Kosisochukwu Nnebe

Kosisochukwu Nnebe, in collaboration with Katherine Takpannie, Ndi nna nnanyi na ezuko maka na anyi zukoro / Imaaqai, suvulivut katittut katisimagannuk (the ancestors are meeting because we have met / les ancêtres se rencontrent à travers nous), 2021, video installation, 22:05 min.

“Ndi nna nnanyi na ezuko maka na anyi zukoro / Imaaqai, suvulivut katittut katisimagannuk / The ancestors are meeting because we have met" is a video performance piece by Kosisochukwu Nnebe that features a conversation between the Nigerian-Canadian artist and Katherine Takpannie, an Inuk artist, in their respective native languages: Igbo and Inuktitut.

Through their halting attempts to speak their mother tongue, the work evidences language as both a site of ongoing colonial violence and a potential space for healing and restitution. In its investigation of the linkages between language and coloniality, the piece also explores a genealogy of imperialism that calls for a different conceptual framework through which to understand Black-Indigenous relations, grounded in an exploration of otherwise intimacies between Turtle Island and the African continent. Collapsing time and space, the piece uses language to ground both women in the presence of their ancestors – both living, in the form of the parental figures they turn to for translation, and those already transitioned – and envision otherwise Black and Indigenous futurities. i

What follows are reflections by Nnebe on Black-Indigenous relations and language and what they can reveal about the possibilities of anticolonial relationality.

I. On Black-Indigenous relations

The opening shot of the video sees myself, my father and Katherine on a stage. The curtains behind us fade into the background and we appear almost as floating figures; Katherine dressed in all black with a delicate beaded necklace gracing her neck, and mine and my father’s bright clothing creating a palette of black, red, green, and blue. We were initially meant to be four on the stage, joined by an Inuk friend of Katherine’s, but last-minute changes had resulted in it just being the three of us on stage, with Katherine’s maternal figure on the line in Nunavut. So, there we were, just the three of us, on stage together. At some point in the future, there will be a joke that starts ‘so, an Igbo woman, her father and her Inuk friend get on a stage’. And it will be the beginning of a beautiful and humorous story of reconnection, kinship and anticolonial world-making.

There is something understated yet powerful, I believe, in such imagery and such narratives; a quiet sidelining of what is typically front and center: white supremacy, the West, settler colonialism. At the heart of the video piece is a desire to move away from the triadic model of European-Negro-Indian – as in Sylvia Wynter’s work (McKittrick, 2015) – as the main configuration of Black-Indigenous relations, and to instead explore the possibilities of a dyadic Negro-Indian, or Red-Black, model. What I was seeking was a way of understanding Black-Indigenous relationality that de-centered and de-stabilized not only our understandings of how we, as Black and Indigenous people, have come (and can come) to be together, but also of place, of migration, of relation.

The desire for such a dislocation in our typical relational configurations comes from a very personal place. I’ve been reflecting on the complexities of my presence as a Black woman on Turtle Island since 2017, when, as a representative of the Canadian federal government, I traveled across the country engaging with Indigenous communities to develop a new national food policy. Although my family first migrated to Canada from Nigeria when I was five years old, it was only as I moved from community to community, journeying from Yellowknife to Thunder Bay to Nunatsiavut, that I was forced to confront my own role and complicity, as an employee of the State, with the settler-colonial project that had displaced these communities from their ancestral and traditional lands. Throughout this experience, I questioned what other forms of relationality might exist and be possible for Black and Indigenous peoples, that would not shy away from the reality of my presence on stolen land – my complicity as a federal official – but would give space for a form of relationality that asked us to move away from the gravitational pull of colonization as the only thing that connects us, to form new center with a gravitational pull that operates on a different basis.

However, the more I attempted to make sense of this dyadic model, the more I came to terms with its seeming impossibility: to speak to the Negro and Indian, or Red and Black, is to speak to categories that emerge necessarily out of the colonial project – identities and categories on which this project hinges. As the work of scholars such as Sylvia Wynter and Anibal Quijano describe, the emergence of the modern/colonial world order as we know it depended on the racializing knowledge that produced – invented – the Negro and the Indian out of what had been diverse and distinct nations and labelled them as ‘less than human’, reinforcing many of the binaries on which Eurocentric knowledge production bases itself: subject/object, nature/culture, self/Other (Quijano, 2000; McKittrick, 2015). The Negro and Indian are then the bedrock on which coloniality – the structures of power, control and hegemony that emerged from colonialism but have out-lived it (Quijano, 2000)– rests; inextricable from the colonial processes and colonizers that have forever imbricated them in this triad of European-Negro-Indian.

But this yearning for an otherwise of how we define ourselves remains. It is not a yearning for a past that we can no longer go back to, nor a refutation of our present reality with the legacies of colonialism a constant haunting with which we must live. Rather, it is yearning for what Robbie Shiliam, in Black Pacific, (Shilliam, 2015) a book about anticolonial connectivity between the Black Power movement and Maori and South Pacific islanders, describes as a “decolonial science’ that aims at fostering a relationality “that exists underneath the wounds of coloniality1, a cutting logic that seeks to – but on the whole never quite manages to – segregate peoples from their lands, their pasts, their ancestors and spirits” (Shilliam, 2015, p. 13) Central to this project is one of restitution or rather resurgence that, as Dylan Robinson explains when describing the centering of Indigenous knowledge, “refuses to mention that which is being refused.” (Robinson, 21) and, in Shilliam’s words, rejects modalities of relationality that require that Black and Indigenous people understands themselves only in relation to the imperial centre

It is to Shiliam’s work that The Ancestors are Meeting Because We Have Met owes not only its title, but also its approach and aspiration to “redeem the possibilities of anti-colonial solidarity between colonized and (post)colonized peoples on terms other than those laid out by colonial science” ((Shilliam, 2015, p. 11). It is to this project of a decolonial science that this work – and future work I create – hopes to contribute, to help bring to life.

The video work begins with my father performing a libation. We film the scene twice; in the first take he spends time contextualizing the different aspects of the libation, explaining the use of the kola nut, the significance of the chalk he later uses to trace marks on the stage floor. But he begins by introducing himself not as my father, not as a Nigerian, but as an Igbo man, an African Indigenous man. He goes on to speak to how, as an Indigenous man, it is his reverence for the land that connects him to other Indigenous peoples, including those of Turtle Island. In prior conversations, he had gotten excited explaining how he saw the significance First Nations in Canada attach to the eagle feather as being akin to its importance among the Igbo; in the strength of their relationship to the land he saw echoes of the Igbo’s worship of Ala, the earth Goddess.

The parallels that he identifies remind me of another moment, years earlier, when my uncle had visited from Nigeria. I had spoken to him about what I had learned of Indigenous world views from Turtle island through my work engaging with First Nations and Inuit communities. He told me about a river in our hometown Nibo in Igboland (Nigeria) that no one dared fish from. To do so would be taboo as the river was known to belong to the gods. He leaned in, as though to tell me a secret, and revealed that this too was a form of Indigenous knowledge: the fish were a sentinel that would have alerted our ancestors of pollutants in the river.

It was in that moment that I realized that there was an Igbo worldview and cosmology apart from the Western worldview I had grown up with, but also distinct from the Indigenous worldviews I had become introduced to. ii In many ways this was the seed that has since germinated into this desire for a dyadic model that creates spaces for an understanding of Black-Indigenous relations that sees both groups as carriers of non-Western and indigenous knowledge. My desire for a dyadic model – its plausibility still of course contestable – would require a change in the terms by which we come to know ourselves; a shift in the vocabulary we use to describe ourselves and our relationality, a rethinking of Black and African spatiality and belonging. Here, the dyadic model being broached is one of Igbo-Inuk, of relationality between two indigenous peoples, that opens us both up to new modes of relation but also, in my experience, has shifted my own understanding of my relationship to nature, to land.

Discussions around Blackness are often rooted in notions of Black diasporic identity as being one of what Walcott calls ‘out-of-place-ness’ marked by loss and social death (Walcott, 2014; Wilderson III, 2010) that belies the reality that the Black Canadian population is a heterogenous one with many recent African immigrants with strong ties to their home countries. For these immigrants, there is a different understanding and experience of colonialism and ethnic and racial identity; discussions of Blackness that fix Africa in the past can therefore contribute to feelings of epistemic injustice as they do not always provide the appropriate epistemic resources with which to make sense of the full breadth of their experience (G. J. S. Dei, 2017; Oriji, 2020). As my father often reminds me, my umbilical cord is still buried next to a tree on our compound in Nibo, cementing my relationship – my belonging – to the land.

It is these personal experiences that have pushed me to create works that are slowly, tangentially and now more explicitly addressing this question of African indigeneity and how we can speak to it even in the context of living on the stolen lands of Indigenous peoples of Turtle Island. It is a conversation I think of as timely, particularly as I recall a moment in the The Ancestors Are Meeting Because We Have Met when Katherine pauses as she hesitates to call my father and I Indigenous. In that moment and subsequent experiences re-watching the scene, I want to ask her why she hesitated. How can we speak of African indigeneity in ways that respect the incommensurability of the experiences of Indigenous peoples and people of African descent but still create space for new terms by which to understand ourselves? 

During the Disembodied Territories workshop, I present my initial idea for this contribution. When I am finished, my interlocutor reminds me that African people are Indigenous and questions this false binary of African and Indigenous. I acquiesce that it is something that is not explicit in my draft statement, but the reality is that it is everywhere in my work as of late; it permeates it, is the water in which it swims. Rather than a fait accompli, The Ancestors Are Meeting Because We Have Met was always, in my mind, but one of a stream of ideas slowly coming to the surface, straining against the weight of race and Blackness as concepts that have until now dominated my understanding of self.

Yearning to reconnect with this part of my identity, with my birthplace – this place that holds so much meaning but of which I have no recollection, no memories of my own – I turn to language as a tool to bring me closer.

II. On Language

At the beginning of the libation scene, my father, a born performer, improvises and says that our (native) language is the one that God hears most directly. Though he later admits that this was entirely fabulation on his end (there is a small twinkle in his eyes as he confesses, laughter spilling from his lips shortly after), the symbolism of it etches itself into my mind as a worthwhile truth. In the video, he speaks Igbo fluently, confidently, whereas for Katherine and I, to speak in our mother tongue is to stumble and hesitate, to pause and to attempt once more. The libation, performed in Igbo, is a prayer to our ancestors; I have no doubt that wherever they are, his voice rings loud and clear, his prayers reaching them and whomever – or whatever- else lies beyond.

“[W]hen you talk to knowledge keepers and elders, like the first thing that they tell you, if you want to get reconnected, is to learn the language.” These are the words of one of the participants of a focus group I organized in May 2021, as part of my masters dissertation researching Black-Indigenous relations on Turtle Island. Language had not been part of the topic guide for the focus group, and yet we butted against it at all times. The more we shared, the more language emerged as that which holds different forms of knowledge, that which shapes how we relate with both human and non-human relations, that which connects us to our ancestors and our spirituality. Yet there we were, Black and Indigenous women and two-spirit people, talking about how language can connect us to our ancestral knowledge, communicating and sharing in English – the language that has enacted so much violence on our native languages, but is what allowed us to share that particular moment.

In his essay, The Language of African Literature, Ngugi wa Thiong’o (1986) speaks to the importance of language as both a means of communication and a carrier of culture, and examines the impacts of the imposition of a foreign language on African children, on colonized peoples. In the essay he notes that while “the bullet was the means of physical subjugation”, it was language that served as “the means of spiritual subjugation”(Ngugi, 1986, p. 9). For wa Thiong’o it was through this form of spiritual subjugation – the capture and imprisonment of the soul of the colonized – that the colonizer was able to dominate the mental universe of the colonized. Here, language and spirituality stand intimately intertwined; language as the means of spiritual subjugation but also, conversely, as the means of spiritual liberation and reconnection.

More prominently still in wa Thiong’o’s work is language as that which structures both subjective and intersubjective possibilities. The imposition of colonial languages creates a dissonance in the lives of African children, that later becomes a rift in their sense of self and between them and their families, them and their fellow countrymen. Though wa Thiong’o explains the significance of English in the definition of self and culture, his predominant focus on Africans and the African continent leaves under-addressed how the dominance of colonial languages both fosters and impacts the possibility of connection with other colonized peoples.

Later, I read the line by poet Adrienne Rich: “It is the oppressor’s language, yet I need it to talk to you.” The words stay with me for days, weeks, settling heavily on my tongue as I speak them out loud. They capture and speak to this paradox of how English – my first language, the only language I feel comfortable communicating in, even when I stumble on words or find some elements of it nonsensical – and its omnipresence in my daily life speaks to a legacy of colonial violence and intervention that binds me to other colonized peoples. But there it was, through this line and through that meeting of Black and Indigenous women and two-spirit people, revealing itself to me as both the wound and the bridge.

Jean-Paul Sartre’ preface to Frantz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth (Fanon, 2007) describes a scene in which a presumed European reader is invited to look upon and listen to a gathering of strangers around a fire. The strangers – the sons of the colonized others the Europeans had created, their ‘creatures’ – ignore the reader, and it is in that moment that the reader is meant to recognize the imminence of Europe’s demise. In Black Pacific, Shilliam ponders the scene and Sartre’s attempt to displace the White gaze, or what Shilliam calls the cartographic gaze. However, as I read the same passage, I remember wondering what language these men gathered around a fire were conversing in – was it English, or perhaps French? Were these all Algerian men, or was this a more fantastical gathering of colonized peoples from across the French or British empires, or perhaps both? It seemed to me then and still to this day an oversight to not dwell on the question of language – of whom is gathered and through what means they find ways of communicating with one another.

Rather than united by a common language, I imagined in my mind’s eye a gathering of various colonized peoples gathered around a fire and engaging with one another in their mother-tongues, without the interface of the colonizer’s language to unite them but finding a way still to hear each other, to plot and strategize, create and build. In many ways, this exercise in translation and imagination is a direct and literal response to Shilliam’s call for ‘sideways’ relations between the (post)colonized that do not have to rely upon ‘Britannica’ to “interpret and provide the meaning of these relationships” (Shilliam, 2015, p. 20). There is an impossibility of translation that such a scene calls to mind that I believe requires an act of imagination on our part to overcome. It is to this imagined scene I turn back to, that I dream of once more, when I am asked the point of Katherine and I attempting to speak to one another in our native languages – about the impracticability of this exercise of translation.

In ‘The Language of African Literature’, wa Thiong’o examines the belief among certain African writers in English and other colonial languages as a uniting force, one that could ostensibly “unite African peoples against divisive tendencies inherent in the multiplicity of African languages within the same geographic state” (Ngugi, 1986, p. 7). Through wa Thiong’o’s reflections, the paradox of English or French becoming the common language with which to fight against white oppressors becomes too obvious to dismiss; one must contend with and face the space these languages have taken even in movements against (neo)colonialism. In wa Thiong’o’s analysis, the White savior complex, it appears, extends even to colonial languages which, in wa Thiong’o’s words, are often seen as coming to save African languages from themselves.2

What wa Thiong’o decries throughout his essay is the “fatalistic logic of the unassailable position of English in our literature” (Ngugi, 1986, p. 7) – something I would argue goes beyond the situation of African literature and describes the position of English (and French) in our daily lives – in our thoughts, in our dreams, and in how we gather. What other forms of translation could we imagine and call forth into being that see in a multitude of tongues not “divisive tendencies”, that do not require reliance on a colonial language for arbitration and mediation, but rather envision an otherwise future in which our mother tongues are not only spoken widely and freely, but also understood and cherished. A form of translation that embraces and understands incommensurability as something more akin to Edouard Glissant’s notion of opacity as that which does not require that we know and understand each other fully to find ways of relating, respecting and honoring our differences.

What more could we say to one another that we may struggle to find words for in English or French or Portuguese? What new spaces could we create for one a
nother where the searching and hungry eyes of the colonizer can not intrude, consume, destroy? What more could be possible?

The video ends with Katherine and I sharing words in Igbo and Inuktitut for which we offer no translation. Though I stumble on the words and Katherine must turn to her parental figure to ensure the correct translation, they are words that we have both previously learned how to say and have the confidence to share with one another. In that moment, we are given the glimpse of a gathering in which our mother tongues are spoken freely and understood with ease.

The words we share are as central to this glimpse into an otherwise way of being as the language we share them in. Though I will not divulge the meaning – butchered as they are, those words remain for us, our parents and for other Inuit and Igbo people – the sentiment expressed aligns with an earlier moment in the video, in which Katherine shares that she sees me as a sister (I learn, as her mother figure helps her translate the words into Igbo that there is a different term in Inuktitut for younger and older sister).

Throughout the video, the questions and statements that Katherine and I pose and make revolve around our desire for reconnection (to our language, our ancestors, our culture) and our friendship. There is much laughter in the video as we encourage one another in our halting attempts at speaking our mother tongue (at one point I complain about how hard it is to speak Igbo and Katherine tells me that she is proud of me for trying). While never spoken of explicitly, there is a circling around the idea of colonialism in our interactions (though it is clear through our conversation that we understand that we that we still live in its aftermath and continuation) an evasion and avoidance of its name and logics as we attempt to extricate ourselves from its orbit in order to chart our own journey.

Anticolonial action often focuses on resistance in a way that further entrenches colonial systems, but, in the Ancestors are Meeting Because We Have Met, I would like to hope that the center of this new gravitational orbit we attempt to create has its seeds – tiny as they are, fragmented as they are – outside of the colonial system of domination and hierarchy. I hesitate to give it a name, but each time I experience this glimpse, I feel like I am transported somewhere else, as though we are indeed building a new world within the carcass of the old. It is a form of relationality that is anticolonial in the way it rejects the parameters and categories of colonial order, but, I believe, it is also so much more than that.

It is here that I turn back to Robbie Shilliam’s discussion of this cultivation of knowledge ‘sideways’ to help me imagine where we to go from here, how to navigate what, to me, remain uncharted waters. The purpose and aims of anticolonial connectivity in Shilliam’s work revolve mainly around recognition of ‘subalterns’ as relatable entities rather than categorically segregated objects, and their reconnection with one another, their ancestors and to all that surrounds us, both material and spiritual (Shilliam, 2015). Shilliam charts out the similarities between the RasTafari pronoun ‘I and I’ and the MAori concept of tatou tatou which to him both infer the understanding that “my sanctified being must also be directly relatable to your sanctified being” (Shilliam, 2015, p. 29). The focus is on fostering deep relations through which we can fully see and experience our full integrity, without the oversight, mediation or translation of Britannica.

Rather than anticolonialism as resistance against, I am interested in a form of anticolonial relationality that builds bridges over what it is we seek to leave behind and toward what we seek to create for ourselves, how we wish to imagine ourselves anew. Whereas Shiliam is predominantly concerned with relatability between Black and Pacific movements, I am interested in a form of relationality that does not shy away from tensions and incommensurability, but rather finds in that which is difficult to translate the opportunity to invent new solutions and possibilities, find new forms and modalities of connection. That is rooted in, but also goes beyond what Gatazimbe-Fernandez calls a ‘relational solidarity’, which demands that we “recognize the complex and sometimes contradictory personal histories that bring us together into treaty relations based on a commitment to decolonization” (Gaztambide-Fernández, 2012, p. 61; Klutse, 2018). That centers love as a practice of liberation, as the late bell hooks taught us. That sees in friendship and kinship the ultimate act of decolonization.3

As I watch Katherine and I engage in conversation, our tongues heavy with words that feel unfamiliar in our mouths, that make us stumble and repeat ourselves, falter and try again, surrounded by family members who guide us the entire time, whose patience and encouragement bely the meaning this moment has for them as well, I realize that we are on the brink of something for which I have no name, for which the English language has no word to c
apture, convey nor control.
Themes: Premonitions of Bodies, Spatial Claims

Methods: Intimate, Film


Fanon, F. (2007) The wretched of the earth. Grove/Atlantic, Inc.

Gaztambide-Fernández, R. A. (2012). Decolonization and the pedagogy of solidarity. Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society, 1(1).

Klutse, Olivia. "Repatriation and Reparations: Land-Based Indigenous and Black Futurity." (2018).

McKittrick, K. (2015) Sylvia Wynter: On being human as praxis. Duke University Press.

Ngugi, W.T. (1986) ‘Decolonizing the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature Nairobi’, East African Educ. Publ [Preprint].

Oriji, C. E. (2020). From Biafra to police brutality: Challenging localized Blackness toward globally racialized ethnicities of Nigerians in the U.S. Ethnic and Racial Studies 43(9), 1600–1617.

Quijano, A. (2000) ‘Coloniality of Power, Eurocentrism, and Latin America’, Nepantla, 1, p. 533.

Robinson, Dylan. Hungry listening: Resonant theory for indigenous sound studies. U of Minnesota Press, 2020.

Shilliam, R. (2015) The black Pacific: Anti-colonial struggles and oceanic connections. Bloomsbury Publishing.

Walcott, Rinaldo. The problem of the human: Black ontologies and “the coloniality of our being.”. Vol. 95. Frankfurt: Campus Verlag, 2014.

Wilderson III, Frank B. "Red, white & black." In Red, White & Black. Duke University Press, 2010.

Dei, George Sefa. "Indigenous anti-colonial knowledge as ‘heritage knowledge’for promoting Black/African education in diasporic contexts." Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society 1, no. 1 (2012).


[1] coloniality

[2] I recognize that to too closely associate the English language with oppression is to take away the agency of the colonized peoples who have made the language their own, who have shaped it to fit their own needs, who have contributed to its development and evolution. I think of wa Thiong’o’s own words on pidgin English as being informed by the syntax and rhythms of African languages (Ngugi, 1986, p. 23). I think of James Baldwin and his writings on Black English as a creation of the Black diaspora, as not a dialect but a language in its own right, capable of capturing the realities and complexities of Black existence. My relationship to the English language remains a tense one – it remains the language in which I speak, think, and dream. The only language I feel fully comfortable speaking. And in The Ancestors are Meeting Because We Have Met, as in reality, English is what permits Katherine and I to communicate with one another.

[3] This is not to negate the extremely important reminder that ‘decolonization is not a metaphor’ and fundamentally about land (Tuck and Yang, 2012). Rather, this statement  speaks to the importance of addressing the other axes through which coloniality operates and perpetuates itself, including the ways in which it limits and restricts subjective and intersubjective possibilities; in this case, there is something to be gained from ‘decolonizing’ relationships and building new forms of relationality (including intimate friendships) that can be liberatory for differently colonized groups.

Tuck, E., & Yang, K. W. (2012). Decolonization is not a metaphor. Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society, 1(1).

[i] See another instance of ancestral calling in: ULI KWINA (translation: you are/it is elsewhere) by kyle malanda

[ii] For another text on navigating multiplicity, see: DISEMBODYING THE BLACK BRIT by Christiana Ajai-Thomas

Kosisochukwu Nnebe is a Nigerian-Canadian visual artist and curator. Using phenomenology as a methodology, Nnebe’s practice makes use of hesitation as a generative form of affect that opens the viewer and the artist herself up to new forms of understanding. Touching on themes such as the process of racialization, diasporic experience, and epistemic violence and restitution, her work takes her lived experience as a starting point for engaging viewers on issues both personal and structural in ways that bring awareness to their own imbrication and complicity. Opacity (that which is undecipherable, hidden) and transparency (that which is legible, hypervisible) are featured intermittently in works that at times obfuscate and at other times transform to reveal a glimpse into a new way of seeing and being that has yet to be understood – even by the artist herself. Nnebe’s work has been exhibited at AXENEO7, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Place des Arts, the Art Gallery of Guelph, the Nia Centre, Studio Sixty Six, Z-Art Space, Station 16, and the Mohr Gallery in Mountain View, California. She has given presentations on her artistic practice and research at universities across Quebec, including Laval, McGill and Concordia, and has facilitated workshops at the National Gallery of Canada, the Ottawa Art Gallery, and Redwood City High School in California. She is currently based in Ottawa.

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