Peju Alatise is a known female artist with a unique artistic vision realized through her architectural background. She has also written a novel, Orita Meta, where she fleshes out some of her feminist ideas that have come to define most of her creative vision. She has a new exhibition, Material Witness… in which she espouses a broadened vision and focus to include issues of political and economic import as they affect Nigerian today. In this online interaction, Alatise told ANOTE AJELUOROU her new direction in this show
Your have new exhibition called Material Witness. What is the concept behind it?
Material Witness… Pun Intended is the idea that the ‘material’ is the witness. The idea that an inanimate object can be made to speak in a visual composition of its experiences as though it indeed had life and memory. The expression, ‘if these walls could speak…’ comes to mind. ‘If the knife could speak… it would speak about the flesh it has cut’; ‘if your dress could speak… it’s sleeve will tell the tears it has wiped off your face’; ‘if a gun could speak…. it would call it’s victims by name’. At some point, anyone would wish to hear the truth from anything other than the human witness.
Another idea is that the human witness gives testimony using only material (tangible) evidence. This would be an effective method in a situation where speaking is tedious, dangerous, irrelevant, ineffective or impossible. ‘The evidence will speak for itself!’
When applied within the context of an art exhibition, Material Witness is a body of artworks and installation projects with several layers of approach to it, all in search of a certain truth; of which no one layer can remain independent of the others as it gives credence to others. The three main layers are the thematic, materials/medium and the technical execution style. The ideas, which inform the theme and instigate my formal concerns are not more important than the mediums and materials used or the composition and overall appearance of the artworks. Every process is an integral part that leads to the other.
How faithful is this project to your previous themes?
Material Witness is borne from an idealistic yearning for justice and truth where it seems there is neither fear of retribution in issues concerning corruption nor caution in the infringement of human rights. It has been a three-year journey and the first step taken was an exhibition titled Testament (held in 2010), a prelude to this exhibition, Material Witness.
Corruption in the Nigerian public and private sectors has contributed to Nigeria’s poor image in international circles. A revolution driven by the people seems inevitable as a result of the lethargic attitude and lack of courage displayed by elites reveling in its spoils. The desire for positive change and development strengthens within the masses as corruption eats into the fabric of the elite of society. The positive empowerment derivable from this body of works in Material Witness will provide energizing ammunition for the people to persevere and make a difference, especially in a world where art has been relegated to mere luxury pieces reserved for the privileged few.
Material Witness is not an attack against the wealthy and corrupt; on the contrary, it attempts to provoke thoughts against imperialistic ideology, apathetic attitudes and a general lack of consideration for the next person, borne out of ignorance of how to be considerate, which promotes materialistic and selfish behavior in society.
The situation in my country, Nigeria, has been the inspiration for the themes and the stirring of formal concerns. My role as an artist becomes the problem-seeker and not the problem-solver. I, like every other Nigerian, seem to know what the Nigerian-problem is, but I am not sure we really understand the Nigerian-problem. It would be presumptuous and even incorrect for me to assume I have a solution, or that I am qualified to diagnose the Nigerian-problem. I want my audience to experience my own Nigerian-problem viewed through my work, maybe to provide a common ground to better understanding of it.
Material Witness has three defined formal concerns that both motivate my subject matter and influence the materials with which the artworks are created: They are social/political/religious commentary, the idealistic versus the realistic, and elements of material nature.
Is this project about women/girl issues? What's new or fresh about it?
Well part of it is about women, but the exhibition is not about women only. As explained earlier, in the past I have done a lot of artwork on women as subject matter, capturing the joys and pains of womanhood as experienced here in modern-day African traditions with their consequences. My subject matter has evolved with my continued experiences, moving focus from advocating the equal rights of women to politics, philosophical inclination and Yoruba mythology.
Another angle of approach in this show, which is fresh and new from me to my audience, is the use of a variety of material/mediums. The materials used include recyclable glass bottles, plastic containers, newspapers, Nigerian-print fabrics, ropes, treads, wires, scrap metal, scrap wood, driftwoods, sawdust, an abandoned boat, sand, acrylic paints, resin, plaster-of-Paris, and stretched canvas. Most materials were manipulated, recreated and used to their possible limits. There were times the mediums/materials dictated their specific contextual usage. The acceptance of their properties and limitations redirected the end result of a pre-conceived idea.
With Material Witness… Pun Intended ideas, the ‘material/medium’ is the obvious path to the truth. The choice and approach to materials in this body of works are sometimes purposeful and pre-determined; other times it is experimental. It is my intention that the materials and mediums tell a visual story.
How much has issues in your book, Orita Meta continued to shape your artistic vision?
I started writing the book, Orita Meta in 2003 and it was finished and published in 2006. There has been six years of evolvement to this point. I have new ideas and new experiences. I am currently working on a drama script I hope to finish this year. I think that my writing influences my themes/subject matter. My artworks always tell stories from the writings or stories I am about to write.
What specific areas in women/girl issues that give you the most concern for which you might want to campaign about in a practical manner?
There is one issue I would like to talk about, that I feel most Nigerians have no concern for; it is the abuse of the girl child.
A curator once asked me if I was a feminist. My response to her was, “I live in a ‘Third World country’; every woman here would be feminist to survive. Asking to be treated with respect here is feminist. Demanding consideration is being feminist. Of course, I’m feminist!”
But what ‘ism’ movement is there to fight the atrocities committed against the girl-child? Her abusers and oppressors are everyone else! - from the disappointing moment that she is born to whatever age she thinks she has become a woman.
I have witnessed a ceremonial wedding of a 12-year old girl marrying a 40-something-year old man. I was told the girl’s family was poor and the groom would be more a caretaker than a husband. I was conflicted with this explanation because it was a lavish wedding and the girl’s family was paying. Yes, the husband would be a caretaker to her but he would also have sex with her that night to be sure his bride is untouched.
I met a girl who had married four husbands before she turned twenty. I have also met a ‘promiscuous 5-year old girl’. She knew what to do to a penis. I have spoken to men who brag about their sexual conquest with teenager girls. Some of them are the elite of my country. There is also the poor slave girl molested by the woman who employs her to care for the children she is barely older than. There are many city women who employ children as servants and they are terribly molested. There is nobody fighting for this type of child, not even her own mother. After all, she, too, was a child-bride/-servant.
There are surveys conducted by United Nations Population Fund on child marriages in Nigeria and the statistics are shocking! The government seems to be utterly oblivious to the consequences of this. Everybody pretends they have nothing to do with this.
How would you like to go about creating awareness/campaigning about such serious issues to be able to give young girls a new leash of life?
As I had mentioned earlier, I stated that: ‘I, like every other Nigerian seem know what the Nigerian problem is, but I am not sure we really understand the Nigerian problem. It would be presumptuous and even incorrect for me to assume I have a solution, or that I am qualified to diagnose the Nigerian problem. My role as an artist becomes the problem-seeker and not the problem-solver. I want my audience to experience my own Nigerian-problem viewed through my work, maybe to provide a common ground to better understanding of it’.
My social responsibilities to my country and generation I am very aware of and my own way of responding/contributing is through the arts. I work with younger artists and I enjoy a healthy relationship with them. I am interested in training younger people and holding workshops. This is my current personal project. At the moment, my studio is too small to accommodate more trainees so I am making projections to increase my workspace. I benefited from David Dale, Nike Davies Okundaye, Bruce Onabrakpeya and Susanne Wenger and I want to keep their spirit of service alive. It is a necessity for me to do this. It is my full circle.
I am aware also of the difficulties the younger artists experience when they are fresh out of college with very little opportunities to practice or gain employment. The peculiar state of the country makes it very difficult for young people to gain financial independence early or easily. I have some young artists who assist in some of my projects. I train young women in handicraft skills and they produce fashion accessories.
It is a social responsibility for older artist to encourage the younger ones; it ensures continuity and posterity of the profession.