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A Letter from... Nigeria

A Saga of Synchronicity (Part II)
Making a Film Documentary on African Ceramics
by Ron du Bois, Professor Emeritus of Art, Oklahoma State University

In 2002, fifteen years later, I was able to complete three film/video documentaries on the women potters in the city of Ilorin, Kwara State, Nigeria. One, entitled Yoruba Potters: Mothers and Daughters – Dada Compound, documents the construction of ekoko amu, huge water-storage vessels essential to daily life, especially in rural areas where there is no plumbing. The video now exists in two versions:

  1. The initial 30-minute version, which I financed myself. It was the basis for additional funding by the Ford Foundation and was awarded an Honorable Mention at the film festival, "A Century of Ceramics on Film and Video," Amsterdam, 1999.
  2. An expanded and improved 38-minute version, financed by Fulbright and the Ford Foundation.

A third program, Yoruba Potters: Mothers and Daughters – Ogbena Compound, approximately 35 minutes, documents the production of lidded soup bowls, called isasun, used in rural areas for cooking over an open fire.

The problems of finalizing the Ogbena program were considerable, and stem from my failure to bring home a really good slide of the object itself, i.e., an earthenware lidded soup bowl. That oversight was to cost at least a year of delay, additional worry, and inconvenience for museum personnel here and abroad trying to help with the project. I was unable to obtain good close up photos or to locate a Yoruba lidded soup bowl in any museum collection. As of May 12, 2002, Dr. Afolabi attempted four times to bring one or two isasun to the U.S. Unfortunately, all attempts failed. (As of May 12, 2002, no isasun had been successfully delivered to me in Stillwater. Another attempt is now in progress. )

Both the ekoko amu and the isasun are produced with hand-building skills alone. The entire processes for both are documented in these videos. The Dada Compound video demonstrates and explains the construction of huge ekoko amu, from digging and working the clay to the dramatic "open field" firing of more than a thousand perfectly symmetrical water vessels made without a potter's wheel. The women and girls, ages 5 to 65, work at their profession from dawn to dusk, year-round. Because of rapidly changing conditions in Nigeria – the infatuation with modern technology and plastics – these skills could pass away, victims of Western technology and notions of "progress".

The subject was of intense interest to me, but no funding agency appeared interested in a documentary about black women potters. Over the course of a decade, I wrote applications without success to all agencies suggested by the University Grants Office. Was racism, it occurred to me, a factor in a pattern of disinterest?

Finally, when all chances of funding had failed, I personally financed the production of Dada Compound. The decision to spend my own funds was based on my own intense interest in the subject and my desire to make it available to a larger audience. By chance this coincided with the interest and availability of a writer friend, Dr. Sandra Williams. She understood the technical aspects of video editing and production, had her doctorate in theatre and was an expert in video-script writing. She could transcribe the written word into the spoken word and she rewrote parts of my field notes into effective narration. Every effort was made to economize, and much of her work was voluntary. As the principal investigator and resident expert, I had already completed a great deal of the conceptual and preparatory work.

The video production studio was located in Tulsa, a round trip of 145 miles from Stillwater. The actual outlay mounted to over $5,000 for video production costs and honorarium support for Dr. Williams.

There are likely to be tensions between video production editors and clients on how to select, sequence, and edit the visual material. The young man who worked on Dada Compound, a non-educator and a non-potter, didn't have the same regard for the material as Dr. Williams and I had. He liked a fast sense of tempo, as in commercials. Quick cuts seemed natural to him, but not to me. The ambient sounds of pottery making and village life were musical to me, but video without narration or background music made him uncomfortable. Nevertheless, the video editor's expertise and technical knowledge are critical. The video editor for the revised production contributed significantly to the expressive and visual effectiveness.

Editing sessions are expensive. The objective is to have everything organized so that no time is lost and no money wasted. Yet an editing project seems to develop a life of its own and inevitably requires more time and money than anticipated. Picture material can be edited in an infinite number of ways. The "right" way is subjective. The process requires a sense of visual form as well as of storytelling, in my case, hopefully resulting in a product that would appeal to an audience of potters as well as to specialists in African art. I wanted the material to be presented in such a way that Western potters could, if they so desired, recreate the processes and the objects documented. I felt narration should be authentic, based on a common fund of information understood by students and African arts specialists. The final responsibility rested with me – the only person who had a background in studio ceramics, African art, photography, etc., – and who had no experience in video editing or scriptwriting.

I had gone to Nigeria with the view that the work had to be done by "a single researcher with a camera" who could learn about the culture, the potters and the process, and document them as they were learned. I wanted to use the "indirect method" of the creative process, in which the final result is not known at the outset. It is the only practical method of filming in a situation where there is little, if any, pre-existing knowledge of what is to be documented.

The "direct method" is one in which the information is already known, so that a script can be written listing the sequence of camera shots. The "direct method" might be more efficient for a professional film crew after the research and observation have been completed. But there is no doubt, especially in a remote area, that the footage a lone cameraman can gather over the course of several months or a year is far more substantial.

In my situation the services of a professional crew were ruled out by budget. To stay solvent, I had to be my own cameraman. I was pleased when I asked my video editor, "What's the difference in the way I shot this documentary and the way a professional would have shot it?” His answer was, "None."

I have never felt comfortable with a beautifully produced film without narration. The absence of informed narration, I feel, reduces the educational value. It avoids the demanding task of writing and matching narration to visual images.

I sent the initial 30-minute version, along with other application materials, a written proposal, and a budget proposal to the Ford Foundation, Lagos, Nigeria for yet another attempt at funding. The written proposal stressed the importance of documenting the hand-built production of the massive ekoko amu water vessels made at Dada Compound and the much smaller lidded soup bowls, called isasun, at Ogbena Compound. Both are essential to survival in village Nigeria. But it was the video itself that spelled the difference between just another application and a successful application. The video showed clearly the quality and importance of the project. The application stipulated a budget of $75,000. The counter-offer was $50,000 and was accepted. This reduction ruled out compensation for the researcher/producer. I continued working as a volunteer.

In 1986, just after retirement from Oklahoma State University, I was awarded a Fulbright Senior African Regional Research Award, which funded the original research. I was told, along with the other grantees at the Fulbright orientation session in Washington, D.C., that the competition had been intense and that we were all fortunate to have been selected. I had applied as an art professor, potter, photographer, and African art specialist.

I had introduced and taught the first survey course in African art offered in Oklahoma, called, "The Humanistic Tradition in African Art." The title and contents of the course were based on notes and materials obtained from Professor Joe Hill, New York University. I owe a debt of gratitude to his systematic and well-organized presentation of stylistic "accents." His course, grounded in humanistic values, concerns, ambiguities, and questions, served as an important point of reference for understanding the arts of the world and the arts of early societies in particular.

Sales and rental information is posted on Prof. du Bois' website: http://www.angelfire.com/ok2/dubois or email duboisr_osu@brightok.net.

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Text and images courtesy of Ron du Bois, Professor Emeritus of Art, Oklahoma State University

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