Writing Art History Since 2002

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ART AFRICA takes a look at some of the challenges faced by Nigerian artists following the arrest of performance artist Jelili Atiku on the 18th of January, 2016: an issue deeply rooted in political and economic uncertainty.

AA Newsletter Atiku1Jelili Atiku. Photo: Kane Cunningham

On the 18th of January, Jelili Atiku gave a performance dealing with domestic terrorism and abuses by the rich and powerful. Four days later he was arrested by armed officers; denied information and a phone-call and held until the following morning when he’d be charged in court. Deepening the irony, the charges were laid by the Elejigbo of Ejigbo, Oba Morufu Ojoola, the traditional ruler or King of the town. 

In an interview with Naij.com, the Prince Claus Award recipient said, “Now they are threatening the person I have as a surety. We are trying to do our things legally but they are not. Right now, my family and [I] are being threatened. And I have already written letters to the National Assembly and House of Representatives. No response so far.”

AA Newsletter Atiku2Jelili Atiku, Obaranikosi (from the series ‘In the Red’), 2014. Photo: Maria Bordorff

The added intimidation is understood to be a reaction against the media-attention the case has garnered. CORA/Arterial Network Nigeria and the Society of Nigerian Artists (SNA) responded to Atiku’s prosecution by circulating a petition aiming for 10000 signatures. At the time of writing it had 654. Information on the hearing Atiku had on the 1st February is not forthcoming. 

These events reflect darker happenings in Nigeria’s art scene. On the 15th of December, Nenghi IIlagha, a writer based in the south of Nigeria was arrested and sentenced after an accusation by another powerful traditional ruler who believed his interests were being jeopardised. Late in January 2016, an artist’s village in Lagos was levelled. In the babel that followed it emerged that the land had caught the eyes of international businessmen. 

AA Newsletter Atiku4Jelili Atiku, Eleniyan (In the Red series no. 13), 2012.

From these events it can be gathered that in the current social climate, criticality is discouraged. The appearance is of a social context where money and power are inextricably linked and subsequently cultural capital is at the mercy of economic capital.

What this means for African creative communities, however, is uncertain. Social infrastructure is built on both capital and ‘culture’, the power of one, used to the detriment of the other necessarily causes fragmentation within a society. While these events can be seen as a harbinger of doom, they serve the creative community better when seen as a call for cohesion. The critical scope of the artists’ work was seen as a challenge to status quo; but in that challenge is an opportunity to grow. It is possible that if rulers were taught to understand critique as an invitation for betterment, it would be met with reflection instead of hostility and fear.

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