Cinema of Commoning 2
Symposium, Screenings, Talks
Coconut Head Generation: The Agonists of the Undercommons

Cinema of Commoning Intern Abisola Oni responds to Alain Kassanda’s Coconut Head Generation, which screens as part of the Cinema of Commoning Symposium Opening on Thursday 4 July 2024.

Coconut Head Generation (Alain Kassanda, 2023)

I gravitated towards SiNEMA TRANSTOPIA and the Cinema of Commoning project to fulfil the internship requirement for my graduate degree. I appreciated their social efforts, using the cinema as grounds for commoning (an idea that I wasn’t sure how to describe, at first). When my colleagues invited me to watch and respond to Alain Kassanda’s 2023 documentary film, Coconut Head Generation, my desire to grasp the act of commoning grew. Given my diasporic Nigerian heritage and a bittersweet association with institutionalized education, I felt connected to the experiences of the students depicted in Kassanda’s film. This point of connection informs my response, and can be applied to the experiences of students in universities worldwide that operate under our shared colonial condition.

A thread in the tapestry defining the commons is drawn in the first podcast episode produced for the Cinema of Commoning Symposium. In Foyer Conversations: What is the Commons? architect and activist Stavros Stavrides explains the concept of commoning as an action; commoning is not an established situation, but rather a practice of non-hierarchical caring for shared resources. Take, for example, a forest. The forest may belong to the State or a private landowner, but the benefits of the space can be enjoyed by anyone, as long as they respect the limitations of their impact on the environment. A practice of commoning fosters community-focused sharing towards the prospect of social justice, situating the political space of the commons equally distinct from state control and free-market dynamics. The space of commoning is a goal for societies to strive for, as a true commons rarely materializes.

In theory, the University represents a form of “the commons.” We students pay tuition to benefit from the common good the institution provides – education, social interaction inspiration – and our participation benefits the commons in turn. Those who use the commons should also have the active capacity to influence how it shapes their lives. In Coconut Head Generation, I see the act of commoning within a University setting in action. The act is represented by the resilient efforts of politically-engaged youth that work to disrupt the appearance of an integrated institutional commons. 

There is a curious tension between the institutional commons, the public face of the University, and the student-led commons on the underside. I would propose that the only way to create a genuine commons is to disrupt the illusion of the false one. This is the work of the “agonists” of the undercommons. The group of people that I call “agonists” share a perspective that openly challenges the status quo, revealing new ways to engage with society (1). Agonists play a crucial role in institutions because without the tension they produce, collective complacency can lead to unexamined injustices. Fred Moten and Stefano Harney inspire my understanding of the “undercommons,” a concept that visualizes a position within the University that resists its colonial underpinnings (2). To me, the undercommons is a position of punching upwards — I remind the University of my presence through every piece of writing I produce under its influence.

Coconut Head Generation (Alain Kassanda, 2023)

Coconut Head Generation opens with a visual comparison of past and present graduation ceremonies, a choice that highlights the fact that the University of Ibadan was the first university in Nigeria, founded during the colonial era. The images contrast the stiff colonial style with the relaxed style of today, and the comparison reminds me of the racist fallacy that Africans are better off now with legacies of European institutions.

In the cultural hybridity produced by the reality of colonization, students now organize within and underneath the colonial infrastructure, focusing their discussions on decolonial and postcolonial topics. The Thursday Film Series club’s monthly film program explores themes such as transnational African politics, migration and mobility, intersectionality, and the repatriation of looted artifacts and ancestral remains to Africa. The film’s youth trace the legacies of colonial violence and cultural policing, linking these historical abuses to their activism against contemporary police brutality and the atrocities committed by SARS (Special Anti-Robbery Squad).

The space of the film club is introduced with the roar of a generator. The image and sound remind me of generators used to power underground raves. I find it intriguing how the sourcing of power external to state influences permits an alternative commoning. 

Coconut Head Generation (Alain Kassanda, 2023)

Balanced with moments of empowerment, the atmosphere of the film depicts the hopelessness of the students in their association to the University and the State. Their worries relate to issues experienced by students back home in Toronto. The students in the film repeat: “School is a scam; We are homeless; We graduate with no hope of getting a job in our field.” 

The University professionalizes individuals into a privatized humanity (2). This sad reality becomes violent when academic institutions extort their students and faculty, asking them to sign agreements not to protest in exchange for access to the commons. Such a situation is depicted in Kassanda’s film, in the aftermath of student-led protests in 2017, but this experience of becoming a fugitive to the institutional commons is not unique to the University of Ibadan. Screening the film in other locations can share activism across borders. The agonists of the undercommons are the voices you hear criticizing the authoritarian tendencies in colonial institutions. What happens when agonists come together to resist the individualization that the University produces and model commoning in the undercommons?

Coconut Head Generation (Alain Kassanda, 2023)

What I admire most about the act of commoning depicted in Kassanda’s film, as taken up by the film club and young activists, is that it is not carried out by a singular agonist public. The film thoughtfully depicts agonism within the groups through passionate debates and the recognition of differences that illustrate the unattainability of a flattened unity. The youth are more focused on understanding each other than they are on agreeing. The group is aligned on the necessity to struggle against the current conditions, but recognize the workings of oppression in which they are complicit, considering the nuances of feminism, tribalism, and the adverse implications of seeking political power from a minority position. The undercommons cannot be a place where everyone agrees. I was most riveted by the sections of this film depicting debates amongst the youth. The students and activists model a society of commoning that challenges the act of silencing and listens in an open discussion.

Coconut Head Generation (Alain Kassanda, 2023)

Student agonists of the undercommons reflect on methods of commoning that support institutional justice. We have witnessed the struggle festering within academic institutions globally, as universities pursue legal action to remove student protestors advocating for divestment from institutions involved in Israel’s occupation of Palestine. The University communicates that encampments on the school ground are taking away from the common good (that is, land and property). This tension between institutional control and the agonists of the undercommons is felt all over the world. In the urban Nigerian context, the “Coconut Head Generation” reclaims the contemptuous label to celebrate the stubbornness of the collective of youth who are self-conscious and resistant to the conditions of (post-)colonial society.

In the context of the Symposium program, Kassanda’s film introduces the public to a Cinema of Commoning by depicting the depth of coming together. Our challenge is to rise up and share a space that does not silence agonism; To carry out a commoning that recognizes multiplicity within the struggle against oppression is necessary in a discourse oriented towards social justice. 

Abisola Oni is a candidate for the Master of Visual Studies in Curatorial Studies at the University of Toronto. She is an artist, curator, and researcher.

1. Chantal Mouffe, “Artistic Activism and Agonistic Spaces,” Art and Research 1, no.2 (2007): 1-5.
2. Fred Moten and Stefano Harney, “The University and the Undercommons: SEVEN THESES,” Social Text 22, no. 2 (2004): 101–15.