Friday 6 April 2012

‘Conceptuality’ tastes green in Alatise’s Material Witness

By Tajudeen Sowole

 In Peju Alatise’s exhibition titled Material Witness, exuberant aesthetics compete with the artist’s equity-focused theme.

 LATELY, conceptual artistry has become subject of debate in most art discourse. Some critics believe most Nigerian artists are weak or are incapable of engaging conceptual themes and forms in their work.    Such critics however, would have been elated or pacified seeing Alatise’s Material Witness.

  In fact, the installation, sculpture and painting exhibition, originally scheduled to run for one week at Nike Art Gallery, Lekki, Lagos was extended for another five days, based on what the gallery management described as “popular demand.”

   With the show, Peju affirms her presence in the league of artists, who always attempt to balance the scale between aesthetic offering and thematic engagement.

  However, the aesthetics prowess of this show could appear to have dwarfed the theme, despite the artist’s copious text that supports the theme. 

  In most cases, some artists, perhaps sub-consciously or otherwise, are usually torn between focusing on aesthetic and thematic values.

  For example, if display of prowess in mixed media and uncommon materials were to be Chris Ofili’s goal in the work, Virgin Mary (oil, paper collage, polyester resin and elephant dung), controversy over his choice of theme wouldn’t have arisen. 

  Perhaps, his critics would not have bothered if he were to use elephants dung on his mother’s satirical portraiture. But for Mary, mother of Jesus, it sparked anger and mixed feelings.


FOR Alatise, it is not about controversy, however, her consistent expression in deep conceptual works, enlivened the air inside the spacious Nike Art Gallery.

  From a sci-fi four-figure sculptural metal standing just at the entrance of the gallery, to the huge sizes of relief and mixed media paintings, aesthetics in Alatise’s rendition triumphed over conceptuality.

   On the theme, Peju noted that human influence might be a factor in the process of justice or prosecution, but inanimate objects, “are stronger evidence, if they can speak.”

   According to her, to establish justice will be easier, “only if that shirt worn to commit a crime could speak.”

  She segmented the exhibition into three parts of Social/Political/Religious Commentary; Idealistic versus Realistic; and Elements of Material Nature.
From Peju Alatise’s Material Witness, a four-sculpture titled That Thing Within

  Supporting the impression that the aesthetic value of Material Witness outweighs the theme, are the works under Idealistic Versus Realistic and Elements of Material Nature.

  For example, in the four-piece Erin Ijesha (The Day the Vessel Fall), Like the Labalaba (Butterfly), Orun Lo m’eni tomola and Alagbada Ina, the material used, sheer size and the creative content could deeply engage the viewer with little or no consideration for the theme.

  Also, the sci-fi piece That Thing Within fascinates more for the extraterrestrial look of the four figures, which could attract designers of George Lucas’ Star Wars movie episodes.

 Painting, as Alatise’s strongest medium of expression becomes more explicit in such works as Oblivion, Silver Lining, The Beginning of Ascension, Ascension and Beautiful Minds.

  Thematically, Material Witness struggles to come alive in the installation Freedom is Like a Sailboat, So is Slavery. And it could be a mental slavery, so suggests the artist’s thoughts, explained in the attached explanatory note.  Whatever it is, she argues that “Now is the time to fight it all.”

  Given the one side of a story, and stereotyped narratives, which teenage marriage has generated, particularly in Nigeria, since 2009 when a high profile case turned controversial, one thought Alatise’s collage-embossed sculptural titled Nine Year Old Bride would offer a balance. No! Not yet. In fact, another piece, 9 Year-Old Bride, Where is Her Mother? mounted at the extreme end of the gallery – exposed the artist’s strong objection to teenage marriage. The two exhibits were among the imposing works of all the displays.

  Further reflecting the artist’s thought is a 42-yard fabric used for one of these works, as well as the energy unleashed on the painting.

  Like her “feminists” counterparts and other critics who stick to the expression ‘child,’ rather than teenage marriage, Alatise also insists that every woman has to be extra-alert to survive the mental oppression meted out to the softer gender. She states in the attached text ““I live in a ‘third-world-country,’ where every woman would be feminist to survive. Asking to be treated with respect here is feminist. Demanding consideration is being feminist. Yes I’m feminist!”


Alatise’s argument and the one side of a story by other feminists, on the issue of teenage marriage, is so conspicuous as they are yet to dissipate as much energy on the effect of single parenting – which usually comes from pregnancy out of wedlock – on the decadence in the society, globally.

Material Elements of Nature by Alatise

If we have to argue within the context of UN definition, which says anyone under 18 is a child, then indeed, there are child marriages. However, the complexity of culture and religion makes the UN definition relative. 

   Irrespective of which side of the argument gets the louder voice, the final verdict, perhaps, goes beyond the physical realm. This thought leads to another piece of Alatise titled Judgment Day, an assembly of 58 caryatid-like figures. The work reminds one of Whitney Houston’s songs, ‘if tomorrow is judgment day… and am standing on the frontline... and the Lord asks me what I did with my life…’

   Although Alatise is not inspired by the late diva’s 1998 album, My Love is Your Love, the similarity here is about sharing affection, and being considerate of the other person’s feeling. Lack of love, among Nigerians, Alatise notes in the accompanied note, is a major cause of corruption, despite the claims of being a “very religious nation.”


WHILE it is commendable that Nike Gallery extended the show for another five days, it’s quite disturbing that such exhibition would not get a gallery to display it for as long as one month or more.

  And when the artist disclosed, “I have been working on this show for the past three years without selling works,” it becomes even more worrisome that just a few people would get to see the works that have taken so long to produce.

  In some other climes where government and corporate support are given to art galleries, Material Witness would run for three or more months.

   In 2010 when Alatise had the salon outing, Testament at her residence, she hinted that it was a prelude to a bigger show, which she hoped to stage before the end of the year.   

  That  ‘bigger show’, which couldn’t come then “is here as Material Witness.”
  Auction record for Alatise: N1.2 million Naira for an acrylic on canvas Oritameta (Crossroads), 170 x 275 cm, at Arthouse Contenporary Auction, Lagos, November, 2008.

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