Hauntings: a response

12 Nov 2021 - 17:15

By Lily van Rensburg


The Spirals virtual seminar series session on the 29th of October hosted Nnenna Onuoha, a Ghanaian-Nigerian researcher and artist based in Berlin, as the speaker with Dylan Valley, a filmmaker and lecturer in the Centre for Film and Media Studies at the University of Cape Town, as the discussant. Titled Hauntings, it explored depictions of ghosts and spirits as entry points into histories of slavery and colonialism that are met with denial or revisionism.

Nnenna Onuoha presented three short films as case studies. They address the silences and archival gaps in the histories of slavery and colonialism in places she has lived and worked in the past. For example, Onuoha attests to the history of Budapest’s human zoo, in which living black African people were displayed as living ethnographic objects, in the short film Journey with John. Using satire and exaggeration as cinematic devices, she points to the absurdity of early ethnographic films and the authority with which ethnographers recounted the lived experiences of others.

Onuoha, while living in Portugal, bore witness to problematic Portuguese assertions that their historical relations with Africa were more brotherly than exploitative. Covering a temporal expanse of over 600 years, her short film Lagos, Lagos presents a journey across the Atlantic ocean. Embodying the voices of voyagers who travelled between the coastal cities of Lagos, Nigeria, and Lagos, Portugal, the film testifies to the unequal history of movement between Africa and Europe. Onuoha counters the Portuguese’s romanticised version of events with mythological tales from the African continent. By introducing the figure of Mami Wata, a water spirit who lures greedy men off of their ships and into the ocean, Onuoha transcends the limits of the archive. Onuoha also points to the fact that the historical record, having been written by those in power, exonerates the perpetrators of violence as well as those who continue to benefit from this violence today. 

Onuoha’s final short film shown in the session, Rosenfelde addresses the absence of slave histories at the Friedrichsfelde Palace in Berlin. Onuoha collaborated with performers, dancers, musicians and cinematographers to embody ghosts of history and provide a speculative account of the palace’s colonial history. In doing so, Onuoha pays respect to the enslaved people who vicariously inhabited the palace in the past and affirms their presence within the present. Rosenfelde echoes the work of Carine Zaayman, who developed the ‘anarchive’ as a means through which to acknowledge the absence of presence (Zaayman, 2014:319).

In both Lagos, Lagos and Rosenfelde, Onuoha fabulates rather than reconstructs the lives of people who occupied the spaces she explores. History is not defined by fact, but by the inclusions into and exclusions from the archive by those in positions of power. Onuoha demonstrates that it is the duty of artists, filmmakers, and ordinary people, to challenge the archive and elevate those narratives that have been purposefully excluded from the historical record. 

Dylan Valley emphasised in his remarks after, that her work transcends the limits of conventional documentary filmmaking, which tends to reduce violent and complex histories to mere recollections of the past without conveying the positions they continue to occupy in the present. By  introducing the spectral to these depictions, she communicates their complete complexity and full reverberation. For decolonial thought to be fully embraced we require not only an acknowledgement of the historical brevity of colonialism and slavery, but an acknowledgement of how these histories continue to define our societies in the present.  

Thinking about it from my research context, the dual histories presented in Onuoha’s films are much like those embedded in the physical landscape of Cape Town. Cape Town’s historical landscape separately records a glorified and realist version of events, with, for example, a statue of Jan Smuts positioned at the entrance to the Slave Lodge. Onuoha’s films Journey with John, Lagos, Lagos, and Rosenfelde provide quintessential examples of how we might begin to acknowledge the intersections between these histories and address the gaps in the archive which have allowed for them to be ignored.

View the discussion, here.


Lily van Rensburg has a Bachelor of Arts specialising in Film and Media Production from the University of Cape Town. She is pursuing a career in heritage conservation and has previous experience working as a production manager, photographer, and art cataloguer. Lily is particularly interested in the transparency of arts institutions, and their willingness to make privately held information publicly accessible. In her Honours in Curatorship research she engages with Afrikaner nationalism and apartheid era art, investigating ways of dealing with such complex and violent collections in the political climate of today.


Zaayman, C. 2014. Anarchive (Picturing Absence). In Uncertain Curature: In and Out of the Archive. C. Hamilton, & P. Skotnes, Eds. Johannesburg: Jacana Media. 303-323.