Saturday 8 November 2014

Layer Cake...revisiting Lagos of old via Disu's prints

By Tajudeen Sowole                                       
The cultural components of Lagos, at its formative stages of pre-Portuguese influence, and towards an evolving centre of economic activities in West Africa are the focus of a new body of work by printmaker, Akintunde Disu.

Currently showing at Didi Museum, Victoria Island, Lagos as art exhibition titled. Layer Cake, the works bring a visual narrative into the making of Lagos, by implanting icons of cultural relevance in historic context. Disu's Layer Cake highlights how the peoples of Benin, now in modern day Edo State; Nupe or Tapa, under Niger State; and Islam through some Malian cultural influence fused into the Yoruba values to make up the greater Lagos that the Portuguese and British met on the ground before colonial era.

Lagos Series 3 Idejos by Akintunde Disu    
With academic background in the science, Disu, over the decades, has acquired informal art knowledge as a passion. His work melts a Bruce Onobrakpeya technique with Andy Warhol pop art style to exhale what he described as "my own way of telling history." On large size canvases, icons such as Eyo masquerade, a festival identity of the city and Idejo people, a symbol of the Lagos land owners; ancient Bini queen mother mask, Iyoba; and symbol of the aristocrats, but nomadic-like Dankolo people from Mali are printed with fluorescent colours to explain Disu's thematic choice of a Lagos history that hardly finds its way into pictorial contents. Like most coastal cities around he world, Lagos has its complex history, despite an undisputable Yoruba identity. "I am focusing on the complexity of Lagos history," the artist explained to a guest inside his studio, ahead of the opening of the exhibition. Some of the complexities, viewed from the modern and contemporary contexts of a nation state now known as Nigeria are not exactly unknown. For example, Disu, a Lagos native stressed that "the crown of the Lagos monarchy has its roots in the ancient Bini." Historians, perhaps, existing remnants support the artist's argument.

Also the artist flaunts his Lagos origin with slogans in some of the works he tags . One of such says ti oju o ba ti ehin Igbeti, oju ko ni ti Eko ile (with the triumphant of Igbeti, Lagos is secured.)
 In Disu's visual narrative of Lagos comes the confirmation that Lagos – pre-colonial era - had always been a convergence of commercial and cultural activities from peoples across West Africa. Apart from Disu's Layer Cake, a book, Sandbank City: Lagos at 150 written by Prof John Godwin (OFR OBE) and Gillian Hopwood (MFR), British expatriates of over 60 years in Nigeria, also suggests that Eko as a commercial nerve centre in West Africa predates colonial era and Nigeria's nation state. 
 From Disu's Lagos series comes Iyoba, a dissolving and fading of multi-colour images that represent what he noted as the "Benin funeral mask of Queen Idia with the British Union Jack ". The icon, Idia mask, otherwise known as Iyoba (Queen Mother) reminds one of a controversial original mask of the same icon, dated 16th century in provenance,  and currently incarcerated inside the British Museum, in the U.K.

For the mask that is now famous from the ongoing issue of restitution of cultural objects, Disu’s Layer Cake traces its history to the well-known punitive expedition of 1897 and the failed bid by Nigerian nation state to recover the mask for Second World Festival of Black Arts and Culture (FESTAC ’77). But what the artist described as "moat" similarity links the mask and history. The FESTAC event, he noted, was "held at the National Art Theatre in Lagos, a building paradoxically set inside a moat" and "the great moat which surrounds it." 
HRM, Oba Idowu Oniru of Lagos (right) with HRH Erelu Abiola Dosunmu at the opening of the exhibition

In another work, Lagos Series 4, Disu brings a period of “Dankolo Golden Caravans,” noting how the people brought knowledge of ancient kingdoms to the coastal areas. He traces River Dankolo springs in Guinea, at the foot hills of the Futa Jallon highlands as "turning its back on the Atlantic, flowing north to form the mighty river Niger, sees the Sahara, and meets the ocean in the grand Niger Delta."
  The work further depicts how the Dankolos "travelled south from the ivory towers of Timbuktu in search of the ocean, bringing with them wealth of enlightenment trade, Islam and the spirit of adventure." While the Islamic heritage of Lagos natives predates British colonialism and Christian missionaries in several centuries – roughly three to four hundred years - its origin into the coastal city, sources have argued was not from the Sahara, but through the sea. In fact, some sources have argued that Islam in Lagos predates its arrival in the Northern part of Nigeria. But Disu’s argument in favour of the Dankolos’ movement to the coastal areas is not specifically tracing Islam in Lagos to the Dankolos. 
 Perhaps representing the Lagos cultural and economics dynamics more is Lagos Series 3 Idejo as Disu described the Idejos as the Dukes of the Lagoon: the original landowners. The composite of the works, he explained, summarises Lagos. "The red and green of the Portuguese who gave the city its modern name is brought to play against a back ground of the petrol blue of the Lagoon.”   

Disu’s bio: “At 16 I was on the National Gallery shortlist for the BP portrait award. I studied Chemistry at the University of Manchester, U.K, and joined Eagle Paints Nigeria Ltd where I rose to become General Manager.

“I am a sailor, marathon runner, snowboarder. I have exhibited twice at Lagos Art Expo 2009 and 2012.”

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