Lagos, Nigeria – “As an artist politically, artistically, the whole idea about your environment must be represented in the music, in the arts. So really art is what is happening at a particular time of a people’s development or underdevelopment,” Fela Kuti once said. “So I think, as far as Africa is concerned, music cannot be for enjoyment, music has to be for revolution.”
The iconic Afrobeat musician considered himself a change agent, and believed that African artists cannot afford to disengage from social issues.
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As Nigeria hosts the second edition of Art X Lagos, West Africa’s leading contemporary art fair, at least a few of the artists participating appear to have followed in Fela Kuti’s footsteps.
The three-day affair begins on Friday, featuring more than 60 artists from 15 African countries across 14 galleries at the Civic Centre, Victoria Island, Lagos.
The title of Rahima Gambo’s multimedia work, “Education is Forbidden”, is co-opted from the English translation of Boko Haram and offers another perspective of the armed group’s battles in northeastern Nigeria.
She focuses on secondary school and university students, memories of attacks on their facilities, and Nigeria’s educational system.
The irony of Boko Haram attacking schools does not erase the fact that this crumbling system has been there for a while
“It goes beyond the sensational, beyond the deaths and the abduction,” says Gambo. “It’s a quiet story of what is happening internally, what’s happening in the mind of somebody who’s living in what is now termed a conflict zone [and] going through an [educational] system that has almost, in a way, lost its purpose.”
A 31-year-old journalist who hails from the northeast, Gambo is more than qualified to explore the realities of the region with nuance.
“The irony of Boko Haram attacking schools does not erase the fact that this crumbling system has been there for a while,” she says.
Combining text, photos, videos and textbook illustrations, she weaves a cohesive story of defiant school administrators and students still attending school despite threats, absent teachers, suicide bombings, and dilapidated infrastructure damaged by Boko Haram fighters.
In one account, photos show students enjoying an annual campus variety show months after an ambush. In another piece, a woman recalls escaping a deadly attack on campus, but says all she worried about at the time were her transcript and school certificate she had left behind.
“The in-betweens of [Gambo’s] language … bring focus to the conditions of the particular moment,” says Art X Lagos curator Missla Libsekal of the artist’s part documentary, part art project.
It is one of nine curated works interrogating how artists view themselves and respond to contemporary issues.
“Documentary included [in] artistic practice is recognised historically as being useful to respond to [a] crisis,” says Libsekal.
The consequences of colonialism on education in the country’s north is also documented in the narrative.
Following the colonialists’ introduction of English as the official language, Nigerians schooled in Arabic and Islamic education were suddenly rendered illiterate, which in turn limited and continues to limit access to economic opportunities – one of several factors attributed to the rise of Boko Haram.
“In many places where [schools existed], it created a hierarchy of culture and knowledge where local languages, local knowledge systems were made secondary to this import,” Gambo says, as she describes the destruction of Islamic education. “In colonising a society, you created an unequal society. People that went to school suddenly became powerful and [those] that didn’t were disempowered.”
She also questions the Nigerian government’s paltry investments in education, adding that schools can be viewed as a metaphor for the northeast’s problems. “The school is an arm of the government. It’s a power structure. The irony is not lost that Boko Haram is looking at the educational system as the root of its problems … as a symbol of all these Western promises that have not benefited them.”
Mental health and women’s beauty
Another artist whose work reflects the times is 25-year-old Olatunde Alara. His spray-painted installation “Smile”, borne of his struggles with mental illness and being asked to smile when depressed, depicts the interior mind and exterior persona at odds with each other and the concept of misperception.
Recalling earlier encounters with mental illness, Alara says he “couldn’t put a definition to it because I didn’t have any references, which is why representation is very important and it’s important that I’m doing this”.
As Nigerian newspapers continue to refer to suicide as “despicable acts” and “ugly incidents”, Alara hopes his installation will broaden conversations about mental health and encourage people to speak out about their experiences.
Wura-Natasha Ogunji, meanwhile, questions the concept of women’s beauty, its destruction and the dynamics of seeing and being seen in an art performance titled, “If I Loved You”. Like Alara, Ogunji’s performances, which mostly centre on the presence of women in public spaces, are inspired by her experiences.
“I was very aware of division of labour … my own movement as a woman and how they were affected,” recalls the 47-year-old, of her first visit to Nigeria in 2011. “I was very aware of people listening to me or not in public spaces. And so that became something I really wanted to engage with because of personal questions that I had with my own power, and my about own ability to engage with people and be present.”
Standing on a pedestal, the performers are presented as “objects of desire and focus and art objects [and] elevated beings” to the audience, with both parties having alternative viewpoints.
Ogunji says her intention is not to effect a drastic change in the system but to slightly shift things for women, in this case, the performers, to experience freedom.
“Art allows for that space in such a direct and eloquent manner,” she says.
‘Giving voice to the voiceless’
Critic Wilfred Okiche says the Lagos event has expanded the space for uncomfortable topics to be discussed.
“Art remains one of those mediums not totally shackled to the uneasy silence that conservative cultures usually seek to enforce,” he says. “Art X has risen to the challenge of giving voice to the voiceless and starting edgy, important conversations in creative ways.”
As to whether artists addressing societal concerns in their work identify, as Fela Kuti did, as change agents – it depends on the artist.
“[I] don’t know what’s going to happen [to the audience]. [I] don’t know how someone is going to feel [about the art], or how they’re going to be changed by what they observe,” Ogunji says.