To preserve the past and build a more colorful future at the Elizabeth's Daughter Memoir Gallery & Artist Residency
“I knew it was so much more than a book.”
When I touched down in Nigeria, the equatorial air was hot and sticky.
It was 2010 and I was on leave from film school trying to figure out what was next. I did a 3-day leadership summit in Lagos, then traveled to Uyo, Akwa Ibom State, with a mission to learn more about my mother’s life.
I needed to know her story, but I couldn’t ask her directly –
My mother had died eight years earlier.
While in Uyo, I went from house to house, returning to knock on doors several times with hope that one of my mother's old friends would be home.
I conducted dozens of interviews. I shot film, took pictures, and collected old photos from friends and family members...like my grandmother, Patricia, who lived most of her life in Calabar, in nearby Cross River State.
And every day, I wrote.
You see, my mother had always wanted to write her story but never got the chance—so I took it up for her.
My name is Iquo B. Essien, and I am Elizabeth’s daughter.
In 2013, I wrote a memoir called Elizabeth’s Daughter in Words and Pictures.
The book examines my mother’s departure from Nigeria, her life and death, and my eventual return to her homeland.
It is also a story about a grief-stricken daughter coming of age as an artist and young woman. My own journey to uncover her life led me to explore the complex intersections of religion, politics, language, history, and identity.
Now in 2021, Elizabeth’s Daughter in Words and Pictures is so much more than just a book—
It’s a catalyst for preserving the history of my family and Ibibio people, and uplifting a community of African womxn artists.
In the years since writing the memoir, I've continued to collect audio recordings, photos, videos, journals, and archival documents.
Now as a keeper of potentially lost history, it’s my duty to bring it to a wider audience.
This project is my attempt to preserve not only my family’s legacy, but also that of the most ancient Nigerian ethnic group—the Ibibio. As a language primarily passed down orally, this culture has only recently begun to be documented.
Today I’m asking for your help to build a memoir gallery and residency for African womxn artists on my family's historical land in Calabar.
This project will directly support writers, filmmakers, dancers, musicians, painters, sculptors, and others who preserve and promote culture through their work. (And the first residency project will be my debut feature film, Back Home, inspired by my relationship with my grandmother!)
In an era when countless elders are dying of a novel virus, I believe cultural preservation is the most important work of our time. Without it, we're in danger of losing our languages, cultures, and customs forever.
Your gift today will make it possible for a woman to pick up a camera – a pen – a paint brush – an instrument – and to share her story.
The future site of the Elizabeth's Daughter Memoir Gallery & Artist Residency stands on the land of my late grandfather, Chief Paul Bassey Okon (pictured below left). A teacher and businessman, he became a chief and the first clanhead of Etoi. He had many wives, among them my late grandmother Patricia (pictured below right).
When my grandfather was a teacher and businessman in colonial times, our family land provided a resting place for countless Ibibio people passing through town.
When he died and left my grandmother a single mother, the land provided subsistence farming so she could feed her young family.
And as she aged into her later years, the farm became a gathering place for generations of family including my own lengthy stays in 2003, a year after my mom died, and again in 2010.
The compound consists of a farm, a two-family bungalow dwelling, boys’ quarters, and a bore hole. Honoring my family’s legacy, I plan to renovate my grandmother’s living quarters into the memoir gallery and convert the other side into an artist’s residency with studio space.
With the addition of solar panels, eco-friendly building materials, and “people power” (programs, events, visiting artists, donations, and grants), there will be plenty to enliven and sustain the space for years to come.
This land bears the deep impression of my family’s history.
My grandmother’s life span alone from 1912 to 2013 covers an astonishing stretch of Nigerian history.
From the establishment of indirect rule all the way through the youth-led movement for good governance and public accountability in 2011, she lived through it all.
These very types of personal and national histories will comprise the memoir gallery.
My hope is this:
- That the Elizabeth’s Daughter Memoir Gallery & Artist Residency positively impacts the lives of African womxn artists, the Ibibio people, Nigerians, and global patrons.
- That it provides local artists with new jobs
- That it spurs additional interest in a region renowned for its history, culture, and tourism.
Thanks to the generous support of donors, we reached our first goal of $30,000 to purchase the land. I am now asking for your help in raising our first reach goal of $45,000. And we’re already more than half-way there!
Every dollar raised will go directly towards building and sustaining this center. We don’t have to stop at $45K, in fact anything above and beyond the land purchase price will be allocated towards:
- establishing 501(c)(3) status
- developing the gallery exhibit
- cataloguing the content archive
- purchasing a domain name
- creating the virtual gallery
Unfortunately, cultural preservation for its own sake is not a common practice among Nigerians or the Ibibio.
I have seen firsthand how poorly family photos, stories, traditions, and customs are generally kept. And I’ve lamented as family members have passed away and left few personal artifacts behind.
In the years since writing the memoir, I've amassed a collection of audio recordings, photos, videos, documents, journals, and more.
This content deserves to be shared with living and future generations.
Three reasons why this project is worthy of investment:
- Land loss has plagued black communities around the world for generations, and I'm determined to secure my family’s legacy.
- Since the pandemic began, the deaths of elders have robbed global communities of precious bonds and traditions.
- Our stories matter in their own right.
As literature professor and critic Edward Said wrote, “We must move from being objects to becoming subjects of our stories.”
This is not just about me, my mother, or my grandparents –
It’s about the preservation of our past and enrichment of the future.
Whether you are a historian, teacher, writer, filmmaker, visual artist, or dancer, each of us has a role to play in creating and preserving the historical record.
And this project has the potential to document the stories of hundreds if not thousands of Africans so their memories aren’t forgotten.
The Elizabeth's Daughter Memoir Gallery & Artist Residency will be a beautiful space to think, explore, create and grow. Please help make this project a reality with your best gift today!
"The Ibibio elite resident at Calabar included David Ekot, a court clerk of Calabar Native Court, Paul Bassey Okon, a teacher at Duke Town School, Albert Offiong of the Medical Department, and Nyong Essien. In October 1924, Nyong Essien, an interpreter in the Supreme Court, invited mainland Ibibio to his house in Calabar and formed the Ibibio Association and Community League (commonly known as the Ibibio Union). [It] became the foremost political vehicle of Ibibio and Annang elites during the colonial period." (Pratten, David. The Man-Leopard Murders: History and Society in Colonial Nigeria. Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press, 2007.)
When I was 10 years old, my mother Elizabeth started a dance troupe, the Center for African Fashion and Cultural Awareness (CAFCA), in the basement of our home.
Through CAFCA, she fulfilled her vision of sharing her Nigerian culture and tradition throughout Upstate New York, one of the first Africans in the area to do so.
I continued to perform traditional dance as a Stanford University undergrad, and went on to earn an MFA in film from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. My multimedia work explores themes of familial relationships, home, migration, and the passing on of culture from the older to younger generations.
During the past 15+ years, I've been Communications & Marketing Director of two arts nonprofits and a boutique consulting firm; worked as a strategy and business consultant; launched several of my own creative ventures; and now help other people launch theirs.
My films have screened in 14 countries worldwide, including at the Panafrican Film & Television Festival of Ouagadougou (FESPACO), the Durban International Film Festival, New York African Film Festival, and Zanzibar International Film Festival.
My short film, Aissa's Story, was a semifinalist in the 2013 Student Academy Awards, won Best Student Short at the 2014 Africa International Film Festival, and was a Best Short Film nominee at the 2015 Africa Movie Academy Awards.
A recipient of a Hedgebrook Writers’ Residency, I have contributed to Gawker, Okayafrica, Shadow & Act, Guernica, and Essence.com. And in 2019, I was a NYSCA/NYFA Artist Fellow Finalist in Screenwriting from The New York Foundation for the Arts for my debut feature screenplay.
I realized back in film school that fundraising is not a transactional exercise, but rather an opportunity to build a community around a dream.
With gratitude and an open heart, I share my dream with you today. I ask that you also share with others in honor of the strong women who came before us. I am ready to carry the torch from where they left off.
With your support, may it shine even brighter!
For press or partnership opportunities, please email: [email protected].
I have what it takes to make this dream possible. From a content perspective, I have the archive. From a resource perspective, I have access to the land, a local designer/architect, and potential development partners. And from a planning perspective, this project is a culmination of many years of dedicated work and ideation.
I have the vision and fortitude to see this through.
Despite all this, there may be setbacks.
The challenge with this project is the construction and mounting of the exhibit in the physical space. My contingency plan is to create a pilot gallery exhibit in partnership with a museum or cultural space in the United States, and to catalogue and display the content archive in a beta virtual gallery.
As I’ve created and managed many content archives and websites before, creating the virtual gallery will be a streamlined process that could be built even before the physical structure is completed. I could then leverage the exhibit and virtual gallery for additional funding toward the memoir gallery and artist residency.
- My e-book, Elizabeth’s Daughter in Words and Pictures, will be sent to your email address on record at the completion of the campaign.
- If you selected either of the courses, “Launch Your Dream” or “Crowdfund Your Dream,” your login instructions will be delivered by email.
- T-shirts and tote bags will be delivered by mail a few weeks after the campaign is finished.
I have an incredible network of experienced advisors to support me—and a reserve of skills garnered as a 15+ year creative professional. If you would like to know more about what I’ve learned from my fundraising and marketing background, visit www.crowdfunddream.com to hear how I help other artists and creative entrepreneurs launch successful projects, too.