In the new movement of art from Africa, more home-based Nigerian artists are tenaciously pushing for the frontline of global recognition and taking lead positions alongside Africans in the Diaspora. One of such artists commanding international attention is the fierce Peju Alatise. She is one of the highest selling living contemporary artists in Nigeria and in Africa too. She has consistently put out works beyond the norm and on the measure of originality and quality she is considered one of the best.
At international art fairs and exhibitions, her paintings and sculptural installations provoke strong reactions amongst visitors. In and out of auction houses in Lagos and in London, her work sells higher than most female artists put into the same art sales. At the debut auction of Bonhams Africa Now: Contemporary African Art Sale in October 2015, Alatise’s High Horses (triptych) sold for £31,250. This is approximately N10, 000,000 going by the current exchange rate in Nigeria now. High Horses was the third highest work sold at the October auction. The first being a wooden sculpture Al Haji by celebrated Ghanaian artist El Anatsui at £146,500. At Arthouse Contemporary in Lagos, Ascension by Peju Alatise was one of the firsts to break auction records in 2011. Outside of auctions and open markets, her works have also been sold higher than £20,000 and it keeps rising.
Peju Alatise is a dynamic woman passionate about humanity. Driven by the need to defend the most downtrodden of human kinds, Alatise uses local stories to address global problems of women’s rights, gender inequality and rights of the girl child. Her work revolves around creating a society that gives a woman the right to choose, starting from the time she enters into the world. These works are then linked with the Yoruba traditional beliefs and socio-political problems in Nigeria. She presents her subjects through paintings and intense large scale sculptural installations. In her words, “My messages will always concern women. I believe a change will come to any home, community or a nation that exercises the rights of its women to choose. It is simple but many people are indolent to this. Give a woman her right to choose life, health, her home, education, love, financial income, and independence.”
Alatise is more than an artist and architect as she is generally addressed. She is an activist using art to fight for the marginalized. It should not be surprising she uses her work to advocate for the rights of women of all ages, she is simply passionate about her gender folk. It is the path she has chosen, to put shame to shame. She believes that a responsibility has been placed on her, same as the responsibility given a musician or a writer. And it is maybe not a coincidence that she is also a writer, an author of two short stories – Orita-meta: Crossroads and Silifat amongst other publications on her art. However, her mission should not be confused with feminism has she has reservations on the perception of that label.
In addressing the central part of women’s issues, she went back to the early stages of a woman’s journey, the troubles of being a girl in an African society. Her paintings in 2012 showed how girls are perceived as numbers and offered limited choices or control over their lives. The child right activism became more specific in the multiple series presented as part of Wrapture at Art Twenty One Lagos in 2013. It was the height of campaign against child brides in Nigeria. Till date, there is still no definite and clear law protecting the girl child in Nigeria. In 2015 and 2016 respectively, activists in Malawi and Zimbabwe had a clear victory against paedophilia and traditions of early girl child marriage. New laws were passed into the constitution making illegal child marriages and activities that deny a child education before the age of eighteen. In Nigeria, the law remains unclear on the new age of illegal marriage and the stand against abuse in such circumstance.
From Child Not Bride created in 2012, Alatise moved onto other unsettling treatments of the girl child in Africa and scornful treatment of the women folk. In 2014, she created Girl Interrupted, Missing and High Horses triptych. Missing was in reaction to the different news of kidnapped girls in Nigeria and most importantly the 234 girls from Chibok in Borno State. Girls are being kidnapped in Nigeria from time to time without anyone staging a protest, but the Chibok girls kidnap was the news story that stunned the world. According to the artist, Missing created a stronger reaction in the UK at 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair than in Lagos where she has previously shown works on child abuse issues. “I was very surprised with the reaction to the work Missing. In Nigeria when I had done works about girls missing, child marriage and stuff, people don’t want to be confronted, they just want to ignore such. Over there, with a new audience, I was actually very touched by people’s reaction and their understanding of the story. The work does not bring back the missing girls but it shows that people know, and having understanding is important these days. The fact that an issue has been exposed and discussed is the beginning of a solution. People are less ignorant.” All 96 visible pieces of Missing was sold among eight buyers at the art fair.
Since her last major exhibition in Lagos in 2013, Alatise has been on the low and only showing her works outside Nigeria. She has expanded to a bigger and newer audience beyond Africa and the UK. In 2015, she had an exhibition at the Nest Gallery in Geneva Switzerland in a collaborative effort with the top Lagos art centre, Red Door Gallery. The exhibition was entitled Lost, another series involving fabric. Moyo Okediji, a Professor and Director at Center of Art from Africa and its Diaspora, University of Wisconsin, in Madison, US had described her process and medium as Fabric Architecture. Alatise’s mastery of fabric integration is repeatedly seen in the way she explores fabric in different media. She acknowledges this relationship with fabrics and said “it started with indigo”, a moment traced back to a fabric shop in Abeokuta.
Also, in the same 2015, her work All Scarves go to Heaven was shown alongside other artists at the exhibition and conference Re-significations and Black Portraiture II in Florence, Italy. The annual event addresses the influence of Western culture in constructing the black body. It is a gathering of remarkable artists and scholars from around the world. Re-significations has been curated by Awam Amkpa, a Nigerian playwright, director, filmmaker, scholar and professor of Drama and Africana studies at New York University.
While Alatise’s work has generally been described as striking and unusual, some have referred to it as disturbing. Her response when asked was, “I am very particular about producing something beautiful and aesthetic. I let go of negativity, I zone out the noise and put my passion to ensure my work is approachable”. However she continues, “there are underlying issues that are not pleasing and has to be seen to pass the message across. I put out the dilemma in my work. Art should make one introspective, art is a mirror. An artist is a reflection of a time he or she lives in, and if my work makes you look at yourself in a different way and make you reflect, then I am glad I was able to communicate it.”
Beyond works revolving around women, Alatise also address matters of politics, social behaviors and the economy. In a different interview for an art review site, Artctualite.com, she mentioned “it is not possible to live in Nigeria without being affected by its politics”. It bears down on the very intricacies of mundane life, from cost of portable water to crossing the streets, one’s health, gender biases and social interactions. These thoughts are strongly present in Unconscious Struggle (2012) and the most recent political statement piece Tickle Down Politics created in 2015.
Back to the label of feminism and her reservations, she said to me in a conversation at her studio, “people don’t know what feminism is, especially in Nigeria. Being a feminist does not mean you hate men. The simplest example I can give is if we do the same work, we should be paid the same fees and be given equal treatments.” Feminism has long been tied to man hating and other derogatory affiliations, but this has not stopped more women from demanding their rights in a patriarchal world. Younger women are asking questions and gradually shattering the culture of silence around women. They want to be heard and not merely exist. A conversation around this new culture between a mother and her child inspired the triptych sculptures High Horses. Alatise built three high pedestals with empty women on them to show the little significance given to women in our society. “Do not be seen, do not be heard…”
Around the world, there is a gradual change; women are demanding more respect. Voices like Peju Alatise are making impacts on how women should be perceived and treated. Nigeria still has a long way to go but in the words of Alatise, “it is still a powerful time to be a woman”.
Alatise is known for her directness and approach to topics we shy away from in Africa, especially the gender most affected. She is also referred to as ‘difficult’ for demanding accountability of others. Recalling my first visit to her, it was an encounter with a woman who has dedicated herself to learning and nourishing her curiosity, asking questions and constantly seeking knowledge. She knows her history well and she is versatile in politics. She follows pop culture as well as intellectual or academic topics in her field. She is in her element as a woman, but she stays bold and speaks her mind. In conversations with her, you will find the same analytical voice one senses at the core of her work. It gives an insight into the mind that creates the monumental works she puts out year after year.
“I am not insulted when people call me (super) sensitive. Feeling things deeply is my super power. I am an empathetic badass.” With her, there is no sitting on the fence or half-hearted emotions. Most critics and observers have described her work as both intense and perceptive. These words also rightly describe Peju Alatise as a woman, a human and an artist.
The conversational text behind High Horses:
‘They put them on High Horses and they stayed there.
“Don’t whistle, don’t sing!
Do not dance, do not shine,
Do not be heard, do not be seen,
No rhythm, no rhyme.
Be quiet, be still,
You shall not be!”
She obeyed every word and disappeared. She looks at her mother, the woman that has never been: “Shall I be like you, mama?”
Her mother said without a smile: “Indeed you shall. As all women should be.”
“But Mama, you do not exist!”
“Neither shall you for this is what is preserved for us. What greater honor is there for a woman than to be married and have children?”
“But that is in his name! What about my name?”
“Shhh my child, remove that sinful thought from your head and never talk about it again!” Her mother’s whispers were like thunder.’
First published in StyleMania Magazine, The Awards Issue, February/March 2016, “Upfront and Not Personal” by Bukola Oye, pg 46-51/119.
Art by Peju Alatise / Art images courtesy Peju Alatise.
Artist Image credit: The Sole Adventurer.
Peju Alatise’s recent works can be seen here.