Black and white illustration of closeup of two figures

Akanke, of the Eshu, a ruling class of women warriors who created the Koba to serve them, is an overseer of mining production. The Eshu believe strongly in their right to manifest destiny. They never question their motivations and rarely challenge their beliefs to alter their society, surroundings, or their right to anything and anyone. They are trained to believe that they are a source of good in the world, despite the system of oppression that they stand to benefit from.

Aldo, of the Koba, humanoid men manufactured to work for the Eshu for mining and cultivating food, is a miner for weaponry. The Koba have no other purpose or choice but to fulfill and perform their function. They are as plentiful as they are dispensable, outnumbering the Eshu in population. They live in constant fear of their rulers who can ‘decommission’ them at any given time for any reason or lack thereof.

The Koba and Eshu are forbidden to forge sexual or emotional relationships outside of their own gender and class.

Part I

The first picture in the story sequence is Aldo’s first memory (Establishing the Plot, 2019). He does not know who, what or where he is, only the sensation of the making of his body, his shadow coming to form. The shadow represents consciousness of all beings and things in this story and can be interpreted as the embodiment of self. The first signs of a shadow signals personhood and awareness. When a being or thing lacks a shadow, it denotes a lack of consciousness or thought, while a hidden or absent shadow indicates a rupture.

The proceeding seven pictures depict Aldo’s acclimation to his tribe, his training, finding his partner and assimilating to his station (This is How You Were Made, Final Stages; Acclimation and Placement; Introductions: Early Embodiment (Koba); Placements: Memory Exercise; Mating Ritual; Courtship; and Semblance of Certainty, all 2019). This, in turn, is followed by eight pictures depicting Akanke’s sequence of consciousness and becoming, from birth to education and development, including finding her partner and assuming her post as overseer (This is How You Were Born, 2019; Unsupervised Education, 2019; Training for Compatibility, 2019–20; To See and to Know; Future Lovers; First Signs, First Development, First Weapon; A Parting Gift; Hers and Hers, Only; Suspicions; Left Behind; and Waiting on Assignments, all 2019).

These pictures read as mini-biographies, setting up the worlds Aldo and Akanke are assigned to and inhabit. The purpose of beginning the story from the perspective of the subjugated Aldo is intentional: to demonstrate how easily one can be indoctrinated into their systemic predicament. Between Aldo and Akanke, there isn’t a clear demarcation of good or bad with regards to who they are. The system within which they coexist is illustrated through the striated systems in place—with literal motifs of lines throughout the pictures—representing how the system is ever-present and felt, but not explicitly stated. The system is fact; it exists in the landscape that surrounds them, in the makings of who and what each of these characters happen to be.

Part II

Akanke and Aldo’s narratives converge in the following pictures, when Akanke visits Aldo’s Bardo, which is the name of a station or factory where the Koba are assigned to work. There are many Bardos in this world, each with a specific utility. Akanke, as an overseer, has come to inspect the latest mining excavations (Routine Inspection, 2019, and Routine Inspection II, 2019–20). In this system, it is often the case that Eshu overseers must travel between Bardos for inspections and quality control. Sometimes, while visiting, these overseers take a Koba with them as a kind of page or servant. While Akanke lounges with her partner, Konye, she witnesses Aldo carrying a heavy bounty of cultivated stone and chooses him to accompany her to the next Bardo (To Be Chosen and Not Known, 2019–20). It is decided that Aldo must now leave his partner, Traek, as well as his Bardo station and all he has ever known to serve her (Farewells, 2019). The two commence travels together, which span some time and, in the process, Aldo sees how large the world is (To the Next Outpost, 2019), while Akanke—unlike most Eshu who care little for their Koba servants—often indulges and educates him on the different environs they encounter (Rest Stop, 2019).

At some point, after all he has learned and accumulated in their travels, Aldo begins to understand the system’s unfairness, feeling compelled to tell Akanke his story and how they might go about enacting change. She does the unthinkable: she listens, comes to terms with her own position within the system and eventually agrees. Like Aldo, Akanke has been led to believe the system is fair and just, accepting it unquestionably while she and her kind benefit the most from it (An Understanding: A Lesson in Listening, 2019–20). A dialogue develops between them, despite their dialectic differences, and together they begin to formulate a new language through their exchange of ideas and information (Imitation Lesson; Her Shadowed Influence, 2019). This language forms the basis for structural disruption (Vocabulary, 2019), which slowly alters their surrounding landscape (Accepting Impermanence, 2019). In a sense, what they build from their exchange are the foundations of friendship and trust, hinting at how they might overtake the system. The form of this language is exemplified in the physical manifestation of sex, which in this case is the act of cunnilingus Aldo chooses to gift Akanke.

Part III

While Akanke and Aldo continue their travels, a Koba servant (Untitled (Study), 2019) of another Eshu (The Ruling Class (Eshu), 2019), driven to anger by his own predicament, commits a forbidden act. He steals the Eshu’s weapon—a staff that a Koba is never to touch (A Forbidden Impulse, 2019)—taking up arms (Call and Response, 2019) and murdering his master by attacking her shadow (Inciting Incident, 2019). This violent act is seen as an inexorable conclusion, culminating in the ways the striated marks are tense and disordered. The Eshu warrior is immediately rendered null by the act and her now formless shadow spills into the landscape, making it desolate (Altered Landscape, 2019).

When the abandoned body of the murdered Eshu warrior is found, the Koba of the Bardos are summoned before the empress of the Eshu for an inquiry and judgement (Summons; To Witness One’s Own, 2019–20; The Empress’s Guard, 2019; and Tribunal, 2019–20). Aldo, late to the summoning along with Akanke, is falsely accused. Akanke is distraught, but her partner, Konye, convinces her that she cannot let this be her ruin. If Akanke were to reveal her feelings for Aldo publicly, she would risk being implicated (A Considered Choice, 2019). Aldo is put to trial and sentenced to death as punishment (The Trial of One Wrongfully Accused, 2019–20). The hand that reaches out to him during his trial is that of his partner, Traek, who helplessly grieves for him.

Unbeknownst to everyone, Akanke is pregnant with the product of the couple’s ‘exchange’ (Consequences Unforeseen, 2019), and years later will deliver twins who are the merging of their races—the convergence of their respective ideas as well as their forms (Children of the Century; Twin Sister and Brother, 2019). Their entrance into the story will ultimately alter the landscape, as their parents did, to bring forth the demise of the system. Unfortunately for Aldo, Akanke and all those in their time, they will not live to witness this change. The final picture of the series takes place closer to our present time and reality. It depicts a monument of rock formations plentiful in central Nigeria, similar to Stonehenge. It pays homage to Akanke and Aldo, finally together and publicly so. Two faces, two stories, molded together in perpetuity (Parable Rock, Riyom, Nigeria, c.2200 BC, 2019).

— Toyin Ojih Odutola

Source: Toyin Ojih Odutola, “The Tale of Akanke and Aldo.” Text reproduced from Lotte Johnson, ed. (2020) Toyin Ojih Odutola: A Countervailing Theory [Exhibition catalogue]. London: Barbican Art Gallery.