Adejoke Tugbiyele’s title, ‘Testimony,’ promises visuals that verify something; a covenant harking to the testaments of the Bible or gifting its viewers with her will and testament. If it is the goal of the activist to reveal and to rile, then to this end Tugbiyele has text, object, image and video in her employ, with the common purpose of exposing a reality that bubbles and seethes far out of sight and earshot of the gallery.
The Goodman Gallery is dimmer than the street and upon entering I had an eerie sense of being immersed in a kelp forest. The repetitive sounds of a video and the suspended ripples of parchment transport the viewer to a fantasy space – where, somewhat ironically, truths become more communicable.
Works on parchment in museum-like Perspex boxes hang suspended from the rafters. These specimens appear taut, waxy and translucent, comprised of calf-hide which has been rubbed raw and preserved as vellum. These are materials of an era far removed from the contemporary Nigerian context. In our collective compartmentalization of areas/subjects/times it is shocking that so stark a comparison can yield such sinister similarities. These conditions in Nigeria have their origin in the Imperial drive towards colonization. Resources were siphoned, Africans were enslaved and christianity was exported to the ‘heathens’. For Nigeria this yoke was only lifted in 1960 when the nation gained independence from Britain. ‘Testimony’ is a sensitively phrased protest to this lingering dark age that has been imposed on Africa.
Tugbiyele extends this parallel between the ages of illuminated manuscripts and contemporary Africa by painstakingly calligraphing text in English in a medieval-like script. She accompanies drawn images of buildings, people and objects with anecdotes attesting to her experiences of Nigeria, America and South Africa. The format of the manuscript page, originally reserved for embellishing the Bible, elevates her daily observations to an importance equal to that of the canon. She makes an epistemological statement about what knowledge we prioritize. Information about her day-to-day existence and her subjective experiences would be deemed far less credible or important than empirical data or hard news, but it presents something far more qualitative. In the gallery space she expresses her own mythological environment in which her humanitarian and intuitive concerns are privileged above raw data, callous religion or the broad anonymizing strokes of history books.
Indeed the whole show echoes the theme of describing Tugbiyele’s personal experiences so as to reveal the suffering of a group. The experience of everyday life in Lagos in 1991 (when the government divested, making Abuja the official capital) mirrors the broader political currents and vice versa. The work Real Danger includes line drawings of buildings and a newspaper replete with devastating headlines and paragraphs of text describing the broken windows, crumbling walls and dying bulbs of that year. Tugbiyele writes that the buildings are the people’s second skins, making the argument that the government had, in a sense, divested in the humanity of the people of Lagos by abandoning them to dilapidated slums and overloaded infrastructure. The gold flourishes of the script seem sardonic when the text reflects such a dire reality.
‘Testimony’ tackles a multitude of social issues, from the anti-gay bill passed in 2014 to Boko Haram, from evangelical Christian fundamentalism to sex work and from the oil rush to poverty and inequality. Tugbiyele is in a prime position to speak out, being a migrant and a lesbian. Tugbiyele “came out” as a queer woman on CNN, after which, in Nigeria, her “carnal knowledge” of the same sex could have landed her in prison for 14 years.
However, the trending intersectional approach to new feminisms makes the timing of this exhibition ripe. International ears are cocked to hear from the developing world’s brand of queer. The dawning realization that feminism is a class and race issue as well as a gender issue makes the scope of ‘Testimony’ valuable. It is descriptive of whole chunks of experience.
There is an ignorant darkness surrounding queerness which is cast, in Nigeria especially, by the so-called light of evangelical churches. The doctrine being that homosexuality is both unnatural and unAfrican. These ideas are espoused by Mega-churches, run by pastors that, Tugbiyele insists, demand wealth and tribute and frequently take advantage of their congregation’s misplaced trust. Here the artist calls hypocrisy and in her own way she hopes to combat this stigma. A portion of the proceeds of ‘Testimony’ are to be donated to Iranti-org an organization that documents and protests hate crimes and human rights violations across South Africa (www.iranti-org.co.za).
‘Testimony’ asks for an overwhelming debt of empathy. It feels as though Tugbiyele is showing us a vast and heart-rending wilderness of experience stretching out behind and in front of her. As viewers we step into the shoes of someone systematically othered but also an insider. Maybe it is simply that the everyday struggle for survival is a constant thread woven into our collective history. If this is the case, Tugbiyele teases out the humanity, leaving behind the matted mess of dogma and imploring that we do the same.