In Nigeria, One Artist Documents the Post-Trauma Lives of School Girls

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Hadiza, 17, SS1 student of Shehu Sanda Kyarimi school with a childhood doll her mother bought for her when she was ten years old. Maiduguri, Nigeria, 2017© Rahima Gambo

Rahima Gambo’s Tatsuniya, which has recently been on show at Unseen Amsterdam, reflects on life in school following a Boko Haram attack in 2013

Shehu Sanda Kyarimi is a government school in Maiduguri, northeastern Nigeria. The school day starts every morning at 7.30am, when students pile through the courtyard to complete their morning tasks and go to their respective classes. On March 18, 2013, six Boko Haram gunmen stormed the building, killing one teacher and one student. Shehu Sanda Kyarimi was one of three schools in Maiduguri attacked that day.

Abuja-based Nigerian artist Rahima Gambo has spent the past two years travelling between the country’s capital and the school for Tatsuniya, her ongoing multimedia project. Tatsuniya is a conceptual continuation of Gambo’s series Education is Forbidden, and uses still images and video installations to depict the school’s young female students in their red-and-white uniforms as they go about their day-to-day lives. Gambo collaborated with the girls over a period of time, engaging them to re-enact scenes of childhood play and walks through the local park.

Tatsuniya carves out an alternative space that reimagines the violent trauma narratives typically crafted and presented by Western media. Through serene shots of candlelit services and snippets from notebook extracts, Gambo prompts the viewer to connect with these girls through shared memories of childhood friendships and collective play. Schools in northeastern Nigeria are still suffering from Boko Haram’s violence: UNICEF recently stated that since 2013 over 1,000 children have been abducted by Boko Haram. Yet, Tatsuniya counters this language of statistics. Instead, Gambo presents the students of Shehu Sanda Kyarimi as rounded individuals with dreams and worries, hopes and fears of their own.

On her role as a storyteller...
“I went back to Shehu Sanda Kyarimi because I was starting to question and critique my role as a photographer, storyteller and photojournalist who enters such spaces to present the world with a particular story. The experiences of the Shehu Sanda Kyarimi pupils, I thought, are multifaceted and multilayered, and go beyond the ‘trauma victim’ narrative I had first travelled there to inquire about.

“I wondered what answers I would receive if, perhaps, I asked a different set of questions that had nothing to do with the 2013 insurgency. This was the start of Tatsuniya, which means ‘folktale’ in the locally spoken Hausa language. I called the series Tatsuniya because it refers to a different mode of storytelling; one that is playful, experimental, collaborative and recalls childhood memories.”

On bringing photography to life
“I have spent a lot of time thinking about how I could create a moving sequence, as I know that there are many constraints to the editing process. Film stills were a big source of inspiration for Tatsuniya. I looked for moments of movement, and those fly-away gestures and expressions that reveal something more about the personality of each individual girl.”

On remembrance
“Photography is, at its core, about memory. But in Tatsuniya, I was curious to explore the various layers of consciousness; those memories pushed aside, lost or forgotten after a traumatic event has occurred. I understood my role as a photographer in this series to be about excavating and preserving the memories of each girl.”

On the therapeutic power of art
“Every piece of meaningful work should, on some level, be about understanding and healing past traumas. What you eventually find is that everyone is suffering from some sort of pain. An artwork can be a necessary meeting point between processing the viewer’s trauma, the artist’s trauma and the subject’s trauma. Art has a very important role to play in cultivating empathy and fostering solidarity, especially in these sobering times.”

Tatsuniya has recently been on display at Red Hook Labs as part of Unseen Amsterdam.