photographed ‘Igba nnunnu’ (Bird hunting) which is a rite of passage for Abiriba boys and ‘Igba Ekpe’ (Ekpe celebration), a celebration which is used by young boys to indicate interest that they want to form an age grade.
He also captured ‘Uche Oba’ (Guarding the yam barn) and ‘Izara Efa’ (name taking), a ceremony which shows that the community has accepted the proposal of forming an age grade and wants to give them a name. That day, a name is pronounced on them from a retired age grade.
Another were series of pictures were of the ‘Igwa Mang’ ceremony (Thanksgiving) to the gods for saving the members of the celebrating age grade from death, during the times they went to fight to guard the community.
There was also ‘Uche’ (retirement ceremony) after which the celebrant is not expected to engage in any communal work again and ‘Iri ama’ (the feast at the big square) which is the New Year in the Abiriba calendar, around July.
He also showcased ‘Ibu Mmanyi’ (wine carrying) the Abriba traditional marriage ceremony and ‘Imesa ife,’ which shows the carrying of gifts by the groom’s family to the bride. There was also ‘Ima nzu’ (white chalk or now replaced with talcum powder) a way a bride welcomes the groom on their wedding day.
The artist also exhibited ‘Ibu Ulo’ which signifies the furnishing of the bride’s new home by her parents and ‘Ekpe Ekoro’ which is the remembrance of the warriors the Abiriba people sent to defeat the Ibibio marauders who used to harass the Aro people.
Akwari’s childhood in his hometown, Agbouka Udanta, shaped his understanding of the local culture as he had his early education within the community and participated in the traditional ceremonies.
The artist in an interview with ‘Daily Trust on Sunday,’ said the exhibition is in line with the original idea he had, about telling the Abiriba story.
Akwari who reflects on Chinua Achebe’s words that, ‘if you don’t tell your stories other people will tell it for you,’ said, “Our story has been mischievously thwarted to suit certain narratives.
“For instance, I asked someone in Lagos what she knows about the Abiriba people. She said we eat human beings. We were never cannibals but warriors.”
He explained that, security concerns in the slave trade era forced Abriba communities to device means to protect their territories. Young men had to prove themselves by joining age grades, to war. They were expected to return with the heads of their rivals and an abomination to return with the heads of women and children. This was proof of military might.
“There are many other misleading stories that are told about us which even our own children are believing these days so I felt it’s important to put the records straight by embarking on this venture,” he said.
His decision to start photographing Abiriba’s heritage was in 2007, when he completed his Masters programme in Geography. “I worked in a travel and tours company which made me see the need to document our culture.
“In 2011, I left my job and travelled to India to hone my photography skills. Once I returned in 2013, I started documenting the culture.
In the photo ‘Ina Ndi’, the man is traditionally dressed and has a crucifix drawn across his body with a bell on his waist. On whether this was a mix of religions and practices, Akwari said, it was simply a matter of style.
He said, “Some may choose to use ten fingers to paste on their chest, depending on what suits them. The bell announces the person’s arrival to his hosts. ‘Ina ndi’ is a way the Abiriba people showed their children who their relatives are. During the ‘Iri ama’ celebration they sent them to their relatives’ with basins on their head.
“The relations gifted them with ‘Ndi’ (yam) and other things, including money. The most important thing is that the child grew knowing that such people were relatives or friends. In the future, they would know enough, not to fall in love in such families. They also sought or rendered assistance to such people.”
There were photographs which captured the ‘Igwa Mang’ ceremony and costumes showing the tradesmanship of the peopIe, dating back centuries.
Shedding light on this, Akwari said, the people traded along the Calabar, Itu and other coasts. They were known as ‘Nde mbamini.’ Some others traded along railway lines and were known as Nde Bende.
“Every Abiriba man belongs to either of the trading houses, irrespective of where they sojourn. However, in the contemporary time, Abiriba people live all over the world. Those who live in the US and Canada use the American flag, those in Germany use the German flag,” he explained. This has transcended from tradition to “swag or show off.”
Another series of photos which engaged guests were the ‘Uche Oba’ pieces, showing characters in jute-looking costumes, charcoal painted faces with leaves and other accessories. The images were representative of how the people fought wars against their enemies by starving them, through the attack of their bank – the ‘oba’ (yam barn).
Back in the day, the richness of a man’s barn was the measure of his wealth.
Akwari also said, young men who indicated interest to form an age grade, were usually first assigned to guard the yam barns. They stayed long in the bush to the extent that their clothes became tattered and they very dirty and weak by the time they returned home.
In ‘Ibu Mmanyi’ a woman applies ‘nzu’ (chalk, a peace symbol) on the arm of a man.
A sign of acceptance into a house in Igboland was by the offer of ‘nzu.’ For Abiriba weddings, there is an ‘Ima nzu’ tradition where the bride marks the hand of the groom with ‘nzu’ in the presence of his friends. The friends would ask her questions like, how many children they would have and her response would be by marking his arms with ‘nzu’. No words are uttered.
While this is also meant to entertain, it is a very important part of the wedding ceremony. Akwri added that, historically, the ‘nzu’ among the Abiribas, also stipulates that one who receives it has to be of good behaviour throughout his stay in the community. If the person commits any crime, when apprehended, he would be asked where he received the ‘nzu’ on his wrist. When he mentioned the family, he would be taken there and the family would take responsibility for his crimes.
Another curious photograph was ‘esusu,’ which contrary to popular belief that it is traditional money saving system, is the staple food of the Abiriba people. “It is prepared with corn and wrapped with special leaves that are found in Abiriba and eaten with vegetable soup,” Akwari said.
The artist hopes that his works will expose the Abiriba people more and also educate the world about who they really are.