Do you eat ice cream? If you do, do you like vanilla flavour? If you do, do you know where vanilla is extracted from?
Ndidi Dike, contemporary sculptor and mixed media artist opened her solo exhibition “Commodities of Consumption and Sites of Extraction in the Global South” on Saturday January 16, 2021 at the Mike Adenuga Center. Supported by the Goethe Institut and Alliance Francais which provided the venue, the exhibition features an installation of mixed media works.
Standing before the cube of metal, wood, film transparencies and other accoutrements, the first impression is one of confoundment.
“What am I looking at?” a guest wondered out loud and it was a sentiment shared by many but quiet contemplation will slowly yield understanding.
The installation is a tangle of wood and metal and strings from which hang exposed transparencies from about 8 feet almost to the floor, the exhibit compels you to walk around and peer close at the mélange of images and words.
“The last slave ship left Badagry in 1888 for Brazil,” you read and it is that nod to the trans-Atlantic slave trade that opens the flood gates of comprehension. What was the slave trade about? Insidious and barbaric as it was, deep at its core lay commerce and power imbalance which is why it is sometimes referred to as the Atlantic Economy.
Between 1526, when the Portuguese completed the first transatlantic slave voyage to Brazil and 1888 when that last slave ship left Badagry, over 12 million Africans had been taken to Europe and America as slaves to help build their economies by slaving away on coffee, tobacco, cocoa, sugar, and cotton plantations. They were also set to work in gold and silver mines and rice fields as well as in the construction industry as cutters of timber for ships and as domestic servants.
The slave trade was about commerce and economic growth. It began with trade and exchange of goods then escalated into human cargo but even though the last slave ship is believed to have left Badagry in 1888, slavery and the commercial imperative has never ended.
That is the thesis of Ndidi Dike’s exhibition. Focusing on Gold, indigo, Vanilla and Cotton she draws attention to sites of excavation of the raw materials from the global South and the commodification of the finished product which feeds the consumerist culture of the Global North and fuels its economy creating a global imbalance that persists.
Google the Vanilla Wars of Madagascar and you begin to get the picture. Vanilla farmers continue to face violence and death as bandits raid and pillage their farms and villages to violently appropriate the cash crop which is essential for making ice cream, cakes and chocolate.
Cotton taken from Africa is turned into yarns that produce luxury items of clothing. Gold mined from poor African nations are transported across the seas to produce luxury jewelry. The denim industry, many do not realize, is built on indigo extracted from the Indigofera plant originally native to Africa and well prized among the Yorubas of Western Nigeria and the Mandingo of Mali (especially the Soninke /Malinke). It was also produced in Kano and parts of Cameroon.
Ms. Dike’s exhibition is thus a political statement that forces us to consider and engage with the extractive industries that propel the consumption and commodification of the finished products which provide wealth in the global North while impoverishing and endangering the denizens of the sites of extraction in the global South.
Ms. Dike makes the point eloquently in her Artist Statement where she states that: “I’ve also been concerned with the political dimensions of commodites— their consumption, circulation, manufacture, as well as geo-political policies that underwrite the control and extractive industries that govern natural resources and (mis)appropriation in Africa.
The world is paying attention to these issues of extraction, appropriation and commodification with initiatives such as Cites (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) and the United Nations driven Kimberly Process which has called attention and criminalized trade in conflict diamonds which play a huge part in exacerbating crisis in countries such as Sierra Leone and the Congo. But more needs to be done.
By using sepia toned images, Ndidi Dike is highlighting the centuries old problem and also managing not to glamourize the issue which coloured photography would have done.
Her placement of the Cotton, Indigo, Vanilla and Gold on three tiered cake stands is a compelling metaphor. The stands are metonyms that hint at colonial tastes but they also point to the layered message of the exhibition which focuses on the power dynamics and imbalance with Africans at the bottom rung.
The question of the slave trade and its continuing effect on Africa continues to excite discussions almost 500 years after but it never gets old because as Maya Angelo has noted “History despite its wretched pain cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage need not be lived again.”
The hope is that with this solo exhibition and the critical issues it addresses we will stop reliving this history of forced appropriation and the systemic violence it continues to sire.