(Slave) Market and Migration
The realism of Ndidi Dike’s installations is arresting. Its aim is to lay history bare. The Nigerian artist tackles the themes of slavery, the marketplace and migration with materials that include marine wood, consumer products and wire, employed in varying ways to embody both inhuman exploitation and equal exchange
For the artist Ndidi Dike, experimenting with found materials is the most direct route to a critique of her Nigerian context: ‘in Africa, a real artist has no choice about whether to engage with political issues or not. Our very existence is political, and it’s virtually impossible not to take a critical stance in your work, whether overtly or subliminally.’ So she says of the historical content of her work (Unknown Pleasures & Competing Tendencies catalogue, 2012). Since her first exhibition, Mixed Media Exposé, in 1986, and Explorations into Nature a year later, Dike has pushed at the boundaries between painting and sculpture. In 2008, she completed the transition to installation art, with Waka-Into-Bondage. Her work is internationally recognised and has been exhibited in locations including Lagos, London, the USA and Indonesia. At the 2015 Goethe Institute conference, Spaces of Displacement, in Lagos, Dike described the theme of slavery in her work as a call for the consideration of both old and new forms of forced migration. Her art is an attempt to counteract the inner displacement produced by losing touch with one’s origins, which can often accompany physical displacement.
ARTISTIC HISTORIOGRAPHYAfrica has always experienced large movements of people, predominantly within the continent itself, or to the lands of its former colonial rulers. The migratory experience is part of Ndidi Dike’s own identity as a Nigerian: she was born in England in 1960, and grew up there, before attending the University of Nigeria in Nsukka to study Music Education (voice) and Fine and Applied Art, specialising in ‘multimedia painting.’ She currently lives in Lagos. Inspired by figures like Nigeria’s first president, Nnamdi Azikiwe, and the academics Uche Okeke, Chike Aniakor und Obiora Udechukwu, and by the work of Chinua Achebe, Dike’s artistic development has been accompanied by a growing consciousness of her African heritage: ‘I started to be interested in African stories and culture, and I realised there were things that were self-evident to my contemporaries who’d grown up in Nigeria, that weren’t to me.’ Some of the titles of Dike’s works, such as Thirty-Six States, Convergence, Competition or Constitution, evoke the territorial changes and social restructuring experienced by Nigeria through its history, which she now explores in her art.
Dike attributes ‘a powerful historical meaning’ to her choice of artistic materials. At the start of each project, she allows the material space to express itself: ‘I usually leave the materials in my studio for a while, then gradually an idea forms in my head, and I start to try things out. It’s the material that speaks to me first.’ (Unknown Pleasures & Competing Tendencies catalogue, 2012). As Dike explores the aesthetic and conceptual properties of both traditional and more unconventional materials , be they acrylic paints, shipping crates or consumer goods, she also has historical perspective in mind: ‘I appropriate the materials in a way that avoids replicating their original function, but doesn’t totally negate their history. I hope that enables the observer to find the political references in my works, without these being verbalised or expressed explicitly.’ (ibid)
SLAVERY TODAY?Point of No Return in Badagry | Photo: © Claudia Cuadra
For her project Waka-Into-Bondage: The Last ¾ Mile (2008), Ndidi Dike followed the trail of colonial history in the Nigerian coastal town of Badagry, the so-called ‘point of no return’, where slaves lined up before making their Atlantic crossing. Exchange existed between Africa and Europe before colonisation, in the form of the trans-Saharan trade in gold, salt, and also slaves. But it is the transatlantic slave trade, to which millions of Africans fell victim up until the nineteenth century, which has become the paradigm for exploitative power structures. At the centre of Dike’s installation are two wooden boats, one filled with sugar, the other with a blood-red fluid. Dike explains in an interview with curator Bisi Silva: ‘the blood represents what was shed in the past, during and after the transatlantic slave trade, but also what is still being shed.’ The accompanying photo-montage of pictures of Badagry, historical documents and contemporary images of forced migration reinforces the continuity between past and present.
For Dike, the complex causes and effects of slavery ‘can be questioned historically in the sense of asking why we’re now seeing unprecedented levels of migration from Africa and the Middle East across the Mediterranean – the contemporary world’s most hazardous border – to Europe.’ Her African and Nigerian perspective informs her conviction that ‘slavery is still fundamental to the modern world, as well as to its history. Slavery has never really stopped. It’s just acquired new names, defined by the west, like human trafficking.’
In the object image Permeations (2010), Dike gives abstract, sensual form to the dynamics of migration. She weds together traditionally non-compatible materials like acrylics, metal containers, empty paint tubes and nets. Through these odd fusions, new hybrid identities emerge. Her use of acrylic-based waste products from Nigerian crude oil processing brings to mind a contemporary example of an exploitative social structure. Dike points out the irony of Nigerians ‘continuing to protest about slavery, while, amongst other African resources, human capital itself is being outsourced, to develop overseas countries, to the detriment of the African continent […] As usual, those in power in Africa are too willing to swap the wellbeing of their inhabitants for oil money. I fear that, without an understanding of history, we will never achieve lasting change.’ (Waka-Into-Bondage: The Last ¾ Mile, Catalogue, 2008).
COLONIAL VESTIGES IN THE MARKETPLACEWhile the dehumanising practices of the slave trade can be seen as distorted versions of the market, traditional market life, with its cultural diversity and shifting affiliations, is at the very core of African communities. For Ndidi Dike, markets are a treasure trove of practical and aesthetic possibilities:´The typical Nigerian outdoor market awakens all the senses: it’s an explosion of sights, sounds, smells, impressions. They flood together, the visitor gets caught up in the hectic pace of market life, and it feels as if they’re in a breakneck race against time, trying to take in everything around them. The stalls and the goings-on in a Lagos marketplace are characterised by colour, synergy and vitality. You see it in the products, the fabrics with custom-made designs, specific to different traditional cultures, the second hand clothes, the jewellery, the foods... The market women have ways of displaying their good that emphasise their aesthetic qualities, incite desire for them, and they interact directly with the customers to strike their deals.´
The collage-based installation Trace: Transactional Aesthetics, a joint project between Dike, Elia Nurvista and Temitayo Ogunbiyi for the Jogja XIII Biennale in 2015, presents the different trading practices and product aesthetics of Nigeria and Indonesia. Photographic images are re-purposed by Dike as installation, montage and abstract pictures. This aesthetic purification of the marketplace experience is intended to allow the viewer to interrogate its cultural, economic and social exchange processes. According to Dike, taking the example of food stuffs, factors like production, health, regulation, distribution and patent law ‘tend to be forgotten when we’re negotiating for, buying and consuming these goods.’
Trace gives special roles to the English tea tray, to currency, and to Nigerian export goods like cloves, peanuts and cocoa, as these evoke the shared colonial past of Nigeria and Indonesia. Dike however focuses less here on the aspect of exploitation, and more on the cultural threads woven through the politics of trade: ‘the ceremony of tea drinking is not western in origin – it’s a borrowed ritual that, changed and re-defined, was then introduced into other cultures with their own traditions of tea drinking, as form of cultural organisation. The idea of tea has become a connecting link between the different forms of trade in different cultures.’ The traces of colonial economic relationships extend into current consumer society and contemporary identities. And it is here that they can be questioned.
BETWEEN EXCHANGE AND EXCLUSION/MARGINALISATION AND SEGREGATIONNdidi Dike: They can´t stop migration (current project, Detail) | Photo: Ndidi Dike
In stark opposition to Dike’s marketplace installation, Trace, is her current project, They can’t stop migration. Here, she revisits the theme of forced migration the context of the European migrant crisis of 2015. In Trace, the visually alluring market goods clamour ’look how special I am! Take me!’ Dike’s installation on migration is a boundary fence that pushes the observer back. The material is barbed wire, as used at borders the world over, to keep immigrants out and delineate power relationships: ‘barbed wire is the visual and physical embodiment of border control and exclusion. It has become the symbol for DO NOT CROSS.
Dike’s barbed wire framework is populated by countless refugees, reduced to attempting to scale the structure. Its separating function collapses. Instead we witness the crossing of a border under inhuman conditions: ‘the belief that hordes of intruders can be prevented from infiltrating a country through its borders is no longer sustainable. Those barriers will be breached, pulled down and climbed over, in the desperate search for a new life.’ Ndidi Dike’s shift from exploring historical events to employing historically-loaded materials makes explicit the process of exchange that crossing a border entails. Her installations on slavery, market and migration highlight the tensions between the idea of forced migration and that of free migration, the self-determined search for change and exchange.