(As published in THe Guardian, Sunday February 10, 2008)
HERE is one major art exhibition project that appeared to have sneaked in unannounced on the Lagos art circuit. Not so much loud drumming heralded its birth on Saturday, February 3; at least not any whiff near the celebratory, punch-pulling and influence-commanding opening of Joe Musa’s Recent Paintings, which opened same day at the National Theatre, Lagos. Though the hosting institution, the Centre for Contemporary Art, CCA, Lagos, had done much within its limited resources and current strength to spread the word in the necessary circles, particularly among the ery close-knit visual art patronage family, the show still could not be said to have enjoyed the much deserved public attention, particularly for what it represents for the cultural sector of the national economy; and of course the many factors that make it a unique artistic venture. And these factors are many:
One, this is an exhibition featuring the work of one of the most important, say significant artists in the country today. Two, it is an outing by Ndidi Dike, arguably the leading practising female artist on the scene. Three, the show in reference represents a distinct tenor and texture in the local exhibition circuit — it is a conceptual art show, not the usual (or run-of-the-mill) painting or sculptural displays. For the reason alone, the exhibition ought to have enjoyed more than a passing interest in the exhibition circuit.
* A section of the installation
In any case, the coming of Waka-into Bondage… signals the birth (or affirms) of a new paradigm in the production and practice of art on the local scene. The various galleries that had always — relying on the old, really boring argument that the local exhibition circuit was not ready for conceptual art — may now be encouraged to review their own short-lens view of the possibilities of the visual art discipline.
The CCA, under the direction of the ex-London-based curator and art historian, Bisi Silva, has shown that there are indeed many possibilities and potentialities that only need to be explored, tapped and agendarised into contemporary art discourse. The veracity of the statement is carried not only in the birth of Ndidi Dike’s Waka-into-Bondage… but also in the entire set up of the CCA itself.
While its location (tucked in a corner street (McEwen) off the popular Herbert Macaulay Way, in Sabo Yaba) may seem out of the mainstream culture precinct of Lagos, the intensity of the dream that inspired the CCA and as well the quality of the vision behind its projects are strengths that are rare in the local scene of practice.At least there is yet no other such facilities that would rival the Centre in terms of projections.
* Ndidi and staff of CCA during the mounting of the installation
THE gallery sit on two floors — the first being the display foyer, and the top one the library and resource centre with hundreds of books, journals, cassettes and such materials on art theory, history, and practice from all over the world. “The audio-visual section will open in the next few weeks,” said Bisi, a frequent participant and visitor to visual art events around various centres of art and culture production and dissemination in the world.
Ndidi Dike’s Waka-into-Bondage… is the second outing — the first being ‘Fela, Ghariokwu Lemi and The Art of Album Covers’ (Dec. 8- Janury 20) with which the CCA made its debut, but already the fame of the Centre has spread, so much that it is with awe that patrons — and even non-regular visitors to galleries — behold its operations.
Imagine, getting an agitated call from the dramatist, Director General of the National Theatre and the National Troupe of Nigeria, Dr. Ahmed Yerima, after seeing the current show at the Centre: “ Please, this place is something else, we need to get the Lagos State government to see the sort of dream on the ground here,” said, the actor, director.
Yerima, the Director General of the prime, even if controversy-veiled tourism project, Abuja Carnival, desired to have the Lagos State culture and tourism bureaucracy, see not just the show on display, but also the dreamful Centre that Bisi Silva has planted in what could be considered a non-descript culture vicinity of Lagos. Not even an exasperated explanation that indeed, the Lagos State governor had been expected as the Special Guest of Honour at the opening, but had reportedly delegated his Tourism Commissioner, Tokunbo Afikuyomi to represent him, but that too did not show up, would pacify Yerima.
Yet Dr. Yerima’s conviction about the need to get the Lagos political headship interested in a project such as the CCA and its Waka… show, is infallible.
Recall that at least the state government had recently announced that it intends to launch a major project that would flag off Lagos as an important location in the discourse on slavery narration, and as such the current exhibition ought to serve as a useful hint of what could be done with that piece of the state’s historical legacy. In particular, the material contents of Ndidi Dike’s Waka-Into-Bondage, which remains on display till March 9, were sourced almost wholly from the Gberefu Beach — the site of the Lagos and Nigeria’s human trade legacy — in the Badagry area of the state.
A few weeks ago, Governor Babatunde Fashola himself had led a delegation of mostly his senior advisers and commissioners to the site as a first step towards flagging off a project in the direction of restituting the state’s slavery history. Should that project take of eventually, Lagos would have succeeded in claiming its deserved place in the West Africa patrimonial history of the infamous slave trade and expedition. Already, Ghana through its Elmina and Cape Coast castles and the biennial Pan African Historical Theatre Festival, PANAFEST, and Senegal through the Goree Island and the yearly pilgrimage which it encourages and faciliates, have been raking not just multi-million dollars in tourism earning but also the reverence of Africans in Diaspora as well as global cultural elites and institiutions as centres of significant aspects of world human history.
On a wider scale, didn’t the Lagos government, through its political head, recently proclaim its readiness to claim its hitherto neglected glory as the Cultural capital of Nigeria, and the authentic flagship of cultural discourse on the black Africa continent? Why would a landmark institution as the CCA escape the attention of the state’s Culture (and tourism) bureaucracy?
Perhaps an explanation will come eventually, but it is almost inconceivable that the State’s commissioner for tourism who had been delegated by the governor to represent him at the opening of the show had not bothered to show up there; and since then, his office had not felt it necessary to offer an explanation; thus forcing a concerned Yerima to resort to wielding personal influences to get the state’s culture system to see value in what ordinarily should have been its baby in the first place. Was it same ministry that reportedly shipped dozens (some say over a hundred) so-called artistes to stage an owambe-like jamboree at the Notting Hill Carnival in London last year? Wasn’t it?
* The artist, Ndidi Dike and the curator in front of 'Economic Fabric', a section of the installation
If past administrations got away with disgusting neglect of the cultural content of the state’s economy, Fashola’s administration, which has shown itself to be endowed with intellectual resourcefulness and enough dose of enlightened personnel — starting with the Governor himself, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), even if that is in law — to be called an enlightened commune of public officerss, should not expect to be spared. It probably has little option of an excuse not to effectively tap into the booming cultural sector of its economy; not with the billion naira commands and rising global influence of Nollywood and the music industry; or the exceptionally bright prospects of the visual art scene including fashion and such other sub-industries.
But then this is not about the many misses of the successive state government in matters of cultural and tourism economy. That will surely be taken up another day.
Well, in the absence of the Lagos government and its officials, the opening of Waka-into Bondage: The Last 3/4 Mile was such a grand event, witnessed by very notable and influential members of the Lagos culture elite circle.
More inspiring, there were about 30 students from the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria in attendance. And Ms Silva assured that there is plan to bring a huge crowd of students in Lagos schools to share of the historical excursion. This, she said would tie in neatly into the larger vision of the CCA to become a cultural learning field for the young generation of Nigerians.
Bisi Silva, shared her experience from the opening in an email exchange, entitled: My Kind of Opening, Ndidi Dike at CCA, Lagos. Excerpts:
THE opening of Ndidi Dike’s exhibitionWaka-into-Bondage: The Last 3/4 Mile was another special event for CCA, Lagos and really embodies the spirit of our goals and vision: to provide the platform for artists to move out of their comfort zones, explore the experimental aspect of their work and present the result to the widest audience possible. Whilst we encourage work that is socially engaged, aesthetic considerations are not subsumed.
The whole project was an important collaborative and learning experience for everyone involved and it generated a lot of discussion around slavery. On my part, the shocking discovery was that not many Nigerians know about slavery and very few young people are taught about the history of slavery because it seems that history is not included in the secondary education curriculum and where it does feature, slavery hardly features. This only highlights the extent to which the military, the politicians and (but) even more seriously, the educationalists have destroyed the fabric of the knowledge base of our society. UNFORGIVEABLE.
But all hope is not lost. Another highlight of the exhibition was the unexpected presence of Dr Wura Ogunyemi. About two days before the opening, my mother received a book gift from her friend titled, What’s in a Name. My mum thought what a coincidence that I was organising an exhibition on the same subject and she thought it would be a good idea to have some copies at the opening. We managed to contact Dr Ogunyemi who promised to send some copies but as she was a bit frail would not be able to attend the opening.
So you can imagine my surprise and joy when I saw her appeared with her daughter climbing slowly up the stairs to our second floor gallery. I immediately took her round the exhibition and she was so happy and as I talked, she filled in the gaps. It was really nice. Then I took her to our library and she was so excited. She only brought 15 copies but they sold out within the hour and I have received orders for 40 copies from Terra Kulture and over 20 more copies for disappointed guests who couldn’t buy on the day.
What’s in a Name; A Story of Slavery: What’s in a Name (published in 2007 by Heritage House Press, UK Tel:00 44 (0)113 286 0819; ISBN: 978-1-905912-07-0) is a unique perspective on the slave trade, recounting not only the sufferings of the captured millions, but also how West Africa was reshaped politically and socially by those who managed to return.
The book is a good starting reference point for anybody embarking on a study of the slave trade but also for those seeking an appreciation of the human cost to all those involved from the traders to their hapless victims. The book is only 36 pages and should be read by every school age and even adult Nigerian.
CCA, Lagos is currently liasing with art teachers in the secondary schools in the area such as Reagan Memorial, Methodist Girls High School, Queen’s College, Our Lady of Apostle (these are some of the earliest schools set up in Lagos by missionaries and are within 10 minutes of CCA, Lagos). We hope to welcome the students to the exhibitions.
Waka-Into Bondage: The Last 3/4 Mile
Bisi Silva: I remember briefly discussing a few years ago the issues that you were working on outside of your wall sculpture pieces. You mentioned that for nearly a decade, you had been collecting objects associated with slavery. What is the background to this interest?
Ndidi Dike: As an artist, I constantly troll different environments for new ideas and media that can be used to develop my work. Sometimes these ideas can percolate in my subconscious for years, until an opportunity arises to actualise them. Around 1999, I started collecting different types of manilla and related objects, then I moved on to making my own version of branded stamps reminiscent of those used to brand slaves as property or chattel. I also noticed there existed little or no discourse or documentation on Nigerian slave ports despite its centrality to the slave trade.
I visited Badagry in 2002 to see the slave route through which large numbers of our people were taken to the Americas to work daily, for long hours on plantations under subhuman conditions. During that visit, I knew I was standing face to face with history. Yet, much as I wanted to go back sooner, it only happened in 2007 at which point I knew I wanted to capture in a dramatic visual form, this cataclysmic episode in human history. No one can visit Badagry without being moved by this ignoble part of our history or by the consequences of man’s inhumanity.
B.S: There are few artists in Nigeria I know of who have taken slavery as a subject matter so directly in their work as you have done in Waka-Into-Bondage. Can you talk about the genesis of this project.
N.D: The project comes out of my life’s experiences of which three are the most relevant. The visits to Badagry in 2002 and 2007 were the catalyst for Waka-into-Bondage. Secondly, tertiary education at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka was important in developing my African consciousness. Founded at the twilight of colonial rule by Nigeria’s first president, Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe in 1960, he was resolute in his quest for the black person to occupy a pride of place in the global community after a long history of oppression. As a student at Nsukka, I was introduced to the works of great writers such as Prof. Chinua Achebe and taught by influential artists and art historians such as Professors Uche Okeke, Chike Aniakor and Obiora Udechukwu.
Lastly, my formative years were spent in the United Kingdom. This inevitably made me more conscious, more aware of my African heritage at an earlier age. I became interested in African history and culture and there were many things my contemporaries who grew up in Nigeria took for granted which I could not.
B.S: The Waka-Into-Bondage project is a move from the traditional sculpture and paintings for which you are well known. This sculptural installation is one of your first forays into a more conceptual way of working. How does this new direction expand on your work?
N.D: I have been working for a while in relief and two-dimensional format. As one constantly explores new ideas, different aesthetic representations are formed. I felt this project would be better articulated in a different format than I normally used and a more conceptual format was the most appropriate. It allows for experimentation in a way that the two dimensions could not. For example in my recent sculptures such as Dwellings, Doors and Windows (2008), I appropriate harbour pallets, break them down and reconfigure them in a way that evokes traces of the voyage. The blood represents what was shed before, during and after transatlantic trade but also what continues to be shed today. The photographic montage include images I took at Badagry, documentary images and other found images symbolising a continuum of slavery past and the rise in contemporary forms of bondage and exploitation.
B.S: I remain shocked that Nigeria and Lagos where some of the largest numbers of slaves were taken from its shores neglected to commemorate 200 years of the abolition of slave trading in 2007. It neither featured in the state or the country at large’s cultural, historical or educational calendar. Why do you think there was this monumental omission?
N.D: You are right to observe that the anniversary did not feature in any cultural or educational calendar. I guess it comes down to our notorious collective amnesia. But one thing is certain: if Chief Moshood Abiola, the famous Nigerian businessman, philanthropist, pan Africanist and politician who began the campaign for the payment of reparations to African nations for three centuries of slavery, colonialism and imperialism had been alive, I am certain that it would have been marked in a noticeably manner in Nigeria and other parts of Africa. Chief Abiola deployed stupendous financial, media, literary and intellectual resources towards this campaign.
B.S: Whilst the slave trade was legally abolished 200 yrs –– slavery in its contemporary form seems to be on the rise. We see in the media everyday stories about human trafficking of women and children, forced child labour, sex slavery among others. Is this an aspect reflected in your research and your work?
N.D: As I stated earlier, slave trading may have been abolished by the British parliament 200 years ago, but it is still in practice in certain countries. There are so many countries where the condition of the Black people leaves much to be desired. These new forms of slavery are not yet captured in the current works. I hope to reflect them soon in another set of works.
B.S: It seems our amnesia is almost total not only in Nigeria but in most countries in Africa. How can we begin to build our present or our future without a critical evaluation of the past.
I often wondered whether much has changed in Africa in 200 years. I am referring to the worldview of African rulers. Our rulers played a vital part in the Trans Atlantic Slave Trade. They supplied the white slave merchants even after the abolition of slave trading. So many wars were fought for so long in the desperate attempt to procure slaves. All this was to satisfy the greed and vanity of many African rulers who were in turn rewarded with mirrors, gunpowder, alcohol.
It is ironic that we continue to bemoan the slave trade because among other factors, an enormous amount of African resources in the form of human capital was transferred abroad and was used to develop overseas countries to the detriment of our own societies. However, this trend continues. African resources continue to be used to develop other countries but the African continent. In Nigeria, since the return of democratic rule, state governors seem to be competing among themselves over the purchase of properties in places such as London, Paris, Cape Town and Potomac Park.
* Ndidi interracting with Arts writers at the pre-opening preview
Barely a hundred years after the infamous Berlin Conference in 1884 which saw the African continent cut up like a piece of cake, in the 21st century. With China, India and the West insatiable thirst for the continent’s abundant energy resources, it looks like the world is set for another scramble for Africa. Once again African rulers are too enthusiastic to exchange the wellbeing of their people for petrodollars. I fear that few lasting change will occur without cognisance of the past.
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