Taking art to open spaces… the Goethe-Institut blazes the trail
The most recent of such endeavours was ‘In Dialogue’, which held at the Department of Fine and Applied Arts of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka from November 23 to December 2, 2009, and served as a way of extending the frontiers of art space to the ‘village square’, so to say, for greater public participation and enjoyment.
In 2005 ‘Lagos Open’ was held while ‘In God We Trust’ was organised in 2008.’Unframed landscapes’ had also been held at the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria. In each case, both Nigerian and foreign artists collaborated to redefine the borderlines of art and the possibilities of extending it.
In each case also, young artists are encouraged to bring their creations into the public sphere, to create a dialogue with the public and to raise questions rather than to preach opinions. During the ‘In Dialogue’, Udemba concluded the workshop with a display of art in a public space on December 2, 2009. Installations were unveiled at the campus accompanied by other performances to spice up the event. Dr. Godwin Uka of the Department for Fine and Applied Arts coordinated the workshop.
Also at a recent event in Lagos, where the institute’s former director Arne Scneider and Udemba presented Lagos: Art Intervention in Public Space Udemba explained that the reason for choosing Ajegunle and Mushin both for ‘Lagos Open’ and ‘In God Trust’ were to re-echo the fame of the two sub-cities as representing the spirit of the old Lagos. At the time, according to Udemba, the notion of crime and filth that the two areas particularly Ajegunle became known were not there. So, for him the projects were attempts at demystification, a reconstruction or a reframing of these negative notions about the two areas, adding that “Ajegunle hs a name in entire Nigeria”.
He captured the anxiety of the artists who took part in the projects in going to Ajegunle to work even when they had lived in Lagos for years without having gone to the place fondly called AJ City. Udemba acknowledged that working in public spaces in Nigeria was a novel idea. What was usual was that “our public spaces being littered with sterile statues” and that the Transforming Public Spaces project was the “demystification of a paradym” deeply ingrained in a society that thinks little about beautifying public spaces.
The natural consequence of the project was the interaction and social relationship created between the artists and residents of the two areas. He added that it offered a platform of communication and for the artists to get a reaction to their exertions in the transformation of an otherwise drab environment to one of artistic beauty just as he affirmed that Ajegunle is not the mega slum that it is usually associated with.
But it was Schneider who remained baffled, excited and intrigued at the phenomenon called Lagos and in whose time as director the projects were initiated. “We had a wonderful idea of this project in this wonderful and unique place in the world called Lagos,” he observed. “It is a melting point of millions of dreams, imaginations and possibilities. Lagos as a mega city embodies the negative and positive constructs of mega cities. The amazing thing about Lagos is that both ways of viewing this place are true.
“This must be a fabulous place for the art – the tension, the contradictions, the vibrancy and the energy are here. It should be a perfect place for the arts, to reflect on life; and there are many committed artists but lack of infrastructure for the artists. However, art cannot give solutions but it can make things visible.”
The former Goethe-Institut director further stated the relevance of the project to include the increasing need to make art an interactive medium of discourse. This way, residents of Ajegunle and Mushin actively took part in the projects both to enrich their knowledge of art and to interact with the artists, who had come to invade their otherwise quiet zones.
“The viewer has become more and more active in the art process,” he said, “he is an agent in giving meaning to the artwork as he participates in the process. In Mushin, we were partnering with them; they too participated in the conversation. We tried it as an experiment. We thanked our friends from Mushin and Ajegunle for hosting us and for being here with us.”
For Udemba, the projects about the artists being citizens first, who wanted to create so as to forge a communication since artists did not live in a vacuum but through interaction, connection and discussion on issues in their society. “Lagos has so mant aesthetic qualities we don’t even see until somebody from outside shows them,” he said. “But we started realizing the possibilities. Other things are ephemeral but the art we do stays. Spaces should propel us to find out more about relationships.”
Udemba explained that the Mushin project ‘In God We Trust’ was conceived as a way of demystifying the religious paradox in today’s Nigeria. He said, “We have an overflow of religiosity; sometimes, it becomes a paradox because things are not working in the country. In a society, where there is so much religion, how would artists produce, relate to religion. Should it be proactive, controversial or confirming? It was interesting how artists developed their works. It gives insight into the thought-process of the artists on religion”.
Goethe-Institut has restated its resolve to stage more of such interventionist projects in future as a way of widening the nation’s art space and stimulate greater public interest in art.