In October 2022, Nikyatu Jusu’s debut feature film, Nanny premiered at the 66th London Film Festival. Telling the story of Aisha, a Senegalese immigrant trying to bring her son to America, Nanny joins the ranks of visual media like His House (2020) and Juju Stories (2021), filled with cultural imagery of continental and diasporic experiences. This spotlight on African stories contributes to the nuanced storytelling of the Black horror renaissance and the stories therein.
The fusion of horror and social consciousness in the past few years is in large part due to the success of American comedian and filmmaker Jordan Peele. The reckoning with race in Get Out (2017) has helped in the dissemination of ‘elevated films’ - a term Peele himself rejects - and lends itself to the thematic stories told of Africa and the diaspora. However, to Scholar and Educator, Dr. Robin R. Means Coleman, the awareness of more recent Black horror cinema is synonymous with what the genre has always sent out to do. Horror, she notes ‘has something to say about religion, science, foreigners, sexualities, power and control, class, gender roles, sources of evil, an ideal society, democracy’.1 A nuanced conversation should focus on horror as a vehicle of learning and its evolution from past to present across art forms.
In the film Nanny, Aisha is nanny to the daughter of a wealthy white couple, all the while longing for her own child, Lamine. Whilst playing the role of a nanny, she is plagued by figures of Western African lore that force her to reckon with her reality. There’s Mami Wata, a deity and water spirit akin to a siren, with an alluring presence always drawing people in and Anansi, a trickster spirit characterised by his cunningness and wit making it hard to discern what truth is. The preservation of these figures, largely through folktales, takes shape across generations and cultural landscapes. The horrors of colonialism mean cultural practices are often oversimplified and taken out of their context. Anansi, for instance, is ‘a story from her [Aisha’s] own past and culture, not your typical Western twinkle-twinkle little star,’ says Caroline B. Scott, the film’s set decorator. In the film, Anansi is introduced as a bedtime story filled with pictures for children. As a result, his magnitude is watered down to a palatable and digestible tale to lure children to sleep, effectively diminishing his power.
Similarly, the exploration Mami Wata is testament to Jusu’s narrative. Mami Wata becomes less ominous when we understand the enormity of her being. This is depicted in the film’s inclusion of Wangechi Mutu’s painting, Killing You Softly. Mutu’s work is best described as a layered exploration of femininity and an attempt to ‘subvert colonial preconceptions.’ The collaged piece shows her connected to the surface as well as the depths of what lies underneath. The featured artwork sits in the home of Kathleen (Leslie Uggams), who guides Aisha’s understanding of spirituality and ultimately serves as a key figure in demystifying the other. Of this, set decorator Scott says, ‘Mami Wata was a large part of Kathleen’s home because she is the heart of Aisha’s spiritual journey, almost watching over her as Mami Wata was.’ Nikyatu Jusu does justice to these deities, by using art works as learning devices. The textured piece becomes not only a moment of homecoming but marks a pivotal point in countering the other. Mami Wata becomes a symbol of healing and rebirth, and Anansi becomes a reference for resilience. Jusu uses multiple art forms of film, literature and collaging as the cultural signifiers of learning for Aisha and to draw her back home. Horror as depicted by Nigerian art does the same thing.
Coleman’s 2019 documentary, Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror charts the history of Blackness and horror in film. The documentary a bulk of the legacy of horror as seen in American movies were functional spaces in ‘launching blackness as the monstrous other’. The process of othering relies on the subjugation of a subordinate ‘other’ to establish a dominant ‘Other,’ whereby these groups are defined in relation to each other. Exemplified in Carrie Mae Weems’ photo series, From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried, othering refers to ‘the ways in which Anglo America—white America—saw itself in relationship to the Black subject.’
As learnt behaviour, othering continues to thrive in the absence of colonial rule and gives insight to horror as a mirror and how it manifests in Nigeria. Nollywood was and continues to be instrumental in reflecting a for us by us visual experience. The movies familiar to most of us growing up are riddled with horror tropes often expressed through religion and spirituality as well as iterations of the seven deadly sins. Horror in Nollywood was full of cautionary tales and moral behaviours to emulate in order to gain salvation. Egg of Life (2003) comes to mind among more recent revivals of Living in Bondage (1992 & 2019) and Nneka the Pretty Serpent (1994 & 2020). Film then is an example of art as an informative medium. Across photography and mixed media are other instances of how art teaches and preserves moments of moral education in Nigerian society.
The late Ben Osaghae painted Target Practice in 2011. Of this he said, ‘this painting captures the outrageous excesses of some authoritarian governments that seem to derive a strange, barbaric pleasure from shooting, by firing squads, armed robbers and others branded as 'enemies of the state'. The horror of it all is the invitation of the public by the authorities to watch the blood-curdling scenes.’2 Less than a decade later, on October 20th, 2020, the Nigerian government opened fire on its own citizens during the EndSars protests. Othering operates as a dyad. It requires the oppression of one to establish itself and employs methods of stereotyping and arbitrary rules of identity that differentiate one group from the other. Horror lends itself as a tool for learning ‘as a way to address those traumas’.3 If history repeats itself, and we’re to glean important lessons from what has come before, then the learning process must encompass the different ways to heed these warnings. Using art and horror to teach means thinking beyond existing frameworks and considering how ‘classroom settings can be transformed so the learning experience is inclusive’4. Beyond the gates of academia, horror as and in art demonstrates this and shows how the landscape is constantly in development.
Horror coexists with art as spectacle-making. It calls on an audience to view and thereafter form a personal understanding of works and the contexts in which they were created. The boundaries of education in Nigeria, particularly in and through art practices connect one moment of time to the other. If horror is a mirror, it is a reflection of Nigeria’s political landscape, its authoritarian rulers and the eventual presidency of Goodluck Johnathon. Johnathan was instrumental in passing the Same Sex Marriage Prohibition Act (SSMPA), a legal tool for violence against queer people in the country. The basis of this discrimination as sinful, non-traditional and unAfrican is key in the profiling of Nigerian citizens by SARS police officers. In the art-life dichotomy then, the relationship is a circle with both constantly influencing and informing each other as seen in Yagazie Emezi’s 2020 photo series documenting the EndSars protests.
EndSars garnered global attention. Beyond diaspora wars, continental and diasporic experiences communicate that our struggles are related and oppression does not act in a vacuum. State sanctioned murder was documented in real time despite failed attempts to deny and gaslight the public into thinking otherwise. The art borne of the protests have since become pinnacles of learning - educating a national and international audience on the annals of police brutality and the political current that funds this.Yagazie Emezi’s documented photos give visibility to struggle using ‘photography and sculpture to construct visual critiques of Nigeria's socio-political state and the roles media play in it, pulling from history and current events.’
In the midst of a global pandemic and extreme state violence, Emezi’s photos can be seen as tools that document and communicate the horrors of authorised violence as a catalyst for learning. The response to EndSars can also be found in history. Osaghae’s In Brotherhood We Stand features figures in mourning 'positioned with their heads bowed down and crouched knees’5. This continuous theme of violence and corruption is testament to the horrors of othering and how art continues to document its legacy in colonial and imperial rule. The impact of art has been trivialised, particularly as a product of frivolous activities in Nigerian culture, but it is these similar uses of art that have served as the bedrock of movements, learning and community. The largely youth-led EndSars protests were a moment of generational connection between older and younger Nigerians citing the violence of the Biafran War. The lingering effects of colonialism and strict religious practices equate respect and tradition with quiet servitude. Emezi’s series work in tandem with Osaghae’s paintings to show the audaciousness of art and how the energy of moments like this cannot be erased. After all, as much as Buhari has been a bad boy, who are those around him that encouraged him to be?
The relationship between art, culture and horror is collaborative. In the way light cannot exist without dark - these topics all exist because they’re tethered to each other. The interaction of these multiple art forms - film, photography, painting - in one space, indicates a wider connection between the genre and the mediums it embodies and shows how art contributes to the reclamation and reframing of cultural narratives.
Means Coleman, R.R. (2022). Horror Noire: A History of Black American Horror from the 1890s to Present (2nd ed.). Routledge.
Osaghae, B. (2011), Target Practice unframed [Oil and acrylic on canvas]. Bonhams, London
University of Leeds (2023) The power of horror. https://www.leeds.ac.uk/news-alumni/news/article/5441/the-power-of-horror (Accessed: December 1, 2023).
hooks, bell (1994), Teaching to Transgress: Educations as the Practice of Freedom (p.35)
Osaghae, B. (2000), In Brotherhood We Stand [Oil on canvas]. Sothebys, London