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Interview: Talking to performance artist Jelili Atiku

Arguably one of the most high profile cases for freedom of creative expression to occur during 2016 involved the performance artist Jelili Atiku, a prominent member of the Lagos art community, a Prince Claus Award winner and a member of Arterial Network Nigeria. Atiku was arrested as a result of a public performance held in January 2016.

Arguably one of the most high profile cases for freedom of creative expression to occur during 2016 involved the performance artist Jelili Atiku, a prominent member of the Lagos art community, a Prince Claus Award winner and a member of Arterial Network Nigeria. Atiku was arrested as a result of a public performance held in January 2016. He was arraigned and subsequently kept in Kirikiri Maximum Security Prison for three days before being allowed to post bail. The case dragged out until the 18th of July when he and five others were finally cleared of all charges. The case garnered support from national and international human rights organisations, arts and cultural bodies and media outlets in support of the artist’s campaign for freedom from repression. In February 2017, ARTERIAL NETWORK met with the artist in Cape Town to discuss the effects of the trial, his artistic practice, and what he has planned for 2017.

ARTERIAL NETWORK: In July 2016, you were cleared of all charges brought against you by the Oba Morufu Adekunle Ojoola for your performance piece, ARAGAMAGO MUST RID THIS LAND OF TERRORISM (14 January 2016). What has happened since the conclusion of the case? Have there been any long term effects, either positive or negative?

Jelili Atiku: I must thank the international organisations who got involved in the trial. Without them, I would still be in jail. The international community rose up to support us, including Arterial Network, Human Rights Watch, Front Line Defenders, and the American Bar Association. They shared an online petition that was signed by people from all over the world. To me, this represented the energy of the world – the collectiveness – that stood behind us to become a security force on our behalf. It is a fantastic system that is necessary across many localities in Africa.

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We are still waiting for a certified true copy (CTC) of the judgement, which has not been released yet, and we don’t know why that is. Regardless of whether we get the certified true copy or not, I want to do the second phase of the performance in March 2017. What prompted the performance originally was that three women were sodomised publicly in the market place in Ejigbo, Lagos. During the brutal assault, there was a concoction of wine and chilli pepper that was poured into their private parts. To me and to the culture, this is an abomination as women and their energy are the source of humanity. As a result of this act, the king is supposed to perform a ritual to cleanse the community which we were trying to push him to do – to remind him that he has an obligation to act.

CORA Foundation/ Arterial Network Nigeria

The most silent yet positive effect to come from the trial has been the determination to continue. This determination shows that people now feel that nobody is above the law. In the Ejigbo community, a lot of the locals believe that the king is the most superior figure in the world and that they cannot question him, but now a lot of people feel that they can, and this gives me the strength to move forward.

In December 2015, the writer Nenghi IIlagha was arrested based on similar accusations to those that you suffered. In January 2016, the Artist’s Village in Lagos was demolished under the orders of the General Manager of the National Theatre of Nigeria. In September 2016, Ilọjọ Bar (Casa do Fernandez), a 161 year-old Nigerian national monument, was also demolished without warning. It seems as if art and culture are under serious threat. What are your thoughts regarding what has been happening across Nigeria?

There are those who don’t understand the nature of culture and how civilisation can be enhanced by it. We are a nation with a strong historical artistic culture, but in modern Nigeria, it is not appreciated and most don’t even know its value. Perhaps we could say that we have lost our way to some extent, because of the struggle to get rid of poverty and to also understand the new democratic disposition under which we now find ourselves. But of course, that is not an excuse for weak leadership.

Photo credit: Prince Claus Fund

On the subject of the Ilọjọ Bar; this was a monument that was declared a national heritage site by the National Museum, Nigeria, and somebody (an unidentified person) just demolished it. Our leadership has shown that they are insensitive to the wellness of the people’s history, memory, and future. And it was not a small object, but a huge structure. It must have been demolished over 5 to 6 hours, and during that time nobody stopped the demolition crew. That is also a huge problem among ourselves as Nigerian citizens. In not acting, we permit these actions that destroy what is rightfully ours. There are a lot of human rights abuses within communities because we have this culture of not airing our problems in public, of not speaking up.

We know that a lot of what we experience now is heavily influenced by colonialism. It must be acknowledged that in the post-colonial era, we are struggling to regain ourselves. That being said, I believe that human nature is prone to negativity in some ways, and it has never been as pronounced and popular as it is now. We lack empathy, and that’s not an argument to excuse it because we are now being ruled by ourselves. The problem is that our humanitarian nature is dead. We need to awaken it and realise that our neighbours and environment are going to suffer if certain policies are not put into action. To me, that’s a core problem area.

You are currently in Cape Town for the Institute for Creative Arts (ICA) LIVE ART Festival. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

I’m currently working on a performance that deals with the subject of oil spillage as it affects the people of the Niger Delta. Last year (2016), oil was discovered in the Cape province, South Africa and also in Lagos State. These two discoveries have become concerns for me, and I want to open up a dialogue between the two locations about the problems of oil excavation because I know the pain that it brings if strict measures are not put in place. Look at the case of Ken Saro-Wiwa who was killed because of the issues of oil spillage, and that was the most prominent case that brought attention to how bad it is.

Photo: Arterial Network

Thousands of people continue to live in abject poverty and die every day due to the effects of oil spillage and clashes over the land. The earth in the Niger Delta has been destroyed completely. When oil is spilled on the earth’s surface, it penetrates deep down, destroying the life of the soil and its mineral resources. This is what I want to bring to the festival because this message is urgent. The performance also includes the notion of a marriage and asks if this marriage is working for all parties involved. I leave the question open to the audience to answer, but it serves as a warning.

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In preparing for the performance, COME LET ME CLUTCH THEE, I asked the organisers to get some used car oil that I could use. They wrote back to explain that the oil comes with a warning that it is dangerous to the body, and asked how I would keep myself safe. That’s exactly how I want people to feel because when you are doing a performance, the audience must be able to experience real emotions, real concern. As artists, we often need to prove things because a lot people don’t feel the reality of it. They don’t know it, so they don’t feel it – it is not extraordinary to them. I’m not going to protect my skin with anything. I’m going to pour the oil directly onto my body and when I get back to Nigeria, I will need to be on medication for this exposure. I will feel the damage done by this contact which is part of the post-performance experience for me. When Saro-Wiwa was killed, he laid down his life for his community, who continue to feel the effects of the oil. In that you can see the consequences and inhumanity of the industry.

Your work has been described as a form of ‘visual education,’ invoking provocation and macabre elements as a means to elicit a strong audience reaction. Do you ever consider your performances to have been more or less successful depending on how it is received by the audience? Is success a consideration of yours with regards to your work?

Of course, as a human, when you set up a goal for yourself, you will imagine its success. I use performance to impact the audience and get a reaction from them, in order to spark a dialogue that would ultimately lead to a change in attitude, of a policy, or of an idea that is inflicting pain into our collective body. There are so many things that inflict pain in this society so when I set out to address that, my goal is to achieve reasonable success through change. When I begin to design my performance, I put a lot of thought into imagining the situation and the reaction of my audience, and I tactically choose objects that will speak directly to them. The idea is to instigate and influence debates around the work. The source of my performance is actually in the reaction of the audience, and you can see that in the performance that led to my arrest. My goal was to open up a discussion about the actions of the king which worked because the king reacted. It brought out the terrorist in him immediately, and the whole world has seen that now.

Could you describe the differences between the reception of your work by audiences across the continent versus the West? Do you experience certain barriers between you and the audience?

Well, it’s not actually a barrier, but there is a different interaction between the audience and myself depending on the space. If I perform in Lagos, the reaction is immediate as they don’t hide their feelings. If they don’t like the performance, they just say it. I did a performance in 2013 that I titled Senator Yerima’s Wedding which was on the context of child marriage in Nigeria. During the performance, somebody in the audience threw a hard object at me thinking that I was actually pulling a young bride along in a cage. These are the kinds of things that you expect when you are doing a performance in Lagos because it is highly populated and community based.

Photo: Afriperforma

However, when performing in the west, you can see there is difference in the reactions. Often, they try to pretend not to be moved by what they see, or, I don’t know… That’s the only real difference. Apart from that, the audience is made up of humans and they can take these encounters away with them to process privately. Perhaps we don’t see their reaction. The different reactions are brought by different spaces because each space has its own energy, but I feel that the interactions and collaborations are similar for the most part.

“I stand in my Yoruba culture, and I look at other cultures and I borrow from them without removing the essence of my culture. So these dialogues bring new energy to me.” (Museum Rietberg Zürich, 2016) Could you tell our readers a bit more about the performative nature of Yoruba art objects? What is your stance on the issue of ‘cultural appropriation’?

Cultural appropriation is something that I frown at because if I come into your culture, I will access the periphery of it, but not understand its essence. Cultural appropriation is coming into the periphery of it, and just taking the characteristics, which I don’t do in my own work.

Let me use as an example the performance that I did about the cultural rights of the indigenous, first people of Morocco – the Amazigh. If you study their history, you’ll see that for about 1200 years, the Amazigh have been subjugated by the Arab culture as they are not allowed to bear their name or practice their culture. They don’t even wear their own cultural clothes and it has become a kind of deep colonisation. So when I went to Morocco, I had to first get into the struggle and the pain. I began by doing a lot of research and then I imagined myself being in that suppressed state. For about two months, I was immersed in it.

I then began to research the ancient forms of the Amazigh, as they appear now, and I used these objects in building my costume for the performance. To me, that is different from cultural appropriation. It is an assimilation and an acceptance of the essence and energy of the objects. Every culture creates a fantastic energy that works for the people, and allows them to carry a kind of ‘wellness’ from the old time. I borrow because I work a lot with object anthology, but to do that, I know that I must understand the depth of that culture first.

Let me give you another example because I did a performance in Switzerland where we worked with the context of disconnected forces at the Bone Performance Festival in Bern. We joined the celebration of the 100th anniversary of Dadaism, and Dadaism made a lot of references to African sculpture that to me falls on the side of cultural appropriation – using these objects without understanding their depth and meaning. For the performance EJI WOROKO-EJI WEEWE (November, 2016), I used one of the objects from the collection of the Museo delle Culture in Lugano called an Ere Ibeji, which means twins in Yoruba, referencing traditional twin sculptures. One of the twin sculptures has been in the museum for decades, and the other object is somewhere else in the world – somewhere that no one would be able to find now. So for them to put the single twin in the museum, without knowing what the sculpture is made for, is an act of disrespect to the dignity of the object and that of the culture that created it. So, I performed a ritual of connecting the forces and energies of twins together, because to us in Yoruba, twins are holy children. They are Orisha (Gods). It was a way of showing their true essences and what has been done through the appropriation of the object.

Last year you received the Prince Claus Award. Could you tell us a bit about that?

Actually, I don’t even know who nominated me. I just got a phone call while I was in USA that I had won an award. The arts community comes together to nominate artists that they feel need to be projected because of their work, and I suddenly realised that a lot of people were looking at me. That made me really proud of my culture and proud of the achievements of my great, great grandfathers and grandmothers who evolved and gave me a deep of understanding about the essence of humanity. I was overwhelmed and it instilled great confidence in me. We did the ceremony in Lagos which was fantastic. Jahman Anikulapo of Arterial Network Nigeria was the one who coordinated the entire ceremony.

What are you currently working on for 2017? Where should we be looking out for you?

In April / May, I am going to be at the University of Chicago to talk about Human Rights issues and I will focus on the rights of LGBTI people and women in particular. Some of us feel that these rights are not to be spoken about. For example, lesbian and gay people are not spoken about in Africa and this gives us a contemporary challenge to re-address the issue of Human Rights. The principle behind human rights is the right to life. If someone expresses their sexuality or gender, it is against this principle for someone to say that they cannot live according to that. If we deny the right to life, then we are now living in an era of pretence where there are no human rights. We are just pretending that they exist.

After Chicago, I will take part in the Venice Biennale. There, I will be looking at the state of the world with the rise of figures like Donald Trump and his defeat over Hillary Clinton. I see the United States as the central energy of the world because it is therein that you will see the results of a mix of so many cultures who were forced to migrate there. Together, these mixed people built something that is like the heart of the world, and recently when it came to choosing who will lead this heart, there was a massive struggle between the masculine and the feminist energy. During the campaign, we saw how clearly the masculine was able to ridicule the feminist energy when Trump said he ‘grabbed the pussy.’ To me, this is symbolic of where we are right now. The pussy is where the energy of the world comes from – we are all products of the pussy – and this is the energy that sustains and could heal the whole world. If someone does not acknowledge that and is now in power, that is a huge problem.

My performance at the Venice Biennale will take place on the 12th of May, and I hope to have one woman representing each country of the world, so 196 women in total will be performing with me. In doing this, we will be tapping into the energy of the feminist essence in order to open up the collaboration between masculine and feminist energy, while also acknowledging that the feminine has the most powerful healing effect if we agree to open up to that. I was really happy to see the Women’s Marches in USA and other countries, but that is only a small part of what needs to happen. The world needs to open up to the fact that women must be allowed to live fully, and to lead.


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