Jelili Atiku’s public performance at the Goethe-Institut ‘African Futures’ Festival in Lagos lasted roughly 30 minutes but it caused a stir in the neighbourhood. Traffic halted as he marched through the streets and crossed intersections, pulling a bizarre lightweight object behind him; residents stared at him curiously, passersby pulled out their phones and snapped away, while kids cried or dashed indoors when Atiku walked into view.
If you were in the vicinity, you probably would have reacted similarly. That’s because the artist stood out in his costume–green overalls, green gloves, green boots and a green gas-mask, all complemented by transparent polythene which drapes over his shoulders, falling to the ground both in front and behind him. To complete the otherworldly appearance, he held a staff supporting four skulls in his left hand.
As more than a dozen of us walked with him—from a point on Broad Street through Catholic Mission Street and back to Broad Street—the one word that kept flashing to my mind was Ebola (the disease that resurged and ravaged parts of West Africa in 2014 and killed several thousands). The mask on his head, eerily similar to what health professionals and volunteer caregivers had to wear in Liberia and Sierra Leone, the two countries that were most affected by the virus.
“It is titled ‘Kill Not this Country (Manifesto 11) and it is more about Boko Haram but if you also tie it to Ebola I can’t fault you,” the 2015 Prince Claus laureate said in a post-performance chat, after he had taken off the mask. “Both of them make you want to run away for dear life; Boko Haram throws bombs and Ebola is also a killer.”
That perhaps explains the skulls on the staff and the ones inside the carriage, a formless assemblage of twigs, sealed securely with cello tape. Could it represent coffins or graves, or the several thousands of lives that have been lost to both modern plagues? “Like it applies to all art, I leave you, the audience, to form your own conclusions. But I can tell you this: by pulling that, I invariably carried with me the weight and the burden of our collective pain and lives lost,” he said. [Watch short video of performance here]
Atiku has been hailed as a people’s artist (as opposed to the elitist types) who targets the grassroots with his work, and by so doing creating enlightenment among the multitude. For more than a decade, he has created very outspoken art, art that speak to various societal issues. In July 2012, I watched him stage a performance at the Freedom Park in Lagos—part of activities to mark the 50th anniversary of Goethe Institut in Nigeria—that questions the “cannibalistic tendency of humans, which has permeated all human endeavours, especially religion”; wearing only briefs, Atiku bathed himself in yellow paint from head to toe and stood inches from a pile of cattle bones.
“I feel so great to have been selected as one of the 2015 Prince Claus Laureates. It is pertinent to say that the award is not a winning thing, because it was not contested for. It is a simple gesture of recognition of one’s artistic contribution to humanity.–Jelili Atiku
Already used to the attention his performances and costumes generate among the public, Atiku was not bothered that his performance that Saturday afternoon disrupted the normal flow of activity on his chosen path.
“I don’t care what rules I break as an artist in the course of my presentation,” he said, his voice raised. “When I am in character, I am no longer the Jelili Atiku you know. For this particular purpose I am an Egungun (masquerade) and, based on Yoruba traditions, masquerades are spirits of our ancestors who descend from heaven. They are not bound by the rules we mortals live by.”
Marc-Andre Schmachtel, Director of Goethe-Institut Lagos, wanted to know why Atiku chose to dress up in green. “Green represents the future, it represents vitality and there is a lot of vitality in the future,” he said. @PeluAwofeso