A Review of African Mobilities Lagos See Lagos, See the Future

African Mobilities Lagos, Exhibition Opening
© Goethe-Institut / Judith Häser

For anyone looking to escape Lagos, how about another Lagos? But in 2115.
 
That's the thrust of African Mobilities, the ongoing exhibition presented by South African curator Mpho Matsipa. She has brought a multi-form approach to imagining what Lagos is like a century from now. All at once, Lagos can be glimpsed from the sleek recesses of a VR device, seen on a screen and browsed within the pages of a graphic novel.
 

In this Lagos, the architecture is angular; Surulere has a mall; and Makoko apartments are lit boxes standing on stilts in the river. A subtly imaginative feature of this future is a luminous tip at the end of paddles. That it is wielded by inhabitants of Makoko points to the affordability of power or better conditions of living in the area.
 
Gone are the noise, the chaos, the crowded streets. Dreams can be negotiated, the language of dreams altered, AI speaks in pidgin and states of consciousness can be purchased.
  African Mobilities Lagos: Mad Horse City Exhibition, Opening © Goethe-Institut / Judith Häser To get all of this into digestible bits for a general audience accustomed to negotiating prices rather than consciousnesses, Matsipa brought the writer Wale Lawal and the visual artist Olalekan Jeyifous together. While the former furnishes the future of Lagos with quirky narratives of isolation, inequality and hope, Jeyifous paints the future-city’s landscape and architecture in hyperbolic hues. The blues are electric; the reds are incandescent; the whites are white indeed. The pair thinks of Lagos as the "Mad Horse City". As Lawal puts it, the city’s inhabitants have only two choices once astride this horse: "You either ride it or you die ". It's an admiring take, even with its note of caution.
 
Lawal's statement indicates that he's aware that the true Lagosian might complain but is reluctant to leave the city. What is more compelling is escape and return. It's perhaps not very surprising that there is an idea of escape built into the project, even as the vision shared by Jeyifous and Lawal is visibly dystopic. Asked if Lagos 2115 is a good place to live in for its residence, Lawal is noncommittal.
 
"It's neutral," he says with a smile.
 
Jeyifous is as noncommittal. Admitting that while he admits his vision leans towards the dystopic, he's also more interested in "exploring the tensions right now and how it evolves in the future".
 
At the event's opening on 12 October, the guests conveyed a favourable impression of the vision. It wasn't always so, says Matsipa. A previous iteration of Mad Horse City had provoked mixed reactions when it showed at the University of Lagos years ago. "Some people said because it wasn't western it was bad. Others said it was great." A lady had gotten so worked up over the exhibition that she queried the decision to have a narrative showing Lagos as a city yet to overcome inequality and struggling with less than ideal social conditions. The Lagos of the lady’s dreams was a model city—"despite indications that that won't be the case,” says Matsipa. Nonetheless, the current version of the exhibition had to be shown in Lagos. “It was important to bring it to Africa,” she says after showings in Philadelphia and Munich.
  African Mobilities, Lagos, 2019 © Goethe-Institut / Judith Häser The day after the opening, a wider Lagos audience got to see the exhibition under the Falomo bridge in Ikoyi. Passers-by stopped to watch and stayed, kids in the area waited their turn at the VR device, turning their heads this way and that, virtually inhabiting the future, taking in the colours and the novelty, unaware of the project's political undertone as conveyed by the exhibition’s subtitle: This is not a refugee camp.
 
As described by Matsipa, the future Lawal and Jeyifous have created is removed from the west, at least in theory—the vastness of technology has made the modern world inextricably connected. Nonetheless, a significant part of Matsipa’s mission as curator of the exhibition is helping her audience to stop seeing "the west as an object of desire".
 
Accordingly, one of Lawal's stories has Lagosians of the future worship a goddess of the river. There is no indication of Christianity or Islam. There is only traditional worship and technology. The bible is a tourist destination that can be sound-tracked in Yoruba. This lends the project a symbolic weight in cultural terms. The idea is political and, as Matsipa’s curator’s statement puts it, African Mobilities “seeks alternative practices, knowledges and subjects through a diverse range of spatial and artistic practices in the service of a larger emancipatory project”.
 
Thus, the exhibition probes the idea of the future given to us by popular organs of culture such as Hollywood and preaches, subtly, a decolonisation of the African mind. A significant part of the idea is the "reclaiming of our identity and dismantling colonialism," says Jeyifous.
 
It is highly probable that the adults seeing the exhibition understood the politics of African Mobilities. But under the Ikoyi night-sky, the kids tilting their heads, caught in a heady rapture, were probably oblivious to the underlying politics of what they were witnessing. They might not know that their vision has been altered, that the future is theirs. And yet, Matsipa has curated a world that enlarges their visons and, possibly, their subconscious.
 
Perhaps this is effective decolonisation: focused on the individual and the collective’s visions of the future and providing options to the material world via architecture. It is not quite a movement but, with African Mobilities, it is happening one city at a time.

African Mobilities Lagos: Mad Horse City Exhibition, Opening © Goethe-Institut / Judith Häser