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"Against History? A Nimo-Born Architecture of Umu Nri (Enugu Ukwu)

Ikem Stanley Okoye


It is surely axiomatic that architecture cannot be subversive. In the senses of its physicality as “buildings” (that is, as objects, artifacts and their spaces) and as the practices of building (that is, the activity, and the cultures of signification circumscribing both), architecture cannot intentionally undermine the ideologies, politics and social orders out from which it is produced. But can architecture be epistemologically subversive? Can one find examples of buildings whose raison d’être projects significant degrees of difficulty to the act of knowing? Finally, what does it mean if these queries are answerable in the affirmative? In this essay, I will explore such questions through a particular southern Nigerian architecture of the 1920s and the early 1930s. Specifically, I will seek to understand how in Africa, in the 19th and 20th centuries, a set of buildings has done precisely this. Through them, we are able to see how knowledge and interpretation are circumscribed in difficult ways. I will argue that architecture may be subversive to the extent that particular kinds of encounter between a building and a person viewing it may resist historical interpretation. I will show that some kinds of building were produced to confront its users and viewers with historiographic difficulty. It is a difficulty, to which fell prey both the late 20 th century popular communal knowledge of people in the buildings’ locale (in this instance the town of Enugu Ukwu in the Igbo speaking area of southern eastern Nigeria), and the deliberate knowledge of the scholar (in this case Donald Cosentino and his editor, Susan Vogel).

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Ijele: Art eJournal of the African World. ISSN: 1530-5686 (online).
Editor: Nkiru Nzegwu; Film Review Editor: Phyllis J. Jackson; Exhibition/Curator & Book Review Editor: Azuka Nzegwu

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