Ndidi Dike Commodities of Consumption and Sites of Extraction in the Global South
Still taken from Commodities of Consumption and Sites of Extraction in the Global South Installation – Ndidi Dike (2020) | © Ndidi Dike
“My question then is, while we consume these products, how can we remember the inhumane conditions under which they were acquired or produced? Do we remember the atrocities committed during the extraction process?” – Ndidi DikeThis 3D digital installation of the project Commodities of Consumption and Sites of Extraction in the Global South takes consumer products connected to the transatlantic slave trade - along with current global commodity markets - and highlights their materiality as potent metaphors.
“This work speaks both to the coloniser and the complicity of the colonised by examining the dominant economic and political power structures derived from the transatlantic slave trade. Key here is the reality that it was not only about the sheer number of people enslaved and forced to migrate, but also about the kinds of impact such movement had on the meaning of objects that became resources and commodities during this dark history. It is about the geographic spaces too, that became sites of extraction, not only of people but of goods.” – Ndidi Dike
Material Engagement: Setting the TableCommodities of Consumption and Sites of Extraction Installation – Ndidi Dike (2020) | © Ndidi Dike I use the three-tier cake stand and paper doilies that are commonplace in British high tea ceremonies as recurring modes of display in the work. The cake stand metonymically symbolises colonial powers in the transatlantic space, and their stacking of resources used to prop up and feed European industrial economies.
In my work I connect these devices and metaphors with the materiality of the products from some of the seaports and “sites of extraction” along the West African coast, commonly referred to as the Gulf of Guinea.
The ultimate effect is such as that visitors are able to meander through the installation, experiencing at once the actual products, natural resources, and the photographic representations of these objects through imagery detailing their production (from raw to processed), geographic sites of origin, and movement throughout the world. The movement of the visitor’s body, their gaze, throughout the installation works to model the specific linkages between sites and ports, from beginning to end. Each stand rests on tables carefully covered with tablecloth imprinted with evocative bodies of the infamous Brooks Slave Plans, which impresses the point that commodity production and consumption, historically depended on the labour and land of the enslaved.
Material NarrativesCommodities of Consumption and Sites of Extraction Installation – Ndidi Dike (2020) | © Ndidi Dike Four key products are addressed in the work, each engaged through bespoke cake stands dedicated to particular products: Gold, Cotton, Indigo, and Vanilla. Each resource-cake stand unit within the overall installation depicts the varied stages and life of the processes that eventually become the commodities of consumption. The stands are situated within a tableau of hanging photographic transparencies, each similarly dedicated to one of the four products or natural resources. These hanging transparencies feature layered photographs, collages, reworked imagery and symbols, derived from both my personal archive of images assembled through research and site visits, as well as imagery publicly available online.
My interest in cotton farming stems from its agricultural history and cultivation viewed as a luxury commodity that also turned human beings into mass consumer commodities during the transatlantic slave trade. These are two of the products that laid the foundation for industrialisation, and the rise of modern capitalism in the world as promulgated by imperial powers in the global North.
Commodities of Consumption and Sites of Extraction Installation – Ndidi Dike (2020) | © Ndidi Dike Cotton enabled the advances of industry and the accompanying profit in America to dominate the cotton trade for centuries by exporting this natural resource to Great Britain and other countries. This would not have been possible without the use and supply of the plantation system—using kidnapped and abducted enslaved subjects who were forced to migrate from the west coast of Africa. These subjects were made to labour on American plantations, particularly in the Deep South in states such as Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, South Carolina, and Tennessee, among others, in order to cultivate and till the fertile land, to process cotton, and ready it for export to Europe through the ports of New Orleans, Charleston, or New York.
In short, “capital accumulation in peripheral commodity production” according to Merivale “was necessary for metropolitan economic expansion and access to labour if necessary, by coercion was a precondition for turning abundant lands into productive suppliers of resources.” As a way to enhance productivity and yield - profits almost doubled - the invention of the cotton gin amplified the processing of raw cotton by removing the seeds from the cotton fibre. Nevertheless, this did not reduce the number of enslaved labourers needed to grow and pick the cotton. Slaves wore osnaburg, an unbleached coarse linen. The working conditions of the slaves were abusive to assert dominance. Later the system of slavery was replaced by the exploitative share cropping system, where a tenant farmer raises crops for the owner of a piece of land and is paid a portion of the money from the sale of the crops.
Commodities of Consumption and Sites of Extraction Installation – Ndidi Dike (2020) | © Ndidi Dike The cotton stand displays a mélange of refined cotton wool mixed with organic non-processed cotton seeds, and a range of finished products denoting the use value of raw cotton such as cotton thread, used in the global fast fashion textile industry. This references the inhumane cotton plantations that formed the bases of slave labour, and so mirrors current forms of sweatshop labour that call to mind what happened to the textile labourers in India during the Covid-19 lockdown. The textile and dyeing industry, notoriously the largest consumer of water in the manufacturing process, is known for its unrecycled residual waste disposal issues and water run-offs, often diverted into rivers. The damning reality of such methods is not only the polluting and destroying of local biodiversity, but also the livelihood of communities who depend on it for agricultural farming and other economic activities.
The transatlantic slave trading industry, briefly speaking, was started by the Portuguese - and later on joined by other Europeans - in the 15th century, when African people along the West African coast were kidnapped - as well as exchanged for products - forcibly transported and forced to work on plantations in the Americas.
Commodities of Consumption and Sites of Extraction Installation – Ndidi Dike (2020) | © Ndidi Dike It is hardly historically acknowledged and spoken about that enslaved subjects sent to Brazil and South America were double the amount that has been sent to North America. Elmina castle in Ghana was built by the Portuguese in 1482 and it was one of the first and major trading posts to trade and deal with slaves from this area known then as the Gold Coast, because it was an important source for gold - and ivory - storage of produce. The castle also served as a holding pen (barracoons) for enslaved subjects awaiting transportation to North and South America. At various stages of its lifetime, it was fought over by the Dutch and other Europeans, the last being the British until the time of independence in 1957—hence the image of the Queen representing colonial conquest and empire. Enslaved subjects taken from Elmina castle from Ghana to Brazil were known and selected for their expert gold smiting skills. Although, gold is commonly spoken about as a product of slavery, I took a particular interest in the history of this resource during my trip to Belo Horizonte in Brazil in 2017.
There I learned about a historically disused gold mine called Ouro Preto (meaning black gold), which was founded in 1698 in a mineral rich city in the state of Minas Geras, a former Portuguese colony in the eastern part of Brazil. Our guide informed us that a large majority of the enslaved population specifically came from Ghana, and were chosen by the Portuguese, because of their previous knowledge and history of gold smiting traditions, which could be used in Brazil’s mining, excavation, panning and gold smiting industry.
Other ethnic groups’ - including Bantu, Yoruba, from present day Cotonou, etcetera, - history, memory, and present-day exploitation stand side-by-side. The Ouro Preto goldmine in Brazil notoriously used small children, in particular castrated boys, and the church in Brazil never openly condemned slavery - until half-heartedly doing so in the 17th century - but it was as a form of “civilizing” exploitation and control over the enslaved Africans. However, the slaves still used subversive ways to adapt and practise their beliefs, traditions and religions, which birthed different types of worship such as the Candomblé religion, a combination of foreign and African traditional religions.
The gold stand introduces viewers to material narratives that focus on the solid mineral and mining industry of this resource, which is one of the most profitable minerals on the planet; the world’s largest deposits are found in South Africa, Ghana, Mali, and Congo (DRC).
For the elites, gold is the outward manifestation of luxury, the ultimate status symbol of wealth, alongside glitzy diamonds and other minerals like platinum. Gold signifies opulence, power, and prestige. It is a stand-in for insouciance, for an utter disregard for dispossession of land from first nations Indigenous populations, environmental pollution or devastation, and the inhumane social conditions of miners tasked with bringing this material to the surface.
Commodities of Consumption and Sites of Extraction Installation – Ndidi Dike (2020) | © Ndidi Dike
This dye from Africa is an organic blue substance extracted from a plant (leaves) known as genus Indigofera.
Commodities of Consumption and Sites of Extraction Installation – Ndidi Dike (2020) | © Ndidi Dike This time-consuming and extremely labour-intensive process went through many stages. Slaves that planted, tended, weeded and harvested the crop, were different from the highly skilled slaves who actually produced the dye. It was derived by the extraction of natural juices from the leaves through a chemical process of fermentation and oxidation by soaking the plants in water in a wooden vat left to ferment for several hours. After this, the liquid is poured into another vat that was then agitated, beaten or pounded to induce a chemical reaction as the liquid mixed with air producing a thickened blue substance, when the most desirable shade was achieved it was left to rest and settle. Subsequently, water and caustic lime, among other ingredients, were added. This allowed the substance to produce a thicker liquid, and finally separated from the water, producing or resulting in an intense indigo mud or blue paste. This was scooped up, put into cotton or linen bags placed on rack to dry. Before completely drying, the bags were cut up into squares, placed on another rack in a wooden shed to harden. After which they were packed into wooden barrels and transported by boats to places like Charleston, South Carolina, and then loaded onto cargo ships bound for Great Britain.
In Nigeria indigo dye is revered by the Yoruba from the Southwest of Nigeria and used in the design and production of the cloth known as adire eleko, a resist-dye technique. And in Southeastern Nigeria, where it is also used in the production of cloth known as ekpe or ukara cloth. Traditionally used by different ethnic groups such as the Efiks, Ibibio from Cross River State, and the Oron. It is also associated with Igbos from Abia State, from Ohafia, Arochukwu, Item, Abiriba, Abakaliki, among others. The cloth is designed and produced using an indigenous system of Nsibidi symbols worn solely by male members of the secret Ekpe leopard society. Through dispersals across the Atlantic world, Afro-Cuban and Brazilians, who were originally taken as slaves from these areas and sites, have a similar society known as Abakua, a men’s initiatory fraternity said to have originated from the regions of Southeastern Nigeria and Southwestern Cameroon who share coastal areas and borders with each other.
Commodities of Consumption and Sites of Extraction Installation – Ndidi Dike (2020) | © Ndidi Dike The indigo stand displays the dried pounded leaves of the indigo plant, which have been shaped into balls for future storage — These can be regenerated, when new work is commissioned, by soaking them in water for an extended period of time. — alongside other elements that aid in the chemical and oxidation process leading to the final product of the rich indigo dye, such as blue and white alum, coconut shell, ash, etcetera.
Commodities of Consumption and Sites of Extraction Installation – Ndidi Dike (2020) | © Ndidi Dike When we hear the word vanilla — perhaps the world’s favourite aroma and flavour — our immediate associations are a pleasant taste of ice cream, or the taste of a beautiful fluffy and light vanilla cake and its wonderful aroma. Vanilla, as the most beloved spice second to saffron, is used and consumed globally, on an industrial scale, in confectionaries, cosmetics, perfumes, aromatherapy, candles, beverages, soaps, air fresheners, and incense, among other products.
The largest producer of vanilla in the world, Madagascar, a small developing island found of the southeast coast of Africa, opposite Mozambique. Madagascar has a population of over twenty-six million people and is home to the coveted vanilla spice, which produces seventy five percent of world’s vanilla. It is also the world’s second most labour-intensive agricultural crop because in order to augment the bee-pollination process it is painstakingly and skilfully pollinated by hand, resulting in an industry purported to employ a labour force of eighty thousand farmers. The whole process takes about a year - after the crop is pollinated, cured, dried and finally prepared for export.
The West’s unprecedented taste and desire for vanilla leads to wars, death and extra-judicial killings, and significantly, deforestation where trees are felled to make way for lucrative production of vanilla farms, consequently damaging the already fragile ecosystems. Farmers tend to arm themselves with guns to protect their vanilla crops from thieves who attempt to steal vanilla at the dead of night. A twenty-four-hour vigil is also maintained. Instigated by external demands and price control in the markets of the global North, corrupt officials, duplicitous local or international elite politicians, and cash advances from exploitative proxies. This has cultivated an atmosphere in which people are willing to take risks because of the high margins and extraordinary economic benefits. Concerned Indigenous peoples who bell the cat such as human rights organisations and individuals are often harassed with trumped up charges and thrown into jail for various prison sentences. It is ironic that synthetic or artificial vanilla can easily be mass produced but industrialists prefer the flavour from natural organically grown vanilla beans, a scenario that calls to mind the global trade in ivory. This all explains why vanilla is priceless and why people are willing to risk their lives in procuring it by any means possible. The use of vanilla fragrance will permeate the venue to highlight and remind people of not only the exploitation in the natural resource industry, but also highlight the inhumane conditions, the human rights abuses, the stealing of vanilla pods by armed groups, the deforestation and political instability of the poor farmers who grow the vanilla beans in Madagascar.
The cake-stand showcases imported processed vanilla beans inside bar-coded glass test tube containers. Along with vanilla made out of metal strewn on the different levels of the stands, three miniature bottles of vanilla essence, acquired from local shops in Lagos, and on another stand, they appear alongside vanilla wafers and chai-tea flavoured with vanilla. In the centre of the seven suspended transparencies hangs a curtain of vanilla pods, each fashioned out of metal in a hyperreal fashion, another trick of the eye. The mini metal sculptures connote their referent, but also call to mind suspended bodies and the dark histories of lynching, and death, another reference to the violence that underpinned both the human labour and the irreverent attitudes towards the lands from which such resources derive.
Creating Produce Stands
Detail of Transparencies
Acknowledgements and Names of Collaborators:
Niyi Omoniyi Adebayo
Kelechi Amadi-Obi Studios
Benjamin E. Ukoh