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Jelili Atiku and the struggle in Ejigbo

The Netherlands Embassy in Lagos opened its doors to members of the Nigerian arts community recently for a celebration of one of their own, an artist under siege, in an event designed to send a message, that he is not alone.

Netherlands Ambassador John Groffen, artist Jelili Atiku and Fariba Derakhshani of Prince Claus Fund

The Netherlands Embassy in Lagos opened its doors to members of the Nigerian arts community recently for a celebration of one of their own, an artist under siege, in an event designed to send a message, that he is not alone. Anyone seeing performance artist Jelili Atiku on Friday, April 8, 2016, would have done a double take. He was resplendent in flowing, sunshine-yellow agbada traditional attire, topped with an abeti-aja (dog-eared) cap.

The arts community was almost out-numbered by those one might call ‘the Ejigbo connection’ – from Atiku’s local community in Lagos. They had come out in force, in matching colours. One occasion when the cultural concept of Aso-Ebi, devised to show that one is part of a supportive group, truly demonstrated its meaning.

Octogenarian Bruce Onobrakpeya led the artists, including: Olu Amoda, Kunle Adeyemi, Uche James Iroha, Peju Layiwola, Amaize Ojeikere, Mudiare and Ufuoma Onobrakpeya; and Oliver Enwonwu, President of the Society of Nigerian Artists (SNA).

Among others: curator Sandra Obiago, filmmaker Tunde Kelani, Tunji Sotimirin, Shaibu Husseini and broadcaster Funke Treasure-Durodola. Acting grand dame Taiwo Ajai-Lycett made an appearance, before heading off with an all-female ensemble for an international tour with the stage play, ‘Hear Word!’

The art notables came to show support for Jelili Atiku, a 2015 recipient of the prestigious Prince Claus Award, who was arrested for his art, not long after the international recognition.

Reinforcing the principle that ‘culture is a basic need’, the Prince Claus Fund presents annual awards for outstanding achievements in the culture and development sectors.

The citation notes that, “Jelili Atiku is awarded for creating a new artistic language combining Yoruba traditional art forms with international performance practice; for his thought-provoking performances that challenge assumptions and stimulate dialogue in an unconventional and dynamic form of community education.” Atiku is described as “an imaginative artist whose provocative spectacles use striking attire, unsettling body language and unusual props to open up dialogue and influence popular attitudes.”

Speaking of ‘unsettling’, I’ll never forget seeing Atiku at the Second African Regional Summit for Visual Artists (ARESUVA) in Abuja in 2009 – where, in performance as a man tethered like a goat, the artist went as far as to eat grass. And just in case you were wondering about the props, in a video clip shown at the soiree, Atiku says, “I use my body as an instrument in my art… I need to put my expression in a visual language and it makes me to feel free, like a human being.”

The Award was first presented at the Royal Palace in Amsterdam on December 2, 2015; and is traditionally re-presented in the laureate’s home country, which was why we gathered at the embassy. But the event had acquired an even greater significance, due to a series of unpleasant events which serve to prove that an artist is not without honour except in his own country.

On January 14, 2016, Jelili Atiku gave a performance, titled, ‘Aragamago Will Rid This Land of Terrorism’, in Ejigbo. On January 18, he was arrested along with five associates and slammed in Kirikiri Prison, Lagos. All because Ejigbo’s traditional ruler saw the performance as a rebuke targeted at his person.

To illustrate how misunderstood Atiku often is, when news of his arrest reached social media along with a photo of the artist costumed in his ‘Red’ performance series, one twitter user asked, “Is he a Satanist?” Atiku and his associates were released on bail on January 20. The initial four-count charge of conspiring ‘to incite felony to wit public disturbance’ has increased to seven; and there have been several court appearances. He is due back in court on June 27.

It was under this cloud that the grand celebration of Jelili Atiku was hosted by the Netherlands Ambassador to Nigeria, John Groffen. The event was organized by the Culture Advocates Caucus, supported by organisations including the Prince Claus Fund. Formal presentation of the award was by Fariba Derakhshani of the Fund. And to show that not all traditional rulers feel threatened by artists, gracing the occasion was HRM Muniru Olatunji Yusuf, Oba of Onigbongbo, Lagos.

Ambassador Groffen said, “I am very happy that by awarding Jelili we show in one go and at the same time: our appreciation of the artist, the acknowledgement of the importance of art performance and the strongly growing role of Nigeria – and the impressive metropolis of Lagos – in the field of contemporary art and culture.”

There were performances including an eerie one on insurgency by Atiku himself. Adeola Goloba, one of those imprisoned with the artist, introduced his own reading by saying, “I wrote this poem for Jelili Atiku and the struggle in Ejigbo.”

Art historian Chika Okeke-Agulu wrote of Atiku, “In doing this work, he has faced tremendous personal risk and has, for years, received little support and acknowledgement from the Nigerian art world.”

“Articulated Atiku, this is wonderful!” someone cheered, as the artist received his award. Other artists were encouraged to join him on stage, “to show Atiku he is not alone,” in the words of emcee Jahman Anikulapo. If the show of support at the Netherlands Embassy is anything to go by, Jelili Atiku can count on his friends as he continues the battle for his personal and artistic freedom.