FOR NDIDI DIKE, THIS IS  WHAT IT MEANS TO BE AN ARTIST IN TIMES OF DISTRESS

An ongoing solo exhibition in Lagos featuring recent installations by British-born leading Nigerian artist Ndidi Dike addresses issues bordering on the general lack of preparedness during the pandemic and the concurrent upheavals swirling around the excrescences of materialism. Okechukwu Uwaezuoke reports

EXHIBITION

A mixed-media installation holds court somewhere beyond the exhibition hall’s entranceway. It is, at first glance, visually overwhelming. Sooner than later, a momentary fog of incomprehension clears up as it becomes more and more coherent and intelligible. An extensive, panoramic polyptych – composed of monochrome archival images and photographs taken by the artist from Lagos markets – almost forms a quadrilateral enclosure around a cluster of 3-D arrangements of detached auto parts in the form of totem poles and an assortment of flesh-tone fibreglass face masks, suspended on metal spikes. Also courting the viewer’s attention from its position amid this cluster stands a horned Ikenga sculpture as a symbol of Igbo man’s aspiration for individual success and penchant for upward mobility. 

This installation, titled “Panoramic Meditation On: Trade, Capitalism and Dispossession”, bears the hallmarks of Ndidi Dike’s resourcefulness and diligence. Like the others adorning the exhibition hall of the Eko Hotel and Suites, Victoria Island-based Art Twenty-One Gallery, the work was produced between 2020 and 2021. 

According to Dike, it “uses the panoramic format to suggest the passage of time and a macro perspective on the centrality of marketplaces to African lifeworlds—both historically and in the present.” Indeed, the British-born leading Nigerian female artist is right about the continent taking the cake as the Global North’s dumping ground and the site for the unscrupulous plundering of natural resources. Yet, beneath this apparent fixation of the African on “marketplaces” lurks the will to survive and a commendable resilience that ultimately evolves into the informal economy.

As part of an ongoing exhibition, titled Working through an Impasse, the installation joins forces with the rest in the hall to proclaim Dike’s “new formal and technical approaches to problems that remain unresolved”. Talking about the exhibition, which opened on Saturday, July 17 and ends sometime in September, it is the first solo exhibition by the 1984 University of Nigeria, Nsukka graduate since 2016. 

She had intended to hold this career-defining show sometime in early 2020. “At the time, I envisioned titling the show, Intersections and Realities of an Aesthetic Vocabulary. As the title suggests, I was really thinking about ways to tie together and develop conceptual and material ideas found in my past work—engagements with the aesthetics of marketplaces, assemblage, globalisation, the politics of the Global South, and the ever-changing realities of world trade.”

But then, the COVID-19 pandemic, with the ensuing federal government-imposed lockdowns, forced her into an interregnum of introspection that led to a reexamination of what it means to be an artist in times of distress. A glance at her surroundings and keeping abreast with the incredible happenings on the international scene convinced her to recalibrate her ideas for the show. For the pandemic – as the ultimate leveller – has exposed the feet of clay of the proud edifice of global capitalism.   

“At the beginning of my sequestered lockdown in mid-March 2020, when ordinary life in Nigeria and other parts of the world was on pause, I found myself going off on tangents, my mind racing in so many directions,” she recalls. “I went into a deep freeze of sorts, a reflective mode and period of anxiety about my future as a full-time artist. What’s more, I found myself overly concerned about the social, economic, and political impact of the virus on Nigeria, my country with its population of 200 million-plus people…”

Luxury of Distance and Apathy

Of course, it was not unexpected that these government-imposed measures against the pandemic unleashed untold hardship on a greater percentage of Nigerians. For most people, frequent power outages, living in cramped hovels called “face-me-I-face-you”, dependence on meagre daily incomes for survival and visiting crowded markets are daily realities, which make adherence to social distancing impossible. 

Beyond these, other concerns are bordering on racial and political upheavals against inequalities. These are what Dike considers the impasse that she has to work through. Thus, she conceived the art installations in this exhibition, which she sees as “the unending process of working through the realities that challenge our dream of a full and healthy life replete with care, kindness, and collective joy.”

But, a “full and healthy life replete with care, kindness and collective joy” will remain elusive so long as the spectre of unfulfilled promises of modern sanitation infrastructures continues to haunt Nigeria. Hence another mixed-media installation, titled “The Luxury of Distance: Between Empathy and Apathy”, expresses the metaphor of the unfulfilled promises of the 60s and 70s. 

Seven spotless white washbasins – each containing shiny gold appropriated water taps – on white cuboid plinths, are positioned in grids marked out with white tape on the gallery’s floor to evoke social distancing guidelines. Suspended above all this are clusters of gold-sprayed bottles of hand sanitiser. “I conceived the overall installation in order to raise questions about the efficacy of social distancing practices in the Global South, the scarcity of sanitation resources, and the inadequacies of local governance to ensure the health and safety of the nation,” Dike says about this work

Yet another mixed-media installation, titled “The Reckoning”, evokes the violence unleashed on black people in the US and elsewhere in the world. Hundreds of batons, typically used by policemen, are placed in single slots within a large grid structure. While they obviously symbolise police brutality, they also represent the bodies of their black victims slotted into dark, cold refrigerators of morgues. Many of these batons bear tags with the names of Nigerian and black American victims, whose deaths in recent years led to the BlackLivesMatter and EndSARS protests. The work, according to the artist, was partly inspired by the comments by Professor Wole Soyinka while responding to the racial upheavals in the USA, on June 10, 2020. The Nobel laureate was reported to have drawn parallels between “the kind of dehumanisation of black peoples going on in the United States” and “the sort of dehumanisation on our own soil by our own people, whether it’s by leadership, whether it’s by the military, whether it’s by the police, or whether it’s by any kind of institution of state or private enterprise…”

Still revolving around Dike’s musings on these troubling times are other mixed mixed-media installations like “A Kindred Lament to Quarantine”, “Taking Stock”, “Building Blocks of Desire and Consumption”, “Residues of Provoked Dissent” I-IV, “Ashes Beyond” and a series of four untitled mixed-media paintings in monochrome colours of white, red, blue and yellow ochre. 

Interestingly, this exhibition burnishes Dike’s credentials as a versatile artist, who expresses herself through painting, sculpture, collage, lens-based media, video and 3-D installations. As the widely-exhibited artist sets her sights on new creative courses, her renown for totem poles ebbs away from the industry’s consciousness.  

Dike

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