We were thrilled last month when Peju Alatise was announced as the winner of the 2017 FNB Art Prize. Currently showing in Venice at the first ever Nigeria Pavilion, Alatise joins a growing list of recipients that includes Nolan Oswald Dennis, Turiya Magadlela, Portia Zvavahera, Uncles & Angels (Mocke J Van Veuren and Nelisiwe Xaba), Kudzanai Chiurai and Cedric Nunn. ArtThrob caught up with her at the Fair to learn more about her striking new installation.
ArtThrob: First of all congratulations on winning the FNB Art Prize! We’ve been fans of your work since seeing Missing at 1:54 and were delighted to get the opportunity to see it here. Is this your first trip to the JoburgArtFair?
Peju Alatise: No, and it’s definitely not my first trip to Joburg either, I’m a regular visitor.
AT: Can you elaborate a little bit about this installation and the idea behind the title (o is the new +)? It’s quite a harrowing experience being in the space with these tyres and writhing figures.
PA: So it’s very symbolic, with the connections to mob violence and innocent deaths. It’s suggesting that symbolically the tyre (the o) is a bit like the new crucifix. Generally it speaks about people’s quick resort to violence and the justification for violence through moral judgement. It’s about lynching. About five years ago in Nigeria there were four boys in the wrong place at the wrong time, who looked out of place, and who were lynched. It was a very public execution. They were stripped naked and smashed against concrete, tyres around their necks and burnt. For five years, it seemed that there was no justice for those four boys.
So I started the work and completed it in 2016, It took roughly two years to complete and the interesting thing is that on the day that it was announced that the work had won the FNB Art Prize, the court also announced that three people were going to be incarcerated for the murder of the boys. So that was quite interesting.
AT: Is there something about the idea of mobs that feels appropriate for the art fair frenzy somehow?
PA: Well it’s not quite the same thing, with art fairs there are a lot of individual perceptions of how to receive an artwork. Viewing an artwork is very personal. The mob mentality is thriving off of other people’s cowardly energy. One person is usually too cowardly to act so they need a mob to give that courage and to be able to exercise such violence. The art fair energy is a good, positive kind of energy.
AT: I absolutely love the artist statement on your website. Could you comment on your decision to approach it in that way?
PA: My artist statement which says that I’m an alien? [laughs] I really need to update it! I had an exhibition where I had that artist statement printed out on a wall and a school came to view the exhibition. One of the kids read it and believed everything. They were sure that I was an alien and every question I was asked was about the planet that I was from and if I did things like a regular human being; if I had alien friends.
The artist statement is how I essentially feel about being in this art world, the context of what it is and I often don’t feel like I belong, I always feel like there are labels attached to me that I don’t quite understand. Sometimes I can understand why people need to label things, but it’s just about how I feel about practicing in the art world and then describing it in a metaphorical way. I am a writer as well, so it is a way for me to write the story of my life.
AT: That’s probably my favourite thing about it, how literary it is. It’s a very unusual but apt way of accessing your work, especially if you think of something like Flying Girls, your work at Venice this year.
PA: So even though I do a lot of political work, I also like fantasy as a type of escapism. I try to give some of my characters an escape. It’s good for me when I have to reward a character with that. That particular work was essentially the story of nine year old Yoruba girl who is sold as a domestic servant – because they do things like that in Nigeria, it’s a modern type of slavery and it happens all over the world. It’s a global issue where girls are taken away from their homes and they are rented out as house keepers and sex slaves. So the story is about a particular nine year old girl who is rented out as a domestic servant for five years. So she lives in two worlds, in one she’s the housekeeper – washing, cooking, cleaning, fetching water, doing laundry – and when she goes to sleep she wakes up on another planet where she is invincible and can fly. She has the power to be and do whatever she wants to do.
There’s a scene in the book where she wakes up on the moon. She was looking for a friend and finds these sleeping shadows. She wakes them up and they all come to life. That’s what the Flying Girls installation at Venice was all about.
AT: So you have written a book about the installation’s story as well?
PA: I’ve written a book with the same title (Flying Girls), we’re just waiting for it to be published.
AT: You mentioned the sometimes uncomfortable way that the art world works on labels and categorising, so I’m interested in your thoughts on the art fair model as way of displaying art and as way in which people can encounter art.
PA: I think it’s a good model, but only if it is assisted by a culture and community that understand the significance of an art fair. It plays a cultural role, so it depends on the kind of art fair; if it’s an international or local one. I know that there’s the money aspect where there’s a trade that people buy, but it’s also a place where people can experience culture from elsewhere, you can experience another person’s ideology and another person’s life philosophy. I think that art fairs are supported by a certain kind of cultural attribute of the community that is hosting the fair.
AT: I find it interesting that the general public seem to feel safer in the context of an art fair as opposed to visiting galleries.
PA: I don’t feel safe in galleries either! The art world can be really bitchy and sometimes you encounter these very snobbish, nose in the air, stuck-up people who are very unwelcoming when you enter into a gallery. It’s as though they sniff the money and only respond to that. They are only interested in people who are willing to buy. Art fairs seem to me to be a more humane space to view art.
AT: There was an unfortunate delay in installing the piece at the fair; with it only arriving on Friday afternoon. Am I allowed to ask about your JoburgArtFair installation’s ‘challenging’ journey to Sandton or is that a ‘no comment’ question?
PA: No, I’ll tell you. It’s been all kinds of trouble from incompetence to bureaucracy. First of all there was a public holiday for five days in Nigeria and even though we had paid for it to be on the cargo plane, SAA wouldn’t pick up my work during those five days. Apparently Nigeria is on the list of High Risk countries, so when it got to South Africa, customs wanted to be sure that I wasn’t hiding people or drugs inside the sculptures, so that took extra time. I’m glad it made it!
AT: Absolutely, it’s such a powerful work. There was an interesting kind of silence –resonance – in its absence though.
PA: A friend of mine saw it when there were just the chains hanging there and said “Oh Peju, you’ve gone very minimalist! That’s very unlike you, I’m very impressed. You’re always very loud and forceful”.
It wasn’t an experience that I liked. I had a show in Geneva that was titled ‘Lost’ and my work actually got lost. It was lost for about five to six months. It never made the show; there was a time when we were told that it was on a truck in some Northern part of Turkey. It was returned to Lagos eventually, but I remembered during the night at the opening finding the irony that ‘Lost’ was lost hilarious. This time wasn’t funny at all, because it had a strong political statement that I wanted to make here because the issues are not peculiar to Nigeria. I’ve read in the news that lynching also happens in South Africa, so I viewed it as a space of common ground where there could be a conversation about it. I wasn’t happy about potentially missing that opportunity.