Sunday 23 November 2014

At Lagos festival, visual, poetry in Merging Stories of identity

By Tajudeen Sowole
Either as a haunting or retrospection channel, memories have ways of shaping identity, so suggest the thematic contents of visual artists and a poet at the art exhibition section of the 2014 Lagos Art and Book Festival (LABAF).

Image from the video presentation of Jelili Atiku’s performance art.
Titled Merging Stories and curated by Nkechi Nwosu-Igbo, the gathering featured works of performance artist, Jelili Atiku, painter Odun Orimolade, photographers Numero Unoma and Aderemi Adegbite, the curator as well as poet, Jumoke Verissimo, Specifically, the exhibition focuses on Identity within the context of "lived and inherited history."
On the opening day of LABAF, the ebullience narrative of performance artist Atiku, which has been consistent on themes such as identity and imperialism welcomes visitors in a video format at the entrance of the exhibiting space of Freedom Park, Lagos Island.  This time, it's one of the artist's recent works presented at a festival in Richardplatz, Berlin, Germany. Titled Alaagba, it revisits the geographical cuttings, into pieces, of the continent of Africa at the Berlin Conference of 1884. Enacted in two characters performance by Atiku and a French artist, Anne Letailleur before a crowd of audience, the blackening and costuming of the features questions identity in post-colonial era.

The performance, which Atiku describes as "the egungun (masquerade) method" was originally conceived and presented "to deconstruct stigma." And as the content fits into the Merging Stories exhibition at LABAF 2014, it also raises a question: is there really any identity issue for the white character in the performance to deconstruct? That is not a burden for Africa, the artist says. Europe and other agents of imperialists, Atiku explains, have the challenge "to decide if there is anything they want to deconstruct."

On the left side of the exhibiting space comes a scary figure, familiar though. It's a full size sculptural figure of a man in the notorious yellow kits of health workers who battle the deadly Ebola virus. Titled Yesterday Is Still Here, it's one of the works by Nwosu-Igbo, warning people not to be complacent. As installation artist, the curator of the exhibition has a way of subtly sending a chill down the spine of viewers with her method of presentation. And on the identity issue, of which most nation states in Africa keep battling as the rubbles of colonialism, Nwosu-Igbo seems to excavate the real thoughts of quite a huge population of frustrated Nigerians in another installation. Titled I Have Loved Nigeria For Too Long, the spreads of figures and other components in the challenge of nationhood, perhaps, also offer a deep self-probe on the sincerity of the much proclaim "love" for Nigeria by her nationals. 

In No Need to Bleed, a conceptual composite about woman, photographer, Unoma exudes creative image in a semi-silhouette that stresses fragility of the softer gender. Also, a torso exposure of a lady under captivity titled Always Stumm explains the photo artist's thought on identity.

Orimolade continues her monochromatic painting that focuses on psychoanalysis themes. For the gathering, two works of hers, perhaps among the pieces she showed at Art Twenty One lately, on display include Emanating and Offo Latinu.

What has a molue, commercial passenger bus, doing in the art space of LABAF?  The inscription on the yellow bus 'Molue Mobile Museum of Contemporary Art (MMMoCA) offers an answer. It's actually an installation by photographer Adegbite. Inside the bus, the artist engages school children on the strength of photography in communication.    

 The curator of Merging Stories, Nkechi Nwosu-Igbo
For Verissimo, one of her poems, The Sun That Goes Up contextualises identity thus: Know no grief. Look into the hours of Your arrival into the world Remember the last smile Of faces approving your arrival.'

From the curatorial note, Nwosu-Igbo states: "Identity in art is a worn-out but perennial argument that mankind must inevitably revisit. If nothing else, the fact that there is nothing new under the sun necessitates that every now and then, old arguments, theories and issues are revisited and debated all over again. But the issue of identity in particular is like that itch that never goes away no matter where you scratch or how often you scratch. Perhaps the reason it never goes away is because we have never really answered that question satisfactorily and the questions that result from this debate are almost infinite. To begin with, what is identity? Such a simple question with no unanimous answer, the reason for this being significance. What is more significant? Traditional ideas or modern ways? And even when we choose to embrace both as the sum total of who we are, the issue then becomes, which of these ideologies should dominate? In merging our past with our present, is there a formula for arriving at our most authentic self in creative expression? Should modern African art consist of forty percent tradition and sixty percent modern? Or do we split it down the middle? If yes, why? If no, why not?
And there are more unanswered questions. How relevant are cultural practices that today’s artists never even witnessed and yet are forced to lay claim to in their bid to be original? At what point does forcefully adopted identity become fraudulent? Do artists commit fraud when they choose what their culture or reality is? Should this issue of fraud be taken seriously? Who is a creative fraudster and what are the parameters for identifying such a person? Should we even care that in trying to be African, artists are forcefully adopting practices that are as alien to them as the idea of alien abduction in Africa?

"And it doesn’t still stop there. In trying to be African, we cannot neglect the overpowering influence of shared realities necessitated by globalization. So does shared experience discredit the very idea of cultural purity or at the very least, cultural identity? Why is it even that important that we be African in our work when we grew up watching mickey mouse and drinking coca cola like the average kid in New jersey or England? What should identity really be? What shouldn’t identity be?

"So you see, there are too many unanswered questions regarding identity and in our exhibition Merging Stories, we cannot promise to answer all these questions. But one thing is for certain. We are definitely not done with the issue of identity no matter how hard we try. So here is to trying. Seven art creators were‎ invited to channel their confident voices, tell dominant stories and spark discourses around their practices. The works span a range of media including installation, collage, video art, performance, drawing, spoken word, happening, photography and Film. The artists included are Odun Orimolade, Aderemi Adegbite, Efe Paul Azino, Femi Odugbemi, Jumoke Verissimo, Jelili Atiku, Numero Unoma and Nkechi Nwosu-Igbo."

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