Peju Alatise: “Every time I try to leave, something keeps pulling me back”
She has given wings to African art and made it fly. After Venice and the FNB Art Prize the Nigerian wunderkind has returned to Lagos to open her own foundation – it was more than she bargained for but, as always, Alatise's determination saw her through
Over the past couple of years Peju Alatise’s career has been on a roll. From winning a Smithsonian Artist Research Fellowship in 2016 to representing Nigeria at the Venice Biennale in 2017 and scooping the coveted FNB Art Prize in Johannesburg the same year, the Lagos-based artist’s feet have hardly touched the ground.
Back home, however, she received some surprising reactions to her Flying Girls – the sculptures in her installation at the Biennale. “I was shocked when people said they were witches,” Alatise recounts. “Ogbanje, Abiku, demons. In fact someone described them as howling demons. They said it was because I gave them wings, so anybody that is flying, that has wings, is demonic.”
Even before Venice, her work was entering the big league. In 2015 her piece High Horses, a triptych of three young women sat on high pedestals, their faces covered in brightly painted fabric, sold at auction at Bonhams in London for £31,250 ($40,000).
In January 2018 Alatise started a new adventure, opening the Alter’NATIVE Artist Initiative (ANAI) Foundation. The beachfront property in Lagos combines exhibition spaces with artists’ residencies and ceramics training. With its cement wall, high ceilings, mezzanine library, open-plan kitchen and lights that hang from high beams, it feels industrial and modern.
Large windows open on a swimming pool and garden. The building is accented by mustard-painted bars and most of its furniture is welded or carved. Alatise, who herself studied architecture at Ladoke Akintola University of Technology in Oyo State, worked with architect Ade Shokunbi to put her own ideas into practice. ANAI was designed incorporating solar energy and rain harvesting to make it energy-efficient and ecologically sustainable.
The amazing thing about Egungun is that it is the most total art form […]. It engages all parts of your humanity
Architecture is still a huge influence on her work, she says, especially when it comes to space and structure: “You can’t go through six years of architecture and not feel structure. Architecture makes you obey all the laws. […] It makes you so aware of physicality.” A self-taught artist, she appreciates the huge role that mentors like Mama Nike Davies-Okundaye of the famed Oshogbo school for art, batik and textile design played in her development.
This propelled her to want to give something back, but she also wanted to do something about the dearth of creative infrastructure in Nigeria: “This is Nigeria, there are certain things that are lacking. When you look at how we can improve certain things, there are various steps. I want to be a part of these first steps and provide a platform,” she says.
Hosting a residency programme that captures artists and their big ideas, she explains, is that first step: “There are big opportunities coming and we are going to lose them if we don’t have our thoughts and ideas together, so I thought a place that generates good ideas – that’s what we really need to do. It sounds like it should be really simple.”
Wahala on all sides
The artist did not anticipate the trouble that lay ahead: “First of all, the struggle to even get started, the struggle to bring in equipment, the struggle with Nigerian policies. […] When you put all this together, you are spending £60,000 for a £24,000 project. That is how it works here. This is just equipment, we haven’t talked about the fact that the government wants to tax you and they don’t even give you water or electricity.”
She has spent the past two years years squeezing through bottlenecks, fighting government red tape and investing more than she bargained for. “I’m in a very weird sort of space,” she says, with a face showing visible signs of exhaustion. “For the first time in my life I think that I am confused. I have always known where I was going, what I wanted to do, very self-assured, always asserted my will, very opinionated. You have certain experiences that blow you out of the water – it is a bit disorientating.”
As though the administrative hassles hadn’t taken enough of a toll on her, she recalls an incident where a young artist in residence posted nude self-portraits of himself spattered with mud on social media, tagged as an ANAI project; the timing was unfortunate as the foundation was in the middle of fundraising from foreign donors, who were likely to be scared off by such radical art. Not long after that some pipes exploded and needed replacing. Problems were assailing her from all sides.
Alastise’s own artistic production can be sometimes ghoulish, life-like and immersive in its storytelling. This world-building has been integral to how the audience experiences her work. Taking a little break from the stress of setting up ANAI, she is excited about the new work she is creating. It will tell the story of a man who died but was not reincarnated so hovered around as a spirit to guide his son, who is an Egungun – a physical manifestation, in the form of a masquerade, of the ancestors.
“It has to do with Yoruba philosophy and spirituality. In Yoruba spirituality they have three heavens. So I have to learn everything I can about Egungun and its origins. It’s a phenomenal practice by Yoruba people. The amazing thing about Egungun is that it is the most total art form that you can find,” she says, beaming with excitement. “It’s very performative and visually engaging. There is a lot of literature because of the poems they have to recite […] and the music with the drumming. It engages all parts of your humanity.”
Alatise’s work has always been heavily influenced by Yoruba mythology, which has also informed her preference to experiment with a variety of materials that include fibreglass, cement moulds, resin and fabric. On top of that, the project brings together her artistic practices as a writer, sculptor and painter.
When it came to researching the subject, however, local scholars and performers proved reluctant to divulge the secrets of Egungun as the practice is often forbidden to women. “I engaged some of our scholars and even the local people but when you are not part of it and you are female it’s a big problem, so they didn’t want to help and led me on a wild goose chase. Someone at the Smithsonian asked if I wanted to use their facilities to do research and I applied and got a fellowship at the Smithsonian. They are not like the people here who hide everything. It is very detrimental, I don’t know why we do that.”
She is also disappointed that she could not work with local fabric weavers. She had to import fabrics from China because the local textile industry in Nigeria is almost extinct.
This decline in local industries is one of the themes of this new work. During the course of her more than decade-long artistic career Alatise has also worked with artisans to design furniture and is concerned by how these communities are losing their means of living, driving them to migrate to the cities to look for work. “There is a loss of skill, loss of opportunity to evolve on the technology of producing such a peculiar product. We have lost all of that so for me I am asking: how do you sustain your existence if all you just do is consume? It is not about tradition. What I believe in is called self-sustenance.”
Placing a spotlight on social issues and advocacy has always been integral to her storytelling and creative process. At a time when works of African artists are sometimes criticised for being too self-consciously political she believes that art still has a responsibility. “Sometimes I feel that way, like I am tired of saying things, but it is difficult because what is the point of creating something that means nothing? If art is a form of communication, it’s a little bit unnatural for me that if I am creating something it doesn’t come from somewhere.”
Reflecting on a year that has been as momentous as it was trying, she tells a story about her grandmother, Mama Alhaja, who nailed Alatise’s umbilical cord to a tree somewhere in Ijebu Ode when she was born.
“She said that this child is not going anywhere. So every time I try to leave, something keeps pulling me back, but I am thinking that it is time for me to go. Not forever – I know I will always come back because that umbilical cord is there, and I think that shit is real.”