Political Vulgarity in the Margins

“The question of whether humor in the postcolony is an expression of ‘resistance’ or not, whether it is, a priori, opposition, or simply manifestation of hostility toward authority, is thus of secondary importance. For the most part, those who laugh are only reading the signs left, like rubbish, in the wake of the commandment. Hence the image of, say, the president’s anus is not of something out of this world—although, to everyone’s amusement, the official line may treat it as such; instead, people see it as it really is, capable of defecating like any commoner’s.” — Achille Mbembe, On the Postcolony (2001).

Last December while I was searching the University of Ghana Balme Library for information on mobile cinema vans I came across a series of political publications that had been, let us say, “customized” by students. Publications idealizing the Republic were filed with notes in the margins demarcating an alternative political text at times humorous, vulgar, or both. Photographs depicting unpopular political leaders had their eyes crossed out, photographs depicting the modernization of Ghanaian in the 50s and 60s were juxtaposed with narratives of a demoralizing “present”, while the illustration of a giant phallus sexually assaulted the image of a popular actress.

Accra Tema in Pictures (1969)

Today, the youth are left in the street to rot. Ghana on the Move (1965)

CHEAP MAN! Ghana 1974: A Review of 1973 (1974)

...a high sense of immorality. Ghana on the Move (1965)

I was led to this collection of documents when looking for the 1951 publication Achievement in the Gold Coast: Aspects of Development in a British West African Territory. This book was one of a number of publications published each year by the colonial government to demonstrate the advancements in the Gold Coast colony during the previous year. Filled with large glossy photographs and everyday parlance to describe development projects it is clear these publications served to aggrandize the colonial government for the general public, both within the colony and abroad. The practice of publicizing official government pomp continued after independence and into the present day. It was amongst this genre of publication that I found what I was initially looking for—Achievements in the Gold Coast—and the many other astounding political publications marked in the margins with anonymous political vulgarities.

They kill you!! Ghana 1974: A Review of 1973 (1974)

The Fante Elite. The Roadmakers: A Picture Book of Ghana (1961)

My absolute favorite unofficial addition is on the second to last page in the publication Ghana 1974: A Review of 1973 which shows eight disembodied Heads of State, seven of which visited Ghana in 1973, and Colonel I.K. Acheampong, the Ghanaian dictator who played host. The 1970s Brady Bunch layout inspires even the most politically apathetic into jests of government mockery. But it is really the “Oh Kutu? You no dey respect?” written in ink between the overly joyous President Hamani Diori of Niger and Colonel I.K. Acheampong’s penetrating stare, which lovingly as if from a chastising mother jibes at Acheampong’s failed vanity and exposes most vividly Mbembe’s postcolony. While obviously agitated enough to write the comment, the writer wasn’t angry. He doesn’t take a position directly against, but rather questions pointedly from the inside at Acheampong’s pathetic legacy.

Oh Kutu? You no dey respect? Ghana 1974: A Review of 1973 (1974)

I can in my mind, as I have already done, imagine this author. I envision a male Ghanaian student wading through the political propaganda in these publications and feeling impelled to write against the indulgent, portentous and self-gratifying histories as recorded by those then in power. I imagine as a young student his need to point out the absurdity of former regimes, those of his father. But not out of anger, out of something closer to boredom. If we are to take Mbembe seriously when he writes that, “such research must go beyond institutions, beyond formal positions of power, and beyond the written rules, and examine how the implicit and explicit are interwoven, and how the practices of those who command and those who are assumed to obey are so entangled as to render both powerless,” my imagined subject writes vulgar reprehensions not only against but also within the same violence of powerlessness and monotony that afflicts him.

However this historical subject is impossible. Not only because I’ve imagined his feelings and motivations but also because the moment he wrote his comments, whoever he/she was, he has brought an illusive perpetual present to bear upon History. Each comment, unlike the text on which he wrote, exists outside of concrete time. He writes not now and not then, but somewhere between the two. His comments will always effect and be affected by the present unless they can be tied down to a specific time. Now I can only speculate what it would mean if the vandal wrote his comments immediately following the coup that overthrew Akyeampong, or perhaps during the Limman presidency? Or maybe he wrote it after Rawlings had stabilized the country, but during the economic crises of the early 80s. And wouldn’t it be interesting if it was written in the last 10 years, when Ghana is experiencing unprecedented prosperity. I inadvertently acknowledge that the event happened sometime between the book’s publication and December 2010 when I carefully photographed each page, but for the person who picks up Ghana 1974 today “Oh Kutu?” could have been written yesterday. I enjoy considering him and his comments flexible and fluid in this way—straddled between future historians’ subjects and symbols, imaginary and real. I relish his transient ability to appear and reappear in a multiple of pasts and futures.

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