Where there’s an ironclad w
Creative polymath Peju Alatise wraps her art in folklore and hard-hitting symbolism
Peju Alatise gets what she wants. In so doing, she does not suffer fools, back down from challenges or accept standards other than the ones she sets. I first met her in Italy’s city on the sea, Venice, while she was installing her work as one of the selected artists for Nigeria’s debut at the 57th International Art Exhibition of the Venice Biennale.
On reaching the pavilion, she discovered and was immediately dissatisfied that her installation, Flying Girls — a collection of eight life-sized figures, surrounded by birds and butterflies — would not be elevated off the ground to her specification.
It would require previously unbudgeted-for expenditure for slabs of wood, longer man-hours for her and her assistant, and the possibility of the installation not being ready in time for the pavilion opening date, for which invitations had gone out, guests had flown in and anticipation and fanfare was in the air all the way back in Lagos, Nigeria.
Alatise worked nine-hour days nonstop for 10 days: on the floor, nailing, painting, unwrapping; on a ladder, stitching, tying fibreglass birds to a false roof. Every day, she reminded her assistant not to come late the next day. When he did — she nearly always arrived before him anyway — she would have started the work he was supposed to be doing. If she heard his profuse apologies, she didn’t show it.
Her installation was ready two days before opening day.
It has been the darling of the pavilion so far, given special praise in critical reviews. It has also been the subject of countless photographs for tourists and art-world professionals visiting the biennale. There are unconfirmed rumours of the Smithsonian acquiring the work.
Today I meet Alatise again, surrounded by water. This time it is in Lagos and it is falling from the sky. I am waiting in front of her gated community home, which doubles as her studio. I am waiting because I woke her and she is presumably getting ready to be interviewed.
She had agreed to a meeting for 10am. I arrive at 8.30am.
Soon, she realises I am waiting in the rain at her gate — she had seen me from her window — and shouts that I should let myself in. She meets me at the front door in her bathrobe and with apologies, as if it were her fault that I did not want to take chances with Lagos traffic and possibly arriving late. She walks me in and quickly dashes into a room and back with a towel for me to dry myself with.
She soon disappears, leaving me in a room I assume was supposed to be a receiving area. There is no furniture in sight. In its place is an invitation to a long-studying stare: a chaos of lifesized metal sculptures of naked men, floor mats, rows of earthenware pots, wrought iron, chisels, hammers and a door with wings. The other room on the ground floor — I took a tour — is bare of the things you would expect. Everything is in boxes. Alatise is moving out.
Soon, she is ready and I move up to her living room — no sculptures — to kick off the interview. Apparently, she is having another Venice episode, though on a larger scale and with significantly more at stake.
She has been down a few times but certainly not out. She is starting — and moving into — a professional ceramics studio (among other things), one of the first of its kind in Nigeria.
You would think she might be impressed with herself for this feat and for being a pioneer.
“It is ridiculous for me to say that, because it is like saying I’m setting up a fully equipped kitchen,” she says. “In Nigeria, it is easier to import 30 000 containers of ceramic plates and cups than for me to bring in a kiln. We don’t make tiles locally but we can import a million of them.”
Alatise is explaining to me that a thriving local ceramics industry should already have been a foregone conclusion. According to her research, Nigeria’s economic policies in the 1980s suffocated it. Two decades later she, a private citizen, is attempting to revive it.
She has met formidable hurdles at every step.
She has had to go through an impossibly bureaucratic process to get a certificate from the Standards Organisation of Nigeria that would allow her to import kilns into the country so that the ceramics could be produced locally. She had to pay bribes. When the goods finally reached Nigeria, they were delayed at the port and she was told they were an environmental hazard. She paid demurrage daily for the delay.
At the studio — a layout she designed herself across two buildings — she chose to power up with solar energy, a fairly new and incredibly expensive power solution in Nigeria. The company she contracted did not deliver solar power and attempted to swindle her out of the money she paid. She also has to provide her own treated, safe-to-use water as well as security at the studio.
The studio will double as an artists’ residency and she intends to bring artists from other countries to exchange ideas and skills with local Nigerian artists, some of whom are emerging and will be coming there to be trained.
However, the threat of white foreigners being kidnapped in Lagos is high.
Against all odds, however, the studio will be ready by November 4, she tells me sternly.
But … “I am tired of being angry. Sometimes I am like: ‘What the fuck have you done?’” Alatise says, visibly strained. “I should have been like every other artist. Take my money and buy a nice casita somewhere in Spain. Be locked up, produce my work in the studio. Why are you trying to fix this country? This country is never going to be fixed. This messiah complex!”
Alatise knows these questions are merely rhetorical. She cannot be like every other artist. She would likely never stop brushing tirelessly up against the status quo.
It is why, in 2013, she exhibited a body of work, Wrapture, a story of cloth that unapologetically riffs on the often quoted Bible story of the rapture — using rich, colourful fabrics and textiles and “freezing” them with resins. The story goes that, on Judgment Day, Jesus will call the righteous back to heaven: the dead will leave their graves and ascend into the sky.
Alatise thinks this story is laughable. In the exhibition, she muses on whether those who were decapitated would have their bodies joined again. Will the dead righteous be naked? Will the clothes be left behind? What stories will their clothes tell?
Alatise presented this to an ultrareligious Nigerian audience — Christian and Muslim — where questioning the Bible is taboo and you might as well be wishing the Pope dead.
At the Venice Biennale, she presented Flying Girls, an installation — made from fibreglass, metal, plaster of Paris, resins and black cellulose paint — based on the story, which she wrote, of Sim, a little Yoruba girl who lives in two alternate worlds. In one world, Sim is a nine-year-old who is hired out as a domestic servant in Lagos. In the other, a dream world, she can fly at will. “A world with talking birds and butterflies, where shadows are friends. A moonlit world of escapism.”
According to the United Nations
Nigerian stories: Peju Alatise’s Orange Goes to Heaven (above) High Horses (below left), o Is The New + (cross) (below right) and Nation Interrupted (bottom)