Lagos, Nigeria – Peju Alatise is in a bad mood. It’s a Monday morning and she is charging around her outdoor workspace, essentially the front garden of her home, directing her assistants.
She is currently working on a sculptural piece, which requires suspension on chains. But the person responsible for bringing those chains has failed to show up and has called to give Peju excuses that she finds infuriating.
“He was supposed to buy them on Saturday,” she complains. “My whole Monday is wasted.”
The artist is in the middle of wrapping up a few projects before leaving Nigeria for a prestigious residency in the United States, hence the hurried footsteps around the two-storey home that doubles up as her studio.
In a crescent of identical beige houses within Lekki, a middle class suburb of Lagos, Peju’s house stands out. A giant mask adorns the front of the building – a metal sculpture of a woman with tribal marks.
The house itself could be seen as a metaphor for the Nigerian artist in her homeland. “I can’t do what everyone else is doing,” Peju states matter-of-factly.
Despite her non-conformist stance in a country that is sometimes intolerant of difference, Peju admits that her early life was similar to many middle children. “My parents were hard disciplinarian type[s]. The older ones had it very rough. So for me it was more about blending in with everything [and] trying not to get into trouble.”
Questioning the status quo
Born in 1975 in the Nigerian city Lagos, Peju and her seven siblings were raised within a fairly traditional Muslim family. Her younger brother Layi recalls how his siblings would often grapple with their father’s religiosity.
He says Peju in particular would clash with him and other adults on topics ranging from philosophical approaches to life, to politics and religious beliefs.
A young Peju was also shaped by her observations on the role of women in Nigerian society, increasingly questioning the status quo.
The artist originally faced opposition to her chosen career. Her father saw art as a waste of time, preferring that his daughter pursue what he perceived as a more economically stable profession. “Two years before he died, he had a change of heart,” she recalls. “It’s funny how I could be so independent and think that I am so confident but still need my father’s approval.”
Her mother, on the other hand, provided unwavering support, which Peju attributes to an encounter with a spiritualist who foresaw fame in her daughter’s future. He claimed that art would take Peju all over the world and it would earn her “different currencies”. “My mum was like, “Ah, she’s going to be rich!” Peju laughs.
She chose to train as an architect at university and she cherishes that time to this day. “Architecture teaches you how to see,” Peju explains. “[It] got me really disciplined. With architecture you work with time, you work with very tangible ideas. Architecture actually teaches a method of thinking that I don’t regret. It’s very logical, and I approach life that way.”
But Peju is adamant that she didn’t “become” an artist. “I never got into art, I was always an artist. I always loved to paint, I always loved to draw and make things. My interest was always in being creative.”
It was, however, only after seeing an exhibition in Lagos by Nigerian artist David Dale, that a 15-year-old Peju realised that art was a viable profession. “I thought people were just born creative and it was just an existence. I thought it’s like being born tall or short until I went to a gallery and then I saw people sell [art]. I was really surprised.”
This realisation planted a seed, and soon after that exhibition she began her informal education in the craft. Peju would visit Dale’s studio on mainland Lagos during her school holidays to see pieces in progress and watch his studio assistants at work. “It was such a mess, but it was [a] glorious mess,” she gushes.
Peju would also regularly visit Jakande, a crafts market in Lagos, where she would spend time with the artisans sculpting objects, painting and piecing together jewellery. This community of creatives provided her training, she says.
The installations she creates today using materials such as cloth, beads, wood, cement and resin are a departure from her early technically skilled paintings. Peju remembers how this transition was originally rejected by what she describes as a self-appointed pseudo-intellectual art elite in Nigeria. She was advised by well-known Nigerian art curators to “stick to painting”, she says.
But, today, her interdisciplinary work has garnered attention on a global stage. Bomi Odufunade, director of global art advisory Dash & Rallo, describes her conceptual practice, drawing on symbolism and literature, as “very unique”.
She is part of a growing number of African artists who are “finding much more interesting and diverse ways of talking about something,” Bomi says.
‘Nigeria brings out the beast in me’
This growing recognition within the global art world has translated into increasing demand for her work internationally.
According to Giles Peppiatt, the director of Contemporary African Art at British auction house Bonhams, her pieces are well received at their sales. He refers to her triptych High Horses, which explores the societal notion that women are predestined to be mothers and wives. Comprising three sculptures of women sitting on pedestals, faces obscured by vibrantly patterned cloths draped over their heads, it fetched more than £30,000 ($37,954) at auction.
Peju was selected to become the 2016 fellow at the Smithsonian Institute of African Art, which allowed her to explore the history and performance of an ancestral Yoruba masquerade – a festival originating from southwest Nigeria.
Nigeria brings out the beast in me
She has been heavily influenced by her ethnicity with references to Yoruba mythology commonly found in her work.
Dressed in paint splattered ripped jeans and a white T-shirt, she shifts positions, sometimes tucking her feet under her as she dips into stories about Yoruba deities and ancient beliefs. Despite the initial grumpiness when we arrived, she gradually relaxes.
Peju is aware of her tough exterior and intensity, and attributes it to her environment.
“Nigeria brings out the beast in me,” she says. “It’s not easy to get things done, especially in the creative industry.
“You cannot be laid back especially if you’re female. You have to be really aggressive. If a man is giving orders they just do what he says, but for a woman you have to raise your voice a little bit higher for them to take you seriously. Especially if you look small and you’re not a big fat madam who’s wearing a gold chain and gold earrings with a big car.”
Like any true storyteller, her language is filled with evocative descriptions of characters and places both real and imaginary.
As a published author with two works of fiction under her belt, Peju plays with written and spoken language as much as visual. Wrapture, her 2013 exhibition, combined short stories with vivid sculptural installations.
Each piece incorporated fabrics ranging from Ankara, bold colourful prints commonly associated with West Africa, to stark white cloth – all used to relate compelling visual narratives.
Peju says she is reluctant to be pigeon holed. But there are recurrent themes in her work.
That gender has played such a prominent role in her work is unsurprising to her brother Layi. “She’s always been acutely aware that she was growing up in a country that did not respect women as much as they should,” he explains.
Peju shares anecdotes about what she describes as “gender strife”. “There are some things that make me outraged. [T]he job of an artist is to reflect their times,” she says. “That’s my job. I take that very seriously.”
These days Peju is focused on creating a platform for up-and-coming artists. She laments the lack of grants and support in a country where she says artists’ work is generally undervalued. So she decided to “put her money where her mouth is,” she says, and build an artists’ residency with the capacity to house three artists in an open planned studio, with living quarters and a library.
The energy-efficient structure, which she designed, is located 15 minutes from her home and studio, in the Lekki peninsular. Next year the first artist arrives and will stay anywhere from two weeks to three months. Peju’s excitement is palpable as she describes the project.
Beyond a desire to simply create, Peju is eager to engage with her time and inspire change. She describes a fictional character she has created, a child called Sing, who lives in two realities. In one dimension she’s a house maid who has been taken from her village to work for a family in a city. In the other, she has the ability to fly, travelling to the Moon and making friends with shadows. Making a house maid the protagonist of the story, in a country where domestic help are among the most disenfranchised people in society, highlights the issue of child labour in Nigeria.
Furthermore, there are parallels between Sing’s ability to span two worlds and the way Peju uses her work to transcend the barriers she encounters, from social and economic to geographic. “When I look at the standard in which I want my work to be, I look at what is happening on a global scale. The artists who inspire me are [those] whose works engage in a way that either inform or inspire you, [that] talk to the true essence of the human in you and I want my work to do the same.”