By Tajudeen Sowole
When one of Africa's most consistent performance artists, Jelili Atiku started taking art into the realm of activism over 10 years ago by employing Yoruba idioms as themes for his work, he was probably grouped among the class of 'escapist artists', and his work got little attention. But he was undisturbed; Atiku kept fate with his calling. Now, he has since attained the status of a towering figure in the performance art space of Africa and the window to the continent's conceptual art across the world.
Jelili Atiku, Quest for Gaia, performance at Centre for Contemporary Art, Yaba, Lagos
For followers of Atiku's art, it did not come as a surprise when one of the world's revered supporters of the arts, The Netherlands-based Prince Claus Fund listed the artist among its 2015 laureates. Prince Claus states that Atiku's work is enriched by the artist's dual expression in Yoruba and international spaces. For 19 years, the Prince Claus Fund has supported freedom of cultural expression worldwide.
Atiku is a pioneer of contemporary performance art in Nigeria, writes Sarah Smith of the Communication Department, Prince Claus Fund for Culture and Development. "Atiku has developed an innovative fusion of Yoruba and international performance practices."
On December 2, 2015, Atiku will join 10 other recipients, including the Principal Prince Claus Laureate, Iranian photographer Newsha Tavakolian to receive the awards from HRH Prince Constantijn of The Netherlands. The ceremony will hold in the presence of members of the Dutch Royal Family at the Royal Palace, Amsterdam.
Awardees are chosen every year by the independent international members of the Prince Claus Awards Committee. For Atiku, the award confirms the strength in native African narratives, Yoruba specifically.
He said, "I feel extremely happy that I won the award and more importantly I feel proud of my culture, the achievement of Yoruba progenitors and all the people who have contributed to the creative energy of the race, Yoruba and all other tribes in Africa. The award actually signifies the enormous positive energy from Africa."
From his debut E Wa Wo (Come and See): The Awaiting Trial Persons in 2005 to subsequent works such as others outside Nigeria, Atiku has leveraged on the richness of themes spiced in deep Yoruba idioms. Perhaps, given the Lagos environment where Yoruba language is predominant, Atiku's performance works, which are mostly enacted outdoors, command a wide audience. More importantly, his works provoke debate, most times directed at insensitivity of politicians and others in state policy making.
"Taking to the streets of Lagos or taking over specific sites with his striking costumes and dynamic presentations, he provokes community dialogue and debate on local, national and global issues," says Smith.
The Prince Claus Fund Gallery in Amsterdam will exhibit works by Principal Laureate Tavakolian from 27 November 2015 – 4 March 2016.
In 2005, Atiku's art started creeping into the Lagos landscape – Nigeria’s art hub - with the installation, E Wa Wo… a campaign against prison congestion - held at the Lagos State House of Assembly and in the premises of the Creative Arts Department, University of Lagos, Akoka. Some of his subsequent works include. Agbo Rago (Ram Ranch), a 2009 project aimed at addressing injustice and inequality, depicting the class system of master-slave mentality; Victim of Political Assassination presented at The Rencontres Internationales Festival, Paris and Alaagba, a revisit of the geographical cuttings into pieces the African continent at the Berlin Conference of 1884.
Other 2015 Prince Claus Laureates include Latif Al-Ani, an Iraqi photographer; Amakhosi, a Zimbabwe theatre and cultural organisation; Jean-Pierre Bekolo, a Cameroonian filmmaker, Grupo Etcétera, an Argentina/Chile public-art collective, Perhat Khaliq, a Chinese musician and singer-songwriter, Fatos Lubonja and an Albanian writer, editor and public intellectual. There are also Ossama Mohammed, a Syria, Oksana Shatalova, a Kazakhstan visual artist, critic and curator and Y’en a Marre, a Senegalese collective of hip-hop musicians and journalists.