If you have ever lived in Lagos, you would agree that some of its most striking features are the speed with which the city moves, the swarming population it contains, along with their diverse backgrounds and lofty dreams. Lagos is at first unnerving to a newcomer because of the bubbling chaos threatening to spill out at every turn. Yet, there is something about this city, with its exuberance and clutter, that is irresistible to anyone with a knack for urban living. With its yellow buses and many bridges, waterscapes, and open markets, the city is alive. An intriguing mystery courted by many, Lagos continues to unveil itself to its dwellers and visitors alike through its stories.
Snippets of some of these stories have somehow made it to gallery walls and exhibition spaces, created by artists who call this city home. From photos and paintings of historical buildings, to the audible daily struggles of transient communities, to the effects of censorship on the minds of young people, contrasted against the beautiful pattern and repetition of our organic and built environments, these artists – Logo Oluwamuyiwa, Emeka Ogboh, Polly Alakija, Ayọ̀ Akínwándé, Patrick Akpojotor, and Tosin Oshinowo – working across diverse media, touch on the complex pressures of life in Lagos, while beckoning us to grapple more honestly with what must change.
Logo Oluwamuyiwa Monochrome Lagos (2013– )
One of the ways Lagos stands out is in the stark, vibrant colours it wears. They leap at you from the yellow danfo buses, towering electronic billboards flashing colours at intervals, of corporate brands determined not to be forgotten, (un)fashionable commuters, and everywhere else. While these colours are partly responsible for the charged spirit the city embodies, Logo Oluwamuyiwa or Logo, as he is popularly known, explores the possibilities of what Lagos may look like without them, in his series titled Monochrome Lagos.
An ongoing project, primarily documented online, Monochrome Lagos began in 2013 as a means for the artist to explore unusual finds by seeking beauty in forms, lines, patterns, and textures in the absence of colour. In this, he succeeds. We see everyday faces frozen with emotions that would have been too slight to notice, and we view familiar spaces with renewed awareness. In one of the photos from the series titled Solace under the Third Mainland Bridge (2014), a man reading a book is sitting at the foot of one of the many columns supporting the famous Third Mainland Bridge, once the longest bridge in Africa. What are the odds of finding a man reading underneath a bridge over water, that grants passage to millions of working-class professionals who travel back and forth daily? What is his story? I continue to wonder. Could the reader also be nursing a dream of his own to journey down the bridge to work someday? But sometimes, I think the best thing about the art of photography is in unlikely coincidences such as this. In many years to come, I have no doubt in my mind that this project will reveal itself as an archive bearing the truth of what was, in this ever-evolving metropolis.
Emeka Ogboh Lagos Soundscapes (2008– )
Emeka Ogboh collects live sounds to tell stories of his homeland, Lagos. Based in Berlin for some years now, it is quite telling how this long-running series Lagos Soundscape, may have emerged from a need to constantly connect with home. I cannot quite remember where I first encountered Ogboh’s work. Perhaps it was at the Dak’Art Biennale of 2018, or elsewhere, outside of Nigeria, as memory fails me now. I remember however, being in a space allotted for his presentation. There was a screen with coloured waves that moved in response to the sound that came rushing through the headphones placed over my ears. These sounds were all too familiar: the beckoning calls from a danfo bus conductor, random conversations from passers-by in Yoruba dialect and pidgin English, rush-hour traffic and, of course, the blaring horns from impatient drivers. I was immediately taken back to Lagos.
These sorts of sounds are guaranteed to be experienced in his works nearly every time. Ogboh does little to the sounds he collects, but enhances them enough to yield interest, curiosity, and even nostalgia depending on who is listening. In unfurling the layers of his work, we recognise the glaring socio-economic divides and other socio-cultural variables that pervade a highly capitalist city such as Lagos. Ogboh recently released a five-track LP this January. Titled Beyond the Yellow Haze, it includes recordings that sample and blend soundscapes from Lagos. These tracks torn between finding a genre via hip-hop, jazz, or even afro beats, were formerly integrated into an installation he made for his first solo exhibition, No Condition Is Permanent, which took place in Paris at the Iman Fares Gallery in 2018. With Ogboh, one can only imagine how far he would explore this never-waning attention with Lagos. I always worried about the accessibility of such an important work as this, but much to my surprise and delight, it was refreshing to encounter his work in a more decentralised form, outside of exhibition spaces, on an everyday music app like Deezer. Then again, this could be Ogboh’s understated attempt to take a jab at the capitalist structure, which not only bears heavily on the city of Lagos but on the global art scene as well.
Polly Alakija The Falomo Bridge Project (2017)
On a portion of Lagos Island is a small area called Falomo. There, a major bridge – Falomo Bridge – runs through, connecting to other parts of the island. Beneath that bridge is a transitional space: a point of arrival/departure but also, mostly a place to hide from the sun or wait for the day to pass. In 2017, British muralist Polly Alakija was commissioned to paint the columns of the bridge, as part of a beautification project by the Lagos State Government. Polly Alakija arrived in Nigeria in 1989 to live with her now late Nigerian husband. Since then, she has called Nigeria home and gradually become renowned for her distinctive paintings on danfo buses, Volkswagen Beetles, and even rickshaw tricycles – all significant identifiers of urban life in Lagos. The commissioned painting by Polly under Falomo Bridge is of girls with Northern Nigerian distinction, showing different emotions on their faces. Fear, sadness, shock, and weariness are some of the underlying expressions. This comes as no surprise since the painting was an homage to the 276 Chibok girls kidnapped in April 2014. The kidnapping of these girls led to the birth of the Bring Back Our Girls movement that protested against a lazy response to the abduction by the federal government. Protests took place in Abuja and Lagos, for years. In a 2019 interview published online with Visual Collaborative about her concept for the commissioned site, Alakija said, ‘With the kidnapping of the Chibok girls this space became intrinsically linked to the BBOG (Bring Back Our Girls) movement. It was clear to me that any visuals in this space that did not acknowledge the suffering of these girls, and many others and their families, would be disrespectful.’1 In such a space where life moves too fast and people are too caught up in their own problems to be concerned, the painting of those faces was an ideal response to the recent history, an event that should never be forgotten.
Ayọ̀ Akínwándé, Power Show I (2018)
Ayọ̀ Akínwándé started out as a photographer but has abandoned his camera to devote himself entirely to art. ‘I needed something very three-dimensional, that would give me a wider palette to experiment with, and photography wasn’t enough. I’m not a fan of printing images and putting them on the walls, because they feed into this idea of transactions. So, how can I go beyond that?’ he said, in a casual conversation with me a few months back.
As such, the political tone of Akínwándé’s work, Power Show I, which was exhibited at Omenka Gallery, Ikoyi, Lagos in 2018, seems to have emerged from his need to be ‘more’, as a socially conscious artist. This work examines the nuances of the word ‘power’ in the Nigerian context, where electrical power cuts are a daily occurrence and fuel shortages are common for a nation whose primary export is crude oil. On a random street in Lagos on a random night, one is sure to encounter a bevy of humming power generators supplementing the government’s responsibility. And this applies to an absurd degree, even in highbrow areas around the country.
Akínwándé’s presentation for Power Show included a performance in which he wore a shirt he made from found electronic paper bills, with an analogue electricity meter on his face. Wheeling a generator around Ikoyi, a prime residential area for the Lagos elites and upper class, his performance – however laboured and intensive – reflects the pain and suffering of the masses due to an inadequate supply of power. So Akínwándé’s need to address this is not only a call to the government but also the masses, who seem numb to this suffering that has become so normalised.
Patrick Akpojotor, There Was a Time (2019)
In 2017, masterful multimedia artist Patrick Akpojotor was deeply disturbed by the aggressive displacement of residents of the waterfront slum community of Otodo Gbame in Lekki by the State Government. In the remarkable cubist style he is known for, he channelled his frustrations into creating works in the form of paintings, drawings, and wood sculptures, in which he portrays buildings with human features and emotions. The works created from this event would later form the basis for his exhibition titled If Walls Could Talk, a multimedia exhibition comprising painting, drawing, and sculpture shown at The Wheatbaker Hotel, Ikoyi, in 2019.
One of the drawings titled There Was a Time (2019) shows an amorphous figure drowning in nostalgia, who comes across as frail, trying to document or recall something. This work suitably reflects the painful experiences of displacement.
Growing up in the megalopolis of Lagos, Patrick Akpojotor was fascinated by the names of streets and buildings, and started playing with the personification of abandoned buildings that harbour silent memories of forgotten people and historic events, as perceived in many works in this series. Akpojotor now takes sustainable development goals into account by addressing challenges of ‘inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable’ spaces for human development and by exploring how architecture and our environment influence individual and collective identities.
Tosin Oshinowo, Ilé Ilà (2017– )
On Ikorodu road, near Anthony Village in Lagos, is a distinct black-boxed building functioning as a mall. Although not as remarkable in size as one would expect of a mall, its appeal lies in its structural design. This building in the form of a big black box is unlike any other in Lagos and it was designed by renowned architect and designer Tosin Oshinowo. With strong ties to the art scene, Oshinowo is an artist who has sometimes served as one of three curators for the 2019 Lagos Biennale, and as a consulting designer for one of the most remarkable artist studios in Lagos, owned by contemporary artist, Victor Ehikhamenor. The studio would later be featured in Netflix’s famous series, Amazing Interiors.
With design, Oshinowo shines brightest. Along with distinct functionality, she likes her designs to bear elements of her culture and surroundings, consistently making connections to her direct culture – Yoruba or Lagos – where she has left her mark over the years. For instance, in a design collaboration with Lexus for Design Miami 2020, she partnered with Ghanaian artist and designer Chrissa Amuah to create headpieces, drawing on some West African influences. With her furniture line called Ilé Ilà, Oshinowo incorporates the Yoruba Aso-Oke (a ceremonial fabric synonymous with countless Lagos occasions and milestone parties) with upholstery, to create the most striking, vibrant, and textured furniture pieces. Some of the chairs in particular are clearly designed to be attractive, due to the striking intentionality of the lines, patterns, and colours. Oshinowo continues to make further forays into her interests in the arts, blurring the lines between labels and titles so long as her ability carries her.
There’s a colloquial phrase in pidgin English about Lagos: ‘Lagos na wa!’ This exclamation of wonder is said to convey the inexhaustible yet rare possibilities that abound in the city – be it the good, the bad, or the ugly. And I suppose this is one of the most rewarding things about Lagos in relation to its residents. It is as permissive as it is unforgiving. For anyone who encounters any of these works, they would find traces of these wonders, either lurking or glaringly apparent, as well as the undying commitment of these artists to not only document fleeting, fascinating moments but to also advocate for the kind of Lagos that is almost completely enviable.
Roli O’tsemaye is a writer, art critic and curator with a keen interest in design, experimental art, and cultural archiving. She has previously worked in communications, content research, and acquisitions for several television and film companies in Lagos, Nigeria.
Her writings on contemporary art were first published in 2016 in The Sole Adventurer digital magazine. She was a co-curator of a group photography exhibition for the 2019 Ake Arts and Book Festival titled What Lies Beneath.
As an art writer, she has contributed to several gallery publications, and freelanced as a contributor for various local and international art magazines including Art Dependence (Belgium), Visi Magazine (South Africa) and Sugarcane Magazine (United States). She is currently a staff writer and a visual and editorial coordinator at TSA Art Magazine.