Goodman Gallery, Cape Town
05.09.2015 – 10.10.2015
Totally fucked! is a reaction I also would have used if I was the one under that hammer. The video projection by artist Adejoke Tugbiyele shows her in an enclosed dimly lit room with two red oil drums from the Total Oil Company as she strikes one of the drums with a hammer. With the violence Tugbiyele uses in hitting one of the drums, the sound of its emptiness rings so loud and sharp. You feel its effect. The consistent rhythmical clunking beat of the hammer hitting the metal as she strikes the oil drum is heard throughout the exhibition space. This work I consider to be a comment on the politics regarding the petroleum industry in Nigeria, and its negative influences on the country’s socio-economic and political landscapes, especially with pollution being an added problem to the country’s health. I should however mention that Tugbiyele’s work has many interpretations that seem to contain more personal narratives.
Along with the video projection the oil drums are set up in the gallery space as an installation. The oil drum Tugbiyele hits is placed on its side on the gallery floor with the word pain spray painted on it. Alongside this is another one she did not hit which has the word pleasure. These spray painted words are a thoughtful provoking play that takes advantage and mocks the text of the oil company’s name. This play of words resulted in two very definitive expressions: “TOTAL pain” and “TOTAL pleasure”. It is not clear whether the artist is fulfilled by both or finds it difficult to contain them both. Tugbiyele expresses a tension or contradiction between experiences of pain and pleasure.
I am captured by this work and find it totally arresting noticing the mixed attitude of taking the good with the bad, something that I consider a warning to society and life lesson for me, personally. This is because of looking carefully at the hammer marks left on the TOTAL pain oil drum, the holes that were created left over oil residue to drip and spill onto the gallery floor. The dripping and spilling oil suggests tears, crying people that are wounded by the oil company. Also, as a material, the oil presents both a literal and figurative danger to its audience and the gallery. Whether this act is intended or not, it presents itself as dangerous in a gallery already known for igniting controversial flames.
Tugbiyele is a Nigerian-American artist born in Brooklyn, New York. She spent seven of her formative years in Lagos, Nigeria and occasionally visited Nigeria as a young adult. Her exhibition at the Goodman Gallery is titled Testimony, making it her first solo showing in South Africa and on the continent. In her biography Tugbiyele identifies herself as a “queer”, “multidisciplinary artist” and “activist”. Her work often uses activism concepts that interrogate gender, homosexuality and religion. For this showing, Tugbiyele uses her title as a solemn statement to communicate her concerns not only with migration, gender, homosexuality, socio-economic problems and social ills that are personal to her as a homosexual individual, but also the oil industry that are dangerous to underdeveloped, exploit and abuse people.
Tugbiyele’s concerns relate to other African artists. For example, when it comes to homosexuality and activism, my immediate reference closer to home is Zanele Muholi’s photography. Muholi describes herself as a “visual activist” who sees her artistic approach “as a journey to ensure there is black queer visibility [because] it is important to mark, map, and preserve our mo(ve)ments through visual histories for reference and posterity so that future generations will note that we are here.” In her photography, Muholi shows how her subjects have different and important life stories to tell especially about victimization and abuse by their communities.
What connects and makes works of Tugbiyele to Muholi relevant is the fact that, they both deal with homosexual issues confronting African countries. Although American, Tugbiyele is also Nigerian, a country that recently passed a law banning homosexuality. Tugbiyele has shared her views on the issue through different interviews talking about the impact this law has had on her. She says “a heightened state of fear gripped Nigeria’s queer community in the wake of the anti-gay laws…” This statement is important because it shows her position and activism against oppression of homosexuals in society, something Muholi is known about in her photographs about black homosexuals in South Africa. Tugbiyele’s exhibition is also a powerful statement. Having had the strength to put up an exhibition, shows the artist’s attempt at affirming and enforcing positive change.
In a series of different videos titled AfroOdyssey IV the Tugbiyele introduces the church as one of the systems to be interrogated. This interrogation is also represents through her drawings on parchment paper; a material made from processed skin. In my view the video is stronger and needs discussion. AfroOdyssey IV has a compelling performance by two females who are seen in different settings of the church in what looks like the aisle and front of the church also known as sanctuary. The two females walk inside to the centre of the aisle holding a long cloth sewed together. The colours of the cloth are those which represent the LGBT, arising from lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender, gay pride and signify life, healing, sunlight, nature, magic and the spirit. The church is empty, unlike on its usual Sunday morning service. Walking seductively down the aisle of the church the two females appear again. In the sanctuary one holds a veil and tries to capture the other – she resists – making the whole process look like the entrancing Paso Doble dance of Spain. Both scenes have the instrumentals of the piano, an organ and the violin. The church’s ornate decoration and adornments add a perfect setting for this staged performance that elevates this epic journey into an odyssey.
In AfroOdyssey IV, Tugbiyele questions religious oppression or discrimination against homosexuals performed by the church. As a conservative space of religion, the church has been recognized for expressing its opposition to homosexuality and same sex marriage. Here Tugbiyele interrogates the church as space and an institution with a community of people who are meant to be particularly inviting, spiritual and therefore non-judgmental.
Through my observation, the artworks presented by Tugbiyele emphasise space and the way in which space can be used to interrogate problems such as dangers of the oil industry and oppression of homosexuals in society and a church. As the video AfroOdyssey IV closes, this emphatic individual statement from Davis Mac-Iyalla captures my attention and it reads “…a significant change is happening to me right now and all those who cannot bear the fact that Davis is African and gay should just leave my space alone. My sexuality and faith are very important part of me. If you know me very well, you can tell that my spirituality and faith does not define me but I like talking about it until the world understands that we do not choose to be gay, we are born Gay.”
My only criticism is that, I feel this exhibition should have been in a space that is visible and more accessible, instead of a private and commercial gallery that is not known to many people espeically the African homoxesual communities. It is for this reason that it might have missed an audience it should have an impact on especially the majority that knows nothing about art and gallery systems. That being said the role of an artist activist is not to be silent.
Boakye, J. (2015) Nigerian-American LGBT Activist & Artist Adejoke Tugyele’s Queer African Spirit [Online] Available from: http://www.okayafrica.com/news/adejoke-tugbiyele-a-queer-african-spirit-nigerian-american-artist/ [18 October 2015]
Goodman Gallery. 2015. Adejoke Tugbiyele | AfroOdyssey IV. Available at: https://vimeo.com/133560552 [Accessed 28 September 2015]
Muholi, Z. 2012. Zanele Muholi’s Elements of Survival. In African Arts. 45(04)58-69