The Lagos-based artist invites audiences to share their innermost secrets in her mobile exhibition Dirty Laundry.
Contemporary And: Dirty Laundry has travelled from Lagos to Port Harcourt and now Abuja. Why is that itinerary important? And what have been the different challenges and successes of showing in these cities?
WanaWana: The works on display speak to different kinds of women and their experiences. Three cities are not enough in terms of representation – but it was a start. The Port Harcourt exhibition took place in an area often considered a rough side of town, so we couldn’t stay past 7pm. But it was great to see the people turn up and really engage with the work. I met a lot of young people who said they hadn’t experienced this sort of thing before and that the city needed a lot more of it, which was very affirming. In Lagos we installed the works inside a gallery, while in Port Harcourt the pieces were draped in a gallery and around the building. Each city and its people have created a different atmosphere and experience.
C&: Printing your poems on drapes installed in the gallery space is simply genius. They take on the form of scrolls inscribed with averred truths. How important was the choice and color of the drapes, font type and size, and the positioning?
WW: Everything from the scale of the works to the weight of the fabric was deliberate and important. It was necessary for them to feel imposing and confrontational, because one thing I ask of the audience is to sit with discomfort. You can’t hide or ignore yourself in that setting, even though this is what we often do in real life. The idea around shame is to make us hide. Nothing is hidden here. As the wind blows, the fabric moves around you. It is not static. We noticed that visitors were whispering to each other when they wanted to talk. In some ways it seemed to be a kind of respect for the experience of others reading, but it also represented the ways we whisper and speak in hushed tones about stories like the ones on display.
C&: Instead of exhibiting your poems as a sound installation, you printed them, encouraging the viewer to spend more time reading the texts. Have you not unfairly de-prioritized the efficacy of the spoken word, for which you might be better known?
WW: This exhibition is a multi-sensory experience, so there is still video and audio playing in a single-channel loop. But regardless of that, I’m interested in the multiple ways we can experience a thing and can practise storytelling. The way I work underscores connection and access. For me, different mediums are an invitation to the audience. If they haven’t listened to my album before, then they are invited to my performance or my installation or to my film. I strongly believe there is synchronicity.
C&: You invite visitors to the gallery to write their “dirty laundry” on a piece of cloth you have provided. What has been the general tenor of confessions visitors have left behind? Have they been honest or caged?
WW: Many have been caged, some have been honest, and others have been subliminal. What matters is that it gets people freeing themselves of shame. Even those who write affirmations need those to piece together things that have been broken inside of them before. There is always something that lies beneath and it’s important to pay attention to the subtext in the lives of people who do not come from a culture of openness or who are even frightened of it.
C&: As well as behavioral art, you have experimented with sound and live bands across three albums. Is there a straight trajectory to these creative developments? Or is it one web of ideas which you manifest at different stages of your career?
WW: As I have grown in my career, I have become more interested in ideas and different ways to manifest them. As an artist I want to stay interested and excited by the work I am doing. I want to extend that excitement to my community. Tinkering is a form of play for me and it is in the act of play that there is discovery. Sometimes I find myself performing poems like they are a monologue, sometimes I want the collaborative energy of musicians, like we are composing live on a stage, and sometimes a performance is still and quiet.
C&: I found your poems to be reparative. Do you think they are therapeutic? Does this diminish their technical feats or do these qualities happily coexist in your work?
WW: I don’t believe in either or. I make the work that I like to experience: things that have technical rigor but that are also imbued with feeling. Emotion without craft can be sentimental and craft with an absence of feeling is blank and empty. A lot of the works I have created are based on terribly painful experiences. So it’s often been a form of self-therapy for me, my way of making sense of my life, the world, and how I move through it. I feel like artmaking is equivalent to veneration and there is something transcendental in that. At the same time, it is a rigorous practice. I am always striving for work that displays all of these things in an honest and accessible way.
C&: Your frank disclosures of personal challenges, whether heartbreaks, weight loss, or the male gaze, are likely comforting to your listeners. Are you generally good at creating and maintaining supportive relationships?
WW: The older I’m getting, the more deliberate I am about creating my own infrastructure of care, and learning to be honest within it so I can get the kind of care and support I need. I don’t particularly enjoy talking about dark moments and I use a lot of humor to cover things up, so if you aren’t perceptive you probably wouldn’t know I’m going through a hard time. Even with a support system, being honest, vulnerable, and open is still hard. Maybe that’s why writing a poem is easier, because it’s basically speaking to strangers. But from a creative perspective, it is so important for artists to prioritize care because we are always up for consumption. There is so much artists need to put in place to ensure they have healthy, full, and fulfilling lives.
The travelling installation Dirty Laundry opened to the public, 28-30 April 2022 in Lagos from where it traveled to Port-Harcourt at The Boys Quarters Project Space from 28 May – 28 June 2022 and will be installed at the Atrium of the Shehu Musa Yar’adua Foundation in Abuja on the 15th to the 20th of December 2022.
Wana Udobang is a Nigerian writer, poet, performer, and storyteller based between Lagos and London. She released three spoken-word albums titled Dirty Laundry, In Memory of Forgetting, and Transcendence. Her work as a performer has taken her across Africa, Europe, and the US, along with working on commissions for Edinburgh International Festival and Deutsches Museum in Germany, among others. In 2021 she was awarded the International Writing program residency at the University of IOWA. She is the 2022 inaugural Ama Ata Aidoo visiting scholar at Northwestern University
Sabo Kpade is a culture writer from London.