JELILI ATIKU is a Nigerian multimedia artist with political concerns for human rights and justice. Through drawing, installation sculpture, photography, video and performance (live art); he strives to help viewers understand the world and expand their understanding and experiences, so that they can activate and renew their lives and environments. For over a decade, Jelili has put his art at service of the prevailing concerns of our times; especially those that threaten our collective existence and the sustenance of our universe. The contents of these concerns ranging from psychosocial and emotional effects of the traumatic events such violence, war, poverty, corruption, climate change and others that are associated with our warring world have dominated his artistic forms. Born on Friday 27th September 1968 in Ejigbo (Lagos), Nigeria, Jelili was trained at Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, Nigeria and University of Lagos, Nigeria – Where he was awarded Bachelor of Arts (Fine Arts) and Master of Arts (Visual Arts) respectively. He is presently the artistic Director of AFiRIperFOMA – a collective of performance artists in Africa; and Chief Coordinator of Advocate for Human Rights Through Art (AHRA). Jelili has travelled widely and participated in numerous performances/exhibitions/talks in Africa, Asia, Europe and America. He is 2015 Prince Claus Laureates and was wrongly accused, arrested, detained in prison and trialed on the instance of his performance in public space in 2016; and also, in 2019 for protecting the indigenous Yoruba religion, Ìṣẹ̀ṣe. He was artist in residence/ Professor at Brown Arts Initiative/Department of Africana Studies, Brown University, providence, USA in 2018; and artist in residence at Thami Mnyele Foundation, Amsterdam in Netherlands in 2021. He is the President of Ejigbo Indigenes Forum (EIF) and Chairman of Community Development Committee, Ejigbo LCDA, Lagos.
Libretto: Tell us about your background. What was it like for you growing up?
Yes, I was born in 1968, during the Civil War. I lost my father when my mother was two months pregnant with me, and so I never met him. I grew up living with my grandparents and had my primary school and secondary school education in Ejigbo. It was after then that I went to Ahmadu Bello University to study fine arts in Zaria. My grandparents were Muslim. This meant I was brought up in an Islamic way. I believe this to be responsible for my hybrid growth in terms of how the Arab, Western, and Asian culture influences my worldview and artistry. By Asian, I got that through watching India and Chinese films. At some point, I also went to Quranic School.
Libretto: What made you decide to become an artist and sculptor?
Well, I think the decision was a natural occurrence. Initially, I didn’t aspire to become an artist. I wanted to become a lawyer. But something dramatic happened while I was in secondary school. There is this routine of having a morning assembly where all the students assemble in front of the principal’s office for the principal to address us. I was one of those students who often preferred to stay at the back of the line. One of my classmates jokingly called me, “my lawyer”. This came as a surprised to another of my classmate. This other classmate asked me “Why do you want to become a lawyer? You are very good in drawings and painting. You should read arts instead.” That conversation was like a magical moment for me. It basically triggered my determination to study art. I decided to read art after secondary school and graduated with specialization in sculpture. My specialization in sculpture is another story on its own. When you are in the university, when you get to 300 level that is when you go for your specialization. I wanted to become a painter. And so during this procedure, I requested to be assigned to painting class. Unfortunately, the school declined my request, in the belief that I’ll be better off reading sculpture. It felt like I was being compelled and I didn’t liked that. I wrote a petition on the situation, but to my dismay, the school didn’t change its decision. That’s how I ended up specialising in sculpture, and as fate would have it, I graduated as the best sculpture student in the sculpture section.
Libretto: Which of your artworks do you regard as your most challenging on an emotional and artistic level?
Well, on an emotional level, I will say a performance which I titled “Araferaku”, which is more of a personal memory. It’s in memory of my father, and deals with the absence and presence of love. Like I said, I never met my father. But because I have a tremendous love for him, I decided to do a performance in memory of him. And also he died during the Civil War. He was not buried in my community. My grandparents and my mother have no experience of where he was buried. And so, as of this moment, no one can say where my father was buried when he died. When he died, the army came to move his corpse and buried him somewhere unknown. So because of that, I did a performance where I created a sculpture of him and I went through the burial ceremony. That was more emotional to me and also to my mother. My mother cried throughout the performance. It’s also become like a healing. But the challenging one, I will say it is the one that has to do with the performance that I titled ‘Àràgàmàgò Will Rid This Land off Terrorism’. After the performance I was arrested and thrown into jail. I went through a rigorous judicial prosecution for six months, but I was eventually freed.
Libretto: In any exhibition you hosted have you ever sold all your artworks?
Well. You must understand that I don’t attach any financial value to my work, and so it becomes really more difficult. My first solo show in Lagos State was about prison congestion, and people rarely buy artworks of such nature. So I didn’t sell any. But recently, I did another solo show, and sold a lot of artworks at the show. But it was more commercial inclined because the exhibition was created for people who yearned to have some of my paintings.
Libretto: What’s your creative process like? Do you have any particular set of routines you indulge before getting to work on a piece?
I do my work with a strict and rigid artistic principle, which I call ancestral methods. In the ancestral method, I approach my work in an indigenous Yoruba artistic way, where first of all, I try to align myself within myself. I align to my energy, and in the process, it is like trying to understand more deeply, the context which I try to work with. In that process I went through an inner journey into the idea and researched the context itself, which takes me a lot of deep time. It’s a process that requires a lot of deep research and questioning. While I’m probing into the idea, and doing a lot of things, at the same time, I’m going into the stages of sketching out the idea, writing it down, and building on it. Then later I go into the stage of creating, which deals with the objects of the performance, such as costumes, and building the ideas into actions. Lastly, trying to align with the space which I want to work with is the most rigorous part of the process. So those are the stages and procedures I work with in my performances.
Libretto: Artists and sculptors generally tend to have ways to characterize or describe their style. How will you describe yours?
Well, I’m a performance artist. And that is the vocabulary which the art historians have carved out for that. But in a simpler way, I want to be seen as an artist that creates work. That is how I want to be described.
Libretto: Some artists and sculptors want to change the world with their art, while some want to make money, and while some want to do both. What kind of impact do you want your work to have on the world?
Change is relative; but I want to see my arts coming from the perspective of increasing in the sensitivity of my audience to understand the environment and the world which we live in. So that’s what I want to do. I want to open my work to conversation within the mind of my audience. And in that process, they should be able to arrive at a kind of meaning or understanding they want to relate with.
Libretto: Your works are intensely political. Your have many works that focuses on human rights and social justice issues with that do you think artists and sculptors have to be political if they want to be taken serious?
No, really, I don’t think so. All artists don’t necessarily have to be political in their works. I choose to be political because of my understanding that majority of the things that affect our collective life are being influenced by our political experiences and the political sectors of our life. Most of the pains that we go through in Nigeria, for example, or all over the world, are inflicted by the policies of the governments, the principles of the government, and all the things that the government pushes to our life. So that’s why I tend to concentrate more on that. And it’s just natural for me to talk about those things. I’m just being natural. I’m just being sincere to our own collective and personal experiences. So in a real way, it’s not necessary that every artist has to be political. No, it is not.
Libretto: You’ve been in the Nigerian art space for long. What are some of the barriers and challenges you have to overcome just to get to where you are today?
Nigerian artists face a lot of germane problems and barriers. I am an academic trained artist. I went to the university to train myself. If you have to go through a curriculum that is obsolete; a curriculum that, for example, that is focused on a European artist or artistry that teaches us about European arts, you’re likely going to be influenced by their methods and style. The irony is that European artists don’t talk about our own indigenous artistry, but over here students are taught to create art in the western way. That is the one barrier. The second barrier is funding. There is absolutely no funding for art in Nigeria and neither is there a great atmosphere where people write about our work. You have to become an art historian in order to write about your work and project yourself. Galleries are also not much. So the commercial aspect of art is not growing in the country. So those are the challenges that you have to face as a Nigerian artist.
Libretto: Do you interpret your artworks to your audience or do you rather leave them to critique and interpret your art as they deem fit?
I think it’s in both ways. If the time permits, some of my audience usually ask questions and I try to explain to them. But in my own principle of art, when you follow my work, you will see that most of the time the objects that I project out, and I collaborate with, most of them actually resonate with my audience. My works are designed in the way that my audience should be able to relate with the objects and also try to deduce meanings independently. I am open to conversation and these conversations are supposed to progress into them contributing with their own understanding of it. So, sometimes, it may not be necessary, and sometimes, it may be necessary. It all depends on the audience. And also depends on the space.
Libretto: Have you ever face challenges with people trying to ridicule or devalue your work?
Of course, sometimes I do. Especially in Nigeria here, where a lot of people want to see some of your works and then they say, “Wow! This is fetish!” Which is understandable because we are still battling with the effects of colonialism. Psychologically, we have been brainwashed in understanding most of the meanings of our visuals objects that have been demonized. So that is the challenges I’m facing most of the time, especially in Nigeria.
Libretto: Okay, so how do you face the challenges?
I try to create, I try to be who I am, and I try to do my work in understanding of the context which I’m working with. I leave my audience to decide what I want to do, what they want to see, whether they want to sympathize with their own understanding or they are trying to understand that I’m coming from an ancestral memory that is valuable. So if any of the audience wants to approach my work in that understanding, then good; and if they want to have an alternate understanding, then that is also fine by me. But the actual fact is that I am just an artist that does my own work.
Libretto: Apart from art what other profession would you have chosen? And what source of inspiration fuels your artwork?
I would have chosen to be a lawyer. But right now, I don’t think there is any other profession I would have choose other than art, because art in itself has a lot of fields. I’m also a poet. There are a lot of things in art which one can go. Even when you studied my arts, it has made me to become like an extended field of human knowledge.
Libretto: Some artists and sculptors find it difficult to sustain themselves, often because their family wouldn’t support their choice of art as a career. When you started how did your family react to you being an artist and sculptor?
Well, in that aspect, I think I want to see myself as one of the lucky ones. But of course, like I said, initially, my grandfather did not like that. I want to go and specialize in sculpture because of his Islamic influence. But along the line, he didn’t say anything. He didn’t give me any kind of hindrance. But the most important thing is, is for you to also determine what you want to do with yourself, with your life. I choose to be an artist and nobody influenced that for me. It was later on in the years that I got to know that my father was a musician. But that never influenced my decision to become an artist. It was my own decision. And so whatever I go through in the process, whether pain or happiness, I should be able to follow that. So I was predetermined to be an artist.
Libretto: So, finally, what are you working on next? What should we look forward to?
Well, you should look forward to seeing some of my works. I just did a performance in the just concluded Lagos Book, and Art Festival. I titled the performance, “Don’t Eat Garlic Near The Queen”. In January and February I will be in France and South Africa, where I want to make a performance titled “E Don Tey Wey We Dey”. So be expecting me to do more works.