In looks, Ayo Akinwande fits a certain image of the Nigerian artist. Not the sleek, middle-class kind who sells multiple paintings and photographs every other week in the islands of Lagos and is bent on changing the image of an artist from one who is congenitally doomed to suffer, but that of the politically-aware artist who is concerned with authenticity. He has cowrie shells in his dreadlocks, bead around his neck, and speaks with a gravelly voice to convey the deep issues he wants his work to contend with. He started his artistic career as a photographer, but soon ditched it. “I’ve totally departed from photography,” he tells me. But he also wouldn’t say he’s a sculptor. “I try not to care about what the titles are.”
“If you say a photograph is a thousand words,” he says, “you also have to ask a thousand questions before shooting one. In this era of propaganda, images have become a tool for confusion, if that’s appropriate. I needed something very three dimensional, that would give me a wider palette to experiment with, and photography wasn’t enough. I’m not a fan of printing images and putting them on the walls, because they feed into this idea of transactions. So, how can I go beyond.” The political subject and frenetic energy of Akinwande’s recent work seems to have emerged from the thinking above.
On October 1, 2018, the anniversary of Nigeria’s independence from colonial rule, Lagosians in the ruling party, the All Progressives Congress, went to the polls to determine the flagbearer for their party in the 2019 general elections. There were reports that the incumbent, Governor Akinwumi Ambode had fallen out of favour with the party leader, former governor Ahmed Bola Tinubu, who was now supporting one of the aspirants, Jide Sanwo-Olu. That same day, Akinwande’s fifth solo exhibition opened at the Revolving Art Incubator (RAI), an alternative arts space located on Ahmadu Bello, Way, Victoria Island, Lagos. The exhibition was titled Power Show II: The God-Fathers Are Not To Blame. The centre-piece of this exhibition is a sculpture rising from the base of the multi-storey art space like an apparition from Nebuchadnezzar’s dreams—a giant that animates the idea of a big man that is tied to Akinwande’s concerns in Power Show II.
“A lot of people were very shocked, wondering how I got the sculpture into the place,” Akinwande tells me as we sit on a makeshift seat made of wooden crates by a window sill just outside the exhibition space, which has doors that open and close with a loud bang when people pass through. In the days leading to the exhibition, he had eschewed publicity, displaying no video or photographic evidence of his work in progress. “I’m always very wary of hype,” he says, “because I know there’s a lot of hype in Lagos and I understand the industry I work in. You have to be careful because there’s a thin line between confidence and arrogance, and between publicity and hype.”
When he talks about his work, Akinwande sounds like he’s caught between the uber-confidence he must feel about what he’s been able to achieve in his young career, and a care to project the image of someone who is still not satisfied with where he is—a young man driven by ambition. For the same exhibition that he avoided publicity, he says, “I wanted an element of boom,” animating the word with his hands and mouth, “to blow everything up.”
In Power Show II, Akinwande does blow things up in the literal sense of the word. Beyond the nearly 30-foot sculpture standing in the stairwell, a display of an array of tweets printed on cards covers the wall of the exhibition space. These tweets contain complaints of Nigerians about the political system. Rants and analysis that have become a feature of what is colloquially called political Twitter. And tied to the railings is a speaker that pipes the voices of a bus stop into the stairwell, creating a juxtaposition of two expressions of the same public agitation. And there’s a dual reason Akinwande has done this.
First of all, he is challenging what is important and accepted. His thoughts: “Instead of getting scholars and listening to them, why don’t I listen to people ranting on social media or people who say all sorts of things at the bus stop. Some are intelligent, some are tribalists, some are bad, some are good. Why don’t I be in their midst and listen to them the way people go to the village square and listen.” So, he has taken the sounds of the people and turned them into an album: The Mumu LP Vol. 1 with a track list that includes hot topics like ‘Dasuki Gate’, ‘Abacha Money’ and ‘Third Force’. “When people complain, and it seems like nothing is happening,” he says, “it becomes rhythmic, like (a) song. That’s what I was trying to create with the album.”
The second reason Akinwande has the sound of people talking as background music for his exhibition is that his training as an architect compels him to think about space. “I’m very detailed about everything,” he says, “in terms of layout, the work, looking at the space from the architectural point, the floor planning, movement and how people are going to react to the work.” Anyone can walk into and through RAI. There’s commercial activity going on all around: doors banging, feet shuffling and people calling out to one another.
“The design of exits is to get people out as fast as possible, so it’s not a space for contemplation; you just waka pass, which is very similar to the bus stop, where the conversations are not curated.” The waka-pass characteristics of RAI are at odds with conventional art spaces, like Omenka Gallery, the location of the first version of Power Show. But Akinwande treats this as a feature to work with, not a problem. He’s thinking about the mood of the space and how the work “either conflicts the mood and energy the space has” or taps into that energy. So, he plays the bus stop sounds to animate the space in the version of what already exists. “There’s always, movement here,” he says, “and you can’t stop that.”
Another appeal of RAI to Akinwande is the potential for his work to be shown for months at stretch. Power Show I exhibited for less than three weeks. The feedback was good, he says, but his friends came to Lagos a few weeks after the exhibition was announced and wanted to see it, but couldn’t because it was already over. This short time frame is the norm for art exhibitions in Nigeria, and Akinwande wonders if this is because exhibitions in Lagos still skew towards the commercial. “Once you have the red dot and its sold, it’s already deemed to be successful.” He felt a waste of the energy he had used to install and execute the project, a sprawling work that he now describes as “scattered” because it contained disparate forms. “I felt very unfulfilled,” he says with a sombre expression. So, from that end of Power Show I, he started speaking with Jumoke Sanwo, the founder of RAI.
Writer and art critic Dele Meiji Fatunla describes Power Show I as a “metaphor for the way power operates in Nigeria… less an articulation of the rage and 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 or interpreting all other forms of power in Nigeria expressed, be that religious, political or rhetorical power.” But Fatunla also insists that its “powerful ideas have not entirely cohered,” with claims that, for him, “a more sustained exploration of one medium may have served the thematic goals better.”
Power Show II evolved from conversations Akinwande has been having with himself for several months, but in the streamlined focus of the exhibited works, it’s obvious he is also thinking of the feedback he received after his first crack at the topic. His need to revisit the subject after the first exhibition, a by-product of that need for fulfilment mixed with a desire for more conversation, led him to find avenues for a sequel. He pondered a group exhibition, then a joint exhibition, before settling for a solo presentation, after which he changed topics before settling for The Godfathers Are Not to Blame. Through Sanwo, he met Njideka Iroh, who became the curator of the exhibition. Iroh had been aware of Akinwande’s work through an Ethiopian artist she met in Vienna, and she shares common friends with him.
“I tend to like to see the bigger picture,” Iroh tells me over email, “so although this exhibition is Nigeria specific, I like to look at what it means beyond Nigeria’s borders for Africans in the diaspora. So, much of my own reflection was a broader view. And my impressions, having grown up outside of Nigeria, I believe I was about to ask different questions because I had an outside perspective, but still understood many of the structures Ayo Akinwande was pointing out.”
Iroh and Akinwande share this desire for the big picture. In thirty minutes of conversation, Akinwande touches on several variations of the spectre of colonisation. “The subject of godfatherism has always been with us, starting from colonial times,” he says. “The colonial project is even godfatherism itself.” He also alludes to this in his artist statement, which traces God-father from its Judaeo-Christian origins and ties it to ancient Greece, the source of both modern democracy and the Oedipal myth from which Ola Rotimi’s The Gods Are Not to Blame was cribbed. He translated that statement to pidgin, which he says is a decolonised language with a potency Fela Kuti, to whom he owes the title Power Show, understood before anyone else. And it is Fela’s VIP (Vagabonds in Power) that inspires his display of Nigerian presidents on cathode ray televisions.
Akinwande is invested in political conversations, “because those political manifestations affect our reality. And one thing that is missing in the Nigerian (art) scene is how we in this industry create works that actually critique or reflect the times.” He knew the opening of his exhibition would coincide with Nigerian independence and the run up to general elections, and wanted to engage with the period and conversations people around him were having both on the internet and in the streets. That the subject matched the Godfather-fever that greeted the primaries in Lagos state on Independence Day is the kind of serendipity that a preoccupation with the present can engender.
To continue the conversation, the exhibition will feature three talks. One will be at a bus stop in Ketu, Lagos, where Akinwande often gathers his aural materials, during which he intends to speak to a newspaper vendor he considers an expert, “who incubates conversations” on the street. Another will hold at RAI during the ART X fair in Lagos, and a third will possibly hold in December or January. He intends to film all these talks and will continue to gather material as Nigeria goes deep into the political season.
“You can’t control people’s opinions about something,” he says when I ask about feedback to the exhibition. “I’ve avoided having too much dialogue with people because the work is speaking so much and I don’t want my presence or words to get in the way.” But as we descend through the staircase of the exhibition space after the interview, Akinwande asks me what I think of the work. He listens to my response, and says, “that’s interesting” when I’m done. Then he asks what I think will become of the sculptures when the exhibition is over. For this, I have no good answer. Akinwande’s work is not the kind that can be bought by a private collector. His Deaf & Dumb, another big installation which was exhibited at the National Museum after it featured in the 2017 Lagos Biennale, was booted out after Akinwande had a misunderstanding with the authorities at the museum. It is still looking for a home. After three months, he wagers the big man in this new exhibition will have to be pulled down and put in storage too. He talks about this like someone resigned to his fate.
Reflecting on the activity of the past couple of years, he sighs and says after he’s done with this, he’ll have to take a hiatus. “2018 is for me to crystallise these ideas,” he says. “2019 will be a lot more reflective.” But if 2019 is filled with as much political intrigue as many Nigerians think it will, I think that reflection might be more outward than Akinwande projects.
“Power Show II: The God-Fathers Are Not To Blame” is open until the 31st of December 2018.