Monday, 29th May 2023

Alatise set to spring hope in venice

By Gregory Austin Nwakunor
09 May 2021   |   4:17 am
The artist and architect is one of the 114 architects and artists participating at the 17th International Architecture Exhibition, organised by La Biennale di Venezia (Venice Biennale).

Alatise’s Rapture of Olurombi’s daughter

It’s impossible to turn your eyes away from Peju Alatise. This afternoon, Peju is in her studio, poring over sketches. There’s a gentle knock on the door.
“Come in,” she answers.
“The journalist?” She asks her guest.
“Yes,” he answers.
Pregnant silence follows.

The artist and architect is one of the 114 architects and artists participating at the 17th International Architecture Exhibition, organised by La Biennale di Venezia (Venice Biennale).

This comes four years after she represented Nigeria, alongside two other artists — Victor Ehikhamenor and Qudus Onikeku — when the country’s pavilion was first mounted at Venice Arte Biennale.

Other African artists (individuals and collectives) participating at the exhibition include atelier masōmī – Mariam Kamara (Niger), Cave_bureau – (Kenya), Olalekan Jeyifous (USA) and Mpho Matsipa (South Africa and USA), Paula Nascimento (Angola) and K63.STUDIO – Osborne Macharia (Kenya & Canada).

The exhibition will run from May 22 to November 21, 2021. The international show will be articulated between the Central Pavilion at the Giardini, the Arsenale and Forte Marghera, including 110 participants in competition coming from 46 countries with increased representation from Africa, Latin America and Asia.

In addition to the invited participants, the Biennale Architettura 2021 also includes stations and co-cabitats, researchers out of competition on the themes of the show and developed by universities around the world.

Over the past couple of years, Alatise’s career has been on a roll. From winning a Smithsonian Artist Research Fellowship, in 2016, to representing Nigeria at the Venice Biennale in 2017 and scooping the coveted FNB Art Prize in Johannesburg the same year, the Lagos-based artist’s career is one that is coming strong by the day.

Even before Venice Biennale, her work was already making the big league. In 2015, her piece, High Horses, a triptych of three young women sat on high pedestals and their faces covered in brightly painted fabric, sold at auction at Bonhams in London for £31,250 ($40,000).

For the artist, who started her career as an architect, before veering slightly off to becoming an artist and increasingly finding ways to merge both disciplines in her practice, her international career had come full circle. Curated by Hashim Sarkis, Dean of the School of Architecture and Planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the show examines the question ‘How will we live together?’

“We need a new spatial contract,” says Sarkis. “In the context of widening political divides and growing economic inequalities, we call on architects to imagine spaces in which we can generously live together. The architects invited to participate in the Biennale Architettura 2021 are encouraged to include other professions and constituencies—artists, builders, and craftspeople, but also politicians, journalists, social scientists, and everyday citizens. In effect, the Biennale Architettura 2021 asserts the vital role of the architect as both cordial convener and custodian of the spatial contract.”

The exhibition, Sarkis also stresses, “also maintains that it is in its material, spatial, and cultural specificity that architecture inspires the ways we live together. In that respect, we ask the participants to highlight those aspects of the main theme that are uniquely architectural.”

According to the curator, “The question, ‘How will we live together? ‘is as much a social and political question as a spatial one. Aristotle asked it when he was defining politics, and he came back to propose the model of the city. Every generation asks it and answers it differently. More recently, rapidly changing social norms, growing political polarisation, climate change, and vast global inequalities are making us ask this question more urgently and at different scales than before. In parallel, the weakness of the political models being proposed today compels us to put space first and, perhaps like Aristotle, look at the way architecture shapes inhabitation for potential models for how we could live together.

“The 2021 biennale is motivated by new kinds of problems that the world is putting in front of architecture. It is also inspired by the emerging activism of young architects and the radical revisions being proposed by the profession of architecture to take on these challenges.

The show will be one of Alaise’s most ambitious work yet.
“When I first got my proposal, I actually wanted to discuss Africa — The Unity of Africa. For me, I thought the answer I would come out with would be talking of Unification of Africa. It sounded like a textbook response. I called a friend and gave her this idea that I had. She asked me do you believe in what you’re saying? In trying to answer the questions, I have to use indigenous and local materials,” she talks animatedly, waving her hands as if offering them as a gift to her guest

Alatise’s work has always been heavily influenced by Yoruba mythology, which has also informed her preference to experiment with a variety of materials that include fibreglass, cement moulds, resin and fabric. On top of that, the project brings together her artistic practices as a writer, sculptor and painter. She will present a new work, an ambitious installation that draws inspiration from Yoruba folklore and storytelling on understanding, unity and togetherness between cultures.

Alastise’s own artistic production can be sometimes ghoulish, life-like and immersive in its storytelling. This world-building has been integral to how the audience experiences her work.

Her piece, “explores their disappearance, through a series of panels made from traditional Nigerian-print fabric and featuring silhouettes of the heads of anonymous girls, with some panels themselves missing,” Alatise says.

Expectations from the biennale?
From her seated position, passion lifts her voice and raises her out of the chair.

“There are different levels of expectation, right. There is the result of the event, as to the kind of exposure that we are going to get. The kind of people I will get to meet at the Architecttura Bienale. There is a lot more goals to achieve for being on a platform as this… You already feel that sense of accomplishment,” she says.

However, Alatise feels that such a platform brings its own fear.
“You’re afraid whether you’re up to the task or whether you’re deserving of the call. The stories that I’m telling, how effective is going to be?” she says.

“Let me shock you, I sold so many things, because I didn’t want to be disappointed by those who will promise and not fulfil.” The curatorial statement for Alatise is not only timely and timeless, but also prophetic.

“For me, the curatorial premise that we were giving was a prophetic statement to make. It was very forward thinking of the curator,” she says.

“I think that if he had known that the pandemic was going to happen, there is no way he would have changed a single letter of that word.”
She believes that the pandemic came with its emotional and mental effect on everything, which the biennale’s theme stressed.
Before the pandemic, there were nationalist calls, populist calls and countries like America with Trump, who was an unapologetic nationalist, wanted America to be for Americans.

“You have all these other infractions all over the world. There were separatists shouting they want immigrants in their countries. This indeed, is a very poignant question, especially now that we are faced with the pandemic and the world now knows this what it means to live alone. We’ve seen it and the first victim is the economy.”
Any feminist injection into the theme?
She laughs.
“ No.”

“I tried to be as inclusive as possible. You will see that in the work. The project is not just about Peju Alatise. It is about a large team doing the work. We all worked together and I was just like a ‘musical conductor’: Ade Sokunbi was our architectural consultant; Denrele Sonariwo, Nana Soonoiki, Aderemi Adegbite, Segun, Fidelis Odogwu, Abu Momogima and Yika Akingbade,” she explains.

ARCHITECTURE is still a huge influence on her work, she says, especially when it comes to space and structure: “You can’t go through six years of architecture and not feel structure. Architecture makes you obey all the laws. […] It makes you so aware of physicality.”

Alatise, who studied architecture at Ladoke Akintola University of Technology, Ogbomoso, Oyo State, would have opted out of architecture for her father, who insisted she continued.

A self-taught artist, she appreciates the huge role that mentors like Mama Nike Davies-Okundaye of the famed Osogbo School for art, batik and textile design played in her development.

This propelled her to want to give something back, but she also wanted to do something about the dearth of creative infrastructure in Nigeria. Alatise has proven to be very cause driven and to have a heart for those less fortunate. In January 2018, she began the Alter’NATIVE Artist Initiative (ANAI) Foundation, which “combines exhibition spaces with artists’ residencies and ceramics training.

During the course of her more than decade-long artistic career, Alatise has also worked with artisans to design furniture and is concerned by how these communities are losing their means of living, driving them to migrate to the cities to look for work.