January 1, 2012 the Nigerian government put an end to the subsidy of fuel in the country. Seen by many as one of the few benefits to ordinary people from the vast oil industry that thrives on the countries resources, men and women, across class and age divide went on strike and some rioted. January 13, 2012 in Ejigbo, Lagos, at approximately 2.30 pm artist Jelili Atiku enacted a performance entitled Nigerian Fetish, 2012 as a form of protest action against the government policy. Wrapped in a white and green cloth, the colours of the Nigerian flag, Atiku attached placards to his torso, each one jolting out of his body, to pronounce a statement such as “70% of US live on the poverty line ALREADY”, “Subsidies are our ONLY benefit for being citizens of an oil-rich state” and “Our DEMAND is our POWER”, just three in a list of over fifty statements. In a performance lasting four hours, Jelili Atiku walked through the streets of Lagos in a carnivalesque procession, a direct intervention in the public space.
In Nigerian Fetish, 2012 it is possible to recognise Atiku’s multifaceted approach to contemporary art making and political action. As an artist whose practice spans over a decade, and who experiments with a range of media from sculpture and instillation to video and performance, the work Atiku is producing now can be seen as an accumulation of ideas and activities that have been built upon over a number of years. The emotive presence of the human body, the use of text and slogan, along with a symbolic use of colour and movement to engender political action are the strategies Atiku employs in his works. In 2007 Atiku re-staged a performance entitled Stop the Killings in protest to the ongoing plight of political assassination and extrajudicial killings in Nigeria. The performance was captured in photographic images, and also accompanied by a short publication entitled Stop the Killings: Prefatory Notes of the Performance Art, The Victim of Political Assassination. First enacted in Zaria in the North and in Lagos, in Southern Nigeria in 2006, the performance began with Atiku’s body lying motionlessly on the ground, with his valuables strewn amongst the rubble of the dirt floor. He was wrapped in a loosely fitted fabric of green and white secured to his body with rope in the manner of a dead sailor set to meet his fate at sea. In his works of protest, Atiku often utilises the symbolic influence of colour, and the green and white of the Nigerian flag surface in his work time and time again. Here they shroud the lifeless form with national colours, identifying this dead body as the responsibility of the Nigerian nation. Atiku’s performance so convinced his unsuspecting audience that during the enactment in the grounds of the Lagos State of Assembly the Chief Security Officer mistook him for an actual dead body. By mimicking a dead body Atiku openly confronts his audience with the debris of the senseless act of political assassination. His choice of location, in front of buildings of State power, acts to undermine such constructs as their underhand tactics are paraded for all to see. Through works such as these Atiku’s practice can be understood as a form of non-violent civil disobedience, identified by curator Okwui Enwezor in The Short Centuryas the tactic used in many West African liberation struggles as early leaders were ‘working within colonial law, albeit provocatively testing its limits in order to mobilize popular discontent against its oppressive system.’ (Enwezor, O. 2001: 10). Performance art, socially orientated practice and the history of political action through non-violence and civil disobedience in West Africa draw together a framework through which to look at the last decade of Jelili Atiku’s artistic production.
Early works that Jelili Atiku created whilst still a student at Ahmadu Bello University where he graduated in 1998, already display the artist’s engagement with the political structure of his country. This is exemplified by a sculpture proposed in his final year as an undergraduate that is said to depict a soldier ‘bearing resemblance of [Sani] Abacha sitting astride an almost life-less civilian’ (Abdul Rasaq, Y. 2007: 10); the civilian here, representing the people of Nigeria, is lifeless under the strain of the oppressive Abacha regime. This interest in representing the political inequalities of his country in a sculptural form has developed into an expanded, conceptually led notion of sculpture that encompasses life as a whole.
Atiku’s extension of art into the political can be understood through the concept of Social Sculpture proposed by German artist Joseph Beuys.
Thinking Forms – how we mould our thoughts or
Spoken Forms – how we shape thoughts into words or
SOCIAL SCULPTURE – how we mould or shape the world in which we live
This once radical set of statements was proposed by Beuys as a development of his Theory of Sculpture, put forward in the early 1950s. Beuys’ thinking has pushed away boundaries in Western art of what can be perceived as sculpture and, with it, who can be an artist. His philosophy delved into the essence of sculpture and extended our notion of art to encompass the whole world. Working perhaps two generations after Beuys in a very different political and cultural context, with access to the global circulation of ideas in today’s art world, Atiku has synthesised concepts such as the Beuysian idea of Social Sculpture into his practice.
Doing drawing, installation sculpture, video and performance, I tried to help viewers understand the world as expanding their understanding and experiences, so that they can activate and renew their lives and environments. (Atiku, J. 2010:3)
This statement made by the artist echoes the idea that through social sculpture, the participant is instilled with the ability to change his or her circumstances. Beuys also, through his theory of social sculpture is said to have, ‘bestowed responsibility upon every individual to creatively mould, transform and ultimately, heal the world’ (Spector, N. 2006:35). For Atiku it is through the interaction with the work that we are given a deeper understanding of the world in which we live. He is in many ways the individual at work attempting to mould society through his creativity. For both Beuys and Atiku the artist is catalyst for social change.
Whilst a link to the activism of Joseph Beuys provides one perspective through which to view Atiku’s provocative attempts to mould his society, this impetuous can also be seen as drawing on the politically charged artistic production coming from Nigeria post-independence. A key example is that of playwright and activist Wole Soyinka and his 1963 play ‘A Dance of the Forests’ in which the playwright responds to a commission celebrating Nigeria’s independence with a satire on the state of the nation. Using the elements of dance, possession, masquerade, poetry and music found in Yoruba ritual performance, Soyinka warns his fellow Nigerians of the dangers of ignoring society’s problems. In a work created fifty years later within the setting of a nation celebrating half a century of freedom from colonial rule, Jelili Atiku’s photographic series and video work Quest for Gaia, 2010 acts as a critique of Nigeria’s political standpoint on the environment. Atiku’s body becomes a canvas for projected images of a burning bush. In the moving image footage of Quest for Gaia, morphing from the foetal position into agonised twists and turns, the artist’s figure looks otherworldly. As the image flickers across his body and into the proximal surroundings, greys, whites, pale yellow and flashes of red are accompanied by the crackling sound of burning foliage, and retching gasps from the naked figure. The presence of the helpless, beast-like human body in this near apocalyptic scene makes the images all the more potent. Humans are at once implicated in the effect of bush burning, as victims and not just perpetrators.
The title of the work Quest for Gaia makes reference to Atiku’s wider environmental concerns and his interest in Gaia theory. First articulated by independent scientist and environmentalist Professor James Lovelock in the 1970s, Gaia theory asserts that all elements of the Earth, both biological and physical, are interlinked and interdependent. In a country such as Nigeria that still has no agenda for climate change, Jelili Atiku is certainly the avant-garde artist suggesting an alternative way forward. Quest for Gaia also signals Atiku’s look to the pre-Christian beliefs of the Yoruba people of South West Nigeria, who also recognise an all-encompassing circular relationship of life on earth. Like Soyinka, Atiku draws on Yoruba cosmology in his contemporary art practice to highlight societal ills.