Lagos Biennial 2019”: Ndidi Dike captures Lagos history box by box – Toni Kan

Multiple floors.

44 artists

And a slew of works that run the gamut from site specific installations to paintings, video and conceptual art.

The Lagos Biennial, was a “whole mood.”

Set inside the dilapidated Independence Building, the setting of the second coming of the Lagos Biennial (the first held at the dilapidated Railway compound in Ebutte Metta) was apt especially when considered in the context of its theme – HOW TO BUILD A LAGOON WITH JUST A BOTTLE OF WINE.

According to the curatorial statement, “In recent years Lagos has expanded exponentially…such rapid change has raised immense challenges and pressing questions related to the impact of urbanization on conceptions of identity and citizenship, affordable housing, the sustainability of natural resources, and socio-economic inequality.”

The works are, therefore, at once personal and public as they consider Lagos as both space and place where people live, work and play. And they pose some urgent questions – What does a city mean? How is a city constructed and navigated?

But it is not just Lagos, other African urban conurbations are represented, especially Nairobi with its colourful depiction of piki piki (okada) riders.

The works are conceptual takes on quotidian realities and what comes across, in many instances, is a feeling that perhaps unable to fully grapple with the real life conundrum that is Lagos, many artists are taking refuge in a Lagos of the imagination.

Some of the stand out works are the site specific sculptures by Angolan artist Pedro Piers whose works fashioned out of “locally sourced domestic objects such as boots and plastic storage containers (jerry cans) assembled vertically to suggest human figures…”

Eman Ali’s “Piki Piki Paradise”, his portraits of motorcycle taxi drivers is an urgent take on the malaise of urban transportation facing rapidly exploding urban centers in Africa. This portrait would be interesting to consider when Kenya’s equivalent of Gokada and ORide emerge.

“The Royal House of Allure” by Sabelo Miangeni is a revelation as it documents the goings-on in what he calls “a social space where youth convene, express themselves and support one another.”

Nneka Ezemezue’s “The Vendors” is a brilliant documentary of “Free readers Association of Nigeria, men who hang-out at newsstands to peruse and debate newspaper articles and headlines.” These men are representative of the obliterated middle class who used to, but now unable to afford newspapers, gather at vendors’ newsstands to read for free or a nominal fee.

Wahab’s ambitious drawing depicting a corpulent woman in many guises is a homage to his yahoo friend turned muse, Chioma, who has become the defining model for his signature corpulent female characters.

But Ndidi Dike is clearly the star artist of the Lagos Biennial. Her site specific installation “A History of a City In a Box”, is an intelligent take on information as currency and the power dynamics that manifest in the form of what a lack of access to that currency can mean for the haves and havenots.

As she writes – “Information is one of the greatest currencies in Lagos. Information is hidden and buried. It is un-accessible to the people, and only permitted to those in power.”

Her piece is a paen to serendipity.

A chance discovery of a treasure trove of colonial and post-colonial era documents at Independent House led to the installation which on first look is a set piece of old filing boxes which must have contained detailed and confidential information. A piece of paper reveals a 1988 leave request and approval for a civil servant – Miss. R Okolie, Typist, Single and from Bendel state.

Some of the files date from as far back as 1932 and there is a box marked PVs May: 88 1841 – 1930.

But look closer and the brilliance of the installation is revealed. It is in fact an aerial view of Lagos, with the boxes standing in as buildings and high rises approximating to the Lagos skyline as seen from above.

As houses are private spaces for concealing secrets, these boxes standing in for houses become receptacles for civil service secrets. They are at once public records but also official and confidential receptacles for tracking, annotating and documenting. In viewing them as set pieces on Ndidi Dike’s chessboard of the imagination one cannot help but wonder what official secrets did they hold, what financial malfeasance did they conceal and what hapless individual had his file squirrelled away from sunlight as punishment up until now?

Ndidi Dike’s “A History of a City In a Box” is that rare thing which is both art and is not, a brilliant reimagining of historical documents which manages to transport them from the realm of documentary into fictive art.

That is the brilliance of “A History of a City In a Box” the star exhibit at the Lagos Biennial 2019.

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