OUR CITY, OUR INTROSPECTION: ART, MONOLOGUE, AND PERFORMANCE
The Colour of Our Hearts Is the Colour of Our City, 2015-2021 is the theme of Amarachi Okafor’s ongoing solo exhibition at the Centre for Contemporary Art, Lagos. It is a travelling exhibition that began in Abuja in 2020. The Lagos tour of this show opened on September 11 and runs till September 25. In this exhibition which focuses on the people and their places in the city, the artist interrogates individual’s contribution to the development of his/her city and/ or nation. In other words, it is a patriotic-oriented form of aesthetic engagement. According to the artist“I am concerned about humanity and our role and place in society, … I preach hope and joy-lifting spirits...” Consequently, the exhibition questions how the people have helped and/or undermined the growth and prosperity of their city/nation. To achieve this objective, the show is designed to be interactive, and it allows the audiences, while walking around the exhibition space to leave part of themselves in the work by leaving a note of their contributions to the city in the “pouch” which forms part of the city architecture as represented in this exhibition. I consider this interaction monologic, though. Nevertheless, the show which was thoughtfully conceived and clinically rendered in the gallery space couldn’t have come at a better time than now, in view of the many challenges that have bedevilled the nation. A great patriotic effort indeed. Though a commendable effort, the monologic approach to this conversation which I consider to be lopsided might probably not be able to distill a true picture of audience-city relationship which the artist seeks. It only “allows the audiences to pass through the city without allowing the city pass through the audiences,” a scenario that is probably counter-productive to Okafor’s “societal reform mission” as suggested by the overall objective of the exhibition. This observation then brings me to a reading that I consider to be democratic, dialogic, and probably promises more fruitful engagement.
This dialogic reading is inspired by the #EndSars protest of 2020, which is the profound impression the ongoing exhibition left on me. Every inch of this show – the body of work on display and its installations, and the ambience of the gallery space invokes in me the nostalgic feelings and the essence of #EndSars protest. The picture is in three parts – the bigger picture and two inserts, all from the same body of work. The bigger picture is the entire body of work in the gallery space, and it comprises a harmonious arrangement of different sizes of cartons and colourful pouches that suggests a beautiful and densely peopled cityscape with skyscrapers. While the cartons represent the skyscrapers, the colourful pouches within the carton space reminds me of the #EndSars protesters in the city. The artist, in orderly arranged pouches, reenacts the orderly manner in which the protesters at the Lekki toll gate, Lagos conducted themselves before the shooting incident that led to the mayhem, violence, and wanton destruction of public properties.
Recall that in October, 2020, the youths of Nigeria stormed the street in protest against Police brutality as epitomised by the SARS - Special Anti-Robbery Squad, an arm of the Nigerian Police. The youths alleged that SARS had turned to a killer squad, killing and maiming innocent citizens it was meant to protect instead of fighting robbery which it was created to checkmate, hence the need to scrap it. So, juxtaposing my reading of the exhibition with the artist’s concept suggests the opposite of Amarachi’s intents. For instance, instead of asking how their lives have defined the development of the city as the artist’s intent suggests, the protesting youths, inquired how the city (SARS) had remained a thorn in their flesh, in view of the fact that their contributions to the nation were not appreciated. Instead, they were killed by SARS (city). This is indeed dialogic and more engaging interaction that might probably lead to police reform, and engender a more cordial police-citizen relationship.
The body of work, which is quintessentially postmodern in essence and form, reveals a pleasing composition of cartons and pouches sewn in colourful fabrics that engages the people-city narrative. This harmonious arrangement of elements and forms suggests a warm imaginary city that pulls the audiences into an interesting and sustainable conversation made possible by the dialectic between orderliness and disorderliness evident in the work. This same paradox also holds the work together as one fascinating form. Being present at the exhibition, walking through the space, and interacting with the work was indeed an amazing experience as I saw myself helping the artist finish the work process, she began since 2020. So, I consider the show a success as the artist actually achieved her objective of creating a participatory environment that affords the audiences the opportunity of joining in the completion of her concept and studio process through a documentation process.
Amarachi holds a BA in painting and an MFA in sculpture, both from the University of Nigeria Nsukka as well as an MA in curatorial practice from the Falmouth University, Cornwall, UK. Her consistent practice since 2003 has not been without some rewards. For instance, she was a recipient of the UNESCO Aschberg artists’ award in 2007- leading to a residency at Lademoen Kustnerverksteder (LKV) in Trondheim, Norway. She was also the Commonwealth Foundation Commonwealth Connections recipient in 2009 which supported her travels for research projects and a collaborative exhibition. Amarachi has also been granted residencies to Nkd – Norway and to Popopstudios, Nassau- Bahamas. Upon graduating from Falmouth University, Amarachi won the Art Department’s internship scholarship that year. She has exhibited both nationally and internationally.