On Art, Politics and Radicalism (part one)
by Ladun Ogidan
Award-winning artist Jelili Atiku holds a Bachelors of Arts (fine arts) and Master of Arts (visual arts) from the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria. For decades, his themes have steadily revolved around contemporary African politics with a focus on human rights, as well as psycho-social and emotional issues of traumatic events such as violence, war, poverty, corruption and climatic change.
Atiku is widely travelled, performing and speaking on his work across Africa, Europe, South Korea, Japan and Canada. In 2015, he was honoured with the Prince Claus Fund Award for his “provoking performances that challenge assumptions and stimulate dialogue in an unconventional and dynamic form of community education; and for his pioneering dedication to establishing space for contemporary performance art in Nigeria.”
Jelili Atiku is presently the artistic director of AFiRIperFOMA, a collective of performance artists in Africa, and chief coordinator of Advocate for Human Rights through Art (AHRA).
How did you transition from a painter and sculptor to a performance artist, and what drove you to choose performance art as your primary medium?
Firstly, I would like to mention that it is not a transition as they employ the same process. I am both a painter and sculptor; I cannot leave one for the other. However, I am primarily an artist, an interdisciplinary artist. My reason for performance art is as a result of my quest for self-decolonisation. You would agree that during the colonial period, our art suffered many setbacks. For example, performance art is the most ancient and prominent practice in Yoruba land and of course in Africa but when the British came, they changed several things about us. Looking at the egungun (masquerade) for example, you may notice that the sculptor creates colourful costumes imbedding several meanings, as well as incorporating poetry and dance. For me, this is art in complete form. I see painting as a language of colour and sculpture as a language of form. If these two are therefore represented in that basic form of the egungun, then I am an artist whose performance practice has evolved from my conscious effort to be who I intrinsically am – Yoruba person.
Do you favour performance over painting and sculpture?
It is not that I favour performance, but as an artist, I want my art to be total. What do you term it when I sometimes paint my body in my performance? I also sometimes sculpt, as well as incorporate objects that become part of my performance. Whether it is painting, sculpture or graphics, I am an artist who integrates all materials in my environment, I want to go beyond being seen as a painter and sculptor.
You are more of an activist; as your work like Senate are You a Rotten Head, is quite confrontational. What led you in this direction?
I am first of all an artist but because the literal meaning of an activist is someone who is working towards achieving social and political change, I will accept it if you call me one. However, when you look at this deeply, I am just an artist. The function of an artist is to activate the environment but if I try to activate mine and you call it activism, then I would disagree with you. I am trying to be a pure artist who does not feel that I should use my talent to earn money just for myself, rather it is for me to enhance the consciousness of my audience. That is exactly what I did in Senate are You a Rotten Head?
Most of the things that happen to us in Nigeria are as a result of bad policies, bad governance, and poor leadership. When you look at the democratic structure, the senate is like a watchdog. They are the ones formulating these policies and regulating them, and so when there is a problem in the society you must look to those who are in charge. At the time of the performance, there was a strong allegation of embezzlement against the speaker of the House of Representatives so I asked the question, are you a rotten head? Because when the head is rotten, the entire body is decayed. It is only a simple way of questioning, as I tend to query many things in my work. You have to be active regarding the political structure/system of your country. This is what makes us human and what makes me a Nigerian. If I live in a country where something is affecting me and I shut my mouth, then I become compliant and part of the instrument that destroys the system. This is why I choose to perform.
What is your opinion on censorship and what has been your biggest setback?
To me, censorship is a tool of human rights abuse, which I am unfortunately just experiencing. During the military era, people were skeptical of speaking up because they were afraid of being picked up. But in this democratic period, I never had any reason to feel that I would be stopped in Nigeria for doing my work, until my performance Aragamago Will Rid this Land of Terrorism. The performance itself was in criticism of the king and so he was offended. He lied to the police who then came to pick me up. It was then I began to question our freedom of speech. Like I said earlier, censorship is a tool of human rights abuse. As Nigeria is one of the human rights signatories, we know about our human rights. So if one is saying that I have to censor certain aspects of my work, which ordinarily is not constitutional, then one is also telling me that I’m not fit to live as a human being. Censorship is also a big setback in the creative field, because if you are afraid to say certain things then you cannot be free and when you are not, your artistic expression will not flow. This is why I want to strongly campaign against it.
But since the issues with the king, have you censored any of your performances?
No, my piece Senate are You a Rotten Head? is even more political. If I were afraid, I wouldn’t do the performance. I try as much as possible to feel and behave as a human being. If I feel threatened and chicken out, then I am not human, but an animal. Some animals will harm you mostly in self-defense when you get too close to them and are unaware of their presence. I don’t feel that I should chicken out because there is a threat to my life, as that would ensure I do not live as a human being.
You collaborated with artists like Lan Hungh and The Old Goods Yard Group (TOGYG). How did you work together to produce pieces?
Mostly, I collaborate not only with artists but also with materials, employing ontology as a principle. Ontology means using or collaborating with objects in their true essence without colonising them. For instance, if I want to create a piece using your example, I will notify you. Likewise if it is my work, I will invite you to give you a scope of what I am doing so that you still have enough creative freedom. This allows me to enjoy your freedom and energy. The artist or material has a special energy, which contributes to the work. I try as much as possible never to control that. I do my work spontaneously without restrictions. I only have to explain to the artist what I want to achieve, and what I don’t want to go beyond. It is like a dialogue that ensues, and finally we get to where we intend.
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