ICAF Lagos, 2017 - An Artist Talk

Abraham Oghobase in conversation with

crazinisT artisT (Va-Bene Elikam Fiatsi)

One of the special project artists at the second edition of Iwaya Community Art Festival – I C A F Lagos 2017, was Va-Bene Elikam Fiatsi popularly known as crazinisT artisT.   His performance, “nativeimmiGrant II – efiewurasuame” was live streamed on Facebook and there was an artist talk with the co-curator of I C A F Lagos 2017, Abraham Oghobase after the performance.

Artist Statement

“nativeimmiGrant II – efiewurasuame” explored the iconography and symbolic gestures of Nigeria- Ghana expulsion of the 1969 and 1983 reminding us of the visible metaphors in contemporary conditions and narratives of citizenship while evoking debates on Trans- Cultural Revolution, xenophobic threats, socially excluded citizens, the tensions between modernity, indigeneity, post-colonialism and immigration.

Artist Statement

“nativeimmiGrant II – efiewurasuame” explored the iconography and symbolic gestures of Nigeria- Ghana expulsion of the 1969 and 1983 reminding us of the visible metaphors in contemporary conditions and narratives of citizenship while evoking debates on Trans- Cultural Revolution, xenophobic threats, socially excluded citizens, the tensions between modernity, indigeneity, post-colonialism and immigration.

Va-Bene Elikam Fiatsi (crazinisT artist)

making up for his performance, “nativeimmiGrant II – efiewurasuame”
at ICAF(Iwaya Community Festival) Lagos 2017.

ARTIST TALK

AB: I will like you to give us a brief words on what this possession is about.

VB: This performance is called Native Immigrant and you would be asking yourself how could you be a native and also be an immigrant at the same time. And for me, in most of my performances I like to play with the montages of events, opposites, contrast and also time. So, bringing back into memory the history of expulsion, which happened between Ghana and Nigeria is really an important reflection on time, space and past, present/future. First, Nigerians were expelled from Ghana in 1968 with allegation of not having legal documents and also being citizens, then in 1983, history repeated itself in a reverse, over one million Ghanaian were expelled from Nigeria and many of the went back to Ghana on foot during the early period of fuel crisis in Nigeria. Some died on the way from the account of the history I have read, because for you to leave a community which you might have lived for many years, 30 to 40 years, raising children and also properties, you couldn’t  have carried everything away. So, frustration set in and other unforeseen issues on the journey to Ghana where many of them did not have connection with any more. Imagine the agony it would have caused the children who were born between the 30 to 40 years whose parents died on the journey, and they have no legal documents to prove that they are Ghanaian. For me, the montage here is to look at history as an ongoing process of human situation. It is not about things left in the past but it is also about things in present existence. And if I talk about expulsion in this sense, many people are being expelled mentally and many people are being removed from their own communities mentally because they do not conform to doctrines or dogmas, and they find themselves not belonging to this kind of community. And we could talk about race, gender, sexuality, religion and everything that could cause our displacement in a contemporary condition. Personally, many of my works address gender and the conflict between gender and sexuality, I also like to play with this iconography and symbolism. So, if you happen to find someone in your community who do not conform to gender role, and male who behaves like a female or female who behaves the other way round and not necessarily about their sexuality, but they have a stigma about their appearance and therefore they feel removed from their own community, and they are forced to start thinking about a utopia community they want to live in, and they start talking LGBT community, and they yet do not belong to this community because they do not also conform to the ideology of some of LGBT communities. Once you are trans- or transvestite your sexuality should also conform or also go in this line. But somebody could be transvestite or very feminine and still be heterosexual. How and where do we place these people? Personally, I tell people I am a lesbian and people ask how? Of course, I am a lesbian because I do not conform to any of these binaries whether in LGBT community or conservative/homophobic community, I do not conform to any of them because I play with the multiplicity of these permutations. You could be this and yet you feel that and you could be that feel different. I play with all these things and try to make montage of performance where I bring history and also the present condition of marginalized and vulnerable people together, so I am not necessarily talking about Ghana and Nigeria victimization, but I am talking about the condition in which we find ourselves, condition in which we talk about history, and we sympathize with the victims of the past, and yet we repeat similar crimes and violence  or similar thing on different levels. To call this performance Native Immigrant is to leave it to the audience to think about how to be a native and yet an immigrant. What is your citizenship or your own  sense of belonging, your claims to identity?

AB: What is very interesting is how you used the conflict between Nigeria and Ghana in terms of what happened in 1968 and 1983 as a backdrop for your performance, which also becomes a metaphor for main issue. In this performance, you have several layers, which is what I find interesting. In terms of aesthetics, one could see the flow of people walking with mats, brooms, soaps, even mattresses and that gave me a sense of reflection about history and I think it’s very important and crucial to look at the issue of migration at this point in time. Especially what is happening around the world right now when we look at Syria and other places where we have displaced people like Sudan and within Nigeria. In Maiduguri, north-eastern part of Nigeria, a lot of people are displaced. There is an infiltration of authoritarians who want to change the stethoscope of things. For me there is a connection between all of this. Now the question I want to ask by giving this context is that what is the relationship in terms of what you are wearing aesthetically and the people that flowing with in the possession. To me, it is like a river people.

VB: That’s an interesting question, I had expected that to come from the participants. I had wished that I would have been here for one month to get connected with people in the community. This would have afforded me to create families: mothers and fathers, boyfriends and girlfriends, which would have given me the opportunity to develop a project that could have been presented in just 30mins. Presenting one whole month in 30 mins could be an interesting thing for me but unfortunately, I am just here for three or four days. Even though I always say that Africa is not a country and not a boarding house where people behave similarly but there are some things that are always related and not only in Africa even across European borders, you will find African aesthetics that often prompt the question, what is it about human relation? I think human beings are just a spiritual entity that we are already related to even though we have not had physical contact. So coming here and thinking about my project, I started to look at things I could find on the street markets and I found these beads, which is interesting to me because this kind of beads are used to initiate people into another sense of being. This is a transitional period between childhood and adulthood and even from aged-hood to death. Being displaced is also a way of being initiated into another space; with your bags and the rest, is an initiation. This gives a certain feel to the people who see you pass the idea of a transition whether mentally or physically. And this is why the idea of Ghana Must Go Bag came into existence because this is just an ordinary bag that has been in existence but became the material that initiated people from one space to another space. I think if all of us had carried the Ghana Must Go bag and people who lived in the time of that transition/initiation, they would have a very strong sense of emotion and reflection about this procession . When we look at transnational trade, most of these beads and bought in Nigeria and sold in Ghana and vice versa. This makes identities fragmented because some forms of identities are not cultural but social aesthetics, these are the elements and ideas I incorporated in my performance within the few days I experienced here.

AB: I will like to open this up to the audience because we do not have much time. Do you have a question?

Olufela Omokeko: Can you tell us the correlation between colour red used in your performance and the theme of your performance?

VB: Firstly, Native Immigrant is a painful situation of an individual. It might not be a physical torture but mentally, you could feel very much entrapped either in your own body or in the society. It is a personal struggle, which has to do with pain, internal violence and self-conflict that you fight personally. Talking about red, I started performance art by using it as an iconography of pain, violence and so on but I also discovered that red is sexualized, romanticized-material, erotic and it could be seen/interpreted so differently depending on the picture you want to imagine. So, presenting this red as the dominant colour in my performance is presenting ambiguity and identity is of course could be ambiguous. Red could also borrow religious symbolism, which carries the idea of African traditional belief system that have been neglected/negated, especially if you are a Christian or a Muslim. I was a Christian, forgive me if I keep mentioning Christians in this talk. Christians are made to believe that anything that relates to African tradition religion is evil. I was specific about the use of waist-beads and for it to be put on a man’s neck, in Ghana  connotes defiling masculinity, as though he is being dehumanized. And if a woman removed her waist beads and put it on the neck of a man, it means humiliation because in Ghana, there is stigmatization about women’s materials being inferior. This is the reason why I used female panties in most of my installations. If you come to my studio and you are the type who could not withstand this type of visual, you may collapse because the studio is full of female panties and reds.

Olufela Omokeko: Don’t you think that this performance might instigate a neo-Ghana-Must-Go? I mean, look at what is happening in Libya where Africans are selling themselves as slaves.

VB: Well, it depends. Everything we have ever done (could elicit either positive or negative energy), it depends on the perspective we read it from. I feel it is my artistic responsibility to open dialogue for people to discuss. This is your turn to discuss. People in the community who saw the performance in their various spaces are talking about it already but whether their ideas tallies with my idea or not, the performance has generated a conversation, which might go on for long, good or bad but I like to be optimistic. You mentioned Libya issue, this is not the first. Xenophobia in South Africa is crazy for me and I do not like to talk about it. This is because this is a country that experiences very strong racial violence and repeating it in a new form is different. Yes, this kind of performance in this kind of community could instigate something negative but African communities are advancing. We now know that Iwaya is not populated by people from Yoruba land alone…there have been intermarriages from different ethnic groups and therefore, it will be difficult to expel anyone from the community. Perhaps, the people who want to expel you might be the immigrants in the community. Going back to the history you might realise that the only connection/relationship such persons might have with Iwaya or Yoruba land is that their mother is from here and in some communities, one do not come from one’s motherland but a fatherland. This complication can also be relevant for us to think about when we are struggling for identities.

AB: I was very much curious, I was playing the participant observant role on the street during the performance, I was kind of looking at how people were reacting even going as far as asking people what they think about the performance and some did not have good things to say. The little girl you wanted to buy something from was scared because the performance was heavy for her. And that for me touched on the current performance art that sometimes we do not talk about. The girl was scared because she did not know what the performance was about, which is influenced by certain kinds of aesthetics that could be connected to the African traditional belief system and for me, I thought that was interesting. I talked to another girl, a young girl. She said I think he is doing something ritualistic. I recognised the part of ritual and possession, but I am trying to get what the other symbols are. Another passerby said this guy is crazy. I find these dynamics interesting because people respond to the current of the performance, sometimes do you wonder what this current does.

VB: Something in my performance in general is to bridge the gap between the audience and the performance. This is important for me because it questions the margin between art and real life. So, if you present some forms of work in a public space, you will be repelled by getting close to these works. Other people would have gone to white cube space to absorb it because it has been framed. When you frame a concept or an idea, it feels easier to tolerate but when you put it in a public space, the confrontation becomes so heavy to absorb. For me, between performer and the audience is “co-performance” and this is the reason why I stopped on the street and bought from my “co-performers.” They were not aware of my coming and meeting them at their point of business, so I transacted with them. They do not need to know my identity or my race nor my gender to sell to me. Their business is to sell and that’s why I am there to buy from them. Although, they have the right not to sell to me; also I have the right to hide my identity. I like to play with the idea that from an art space or performance you come into life and from life you run back into art. My “co-performers” have been indirectly oriented into performing with me because they are selling but not to ordinary customer but selling within an art framework/conversation even though we are not talking and that is why the girl found it so heavy to engage because a ritual-person possibly might not have stopped by to buy from her. But as a performer, I am so fluid, I could take anything from you and I could have even walked into a church and knelt before the pastor to pray for me. I could have also gone to the mosque and other places of spirituality. This is because I am fluid like water or air, which is how I want people to perceive this performance. And buying from the people in the community is my way of involving them in the performance. By doing so I am sharing with you my experiences. For me, I feel that Christianity has invaded my space for 33 years of my life. In the commercial buses in Ghana, there is always a preacher who in the course of preaching to the passengers chastises/rebukes you for piercing your nose as a woman because he thinks you are not a good Christian. A woman with three piercings on her ear is condemned by the preacher without permission and this approach I see as performance, which is very aggressive and subtle at the same time. So, the girl’s reaction to my performance is sympathetic but this is our collective reality. If I had met this girl as a preacher who was well-dressed in a suit, she might have given her product to me for free. And to depart from there, you will see that it is about the images we already have in our minds and these are the images I want to deconstruct to create a fluid relationship between people and art. You don’t need to pay to go to a gallery and now that the gallery has come to you, you are running away from the gallery.

AB: It is interesting how you talk about performance in a white cube, which made me think about Jazz’s performance with Marina Abramovic and also the complexity of memory that unleashed during the performance. I think that there is a place for performance to happen within the white-cube. I won’t discredit that because there is a place for it but I understand what you mean when you say you are not interested in doing performances in white cubes.

VB: I do performance in white cube spaces but is as the same as on ordinary streets and public spaces

AB: It is good to clarify.

VB: I have done a performance this year in a gallery called Gallery 1957 , but I am also interested in colonising spaces and this why my installations take over spaces. In this gallery I stripped the walls of its conventionality by installing my work all over which gave the audience the feeling of being in my bedroom or washroom or private-intimate space. It feels like you are in somebody’s intimate space but it’s a white cube space, which can be played with. I don’t have personal conflict with this kind of spaces but I feel it’s important for the people living in this community who might not have the opportunity of going  into white cube spaces to have a certain feel of art differently, and they have the freedom to react to it the way they have done. After some years, they would reflect about what they have seen again and something new might come out from their own judgement and imagination. One cannot evaluate an artistic impact in a community like Iwaya through the large number of spectators, it could take ten years for some people to wake up from the confusion, shocks or something.

vernacular
Author: vernacular

Aderemi Adegbite is a multimedia artist born and raised in Iwaya community. As an interdisciplinary artist, Aderemi’s current focus questions individual realities and truth(s) that stretch(es) across the societal fabric as constants for an elastic socio-system.

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