Wilfred Ukpong: BC1: Covenants & 16 Prayers for Our Future World (Part Two)
Begun yesterday, we bring you the concluding part to the in-depth interview with multidisciplinary artist Wilfred Ukpong.
Performance art often involves creating a spectacle. What is the place or role of the audience in your performance and environment-based work. Do you ever worry that people are more focused on the spectacle rather than on the messages you’re trying to convey?
Talking about the notion of spectacle, in his book, Society of the Spectacle, Guy Debord a French theorist, philosopher, and filmmaker defines spectacle as a “passive, individualistic, quasi-visual relation to the social world.” This notion of spectacle here conceives the individual as divorced from the collective praxis that constructs the social world, where he or she is reduced to consuming corporate-supplied entrancing narratives. In my performative practice, I am interested in creating conversations between methodologies of spectacle and participatory performance that tend to be socially engaging while building platforms for new discussions within an environment. I think this is seemingly akin to the kind or relational spectacle deployed in performance within the traditional African art context where communal audiences are active participants. In other words, my work employs the physical allure of spectacle as a catalyst to engage the audience in developing critical discusses that can proliferate into social actions.
How do you negotiate issues of globalisation, as well as embrace external influences while maintaining cultural specificity in your work?
Of course, we are living in a globalised landscape, and many contemporary artists like myself are responding to this new globalised perception through our experiences and encounters across time and space. This modality often calls for new forms of representation and working methodologies that intercept through a spectrum of socio-cultural information and communication. For me, I can say that I am more of a “Homo Viator” artist traversing through trans-national entities and inhabiting multiple spaces. I live and work out of Nigeria, France, UK, The Netherlands and South Africa. My work tends to mediate through these various landscapes and cultures in forms of what is referred elsewhere as “materialising trajectories.” These trajectories mediate and create transformative pathways between multiple visual expressions while responding to socio-cultural, economic and environmental specifics of a context. ‘Blazon Century-1’, the first installment of my ten-part multidisciplinary art project is exemplary to this working mode as it specifically maps and responds to the conditions of the embattled Niger-Delta environment, yet set within a broader cultural context.
Your recent performance at the opening of the Zeitz MOCAA in South Africa was well received. Please tell us more about it, as well as the impact the museum will make on the continent.
It was an exciting opportunity to be in Cape Town during the inauguration of the Zeitz MOCAA, the most significant museum in the world dedicated to contemporary African art and the first on the entire continent with the capacity and resources to present large-scale exhibitions that would otherwise not be on view anywhere in Africa. I was especially interested in developing dialogues with the audience, as well as the museum environment through a series of disruptive performance interventions as an extension of my ongoing work in the rural Niger-Delta, yet positioned within this South African urban context. The performance was previously enacted in Johannesburg, at the Mesh in Rosebank and at the FNB Art Fair, Sandton. In Cape Town, a complimentary installation site was also created during the Espresso TV show to attract and extend the work to a broader non-art audience in South Africa. The work, involving four actors was conceived as a critique of ‘commodified’ and ‘non-social’ art objects through a developing interest in ‘mediating objects’ that range from performance props to sculpted actors creatively forced to collide with everyday urban objects while contrasting different forms of power and authority. The aim was also to disrupt the museum’s environment shaped by the socially, culturally, and economically structured dynamics of the difficult-to-read presence of a symbolic ritual that seemingly resembles a frightening scene from a science fiction movie. Engaging such a strange encounter in this grand space was quite riveting and rewarding in a sense that it served as an intrinsic medium in shaping the audiences’ modes of perception on the notion of an “object”, whilst developing new socio-cultural and political categories and a space for alternative interaction.
However, the Zeitz MOCAA is a significant platform for artists and cultural practitioners on the continent to shift and present their distinctive discourses along with their perspectives, identities, and narratives into the overlong-hegemonized Eurocentric art history. I think it is about time for us Africans to start telling our own stories and this platform serves the purpose.
You are planning a major exhibition in Nigeria. What do you hope to achieve, and how different do you think the reception will be compared to that received from Western-based audiences?
It is an exciting moment to unveil this extended body of work after seven years of self-imposed hiatus from art exhibitions. Of course, disappearing from the art scene is not an excellent career choice, but it was highly imperative to dedicate a substantial amount of time to investigate new ways of working beyond the art of making beautiful objects. It became a preoccupation to explore the margins where art’s autonomy and social practice can intercept. As a researcher working between Oxford and the Niger-Delta, there was a need for extensive academic research and time to test these underlying concepts through related projects in another part of the world.
This new oeuvre, ‘Blazing Century 1’ is developed in the Niger-Delta alongside the participation of community youths. The work is context specific, yet inhabiting global tendencies and contemporary sensibilities. This first major exhibition at Omenka Gallery is titled BC1: Covenants & 16 Prayers for Our Future World. The installation exhibition will feature a series of sixteen fine art photographs, two large sculptures and a sound installation invoking subversive visionary dimensions rooted in the contextual perimeters of the Niger-Delta universe. The work encapsulates an overarching interest in social practice, philosophy, religion and the arts while exploring critical discourses, which open up new possibilities for the field.
I think Nigerians are profoundly religious and might be sensitive to the embedded religious elements in the work even though some might be muddled by the use of enigmatic symbolism, and strong colour compositions within an otherworldly universe, which might be designated, ritualistic. However, I believe Western-based audiences are going to be compelled by the socio-environmental content, formal aesthetic structure and alternative materials deployed in my work (which reflects on my absorption in high-fantasy and science-fiction narratives). I prefer open-ended reading with cues of fragmented information, which serve as indexes to allow the reader engage actively and freely. In prospection, I hope this exhibition will provide a reflective and engaging platform for art patrons, enthusiasts, cultural practitioners, students and broader audiences to partake in this living universe of ‘Blazing Century 1’, pulsating with the concept of imagination to engender transformation and change.
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