* ‘Performance gives you that possibly of transforming into things you want to‘
Prof. Odutola, Segun Adefila, Molara Wood, Samurel Osaze, Anote Ajeluorou and Spirit of Nigeria Radio (an online radio platform) anchor, Jahman Anikulapo engaged in a conversation with performance artist, Jelili Atiku, on this art and how he has taken his unique African performative art to the global arena. He also spoke about how Nigerian universities have seemingly abandoned the needed Town-and-Gown interface that should nourish university curriculum for the benefits of the students they are training
You were in Paris the last time we spoke. I know you just came back, so where were you this time around?
I visited three cities in The Netherland including Amsterdam, Utrecht and Rotterdam. I also went to Paris, France, again to perform at the event, Afriques: Performative Utopias at Cité internationale des arts. Let me quickly say something about what Segun Adefila said (the inability of Nigerian universities to integrate practical contents from those practicing in the community into the theoretical concepts they teach students) earlier about the interface of the community and the university. I held workshops and masterclasses in Universities abroad and their curriculum is designed so the students can interact with experienced professional and leading role models in the industry, because the students are being trained to go into the community to practice what they have learnt. So, if you keep them in the university and you don’t integrate them (into society to learn from practitioners in their field), then it becomes a problem. You can imagine those Universities invited me from Nigeria and took me to Amsterdam and Utrecht all expenses paid, just to teach their students about public performance.
But here (in Nigeria), they haven’t called me one day for anything. University of Lagos and Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria (my alma mater) have never invited me for a performance workshop, but I leave Nigeria to teach people abroad about the idea of what community-based performance, because when you are a performance artist, that performance is not for you alone, it’s for the entire society, the community. So as a university, you must be able to understand the energy, vibrations and the philosophy of that society. You’re teaching students theory as a university, but they must learn the practice; the students must have to learn real practice from practitioners. The community too must be part of your theoretical l construct as a university, because these are the people that will consume the student’s works when they leave university to begin practice; so, you have to make them interface with the community or society along the way. It’s not about whether you have your own curriculum to teach. We know every school has a curriculum, but interfacing with community must be built into that curriculum for it to be effective. We must build a university curriculum in which community interaction must be part of it.
So you were in Amsterdam. What was the show about?
The show in Amsterdam was called Afrovibes. It’s a festival where they bring artiste(i)s from Africa to perform in The Netherlands, in about three cities (Amsterdam, Utrecht and Rotterdam) in 13 days, and it is quite loaded with performances. There were discussions about happenings in the world, especially in Africa in relation to other continents. There were robust conversations and I was impressed. They shot a film on me, and the film was screened during the festival event, How We Made it – African Artists Center Stage at De Balie in Amsterdam and there was the discussion about the contents of my performances in the film. I also made performances and conducted workshops and masterclasses in three Universities.
But before then you were in Paris, right?
Yes, I went from Amsterdam to Paris for another event, which was called Afriques: Performative Utopias at Cité internationale des arts, which looked at the energy that comes from Africa in performance, because they know performance is part of African culture. So, they tailored the event such that the world would see performances from Africa.
Can you give a rundown of where you have been to lately?
It would be difficult to give a rundown at the moment. Two months before the breakout of the pandemic and the lockdown, I returned from India – where I performed at the India Art Fair. The lockdown also helped because it made me to support my community, because the lockdown really affected a lot of people in my community in Ejigbo. Ejigbo is a community of daily income earners, and so it became really hard and tough for a lot of them during the lockdown. So we had to find a way to sustain and minimize that trauma, and I was on the frontline, trying to make sure people are okay by making provisions for as many as possible. So that was really hard for me. I am a community person. You can then imagine when the King of Ejigbo, my own cousin, got me arrested; hundreds of people came out to protest. They went to the police station and demanded that I should be released. So, when the community is for you and you have to be there for them too in a time of crisis like the lockdown. That’s why I feel comfortable when I want to do a performance there; I don’t announce it; they become my security. So if anything happens, you have to be there for them as they were there for you.
I followed your activities on Instagram until I lost track. You’ve really been so active. I love what you said about art and community, which I think was what I had at the back of my mind earlier when I talked about the need for sustainability, because everything we do should encapsulate a sense of community. But the question I’d like to put to you is: what do you do with the body, your body, or the body as a performance and artistic tool?…
That’s a good question. It’s the same I was talking about while I was in Amsterdam. To me, body is a material, and it’s a matter that contends with the memory of the community and the individual, and that material that activates in the audience that is deep in philosophical contents, social contents and also religious contents. It also depends on the way it is put to use. So, it is a sacred material. I was telling someone that assuming I want to perform and I put on an Arabic costume for the performance, and I have a Qur’an in my hand, and then I began to tear it apart. That would be so strong to some people and I may be killed, because the body is situated immediately in that performance, and people will begin to read meaning to that body; they will begin to wonder why an African is tearing this material apart. The materiality of the body and the sacredness of it activate lots of reaction and philosophy in the audience, and it’s from that perspective I use my body as a material.
When did you discover your body as your own preferred material for performance?
It was through research that I discovered how we have relegated our own culture, because I was trained in the Arabic way of life, which made me to grow up in an Islamic way. But for a while I felt that rebelliousness in me and I kept asking myself: I am a Yoruba person, and when I want to pray to God I do it in Arabic, and I don’t understand much of what is being said, and that gives me that feeling of being a very low human being; so what am I doing there? When I was in the university, I was asking myself: what is the pure artistic forms/practice in Yoruba? And it was that research that brought me into performance.
For example, look at our Egungun, the costumes, the poetry, the dance; everything is put into the body, and the body is put into the community, and it becomes so powerful that it controls anything. Most of the sculptures in Western museums are from these practices and so, I decided to focus my work in the same processes – performance. Even my painting and drawing are put into my body, so it makes the body more follow able, and that way the audience will feel it more.
If I want my audience to feel pain… For example, I did a performance in Cape Town in South Africa where I was talking about oil spillage and pollution. So in that performance, I got used oil from car and poured it on my body on stage and a lot of them in the audience was surprised, and the odour coming from that oil was foul… When I started, I had about 200 people in the audience, but before I finished, 70 per cent of the people had left the gallery, and that was the feeling that results from the shock, and that showed that oil spillage doesn’t just destroy the earth, it also destroys humans.
How easy is it for the audience to consume your form of art?
I speak with human beings, and human beings have a memory. So no matter what, when I do my performance, you connect with it. There is a particular part that will shock you, which will ignite the memory, connect to your memory about certain things, because we are human beings, and we have this memory and archival body that you tap into anytime you’re confronted with visual images, with performance; it will remind you of something from your own, and that’s where the conversation will start from. So within the audience, there will be certain conversation; that is what I tell a lot of people that I don’t intend to and I cannot control their mind.
You were in Palemo and I was there, too. We were on a boat going, and I remember you did a performance about migration. People were having dinner, and then they came out and saw you on that floor at the entrance, and they thought it was a dead person and everybody had to skip over you. I could see the shock, and some people ran back… Don’t you think it could be injurious to you or the people around?
Of course, I just talked about the vulnerability of the body. But if you ask me: what is that thing that I want the audience to get from that performance? The core of feeling is this: what is our view on the issue of migration? Those who died in the Mediterranean, because the performance, “Find Me in The Sea” was done at GNV Atlas Ship, Sailing the Mediterranean Sea between Palermo and Naples, Italy (on Friday June 8 2018). How do you react to it knowing that a lot of our people are dying in the Mediterranean every day? Do you just look away or do something to help? There was no one who came to ask if I was dead or alive; they were jumping over me to go live their lives, and that’s what I wanted them to feel. People are enduring these sort of conditions, and the shock is also from there.
For example, I had this performance in Venice where I asked the audience to throw eggs at my face. Three people did it, but the fourth person couldn’t do it, because he was then feeling for me. The performance was titled “My Eyes Are Larger Than My Mouth”, it wasperformed as part of Arts & Globalization Platform´s program 2019 tagged ‘Politics of Space’ at Giudecca, Venice, Italy(Saturday May 11). It was another way of saying that we look but we don’t say a lot of things; It thus makes us become less human and we don’t have feelings anymore, because when you’re doing, you start to feel something and you express it, and that’s the quality of being human, but we shut our mouth and we don’t say anything, just because we don’t feel it directly. That was what the performance was about.
We raise the issue of migration but we don’t do a lot about it. Millions of people perish in the Mediterranean every day because people want to escape Africa’s hard economies; everybody wants to live good-life. So when they’re trying to move to Europe through the Mediterranean, and they couldn’t, they perish in the sea. How do we react to it? African governments have to react to these tragedies by making the economies better, but they are not; they don’t give a damn. I just told you, when I was in Amsterdam, they paid me a generous stipend, so when I come back, I feel comfortable. But lecturers go on strike every day, because the pay is small.
I actually thought this radio programme was for tomorrow, and so I had to travel to Otta, my maternal community in Ogun State. There is going to be a festival at the community, so I went there to see how things were going and what I could do to assist in the process. We talked about the restitution of our artifacts and reactivation of our cultural ethos. Right now, most of the materials used for the festival are old and the ones they are preparing to use for the upcoming festival are of low of quality compare to the ancient ones; they have so depreciated, because they no longer have access to the ancient ones or how to fabricate them in the ancient methods. Some are reproducing it with some kind of pigment that is so inferior, and that makes the costumes, especially the hair dress looks as if the artistic prowess is dying.
I like the trajectory where you are going, but does your family feel comfortable with what you are doing? How do they react to it? I’m asking because art is part of what led to the problem that you had with the Ejigbo king, right?
In the beginning, a lot of people didn’t understand, but now I think everyone does. The king is afraid of the power of the arts, that’s why he doesn’t understand what I do. We had a meeting at his palace and I said, ‘it’s not that I’m confronting you, I’m just being sincere to myself as an artist’. The title of the performance is “Aragamago Will Rid This Land Off Terrorism”. Aragamago is that special power which has been given to women, and it is only that power that nurtures every human being, including a king. I think what offended the king was the sacred imageries that I combined together in the performance, because I used the indigenous forms which have association with reality, association with the essence of him; also, because his father is from a twin lineage. The headgear that I used was the combination of twelve pairs of Ere Ibeji, and I carried that on my head and he understands what that means, and I started my performance at that sacred point called Oju Oluwa in Ejigbo. I had a big gong with me, which is used only on special days when you have to call the community to listen to the king. So I created my own gong myself, which is a little bit bigger than the one the community has, so he wouldn’t say I used the community’s gong, and that is the power of the arts. I borrowed heavily from the costumes, traditions and philosophy of the community and that was too much for the king to bear and condone with it. So that was what “went wrong” (laugh)!
So he got offended and got you arrested?
Yes. He called the police and said during the procession, the audience and myself forcefully entered the palace and we attempted to cart away the crown, and he said the word ‘Aragamago‘ is a secret cult and I was the head and financier of the cult. I was arrested and remanded in Kirikiri for a week along with other 5 people, and I also stood trial for six months. The first pronouncement by the court was that I should not perform in a public space. But the judge noticed something wasn’t right with the set up and she said we should use traditional way of settling dispute and they organized a meeting at her chamber in the courtroom. I said, “My Lord, but you pronounced that I should not practice my art. When you look at the flyer I shared for the performance, it read “object of performance,” and everybody knew it was actually a performance.” The funniest thing was that I knew the king might react, so I took a letter to the National Assembly to inform them a week to the performance. So if Nigeria were one of those countries where the system works, that arrest would not have happened, and the police would have sent someone to witness it. If there was a problem, the police passed through the performance about three times, but at the end, we were still arrested, and the art community stood up and said ‘no,’ and that was what saved me.
What lesson has that taught you?
I was actually arrested a second time. I was taken to Kirikiri and I was released within an hour. You now go into the issue of culture. How does the king approach the culture he is supposed to uphold as custodian? For example, we have the highest shrine in Ejigbo, which is called Omagbo and the custodian there is a woman, and because of that, the king feels because he’s the king he thinks he can just announce the date of the festival without notifying or carrying the custodian of the shrine along, woman or not. How do you do that? Who is going to officiate at the festival? The king said he’s the Alpha and Omega and he would do It, and we said no; he is not the one who created the culture. He is a Muslim, and he doesn’t know about Isese practice. It is we, the Onisese who understand the practice that will tell him, but he got annoyed. The Council Development Chairman asked all of us to meet and the following day he called the police and we were arrested again.
In all of these, what lessons would you say you have learnt, and is that why you say performance art is not that popular among Nigerians?
The effective power of art. The problem is that performance art is not in the school curriculum; none of the universities teach Performing Visual Arts in Nigeria. If you go outside the country, you see a lot of universities that teach it. I just told you about the three universities in The Netherlands that I went to teach. If the universities look at it critically and say they want to be sincere to the identity of Nigeria, then, performance arts must be part of our curriculum, because that is a practice that is original and unique to us. When I collaborated with Asabioje Afenapa, we didn’t use musical instruments but when she was singing, everybody felt the power and energy in that performance, and we were just being ourselves, we were using that true energy, that true performance that comes from us. What will happen to universities in Nigeria that do not consider that content, that energy? A lot of white people come here to borrow from our culture and then resell it to us again, because we , our scholars particularly, are not paying attention to our own.
When you were speaking earlier, talking about having members of the audience throwing eggs at you made me think: have you ever suffered injuries as part of your performance, which are quite unusual and rigorous?
Of course, there are concerns. Like I said, the body becomes vulnerable. The performance I mentioned in Cape Town, for almost six months, I was feeling the rashes of the oil I used, and even when I came back from my recent trip to the Netherlands, I discovered the pigment I used was giving me rashes, because the heat we experience here is more than in the other places out Nigeria. But, of course, by the time you use your body as a material, you automatically make it vulnerable to a lot of things. In the workshop, there was a lady who did a particular work and I asked to see her palm, I took a photograph, and I showed the people present the marks she had on it, because she was cutting tree branches with bare hands. The body, as a material, is very vulnerable, but if you choose to do it, you then would know that it’s your practice. For example, when I performed during winter in Europe, I feel so cold, but each time I start a performance, I don’t feel any pain (cold) until after the performance, like the one I did in Ejigbo where I carried something heavy on my head; I didn’t feel pain until after the performance.
I’ve seen some of your performances, as well as videos from all over the world, and I was wondering: how did you overcome any kind of self-consciousness about the body, to just strip yourself and be half-dressed, say on a square in Amsterdam; it’s not something a lot of people can do. So what’s your relationship with the body and how do you overcome that self-awareness that naturally makes us want to hide our body?
Like I said, for me the body has become material and I must be sincere to it. So, if you’re bearing it naked, it’s also to let you know that sometimes you might have to feel some of the things that I want you to feel. So it all depends on what the audience wants to take from that.
It’s just a material, then when I finish (performing) I become Jelili, and other things come up and that issue of being there also, and the issue of privacy has to be observed; but in a space during performance, it becomes a material.
Is there an intersection between what you do and being the person that carries the Egungun, especially when you talk about not feeling pain while carrying it until you’re done with the performance?
I have said it several times that because I am involved, my body is there, and my body is sacred, which has been made to undergo certain rituals of our indigenous rites, and after this, I bring that body as a material into the performance arena; you would also feel that sacredness, so it’s natural.
Most times when you perform in Nigeria, you do it in an open space for the public to enjoy for free. How do you make money from it like that?
Well, it was difficult at first, but now I think I’ve gotten over that. When I was invited to perform in Venice Biennial, Italy, it was so problematic for me, because they don’t sponsor. But there is this foundation in one European country, Fundacao Sindika Dokolo that was trying to buy some photo documentations of my work; so I sold four photographs each for $2,500, and I made $10,000. When the foundation people learnt at the time that I was going to perform in Venice, they said they would buy additional four of the performance photos documentations of the performance in Venice. So, I got $20,000 in all from that performance experience. Even right now, like I made a great image or sculpture, like my forefathers have been doing; someone can acquire these sculptural pieces, and I can sell them for a large amount of money, and also because I’m from the visual arts sector, I draw a lot. I put my concepts in drawings. Right now, I sell the prints of these drawings.
Performance gives you that possibly of transforming into things you want to. I can also sell a video. Some have to understand that I have a family, and I’m building a museum. Most times, there are works I don’t sell; so I keep them here. I’m creating an aura around my work. Recently, I did a performance in the context of Yoruba national aspiation and I created a moving museum with that: all the objects I ceated from the Yoruba values, I installed them in it like a very big moving Museum, which I’m sure I will sell for more than N10 million if I decide to sell it. Right now, I’m looking for a museum outside the country, because there is none in Nigeria that I’m going to put them in. It’s talking about the Yoruba nation thing, but it’s a way of contributing to that dialogue and I have contributed, and it’s going to be shown worldwide in Amsterdam during Prince Claus 25th anniversary and I’m one of the laureates and they commissioned to create a work for the commemorative online festival of the celebration. And on that day, I will also do a live screening of the show in Ejigbo, and I’m going to hang my proposed Yoruba flag. We should have a Yoruba country; so that the language doesn’t go extinct, and where the Yoruba culture can be taught in universities.
Does the Lagos State Government buy into what you’re doing?
They don’t. It would be difficult to compare artists to those people in government.
Your next performance will be at Lagos Book and Art Festival (LABAF 2021 from November 15 – 22, 2021). Why did you choose to use that platform?
I think it’s about projecting the issue of performance, because LABAF is one of the most prominent festivals in Lagos State, and that means that it has been staged for a longer time, and it has created that platform where some of us will be able to say we are going for a festival that is local and contemporary, and also has content with a lot of discussions about arts. By using that platform, I’m letting people know that there is a performance about who we are as a people, so it makes them have that confidence about our work. For me, it’s also to say ‘thank you’ to those who put in all their effort in making sure we have a festival. It’s not easy when the funds are not there, the government isn’t giving you anything and you don’t get honorarium. You’re coming to enjoy creativity for free.
What’s the title of your performance at LABAF?
The performance is titled ‘Mokóó Morò’. It’s the same I did in The Netherlands and France. I call it a nomadic performance, because it’s in Europe and it will also be in Africa. It’s about Covid-19, and the prominent question I’m trying to push out is, “tell me the truth about Covid-19.”
Does ‘Mokóó Morò’ mean ‘tabling the matter‘?
Yes. It is also literally means I’ve done kind of a research and found a lot of information that I want to share so that we can talk about that.
Are your works sellable? Because you perform or free…
LikeI said earlier, performances create traces, objects that will remind you that this was used at certain performances. So sometimes you sell photographs of your works. The works I sold have been shown in museum in Belgium which I sold for $10,000.
Has some cordiality been established between you and the Oba of Ejigbo?
I wasn’t fighting with the Oba; I was only reacting on issues that affects us negatively, and if he acts again, I will also react. I’m a simple human being. If you do something that pinches my conscience negatively, I will react.
But he’s your cousin, and that’s why people were surprised you were fighting…
When you go into the other side and you’re making me uncomfortable, then I can’t shut my mouth because he’s my cousin. I have to defend most of the things I do.
I came across Jelili sometime in 2011, and it was my first time coming in contact with a performance artist. Do you have a mentor, or is there someone you actually learn from?
That’s a very difficult question, but I must be sincere with you: it is the Yoruba culture that is my mentor. So Yoruba culture is the only mentor I have because there is no performance in the contemporary way in Nigeria. Prof. Jerry Buhari and others in ABU did a performance some time ago, but at that time we didn’t know what they were doing. I had already graduated when they did that performance in Zaria. Marcia Kure also did a performance where she was dressed in black, and at that time it didn’t mean anything to me. It is now that when I reflect back that I’m awed. I had wished to write her to tell me certain things about the performance. That performance was revolutionary. It was talking about keeping women indoors and not allowing them do anything socially. They also feel that sense of wanting to dance, and to be a part of what is happening in society but cannot because of religious culture that forbids them to be expressive. It was awesome.