The “Power Show” – Ayo Akinwande’s solo show at Omenka Gallery takes Nigeria’s tortured relationship with electricity as the jump-off point for the exploration of power in the various ways it presents in society. Both power outages and scarcity of fuel have become a regular occurrence for Nigerians, indeed have been for decades. While there is nothing historical happening now that makes it a particularly relevant period for this show, Erin M. Rice, its curator, is quite right that it remains an “important task to photograph, document and to look again and again at the scenes that risk becoming diluted by the everyday or by their own recurrence”.
Akinwande takes the total collapse of electricity supply in 2016 as his entry point into this topic. In paying attention to this experience of power and powerlessness, Akinwande has coined Nepatism, to explore the psychological reality of this tortured relationship. It is an apt word, conveying quite potently how much the erratic nature of electricity provision (and non-provision) in Nigeria mirrors the nature of Nigerians’ relationship to the power of the state and the political and social forces that control and influence it. As Akinwande says in the introduction to the show, “Nepatism becomes part of the subconscious of every Nigerian from birth and the umbilical cord of darkness is never cut. After the first few periods of crying, the Nigerian child often times gets used to the darkness after a couple of months. And by the time this child starts speaking, ‘Up Nepa’ usually becomes one of the first phrases he/she utters. It is this reality that shaped most of my childhood and forms a greater part of my anger as an adult.”
Despite the curatorial claims, and indeed, the artist’s identification of anger as the driving force of “Power Show”, what is most striking about Akinwande’s work is a constant, defiant playfulness underneath the gravity of the subject. The pieces that seem weighed down by an enforced seriousness of purpose are the weakest parts of the show, particularly the live performance Up Nepa and Power House, a wooden structure reminiscent of generator houses in Nigeria – they have neither gravity nor humour. Power House, in particular, feels like a work whose potential for a macabre but visceral intensity has not been fully fulfilled. There are powerful ideas in the pieces but they have not entirely cohered.
Nigeria’s electricity issues seem a fertile ground for Omenka Gallery which, four years ago, also showed Uche James-Iroha’s series of photographs exploring the Nigerian relationship to epileptic power supply. The two shows do not immediately invite comparison – photography, despite ostensibly being Akinwande’s primary medium seems relatively side-lined in his show – but there is some relationship in theme. While James-Iroha’s work had a visceral connection to the issue of epileptic power, Akinwande’s focus is on power more widely conceptualised. To a degree, this makes for a rich experience that rewards later reflection.
Akinwande utilises electrical power at a conceptual level as a metaphor for the way power operates in Nigeria. His exploration of Nepatism draws us closer to a resigned musing on why it exists. It is less an articulation of the rage or other emotions that the situation has produced in Nigerian society and more a series of observations that the erratic nature of electrical power pervades; and provides a model for interpreting all other forms of power in Nigeria expressed, be that religious, political or rhetorical power. Tellingly, where the emotion ‘Nepatism’ is most evoked is in the video installation What’s On Your Mind? displaying curated social media commentary, by Nigerians on the country’s political and electrical power failures.
Sometimes, there is something of the artist throwing everything at the possibility of artistic acclaim, and for this viewer at least, a more sustained exploration of one medium may have served the thematic goals better. Akinwande’s intelligence and quiet power emerges most in his sculptural works, particularly Oga Ade, Open & Close I and Open & Close II. The visitors at the Lagos Biennial in 2017 will no doubt recall Deaf + Dumb, his witty installation of boxing stick men, that explored Nigeria’s experience of corruption, and more specifically the efforts of the controversial Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC). It was easily one of the best pieces at the Biennial. What was clear there was a purity of focus coupled with an impish wit. Shrine, a wood sculpture that has a comic aspect and the slight hint of threat that pervades the best masquerades, in this exhibition, shows that wit and playfulness. While it is possible to overstretch the presence of the masquerade in the work of any African artist, the sense of the inhabited mask is there with Shrine, which both invites mockery and reverence. This balance of playfulness and reverence also emerges in the sculpture Oga Ade, which is a magisterial piece, at once evoking the imposing effectiveness we desire in workers, yet with a nod to Nigeria’s famously inefficient public services; this Oga is still very much a stick man.
These works point in an interesting direction of exploration for Akinwande: they are public statement art which probably ought to be acquired by some munificent body or the other. These are potent and intense works, particularly when one ponders on the fact that they have been made in the context of a Nigeria (Lagos, at least) that has started to engage more actively, if not entirely intelligently with the public, sculptural art. The potency of Oga Ade is a stark contrast to, for example, the celebratory but ultimately bizarre and tellingly headless statue of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti in Ikeja. Symbolism aside, aesthetically, Oga Ade is the most pleasing piece in this show. It is imposingly large, made of wood, iron, and a workman’s hat; commonplace objects transmuted into the sublime. In this deft use of material and the playful fluidity of the figure, Akinwande’s sculptural work echoes Sokari Douglas-Camp. In spirit though, Akinwande’s work seems imbued with the spirit of irreverence and monumentalism often associated with Jeff Koons. A similar playfulness undercuts the gravity of the works Open & Close I and Open & Close II, two pieces that evoke the strength of religious forces in Nigerian society.
The other contenders for most impressive works in the show are the tapestries, Post No Bill I and Post No Bill II, which Akinwande made out of discarded NEPA bills. There is now a solid practice in contemporary African art of transmuting found objects into a tapestry, work from El Anatsui to Serge Atukwei Clottey, are in this tradition. Yet, both in their form, and shape, these are less tapestries, as much as they are trophies – skins. They hang on the wall as such – echoing one of the most potent but often unacknowledged sources of power, dress, in Nigerian society – bringing to mind also Fela Kuti’s song Beasts of No Nation. In the live video installation Up Nepa, one sees Akinwande wearing a dress made of NEPA bills to roam the streets of Lagos with symbolic stops at power points along the way. It is an intriguing invasion of public space, but one which affects very little in the viewer.
Similarly, the photography seems an after-thought, or perhaps, a conclusion? Akinwande presents to us a wall teeming with dry comments on Nigeria’s power situation, above images of Lagosians in the business of surviving the city’s fuel scarcity. The walls are covered with wry observations and thoughts under the hashtag #FoodForThought. It is an interesting intervention using the mode of communication that has proved a viable source of power for many of Akinwade’s generation. The comments echo the digital piece, What’s On Your Mind? – but pulsates with Akinwande’s wit and anger. Below the expressions of outrage are photographs from Akinwande’s Fuel Scarcity Series, of Nigerians in the frustrating hustle during a fuel scarcity. In this final piece, Akinwande gives us the dark and fitting observation that is ultimately in relation to the arbitrariness of power in Nigeria, what can be done is to look, think and talk – and perhaps that in itself is a source of power.
All in all, while this show is an intelligent exploration, it leaves the viewer with a want for more. Following this “Power Show”, it will be fascinating to see how Akinwande wields his own artistic focus (and power) in future.
Meiji is a writer and consultant on culture, creative economy and communications. He is currently based in Lagos. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook @delemeiji