The Ogbonis, the judiciary court of the Yoruba religion, have a saying, “Ma te oju ile mole”, which translates to mean, “Do not step on the eye of the earth”. It is a metaphorical statement and warning urging humans to be careful not to upset nature as there are consequences and repercussions of stepping on the eye of the earth. This is the inspiration behind Jelili Atiku’s performance piece, ‘I Trust You Know – Oju Ile’ (Alaraagbo XI).

The work is set in the context of a performative ritual. Addressing issues of climate change and global warming in our ecosystem, human interactions with nature and the rituals we perform, the first being the repetitive act of walking on the earth. The piece appropriates processional ritual and body ontology.

Sarah Pirtle sings the truth in metaphor in her song, ‘A Seed Knows What to Do’. She says, “Snow came roaring on the window pane, so we grabbed that book and we read it again. A seed catalogue with pictures bright. Peas and tomatoes seemed just right. ‘Cuz a seed knows what to do”. Indeed, nature knows what to do in the present human era of higher technological advancement – where our planet is at the risk of a severe environmental crisis. Humans seem not to know what to do in our vulnerability to disasters, tragedies, stresses, perturbations, and shocks in the change of our environment – where our use of the land, ecosystems and biodiversity has been unfriendly and self-centered. As we struggle with our state of planetary emergency, a remedy from Ifa divination becomes important. We must know the eye of the earth and see through it.

The performance involves a spectacle of an imposing seemingly alien-human-image with a costume made of drift twigs as headgear and a long flowing crystal plastic sheeting as the garment. The figure walks majestically carrying a calabash filled with earth and a small plant, making a series of ritualistic actions.

Several symbolic images are created during the performance. In one image there is a tree on the head of the artist. He carries a calabash filled with earth and a small tree as he walks in a manner as though not to step on the eye of the earth. He walks into the ocean, puts the calabash on the water and the waves carry it away, thus emphasizing the importance of water as one of the powerful elements in life and how our existence depends on water. The element of salt in the water also comes into play. As it has been said, “we are the salt of the earth”.

The repetitive action is of pouring water on his body in the process of the performance is similar to the Jewish tradition of baptism.

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Performance in Lagos. Photo by Tom Saater. Courtesy Jelili Atiku

Another symbolic image is that of the plastic sheeting wrapped around the body of the artist which represents the objects of rituals we create. These objects go back to the earth and, just like plastic, obstruct the ecological structure of the earth. The chemicals used in making these objects are inorganic materials that further destroy the earth.

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Performance in Lagos. Photo by Tom Saater. Courtesy Jelili Atiku

And then, there is the symbol of the black body. It is referenced here as the colonization of the word “black”, and viewing black as a positive energy that sustains the earth.

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Performance in Lagos. Photo by Tom Saater. Courtesy Jelili Atiku

Atiku’s performance seeks to activate the thinking process of the audience, and not to colonize his/her thoughts. It highlights our need to negotiate the space created by these rituals. Referencing the song by Sarah Pirtle, “A Seed Knows What To Do”, humans too must know what to do, why we do what we do, and take responsibility for the things we do. We need to be more conscious of that ritualistic part of our lives, which also goes into the knowing body. The object becomes an ontology.

The performance was first presented in Bern, Switzerland. It has also been enacted in Yaounde, Cameroon and was recently presented at the beachside in Lagos and at the LagosPhoto festival opening.

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Performace in Bern, Switzerland. Photo by Marina Porobic. Courtesy Jelili Atiku

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Performance in Yaounde (Cameroon), photo by Leena Kela. Courtesy Jelili Atiku

Top featured image: Jelili Atiku in performance of ‘I Trust You Know – Oju Ile’ (Alaraagbo XI) courtesy LagosPhoto