For contemporary Nigerian artist Jelili Atiku, art and violence occupy two counterparts of human existence: one fosters understanding and growth while the other produces only stagnation. Through his multimedia practice, involving drawing, installation sculpture, photography, video, and performance art, Atiku appeals to a general humanity in the hopes of bringing about an egalitarian society.
Unassuming, as if unaware of his own profoundness, Jelili has the appearance of the typical Nigerian going about his business: survival. But there’s far more to the man than meets the eye. He keeps body and soul together by teaching drawing and sculpture at the Lagos State Polytechnic, influencing a new generation of artists who, in his own words, will not just “create artwork for artwork’s sake.” As happy as teaching makes him, Jelili’s real passion is performance/live art, art in which the artist becomes the artwork.
Driven by his concerns for human rights and justice, the 47-year-old artist who studied entirely in Nigeria (at the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria and the University of Lagos) has travelled the world for a decade artfully spotlighting the effects of violence, poverty, corruption, climate change and other phenomena that have impacted humankind negatively.
His performance in his hometown of Ejigbo, Red Light (a statement about the penchant of humans for violence), is the subject of Lagos In The Red, a documentary by Danish filmmakers Lotte Løvholm, Karen Andersen and Nanna Nielsen.
In the film, Atiku prepares to perform in the streets of Ejigbo. As the artist transforms himself into the work, he swathes himself in red fabric, which appears like tattered bandages, and rope. The bright red figure evokes blood and, by association, violence, danger, and the essence of human life. With Atiku’s race and gender obscured, his work takes on a generalized meaning. While making horrible shouts, the figure crawls and staggers, conjuring pain and suffering. The figure then carries a ladder through the streets, climbs it, and sits at the top like a watchtower. Following the performance, Atiku is open to questions. He explains his choreography, in which carrying the ladder indicates assuming responsibility for one’s life, and climbing it indicates forward movement from the earlier violence.
His works provoke reactions that are really merited by the violence and pain they suggest. Through art, Atiku taps into a personal freedom that he uses to express his discontent, raise awareness, and promote progress toward social, economic, and political human rights. hg