Arts & Design

Documentary Photographer Unearths Identity, Stories in ‘Kwalliya’ 

On the heels of Kwalliya (meaning adornment)- a solo exhibition project by a freelance documentary photographer, researcher and archivist, Halima Abubakar explores cultural identity and gender bias in a conversation with Yinka Olatunbosun.

A view of the exhibition hall at the opening


Halima Abubakar rocked her baby back and forth as the conversation started in the exhibition hall of the Jelosimi Art Centre, Oshodi where her solo show titled ‘Kwalliya’ took place. The Kaduna-based archivist who currently serves as the artistic director and curator for the 19th Emir of Zazzazu set the show against the backdrop of her quest to interrogate history and cultural identities embedded in marks and symbols.
With childhood years in Lagos, Abubakar proceeded to study mechanical engineering at Bayero University, Kano. Beyond learning about machines and efficiency, she wanted to tell unique stories through the lens.

As a child, I have always tilted to the arts,’’ she began. “I remember that anytime my dad travelled, he gifted me a camera and I always liked being behind the camera and not in front of it. I have always been intrigued by lines and patterns. I remember that my dad has tribal marks on his head and his father did too. And then some of his friends and siblings had. Some don’t. I was curious. I just wanted to know why they have the marks,’’ she said.

In Lagos, she encountered many Yoruba tribal marks and wondered why one differs from the other.
“I wanted to understand. I started to ask questions but I wasn’t getting the answers that I needed. I had an adventurous friend who was also curious about the marks. She gave me a 10koko coin to rub on my forehead and I did. When I got home and my mother saw the mark, she was furious. But that made the curiosity grow further and it stayed with me for a long time.”
She knew she had to probe further. She delved into photography after her graduation from the university. During her service year, she worked with her uncle’s firm and was encouraged to take up photography. During her work travels, she would take lots of picture.
“That was when I started exploring tribal marks,’’ she continued. “I went to Kebbi and Sokoto and several museums. I was researching trying to understand it. Through the journeys, I met people who had tribal marks and I spoke with them. I also spoke with the people who give the marks and asked them a series of questions. I saw the tools they use to give the marks. I found out that marks were just a little portion of their job description and that research was becoming too big for me to handle all alone.”
Her grandmother had some marks that are historical references. As she grew closer to her, she began to probe the stories the marks tell.
“I didn’t have a good relationship with my grandmother initially. Due to cultural restrictions, she doesn’t call my father by name. Till she died, she didn’t call him by his name. when we went to visit her, she wouldn’t look at us in the face. I had the impression that she didn’t like us. After complaining to my father about her attitude, she began to respond better to our greetings. I tried to develop a relationship with her, as the fourth granddaughter and started documenting her marks. For her, the marks were some form of adornment.”
Abubakar later discovered that her grandmother wrote the names of her friends with the marks on her arms- in some cases, with dates.

She wrote the name of the love of her life on arm. The marks were untold stories of her life. When I wasn’t asking her the meaning of the words on her hand, she didn’t tell me. Most of the marks are aspects of their personalities so they lived the stories the marks told.”

From facial marks to Adinkra symbols, Abubakar interrogate identities, memories and rich cultural heritage. In her view, this process needs to be documented and preserved for future generations.


Halima Abubakar

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