Where there’s an iron­clad w

Cre­ative poly­math Peju Ala­tise wraps her art in folk­lore and hard-hit­ting sym­bol­ism

Mail & Guardian - - Art - Ay­o­deji Rot­inwa

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)

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