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Among the Islamic Festivals which are celebrated worldwide one that stands out in particular is ʿīd al-aḍḥā, the festival of sacrifice and sheep sticking, called Sallah in llorin. This festival marks a time of great celebrations, which reminds me of those Easters that we used to celebrate: so many of us, all together, after waiting for so long and then remembering for even longer.

The celebrations go on for three days or more to commemorate the various tests passed by the prophet Ibrāhīm/Abraham, his wife  Hāgar/Agar and their son Ismāʿīl/Ismael. The ritual sacrifice carried out as part of the festival is reminiscent of the substitute sacrifice of a sheep, that Ibrahim made after the angel stayed his hand from sacrificing his only son as an act of obedience to God. For this reason this festival is also a celebration of absolute faith and unquestioning submission to God’s will (islām).

Days before Sallah starts the town begins its preparations, finding a sheep to sacrifice and cut into pieces both large and small to give to friends, relatives and, according to the letter of the Koran, to the poor as well. The cattle market is quite a distance from the town, and to get there you have to get through a honking swarm of cars, buses, motorbikes, vans and carts all on their way to market. First they travel empty but none of them return without at least one animal: riding pillion on the motorbikes, on the back seats of cars, in the boot together with the spices which will be used to season the meat.

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The sacrifice cerimony takes place on the tenth day of the Islamic lunar month Dhu_l-Hijja. A man, who is in a state of purity, sticks the sheep with one blow, and then leaves the animal to bleed to death, in this way it is purified. In llorin this is a job for the Chief Imam, at the height of a ceremony which is held in an enormous park at the town gates, beneath trees that have seen so many people pass below their branches in line after line.

During Sallah every man who counts (the women help at a distance) comes to pay his respects to the Emir, who arrives with his court and then collects the powerful, the judges, ministers and finally the Governor, chronologically the last one but in fact the first among citizens.

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People sit on an immense carpet like a jigsaw puzzle, listening to songs, readings from the Koran, sermons and prayers. All this takes place under the watchful eyes of a huge security organisation: body-guards, military police, secret service, the night round, whatever security body you can imagine, the Emir’s personal guard of honour; every so often someone’s jacket opens, disclosing a gun, a machine gun or a precision rifle; whilst its owner smiles engagingly all the while… The Chief Imam closes the ceremony and starts the feast by sticking the first sheep; straight after this the crowd breaks up and thousands of people set of in the direction of home where the heads of the family repeat the sacrifice.

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Relatives visit, coming from far and wide, for the traditional sharing out of the meat and at the same time to cement their family and friendship bonds. The size of the portions of meat given out vary according to the importance of the relationship, but they all end up marinated and then fried or roasted, and finally served on plates and trays, different cuts, higgledy-piggledy, seasoned with tasty, fragrant spices, ready to be picked up by fingers that can’t wait for them to cool down.

These are light-hearted days: those who are able take time from their work and treat themselves to all the pleasures of a great feast day, even if this is just a simple picnic and a ride on the merry-go-round in the park, or a stroll round the Emir’s palace, greeting him if he should appear. Those who count live far away, in houses surrounded by high well-guarded walls, but they do the same things: to give and to accept are complementary gestures and in this exchange lies a symbolic exchange which is repeated millions of times.

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Parties are thrown and music is played, traditional music groups perform in areas set aside for shows, the great hall which every important hotel rents out for ceremonies, parties and concerts. Speeches and acknowledgements are followed by sung music, a voice with a drum, or intricate vocal patterns sung by women with completely unexpected rhythms. Each artist is honoured with a public gift of money, which their admirers stick onto their sweating brows or sprinkle onto them like a shower of confetti. This is a real show, a game which takes its time and is enjoyed to the utmost by all: this money gift is a type of applause, the signature on a contract of respect.

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Fra le grandi feste islamiche celebrate in tutto il mondo spicca la ʿīd al-aḍḥā, la festa del sacrificio o festa dello sgozzamento, che a Ilorin viene chiamata Sallah. Sono giorni di festa grande, che a me ricordano le pasque che si celebravano in tanti, dopo lunga attesa e con lunghi ricordi.

Per tre o anche più giorni si festeggia per ricordare le prove superate dal profeta Abramo/Ibrāhīm, dalla moglie Agar/Hāgar e dal loro figlio Ismaele/Ismāʿīl. Il sacrificio rituale che si pratica nel corso della festività ricorda il sacrificio sostitutivo effettuato con un montone da Ibrāhīm, tanto obbediente al volere divino da essere disposto a sacrificargli il figlio Ismaele, fermato solo all’ultimo istante da un angelo. È quindi per eccellenza la festa della fede e della totale e indiscussa sottomissione a Dio (islām).

Giorni prima la città si mobilita per procurarsi un montone da sacrificare e tagliare in pezzi grandi e piccoli da donare agli amici, ai parenti e, secondo la lettera del Corano, per un terzo anche ai poveri. Il mercato del bestiame si trova un bel pezzo fuori città, per arrivarci occorre superare un brulicare strombazzante di auto, pulmini, moto, furgoni, carretti che vanno e vengono per l’acquisto. Prima vuoti, poi carichi di almeno un animale: sulla sella della moto, sul sedile posteriore dell’auto, nel baule insieme alle spezie che ne profumeranno la carne.

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La cerimonia del sacrificio avviene il decimo giorno del mese lunare islamico Dhu_l-Hijja. Un uomo in stato di purità legale sgozzerà il montone con un solo gesto, e lo lascerà poi dissanguare per purificarsi.Ad Ilorin questo incarico spetta al Cheaf Imam, al culmine di una cerimonia che si tiene in un enorme parco alle porte della città, sotto piante che hanno visto passare lunghe file di gente. Durante Sallah ogni uomo che conta (le donne assistono da lontano) viene a rendere omaggio all’Emiro, che arriva con la sua corte e poi accoglie i potenti, i giudici, i Ministri e infine il Governatore, ultimo nel tempo e primo nell’olimpo cittadino.

La gente seduta su un immenso puzzle di tappeti ascolta canti, letture del Corano, sermoni, preghiere. Tutti sotto gli occhi di un enorme servizio di sicurezza: body-guards, polizia militare, servizi segreti, ronde, servizi d’ordine di ogni tipo, guardia d’onore dell’Emiro; ogni tanto qualcuno aprendo la giacca scopre una pistola, un mitra o un fucile di precisione: sempre sorrido con complicità… Il Chief Imam conclude la cerimonia ed apre la festa sgozzando il primo montone; subito dopo la folla si rompe e migliaia di persone prendono la via di casa dove i capofamiglia potranno replicare il sacrificio.

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I parenti si fanno visita, muovendo anche da città lontane, per recapitare la carne rituale e così rinsaldare i legami di parentela ed amicizia. A seconda dell’importanza della relazione si regalano pezzi grandi o piccoli, che finiranno tutti a marinare e quindi fritti o alla brace, infine offerti su piatti e vassoi, tagli diversi, alla rinfusa, conditi con spezie saporose e profumate, da mangiare a scottadito.Sono giorni di leggerezza: chi può non lavora e si regala i piaceri delle grandi feste, anche un semplice pic-nic e un giro di giostra al parco, oppure a passeggio intorno al palazzo dell’Emiro, per salutarlo se esce.Chi conta vive lontano, in case circondate da alte mura sorvegliate, ma ripete gli stessi gesti: offrire ed accettare sono gesti complementari in questo scambio simbolico ripetuto milioni di volte.

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Si fa festa e si suona, gruppi di musica tradizionale si esibiscono nei posti dello spettacolo, le grandi hall che ogni albergo importante affitta per cerimonie, feste e concerti. Si alternano discorsi e ringraziamenti con musiche cantate, una voce e un tamburo, oppure ricami di voci di donna su imprevedibli tessuti ritmici. Ogni artista viene onorato con il dono pubblico di denaro, che gli ammiratori appiccicano alle fronti sudate o lasciano cadere come una pioggia di coriandoli. E’ un gioco d’esibizione che si consuma lentamente, con grande compiacimento di tutti: il regalo di denaro è una forma di applauso, la firma di un contratto di stima.

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testo italiano in coda

In Nigeria, people with disability or physical impairment are not addressed in the politically correct manner we are used to in the West; a cripple is not “differently abled” but a cripple, a blind is a blind and that’s it. Everything is accepted and starkly exposed. Wounds and impairments are visible to all, often exhibited to pity or scare, and sometimes in order to get some small change from passers-by.

Forty-five years ago, the Emir of Ilorin gave the blind folks of his city their own neighborhood, called Koro Afoju, which means “the refuge of the blind”. The Makafi Serkin, or the King of the Blinds, is traditionally elected by his blind people and he represents the Emir of Ilorin and is mandated by the Emir to settle social matters among his blind constituency. Typically these social disputes do not reach the severity of criminal actions, and additionally the King of the Blind helps to raise money for relief to tribe members in cases of bereavement, illness, travel.

These are strange things in the eyes of Europeans, of whom I knew asking why at a particular intersection on the road that I ride every day on my way to the university, is filled with only blind beggars. Sunday Johnson, the assistant the School of Visual and Performing Arts has assigned to me, brought me to the King of the Blind. He gave us audience in a modest house in the blind neighborhood.

I explained in length the reasons for my curiosity, the fact that I work for a cultural project which focuses on authority and power, I presented my credentials, and then offered a small sum with an agreement that I would come back with more. (Everything has a value, as well as economic and symbolic, and the gift of money, always exhibited, confirms and celebrates). After protracted negotiations in English-Yoruba-Hausa and vice versa, conducted by my assistant and the Prince of the Blinds (a young man, who’s eyes are perfect) then the King granted us an appointment to photograph his court.

A few days later, in the company  of my students, I walked through the maze of alleys leading to the center of the neighborhood of the blind. We hovered around a multitude of children, happy as birds of the novelty of seeing a very pale man, an Oyibo, as they call white people, coming to visit their king. At a point when we were in an open space between houses the Prince, wielding a slipper, cleared the teeming crowd of children from the regal space, but nothing he did subdued the curiosity of the children, who reappear a second later by a window or another alley.

In the devastating heat of that day, drenching in sweat and so humid that you could not see through glasses and objectives, first appeared in the court were the dignitaries, accompanied by the Yerima Makafi, the Waziri Makafi, the Turaki Makafi, and finally the Makafi Serkin, the King of the Blind, who took his place at the center of the group.

For a few minutes silence fell across the royal court, then cameras started glowing, the children also resumed their chirping, and my students began to interview the King and his court, carefully noting their every word in their notebooks.Finally, when the time came to wrap up the event and take leave, I put the promised gift in the regal hands which, after feeling it’s consistency, delivered the tribute to the Treasurer of the Blind, another blind man. To this day I wonder how the Treasurer carries his normal duties, given his handicap in telling one Naira note from another. But this topic in itself deserves an entire story devoted to it.

Full of wonder and amazement, we hit the road again, surrounded by crowds of children who screamed excitedly at me, imploring me to take a photograph of their favorite blind. And only the threat of the sticks being wielded by the elderly blind women sitting on the side of the street plucking poultry, caused the children to disperse.

(translation from italian: Mohammed Naseehu Ali)

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In Nigeria per gli handicap e le menomazioni non si usano perifrasi politicamente corrette: uno storpio non è diversamente abile ma proprio storpio, un cieco è cieco e basta. Tutto è crudamente accettato ed esposto, piaghe e menomazioni sono sotto gli occhi di tutti, spesso esibite per impietosire o spaventare e così ottenere qualche piccola somma.

Quarantacinque anni fa i ciechi ottennero dall’ Emiro di Ilorin un proprio quartiere, Koro Afoju che in Hausa, la lingua del potere tradizionale arabo, significa “il rifugio dei ciechi”. Su di loro regna il Serkin Makafi, il Re dei Ciechi, che rappresenta l’Emiro e ne incarna l’autorità per dirimere questioni di ordine ”relazionale” come le dispute che non raggiungono la gravità penale o le azioni di soccorso verso membri della tribù in casi di lutto, malattia, viaggio.

Sono cose strane ai miei occhi di europeo, delle quali ho saputo chiedendo perché soltanto i ciechi mendicassero ad uno degli incroci sulla strada che ogni giorno percorro per arrivare all’Università. Johnson Sunday, l’assistente che la Scuola di Arti Visive mi ha affiancato, mi ha condotto sino al loro re, che ho incontrato in una modesta casa del quartiere. Ho spiegato in lungo e in largo la ragione della mia curiosità, il fatto che lavoro ad un progetto culturale imperniato sull’autorità e il potere, ho esibito le mie credenziali, ho offerto una piccola somma ed ho garantito che sarei tornato con altro. (Qui tutto ha un valore, oltre che economico anche simbolico; il dono di denaro, sempre esibito, lo conferma e celebra). Dopo una lunga trattativa inglese-yoruba-hausa e ritorno, condotta dal mio assistente per il tramite del Principe (un giovanottone che ci vede benissimo) infine il re ci ha concesso un appuntamento per fotografare ed intervistare la sua corte.

Qualche giorno dopo con alcuni miei studenti mi sono avviato per il labirinto di vicoli che porta al centro del quartiere; ci svolazzava intorno una moltitudine di bambini, felici come pasque di questa novità: un uomo molto pallido veniva a visitare il loro re. Arrivati in uno slargo fra le case, il Principe sgomberava a ciabattate lo Spazio Reale – del resto inutilmente perché la curiosità dei bimbi era troppo forte: fintamente spaventati fuggivano per riapparire un secondo dopo da una finestra o un altro vicolo.

In un calore devastante, umido da appannare obiettivi ed occhiali, sono dapprima comparsi i Dignitari, accompagnati per mano o tastando i muri: lo Yerima Makafi, il Waziri Makafi, il Turaki Makafi, ed infine il Serkin Makafi, il Re dei ciechi, che ha preso posto al centro del gruppo. Per qualche minuto è calato il silenzio, le macchine fotografiche arroventavano (per davvero), ma infine i bambini hanno ripreso  a cinguettare e i miei studenti hanno intervistato il Re e la sua corte annotando diligentemente ogni verbo. Infine, alla domanda se fossimo soddisfatti, ho posato quanto promesso nelle mani regali le quali, dopo averne tastato la consistenza, hanno consegnato l’omaggio al tesoriere.

Pieni di meraviglia e di stupore, siamo ripartiti, di nuovo contornati dalla folla di bambini che ci esibivano ogni nuovo cieco incontrato per via; soltanto la minaccia di saggiare il bastone di anziane cieche intente a spennare polli sul ciglio della strada li ha poi dispersi.

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I left for a further African period, host of the University of Kwara State, one of the 36 that make up the Nigerian Federation. For two months I will develop a photographic project related to contemporary Africa culture “Roots and Rules – Authority and Power in Nigeria”, I’ll teach two classes of students to tell stories through images and I’ll develop a multidisciplinary project with three other teachers invited as me how to use the resources that the University provides: Peter Badejo, Anglo-Nigerian coreagrafo and dancer,Mohammed Zongo, Ameri-Ghanaian writer, Trashon Shallowhorn American filmmaker. All under the guidance of Awam Amkpa, Ameri-Nigerian actor and professor of cinema and theater at New York University.

Here are some images from the first days…
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I’ve been to a palace. But not to a palace any: the Ilorin Emir Palace. And not in a day any: the day his daughter was married. With some students I’ve been admitted to the ceremony of reading the Koran.

At the second floor, between the jokes of her friends in the women area, in the company of ladies who count – judges, ministers, lawyers, scholars – the future princess waited for the procession of the powerful visiting the father being run. Each coming prostrated himself to the Emir and took place at a distance descending importance, the political right, religious and cultural authorities  left.

When the princess came down, a perfect silence came over the assembly: the bride had to read the Koran in the presence of the highest authorities. Once finished this first part, they all went to the Central Mosque, that is a few hundred meters, the genuine marriage being held the next day with a grand reception.

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The second session of Power and Authority takes place at Kwara State University: our Vice-Chancellor Prof. Abdul-Rasheed Na’Allah will be the next subject representing power and authority. Since the Campus is still in construction we decide to take this portrait in the hall, using a pattern of arabish chairs as a set.

The VC is followed by Dr. Hamidat Sulyman Yusuf, our Senior Information Officer.

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I’m in Nigeria to teach photography at the brand-new Visual and Performing Arts Department of Kwara State University. I’ll work on two photographic projects, with the help of ten students and of the Public Relations Office personnel: Power and Authority and Art of Body.

With Power and Authority I want to explore the way power and authority represent themselves: I’m interested in any kind of person able to influence others’ behavior: teachers, politicians, policeman, religious ministers etc. Each step is explained to students in all details, from conception to post-production; we work together, visit our subjects, interview them, analize pictures, plan next steps.

This has been our first session: in Malete village, close to our Campus, live about 300 persons; for all relational issues people consult the magadji, who is nominated by the Emir of Ilorin. He receives visits sat on a carpet, outside his house and is often sorrounded by elders.

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Lagos, with its 17.000.000 inhabitants is the second most populous conurbation in Africa, behind Cairo, and the economic and financial capital of Nigeria. Read about Lagos on Wikipedia.

We are going to spend one day in this town, looking for contacts and pictures for next Awam’s exhibition, “See you, see me” which is going to take place in Lisbon, starting from september 2010. I will have some images there and I’m helping for researches.

I’ve never been back to Africa since I left it a the age of two years and I look around like a kid in a candies shop, though the phisical impact is hard: Lagos extends on a lagoon, temperature is around 35 Celsius and humidity is impressive: a veritable sauna.

All day is spent meeting people, exchanging ideas, informations, books, folders and business cards.
Our guide is Aderemi Adegbite , a young art manager,  who also works for The Guardian, he first introduces  Uche Okpa-Iroha, a young Nigerian photographer who emerged wimmer of the Seydou Keita grand prize at the Bamako Biennale in 2009, with a project on “invisible borders”.

Later on, we know Azu Nwagbogu, curator and director of the African Artists’ Foundation. “The African Artists’ Foundation, based in Lagos, has as its dual mission; the promotion of African arts and artists and the promotion of public health issues and awareness. The Foundation is unique in Nigeria in that it complies, not only with all the requirements of a charitable foundation in Nigeria, but is organized and incorporated to be recognized as a non-profit charitable foundation in the United States as well”.

The busy day ens at Bogobiri Club + Hotel, among the principal meeting point of numerous artist’s Lagos community and of the elegant young middle class. The most representative afrogerman musician Ade Bantu is there, with some friends working in the nigerian event business.

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view on African Artists’s Centre

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Awam and I leave Paris to Lagos on march 17; the flight will be short: only six hours separate  so different worlds.
All persons on board are travelling for work or business: families of emigrants leaving or reaching their homes, workers, businessmen. Nigeria is not a country that people visit as tourists.

A french young man seats next to me. He is a sailor, coming from Normandie, used to be a fisherman, like his father and his brother. But fishing industry is living a hard crisis, so he decided to apply to one of the principal oil companies in Nigeria. Now he is a small boat captain, patroling a large oil extraction area in the Niger Delta, together with four armed guards from a special corp of the Nigerian army. Three months in Nigeria and then three months with his family. Earning three times a fisherman salary, with no risks.

Commercial risks, of course, cause patrols are hired to protect oil wells from pirates and rebel organizations like MEND (read on Wikipedia). An ucrainian two seats farer does the same for a different company: Nigeria is the world’s fifth gas and oil producer. With small planes they will reach military bases where they will spend all their time: out of those borders are only water, bushes and small villages, that they can’t approach. They teach me the essentials in case of troubles: simply don’t get in troubles.

It’s time for landing. Six hours, literally, flew away.

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waiting in Paris, Charles de Gaulle, for Air France flight to Lagos

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watching sunset from my window in Lagos

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In 2003 I started working on a personal project about immigration in Italy, in collaboration with two friends and colleagues: Aldo Sodoma and Matteo Danesin. With the support of Culture Departments of the two cities of  Verona and Padova, we worked for almost three years with the aim to show the real life of a Nigerian and Ghanaian Pentecostal community.

The show, Portraits in Black, was accompanied by a catalogue showing our images and three essays about photography, pentecostalism, immigration. Three years later, thanks to Prof. Annalisa Butticci – a scholar of the Sociology Department of Padova University, working with Prof. Enzo Pace – the book landed on the desk of Prof. Awam Amkpa, teaching Theatre at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts; at that time he was working with Annalisa and others on a project called They won’t budge, a show about African Diaspora in Europe, which opened in New York in 2009.

A few months later Prof. Amkpa invited me to be part of the team that is working in Nigeria to start a new university, connected to NYU: the Kwara State University in Malete, Ilorin.

That’s it!

Now I’m here. I arrived on 19 april, assigned to introduce between 10 and 20 students to the celestial pleasures of photography. And also, at the same time, I’ve been given the freedom to produce whatever I think could be interesting and useful to explore and promote Nigerian culture, here and abroad.

So, I’m the Visiting Professor Marco Ambrosi; I’ll spend six weeks between April and May and will be back between September and December.

Glad to tell you short and simple stories about my African discoveries.

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