A standout piece at London’s 2014 edition of 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair, ‘Missing’ was the work of Nigerian artist Peju Alatise and is her response to the kidnapping of 234 girls from Chibok in Nigeria. The tragedy and its subsequent controversial handling has been the subject of debate worldwide and Alatise’s pertinent work explores their disappearance, through a series of panels made from traditional Nigerian-print fabric and featuring silhouettes of the heads of anonymous girls, with some panels themselves missing. ‘Missing’ does not shy away from criticising the failings of the Nigerian government with each panel signifying a different girl that has been abducted, Alatise explains: “Missing is the representation of each girl that the government hasn’t done anything about finding […] or bringing them back home”. Although Alatise has experimented with many different media throughout her career, she frequently returns to fabric, as in this piece. The prints are elaborate mixtures of symbols and motifs that differ from one ethnic group to another, and in assembling them in collages Alatise endeavours to create ‘a new visual language’.
Alatise was born in 1975 in Nigeria and later trained as an architect, which she credits with introducing her to the importance of materials, but she was always drawn to art. She is fascinated by the work of artists as diverse as Do-ho Suh, Antony Gormley and Piet Mondrian. Alatise defines her artistic practice as a search for truth and to this end much of her work centres on women in Nigeria and on the political and religious issues at the heart of the country.
Alatise spoke to Artctualité about her work and its roots in her home country:
Your work at 1:54 this year was extremely striking, is this your first year at the fair?
Yes, this is my first showing at the 1:54.
What was your general impression of the fair as a platform for contemporary African artists in London?
I had attended the first edition of 1:54 and this second edition I must say showed improvement, dedication and commitment to make this art fair relevant. The 1:54 art fair allows art from Africa to express itself on its own terms, giving its own definition whilst being unburdened by a predefined narrative. The one sided Eurocentric narrative that defines and ascribes its notions of what art from Africa should be. The notion that art from Africa cannot utilize modern materials and forms of expression and should instead be characterized by the use of traditional and generic materials from the local environment.
A platform that creates a discourse between the artist and the general public in London who really want to engage with works and artists from Africa.
On a personal note, the exhibition was an opportunity for me to engage with people on a deeper level with my work, to convey my concepts and critiques which reflect my deep social convictions about the continent of Africa in general and my home country, Nigeria, specifically. It was quite a revelation to witness people’s reactions to my work.
Do you think this means African artists will finally receive more recognition in Europe?
The 1:54 art fair is definitely a step in the right direction, however, the bridging of the gap between art in 2 continents is beyond the remit of any art fair. In my opinion, art from Africa remains still largely burdened by negative social, political and economic realities from its mother continent, hence, is unable to be judged by its own merit and without negative bias or condescending patronage. However, Africans must take the responsibility upon themselves to project their own art and learn to value them as one of their greatest cultural exports.
Was there any work there that you particularly enjoyed?
I really did enjoy looking at the works of Julien Singozan, Gems Robert koko bi, Fabrice Monteiro and Sandile Zulu. Their works were my favorites.
Your work ‘Missing’ was unsettling and subsequently very effective- could you tell me a little about its creation and the incident that sparked it?
Kidnapping of young girls has been an ongoing problem in Nigeria for many years prior to the April 2014 kidnapping of 234 girls from Chibok which attracted the attention of international media and personalities. There was a video I saw of the protest of #bringbackourgirls# in Lagos and it was of a man driving to work who stops to speak to one of the protesters, he said “I want you to know that I 100% support what you are doing, boko haram is bad and I feel for those lost girls and the government is just doing nothing but I need to get to work. I don’t have the time for this kind of thing. I have to feed my own girls. I wish this protest is not in my way.”
Is it fair for me to say the disposition of average Nigerians is like that of the man driving to work? I say that those who protest and whose voices are heard via social media are a very tiny minority. Girls had been abducted and sold as sex slaves in consistent trickling numbers. The most concern raised by the media at the time was of the trafficking of girls to European countries as sex slaves while the cases of girls being sold locally within the Nigerian borders were not (and still are not) criminalized neither are they given any attention to this day. By February of this year, approximately 90 reported cases of kidnapped girls were made in 2months, and I started this artwork “Missing” in February. There are 90 + 234 + x number of girls still missing today.
Do you find that Nigerian politics inspires much of your work?
It is not possible to live in Nigeria without being affected by its politics regardless of one’s level of interest, knowledge or disposition towards it. Politics bears down on the very intricacies of mundane life from portable water to crossing the streets, health, gender biases and social interactions etc.
What artistic plans do you have for the future?
Recently, my messianic complex has been shattered by the realities of the fact that my societal birthplace remains immutable in its trajectory of constant decline in its political, economic, social and philosophical values. I feel at the moment, that my work is like a cry in the wilderness. If it is true that art can change a people, then I am impatient because it is happening too slowly for me to notice. As at 2 years ago, I thought my future was working within the continent and showing works that could affect communities and working on ideas that engineer community development. As for my immediate future plans, I will continue to work on my project concerning the socio-economic circumstances of Nigerian children particularly the less fortunate ones.