Ndidi Dike’s “Working through an impasse” is art bearing witness – Toni Kan
‘For the dead and the living, we must bear witness.’ – Elie Wiesel, holocaust survivor
After the Federal Government of Nigeria announced a nationwide lockdown in April 2020 to help flatten the Covid-19 curve and control the spread of the Coronavirus, Ndidi Dike found herself engaging with urgent existential questions.
The questions were inevitable especially with the world on lockdown and the engines of global capitalism grinding to a halt it was time to ask what the future held for her as a person and full time artist, how would subsistence farmers and those who survive on daily wages cope in a lockdown and what would be the overall impact of the pandemic and lockdown on Nigeria from a social, economic and political perspective?
These questions were important because she had made plans for the year; the most immediate was working on an exhibition project –Intersections and Realities of an Aesthetic Vocabulary in which she was to undertake a re-appraisal of currents flowing through her past works: “aesthetics and market places, assemblage, globalisation, politics of the global south and ever changing realities of world trade.”
The pandemic had scuttled her plans and stuck at home in quarantine during a lock down, her thoughts began to recalibrate and coalesce around a different theme, what is the role of the artist in moments of crisis? Does s/he freeze and keep quiet or bear witness by documenting the times?
Her answer was to bear witness and the works in her latest exhibition, Working Through An Impasse, ongoing at Art Twenty One, is her response to Covid-19 and the upending of our world as we used to know it.
The exhibition is a visceral and urgent reflection on what Ndidi Dike describes, in her artist statement, as “collective experience of quarantine and isolation, inequities surrounding sanitation and health, histories of systemic racism and political upheaval and the exploitation of natural resources and human labour.”
Take out the experience of quarantine and isolation as well as the inequities surrounding sanitation and health in the context of the pandemic and you find yourself on familiar territory as far as Ndidi Dike’s works are concerned.
There are insistent echoes of her past works in this current exhibition; her site specific installation A History of a City In a Box which debuted at the 2019 Lagos Biennial clearly informs her haunting and eerily evocating Taking Stock, 2021 Mixed Media installation while her Panaromic Meditation on: Trade, Capitalism and Dispossesion, 2021 is clearly an extension of her last solo exhibition Commodities of Consumption and Sites of Extraction in the Global South which ran earlier in the year in Lagos and is currently touring Germany. The same can also be said for her Building Blocks of Desire and Consumption, 2021.
In her artist’s statement for Commodities of Consumption and Sites of Extraction in the Global South Ms. Dike made the point eloquently where she states that: “I’ve also been concerned with the political dimensions of commodities— 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.”
There is very little difference from the sentiments expressed in the notes to Building Blocks of Desire and Consumption, 2021 where she writes that “I wanted to use the similar colours of the traditional Uli pallete and the hues of the rare earth minerals to advance a two-part critique of the role of the natural and indigenous resources in the production of consumer technologies like cellphones, laptops and other gadgets. Technological advances depend on the ceaseless and violent depletion of resource reserves on the continent.”
Viewing the exhibition and then considering the independent exhibits that make up the whole, especially the first three exhibits, one experiences what appears like a jarring sense of displacement and thematic incoherence but a viewer familiar with Ndidi Dike’s oeuvre will quickly realize that what has happened is a refusal by the artist to be fully distracted from her 2020 plan. In that sense what we have on exhibit is not merely an exhibition by an artist working through an impasse, rather it is an exhibition that is more broadly about Intersections and Realities of an Aesthetic Vocabulary by an Artist Working Through an Impasse.
With this clarification made, one must then turn to a consideration of some of the pieces that make this exhibition both art and documentary from an artist bearing witness in a global season of anomie.
The Reckoning, 2021 is a haunting and evocative piece. Viewed up close, you see police batons slotted into grids, name tags hanging off some of the batons. Take a step back and you find yourself looking into a frenetic hive with people trying to escape their niches which the artist has likened to “dark and cold refrigerators of morgues.”
Ms Dike writes that this piece was informed by her reflections on Black Lives Matter and the #EndSars movement as well as what has been systemic and racist violence inflicted on black skin over millenia. The nametags are of real people, witness to lives lost to police brutality.
The use of the baton is instructive and overwhelmingly symbolic as an instrument of police brutality and torture which has survived through the ages and in different climes. In Yoruba, police men are referred to as Olopa (baton-man) which is a nod to the batons they wielded as symbols of their authority. It is no different in America. In the climactic scene of Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing, Radio Raheem is choked to death with a baton.
Turn around and you are face-to-face with five pieces, the sole spot of light in an otherwise dark exhibition. Ndidi Dike describes them as “five abstract mixed media paintings in monochrome colours of white, red, blue, yellow and yellow ochre…products of self-care. I created them as therapeutic escapes from the process of making other works in the show… as I developed the works…I found myself needing to take breaks.”
These works provide colourful and abstract distractions for the viewer overwhelmed by the dark and moody exhibits on display.
Take a quick step to your right and the gloom returns in Ashes beyond the mass, 2021, a two piece contemplation on smoke and ashes rising from the funeral pyres that defined India’s struggle with the pandemic. In reflecting on the fragility of life, Ms. Dike’s diptych conveys a visual cue for the clichéd “dust to dust and ashes to ashes.”
The four piece mixed media on aluminium Residues of Provoked Dissent I-IV, 2021 extends the conversations around found objects while making a political statement. Fashioned out of old political campaign posters, Ms. Dike riffs on unfulfilled promises and the short-changed masses but in using old printed matter, her work recalls those of holocaust survivor Shmuel Dresner especially his tribute to his friend, Benjamin 1982.
Taking Stock, 2021 is probably the most visually appealing work on account of the fact that it is made of red and white medical vials. The floor installation viewed from some distance looks like an isolated island and cityscape with high rises but step closer and you may be looking at a prison complex or an assembly line.
All the visual cues considered, Taking Stock, 2021 presents a snapshot of a world in lock down, a people in quarantine and population in isolation but in using the red and white medical vials that have become the defining mnemonic for Covid-19 tests, Ms. Dike is bearing witness and documenting for the future, a time when our world was shorn of people.
“Social distancing” must be the most used phrase of 2020 and the rallying call of the Covid-19 pandemic. Ndidi Dike pays fitting homage to the phrase in The Luxury of Distance: Between Empathy and Apathy, 2021, a mixed media installation featuring seven wash hand basins sitting atop “socially distanced” plints above which dangle gold coated sanitizer bottles.
In her statement, Ms. Dike notes that she conceived the piece to “raise questions about the efficacy of social distancing practices in the Global South” and well as the “scarcity of sanitation resources” etc.
This piece speaks to inadequacy as well as greed and mercantilism. Weeks after the first case of Covid-19 was confirmed in Nigeria, prices of face masks and hand sanitisers rose by between 150 to 300%. In a country without adequate water, sanitizers became the default solution for keeping hands clean and so literally became as precious as gold which is why the bottles are gold coated.
The Coronavirus control guidance from the US Center for Disease Control is clear – “if soap and water are not readily available, use a hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol.”
The plinths with wash hand basins missing their taps provide further commentary not just on the lack of water but also the difficulty in enforcing social distancing protocols in densely populated urban conurbations. This is a deeply ironic piece that speaks on the disparities between the global North and South as well as the difficulty in applying a one-size-fits-all panacea for the global pandemic.
A kindred Lament to Quarantine, 2021 is an elaborate piece that extends the conversation around inadequacies in our health care infrastructure. Occupying a whole room, the exhibit invites you into a hospital ward in a visceral excursion through what it must mean to be isolated in one. Walking through the ward, one is reminded of Doris Clare Zinkeisen haunting painting Human Laundry, Belsen: April 1945.
Highly realized and complete with antique hospital beds, tulle curtains which heighten the mood as well as other appurtenances that evoke mood and context, Ms. Dike’s piece would, however, have worked better as a stand-alone exhibit instead of one that basically brings the exhibition to a close.
Making your way around the exhibition hall and taking in the works the overall mood is funereal. The works on display are not reflective of and neither do they evoke levity or jollity. The works demand reflection and introspection as we come to grips not just with the fact of our mortality but the inescapable feeling that we are among the lucky few who have avoided the lottery ticket of death in a global pandemic and so like Elie Wiesel said we must bear witness not just for those who have passed but for those yet to come.
***Ndidi Dike collaborated with award winning architect, Papa Omotayo, in realising the installation pieces.