The Coral Rig

Still from a film by Onyeka Igwe, 'No Archive Can Restore You'

It is the middle of a sunny afternoon in the clear water off the west coast of Nigeria. Nnenne floats deep below the surface, seeing the coral reef for the first time. It is not an ordinary coral reef: it has bloomed over decades from the abandoned drilling rig. Half a century earlier, hundreds like it had been built offshore to facilitate oil extraction, and then eventually, each one from that first generation had closed. In the delicate underwater ecosystem, the disused rigs have succumbed to a proliferation of marine life that has obliterated their previous function. Nnenne watches colourful invertebrates sway along the leaning beams and darting schools of fish disappear behind labial plants.

Nnenne is the great-granddaughter of the people who lived along the coast when the colonial administration first came. Instead of farming or fishing or hunting, they had encouraged a transition to mining. Mining infrastructure grew until the oil companies came to prospect, and slowly all of the villages merged into a town that was soon a major city. Oil refineries were built, universities established and eventually no-one’s lives were as they had been. Some children were sent away to work or to study, and some of those children had children, and the children of those children had children, and one of those children is Nnenne.

Nnenne floats in the water and all around her is silence, and she thinks of her mother and her mother’s mother and of those who had worked in mines and then in the refineries and then in the universities. When she grew old enough Nnenne started to ask questions that her mother and her grandmother would not or could not answer. She wanted to know what happened and how it happened. Before her the coral rig is indifferent to her floating presence. The great silence of the water opens up and she hears the voices of her mother and her mother’s mother telling her about the village on the coastline that was swallowed up by the city.

After they told her these stories she became interested in oil. The change brought by the oil industry was not like the other transformations introduced by empire—the cinemas, the churches or the universities. When prospecting and drilling began along the coastline, everyone was affected by the regular oil spills and increased militarisation. She was fascinated by the fluidity with which her ancestors had adapted. She wanted to know what happened in the aftermath of such industries, to the people, and the land. She herself had felt lost at university until she began to pursue this archival research into colonial history and the oil industry. This gave her a path and she followed it steadily until it led her to coral and rigs and marine biology.

Still from a film by Onyeka Igwe, 'No Archive Can Restore You'

The mask and gas tank she wears as she wades in place at a distance from the rig and deep below the ocean’s surface belong to the university. After being turned away by the oil companies it was to a local university that she went to ask after the location of the disused oil rigs. Scientists spoke to her openly and volunteered their students to help. One professor saw in her eyes, this stranger who looked like him and sounded like a foreigner, how desperately she sought some connection. Though he did not believe connection was possible in the way that she wanted it, he was compassionate. They met with his students in the marine biology department and set her up with the equipment. On an enormous topological survey map they found the dots and symbols that identified the abandoned oil rigs along the coast.

The city exists under a cloud of toxic soot: a thin layer of it covers all exposed surfaces. A state of climate emergency has been declared but the corporations and the industries are too powerful to be stopped. And so people try to limit their time outdoors or cover their faces with old pieces of cloth and otherwise go on with their daily lives. Sounds had mapped Nnenne’s movements beneath the cloud: the voices of children and vendors on the street, the loud motors of cars and mopeds wrestling for space on the road, music from phones and boom boxes and open windows. She wore a mask to breathe and fumed at the soot. Anger marked her trajectory through the city, amongst the agglomeration of descendants of people who had once lived along the coastline, like her grandmother, and her grandmother’s mother.

Still from a film by Onyeka Igwe, 'No Archive Can Restore You'

Nnenne is devastated by the toxic cloud. To her it is a literal manifestation of all the ills of the country’s colonial legacy. Industrial development = poisoned air. But underwater it seems like none of this matters. In the ocean, intervals of time are marked by the growth and expansion of new life—geologic time is of a different scale. Here one does not count years, but rather sediment, fossilisation and proliferation. In the quiet, where she floats, the proliferation of invertebrate life marks out another sort of progress. In the city she had seen grime and pernicious traces of empire all around, in the smell of the air and the noise and bustle of the streets. Underwater, in the silence, Nnenne hears nothing at all, and this not hearing allows her to see otherwise.

The silence maps her relationship to the people of the coastline—it contains a stillness that mutes and swallows history like a vacuum. She had sought to reconnect with this ancestral place by looking at the archives of the oil industries, only to arrive at a structure that is nothing like what she had desired or expected. Colonial history and the oil industry had obsessed her, but the first rig she has found is completely disarmed and remade in marine life and coral. She fights against disappointment, because to be disappointed in this beauty would be to betray the ethical imperative to celebrate the ruin of empire. In this blossom of life, extraction has yielded an unexpected futurity.

This text was written to accompany Onyeka Igwe’s film No Archive Can Restore You, commissioned as part of Artists in the Cinema 2020.


Yaniya Lee

Yaniya Lee is a Toronto-based writer and editor interested in collective practice and the ethics of aesthetics. She was a founding collective member of MICE Magazine and is a member of the EMILIA-AMALIA working group. Last fall, Lee co-convened the Bodies Borders Fields symposium with curator Denise Ryner. The 3 day series of workshops, performances and talks revisited a 1967 roundtable conversation from artscanada magazine on the theme of 'black.' Together, Lee and Ryner will co-edit the summer issue of Canadian Art magazine, where she currently works as Features Editor.