If indeed the past is history and the future is a mystery with unfathomed contents, then Jelili Atiku a politically motivated performance artist in Nigeria has consistently opened the archive of history while accurately forecasting the future. Otherwise, how would one explain the magnanimity and influence of his iconic performance Aragamago Will Rid This Land of Terrorism, enacted on 14 January 2016 in Ejigbo, Lagos? On the performance which directed attention to the power of feminine energy in resolving poignant issues in our world, Jelili writes, “Aragamago is the name of the bird that was given to Odu, the wife of Orunmila by Olodumare (God) when she was coming to the earth. I adopted the name as a way to make a statement on the solution that will perhaps help humanity out of the problem of this present era, which has been considered as the ‘age of confusion’. The bird represents the female energy and this is what humanity needs to save itself from the grip of terrorism.”
A year and seven days after this performance, precisely Saturday 21 January 2017, the world witnessed the potency of the impulses in his performance when unprecedented in human history, women in millions marched in Washington DC and other cities around the world for the upholding of human rights and protesting racial discrimination and injustice.
Similarly, the concern for mass migration and migrants surfaced again in 2013, five years after Atiku’s performance The Refugees, performed as an art supplement to Dr. (Mrs.) Shambhavi V. M. Gopalhrishna’s research, Africa’s Refugees, Patterns, Problems, and Policy Challenges. Jelili created and installed a make-shift structure (a shack) typical of refugee camps at war-torn areas at the All Nigeria University Research Fair in 2008. Having disguised his appearance to look unkempt as someone without shelter he was treated badly by a crowd that would have shown him respect in a different circumstance. “I appeared uncanny, dirty and unwanted among the crowd, and was being forcefully removed from the fair by the security men who acted on the instruction of the head of the University. But Dr. Shambhavi saved the situation, she shouted, ‘that is my exhibit’”, he recounts. In this same manner, refugees and migrants are being rejected in Europe since 2013 as shown in news headlines. While migrants often bring along their own economies and markets and do not necessarily translate to burden on the society, hostility toward people in this situation remain unchanged.
ODUDUWA MEETS METIS
As the global migration crises get worse, more questions arise, and some answers might be in Atiku’s works. Odùduwà meets Métis is another performance piece on migration. Presented at the Live International Performance Biennial in Vancouver BC, Canada in 2013, the performance was a cross-examination of the hysterical nature of forced migration and the exploitative form. While the former breeds trauma, loss of cultural codes and values, history and memories, disconnection and discontents, labels such as asylum seeker and refugee, and unforgivable awful deaths, the latter takes advantage of its assumed superiority to loot natural and human resources through violence, force and abuse, colonialism and imperialism, destruction of cultural values and system, domination and subjugation of the native.
In the enactment, Jelili points at how historical blindspots disturb the ability to see and recognize that migration is as far back as human existence. For instance, according to Yoruba mythology, Odùduwà migrated to Ile-Ife – the source of the universe and met the natives there, yet Odùduwà is the acclaimed father of the Yorubas. Métis, on the other hand, are a mixed-race group of First Nations people and European settlers in Canada, a reminder of an existence born out of trade and colonialism.
As Jelili attempts to fill in the blind spots of history, he simultaneously opens up the path to a dialogue of the future and concerns about what will come next. “This is a dialogue of questions after questions on migration and migrants”.
IN THE RED
Atiku began a series of performance projects in 2008 titled, In the Red, which is in its 17th presentation. Projected into contemporary realities and consequences of violent acts in the world, the project portrays and contextualizes the consequential effects of war, especially in the destruction of humanity. Using shroud (burial sheets), red (colour) and the historical and contemporary narratives of war, he symbolizes life, suffering, danger and violence. The symbolic contents in the work make a metaphorical statement on the recklessness driving the crises, disputes and war.
Using the linen fabric wrapped around himself and the other performers, Atiku reminds the viewer of the vulnerability of the body as it becomes a battleground in the ongoing conversations surrounding global crises. The human body becomes the reference point by which we relate to these calamitous events in our world, from the two world wars, the Nigerian civil war (1967-1970) that recorded millions of deaths, and the Rwandan genocide that resulted in the deaths of almost 1 million people in 100days.
In February 2009, few months before the terrorist group Boko Haram began their attacks in North Eastern Nigeria, Atiku performed Red or White? (In The Red Series #1), Red Bug (In The Red, Series #4), Redound (In The Red, Series #5), Red Light (In The Red, Series #6) and Reddendum (In The Red, Series #7), at the Fine Arts Department, Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria. These attacks officially marked the introduction of the word “terrorism” into the Nigerian vocabulary, the same way the 9/11 attacks marked a turning point in the discourse around global terrorism. These performances by Jelili Atiku in retrospect could be seen as a sort of prediction/warning of the impending doom that awaits humanity as it veers down the path of destruction and extinction.
Beyond Nigeria, the June 2016 Orlando nightclub massacre that led to the death of 50 persons, and believed to be the deadliest mass shooting in the U.S., has been said to have been predicted by Atiku’s performance and installation project at the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum in Michigan in 2015. The project, Red Day (In The Red, Series #17) was described as an attempt to bring “poetic and visual possibilities of engaging and confronting the audience with the psychological effect of red (red cloth) in public and gallery spaces, and confronting them with the role art plays in the evolution of these spaces in social and political interventions”. The performance had 12 performers transformed into red mummies; Atiku led the body movement with the others behind him. The movement in the performance was guided by different kinds of choreographical gestures and the performance terminates in an enclosure in the museum where all the performers created texts from selected wars in world history.
On this, Atiku comments that “unquantifiable amount of blood have been spilled on this earth; thus, humanity is mummified in red and jumps in horror here and there”.
LANGUAGE AND CONTEXT
The Yoruba language is often an entry point for Atiku in his works as he draws references from his cultural background. He questions how history is written selectively to fit western ideas and how cultural memory has been destroyed by colonialism. His reason for articulating his cultural identity is as political as the work he produces.
Obaranikosi (In The Red, Series #16), a parallel performance first enacted in Lagos on 19 December 2013 and in Copenhagen on 25 January 2014, is an expansion of the dialogue in the series where Atiku exports his Lagos environment to a western audience in Copenhagen through video projection. Obaranikosi, a Yoruba word meaning forgetfulness, could be interpreted as an admonition that humans need to pay more attention to both historical and contemporary global crises as we are now living in a fast-paced world where information is quickly disseminated and also easily discarded. The world is frightened by any possible conflict among the US, North Korea, Russia, and China, etc. This is the angle with which one can perceive Atiku’s warning on human forgetfulness on the enormous causalities of the numerous wars and violence of the past.
In 1981, renowned American political scientist Kenneth Waltz asked a pertinent question that was based on the consequences of the spread of nuclear weapons in the world. He asked, “What will the spread of nuclear weapons do to the world?”. In similar reasoning, late American professor of Gerontology, Gerald A. Larue, shared in his article “Human Values for the 21st Century” published in 1998 that “the 21st century promises to be a time of scientific and technological growth at a level never before experienced in human history. This growth will either trigger chaos, disruption, war, starvation and disease or will introduce a period of humanistic cooperation, development, progress, and peace. What emerges will depend upon which values are embraced, taught, encouraged, and legislated.”
But alas, not surprisingly, the advancement in technology plays a role in the current spread of violence around the world.
As part of the context of the above project, Atiku conceived Oginrinringinrin, a series of performances and installations as an artistic and social intervention to foster dialogue between space and audience, engage public spaces in the production of socio-political works, and alert people to the acute threats facing humanity by providing critical framework for discussion on the issue of security and leadership.
Oginrinringinrin is a Yoruba word which translates as deep insight. It is used here to refer to the potentiality of the human body as it becomes symbolic objects and metaphorical contents that will aid the expansion of awareness on critical issues of human values and security. The performances in Oginrinringinrin re-invented and transformed public space to an artistic medium for human recourse and inferences. For the presentation, Atiku adopted dance, theatre, text, sound, installation, photography and an appropriated Egungun technique (the dance performance of Yoruba masquerades connected with ancestor reverence) to create moments of actions, transformation, reconstruction, ritual (putting the body into a fight), spatial awareness and negotiation.
The performances in the Oginrinringinrin series are Egungun-Alabala Mandela (Oginrinringinrin I), Ologbere (Oginrinringinrin II) and Eleegba (Oginrinringinrin III).
When Atiku enacted Ologbere (Oginrinringinrin II), a processional performance and installation presentation during the International Performance Art Festival, PALS (Performance Art Links) in Slussen/Södermalmstorg and Fylkingen, Stockholm in Sweden, it assembled and made use of the flags of the five NPT nuclear weapon states (United States, Russia, United Kingdom, France and China), skeleton of a woman, milk, anchor-rope, and a wooden carriage. He pulled along the skeleton of the woman, which was laid on the wooden carriage that was dragged across the streets with the anchor rope. During the walk, the skeleton was occasionally fed with the milk until the performance ended in a gallery space (Fylkingen) where all the objects of the performance were installed and a text was incorporated.
The five nation states were Atiku’s representation of the Alaale (Yoruba word for spiritual custodian) of the world, and life and death, existence, and extinction of the human race are hinged on them. This symbolic demonstration by Atiku was well articulated by the US President, Barack Obama in his declaration on the 5th of April, 2009 in Prague. “One nuclear weapon exploded in one city – be it New York or Moscow, Islamabad or Mumbai, Tokyo or Tel Aviv, Paris or Prague – could kill hundreds of thousands of people. And no matter where it happens, there is no end to what the consequences might be – for our global safety, our security, our society, our economy, and to our ultimate survival”, says Mr. Obama.
Atiku assumes different roles in his performances and the astute observer will notice the inherent messages in the works. While Ologbere can be interpreted as a sort of warning to the nuclear weapon states, Eleegba (a spirit of good character that uses punishment to straighten wrongdoing) the third presentation in the Oginrinringinrin project, is on standby to serve punishment to these entities.
This artistic direction is influenced by the Yoruba tradition. While for instance, a beating punishment given to a child in the West is seen as an abuse, in the Yoruba culture, ‘flogging’ is beneficial as it helps in shaping and molding a child who has committed an offense.
It’s very important to also address another element visible in Atiku’s message in both Ologbere and Eleegba; the subject of nuclear proliferation. The hidden message in the flogging of these five nuclear weapon states could be an attempt to remind these world powers of the danger of the rapid interest in the weapon in history and now. Another message in these performances is embodied in the Yoruba saying “Eshin iwaju ni ti eyin wo sare” (The horse behind looks to the one in front for leadership).
Worried by these nuclear weapon discussions and anger from sanctions, one may ask the same question as Ronald Bailey, “Will humanity survive the 21st century?
ABOUT JELILI ATIKU IN BRIEF
A 2015 Prince Claus Laureate, Atiku is a Nigerian multimedia artist with concerns for human rights and justice. Through drawing, installation, sculpture, photography, video and performance (live art), he strives to help viewers understand the world and expand their understanding and experiences so that they can fully activate their lives and environments.
For over a decade, Atiku has put his art at the service of the prevailing concerns of our times; especially the issues that threaten our collective existence and the sustenance of our universe. The contents of these concerns range from the psychosocial to the emotional effects of traumatic events such as violence, war, poverty, corruption, climate change and so on.
Early this year, Jelili Atiku was announced as one of the artists invited to participate at the 57th Venice Biennale international art exhibition “Viva Arte Viva” curated by Christine Macel.