On Art, Politics and Radicalism (part two)
by Ladun Ogidan
Begun last week, we bring you the concluding part to the in-depth interview with award-winning artist Jelili Atiku on some of his most controversial performances.
Performance art often involves creating a spectacle. Do you ever worry that people are more focused on the spectacle rather than on the messages you’re trying to convey?
Every artwork is a spectacle because of the creation process. Of course, it could be something ordinary people are used to. However, when you create an object they are not used to, it may be viewed as a spectacle even though I try to create a dialogue in my mind. According to scientific research, a mental image or picture is the representation in a person’s mind of the physical world outside. So if the mind may view it as a spectacle because there are meanings, it must be understood. My expectation is for my work to start a dialogue, not to create spectacles. For example, in my performance Aragamago Will Rid this Land of Terrorism, I knew in my mind that I had succeeded in creating a dialogue. However, the king understood the meaning and reacted badly to it. The problem we face now is that our minds are already colonised, and so we don’t want to look beyond that colonised state or investigate further and to analyse within our minds, relevant questions like; What does this mean? What is the point of this discussion? What is the essence of this image I am looking at and how does it relate to my life? Instead, we stop at a point and don’t go any further because we tend to feel overwhelmed. For example, during my performances, part of my audience employ their Christian and Islamic consciousness, in relating to my work. This perspective creates a barrier, I earlier referred to as being colonised. When we attempt to move away from this state, we free up our minds to embrace change to understand new perspectives. Most of the pieces created are actually not separate from our individual experiences and are easy to relate to.
How do you negotiate issues of globalisation, as well as embrace external influences while maintaining cultural specificity in your work?
We talk about globalisation and sometimes I want to ask questions for us to understand what we mean by it? Does globalisation refer to me trying to remain, as I am—Nigerian when I travel all over the world? For example, if I visit the United States and discuss issues affecting the world, I would not talk as an American, but as a Nigerian. This means I am going there with my personal experience. In my opinion, when you examine people’s perception of globalisation, you’ll observe that a certain country is setting the parameters. I strongly disagree with these perceptions. It should be more of a contribution of ideas from every country. This is what makes it globalisation. So, if I am speaking about an issue regarding war, I shouldn’t be expected to talk about the experiences of war in the U.S, instead, I will talk about Biafran and the Boko Haram wars. When I talk about a certain issue that affects the world in general, it’s about terrorism, citing my town as an example, using the activities of the king. I cannot change the fact that he is my uncle, but I am fighting him squarely. This is how I use my identity and things that peculiar to me, to negotiate issues of globalisation.
What is the place of the audience in your performance and environment-based work, and how do you see them participating in the performance?
I must be frank; without the audience, there is no performance. The audience is one of the most important aspects of the performance. That is why in some of my drawings and preliminary sketches, I always imagine where my audience will be and how they will move with me. This is also peculiar to traditional performances in Yoruba. The egungun performance for instance, is always in a public space and there is always with the audience. It is a cordial one because they are dialoguing, which is an exchange or conversation between two people. Therefore, the audience is the most indispensable element in performance. Without them, my performance is nothing; it is empty.
Can you tell us about your longest running series ‘In the Red’?
‘In the Red’ started in 2008 as a project I first conceived from a past experience. I grew up without a father. He died while I was still in my mother’s womb so I never knew him. He was a soldier fighting on the side of the federal government during the Biafran war. He did not die at the war front, till shortly after he returned home to see my mum and I. The pain of not experiencing the love of a father constantly reminds me of the ills of war. I keep imagining he might still be alive if he had not gone to war. I didn’t know the cause of his death as no one told me. I assumed he must have gone through many psychological experiences, which have heavily influenced my thought process. I see war as an issue that affects humanity in an enormous way. An instance would be the period spent studying at Ahmadu Bello University when a religious war broke out between the students and some Islamic fundamentalists, who came to the campus to kill us; we spent the whole night defending ourselves. Some fundamentalists threw a big stone that landed on someone very close to me, whose body was suddenly filled with so much blood that I couldn’t look at it. I recall it was a horrible sight. The memory remained so strong that I titled my series ‘In the Red’. That event taught me that we cannot live without blood in our body. Blood is red but becomes a gory thing when it gushes out. That was how I tailored my performance to speak against the human tendency towards violence. It is about the consequences of war, violence and brutality. Borrowing the wrapping of a dead body from the Egyptian mummy, I designed a special costume. But I replaced the white with red as if the embalmed person died in war, while the blood, which is supposed to be concealed in him, is on the outside. In addition, the actions and the choreography of the performance and sound have to do with the pains of war, as well as a person dying of a horrific circumstance. Titled Rent Day, I am planning the concluding part of the performance, which has already been partly carried out in the U.S. You have to agree with me that there is constant violence or the threat of it all over the world, like Boko Haram here in Nigeria and ISIS abroad; this gives me much concern.
What has Jelili Atiku been working on recently?
There have been many projects; the most prominent being the IKAA performance in South Africa on the issue of oil spillage in the Niger Delta, followed by a performance in the U.S centred on human rights. I was awarded the Human Rights fellowship of the University of Chicago, so I also performed there. In the U.S presently, Trump’s utterances and actions show clearly he is attacking human rights. I already prepared my mind before Trump came in. The title of my performance in the U.S is Ajembete—a Yoruba word meaning ‘I give you something but it is fake’. This is exactly what the political leaders, policies, and systems do with human rights. They say they give you human rights but it is complete pretence. Why is it that on the day the US President was sworn in, the words civil rights and LGBT were removed? The whole world pretends about it. There is a sculpture in Bern, the capital of Switzerland, depicting a huge man eating babies. Switzerland is home to the United Nations; they have a secretariat there and still, they celebrate eating humans. Another important project is my performance at the Venice Biennale.
What are you showing at the Venice Biennale?
The theme I am working on is feminist energy, which is present in my performance Aragamago Rids This Land of Terrorism. The word Aragamago is a symbolic word for feminine energy. If I tell you the story, you will be amazed. The Yoruba believe everything about their religion is connected to Ifa. You go to a babalawo, who is the custodian of the Ifa when you want to know things about the Ifa. When he casts the divination, they call it Odu Ifa. Odu is the wife of Orunmila and Aragamago, the birds that god gave Odu as her power. To me, it is symbolic of feminine energy from the Yoruba perspective, and this is exactly what I have been exhibiting at the 2017 Venice Biennale. Here, I am working with 197 women from all over the world, each person representing a country. Many people do not understand the energy of a woman. There is no one in this world that did not emerge from this energy. We were all once sustained in the womb, and that is why it amazes me when we talk about feminism now. To me, I think it’s becoming an empty thing because people have lost their sense of direction. Feminism itself was born out of the fable that we have lost the essence and the reality of the woman. You cannot do without women because we originate from them. The world is sustained by feminist energy but if this is completely removed, the world will crumble. So in this performance, I try to show that we are in an era of confusion, healing and suffering, which only the energy of a woman can resolve. The world should without pretence, accept and integrate feminine energy into everything we do. For example, look at the crisis that Trump created and imagine if Clinton won the election instead. There is no way she would close her eyes to the suffering, because she is a woman and has that energy in her. People will call it weak, but women will not close their eyes to suffering because they know what it means to have life in their womb and to go through the pains of pushing it out. So Clinton would feel the pains of the migrants because they are looking for an opportunity to survive. She would feel their pains because she is a mother and has gone through that kind of pain. For example, I ran out during my wife’s last birth, as I couldn’t stand watching her go through the pains. This is because man is weak. Therefore, it is wrong to say women are weak, because though I am a man, I cannot bear the pains of child birth. Women are stronger, they are the ones who go through these pains, and every month they must shed blood for life. They have the guts and are the ones who can resolve the problems of life we face now. Right now, there is much confusion and pain. First, the blood in the body needs to be healed by women, and that’s exactly what I am doing in the performance. I am working with feminist energy; I am working with the heart and water. I am collaborating with women to heal the world. There is going to be a public call for volunteers to work with. However, I want to work mostly with the person representing Nigeria. Though she is blind, she is a princess. This is deliberately going beyond the physical level to bring attention to this most important energy of the women. This is why I was particular in my selection from Nigeria. It was also because I asked each volunteer to bring the earth (the soil) from every country and send it to the Venice Biennale for the performance.
How do you feel about Nigeria participating at the Venice Biennale for the first time, what does that say for us?
It is technical; I don’t think Nigeria is participating for the first time because some Nigerian artists like Emeka Ogboh were at the last edition. My participation is quite like theirs. I am not participating in the Nigerian pavilion. I am not a pavilion artist; I am an artist on the road, and that is the most important thing. I have been recognised for my contributions to humanity and like the curator mentioned, she is bringing an artist whose impulses are on the growth and sustenance of humanity. It is fantastic that I am being recognised for this, just like our forefathers who were artists did. Their concern was not the aesthetics of the work they produced, but the well being of the people. They knew that the heart plays an important role in the healing and wellness of the body, as well as the society, and everything about humanity. For me, I feel proud to be a Nigerian and happy that I have been chosen. This will also send a message to Nigerian political leaders that we have enormous talent in the country. We have several great and recognised artists, and so it is an embarrassment to say we are the “Giant of Africa” without a pavilion in Venice, while several artists from other African countries are participating; meanwhile, we have a ministry of culture but what have they been doing? The president moves from one country to the other to build bilateral relationships. So for me, it is a point of happiness that we are showing the Nigerian government that they are not working.
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