Peju Alatise: a storyteller and her committed art

There are some interviews you don’t want to end because of the depth of your interviewee. Their answers are substantiated and illuminating. You leave such meetings excited because your reader would enjoy the conversation as much as you do. This was my experience with the interdisciplinary artist, architect and author Peju Alatise, who turns 50 next year.
Alatise has been there. In 2017, she was selected as one of the exhibiting artists in Nigeria’s debut pavilion at the Venice Art Biennale. That same year she won the prestigious FNB Art Prize. She was selected as an exhibiting artist for the Venice Architecture Biennale 2020. She participated in Frieze Sculpture, London, in 2022 and had a solo exhibition at Rele Gallery, London, from February 22 to March 23, 2024. Our conversation naturally started with the last show in London before exploring other parts of her creative process. To enjoy.

CONGRATULATIONS on completing your latest show, ‘We Came with the Last Rain’, at Rele Gallery in London. How did you feel after the exhibition ended?

I always feel like myself. You complete one project and move on to the next. That is the natural state of affairs.

What feedback, if any, have you received about the exhibition?

I don’t go out of my way to get feedback. We had a great opening reception and people were excited and inspired by what they saw.

Then I went back to my studio to work. I don’t go looking for what people say. But at the opening I saw happy people who said they were inspired by my work and enjoyed the exhibition.

Nana Sonoiki told me in an interview in 2021 that you create fantasies for the girl child and everyone to forget their problems. She said this was the inspiration for the joint exhibition Escapism, organized by her gallery. Please tell me more about your creative process and goals. Is it art for escapism or social commentary/criticism, as seen in some of your works?

It’s all of the above. In the press release for ‘We Came with the Last Rain’ I talked about what the show was about. It included Yoruba mythology, socio-political commentary and personal experiences. There is folklore, Yoruba cosmology and mythology.

Socio-political commentary? There has been a centuries-long debate about whether art should be art for art’s sake or social art. Some people argue that it should be art for art’s sake and that an artist has nothing to do with social commentary or criticism.

That’s a lot of stupidity. They need to understand what art is. Anyone who makes this statement does not know what art is and needs to learn how art functions. The artist’s job is to reflect the times we find ourselves in, the zeitgeist of the moment. It is the artist’s job to explain to the layman how to perceive what is happening around him. We create very abstract ideas and events that are difficult to digest.

Our job is to encapsulate it and make it easier for the layperson to understand and digest. Things you look at but never digest. An artist will show you how to see it better. That’s our job. He is an uncivilized person who says he cannot comment because what brings civilization is art. We can see that all the various Roman, Egyptian and Mesopotamian empires were civilized through the evidence of art. Because of the things they created that tell their story. The Egyptian hieroglyphs. You see the drawings, and then it tells you about their civilization. Isn’t it all written there? It’s all written on the walls, on all their monuments.

So how can you say that the artist has nothing to do with talking? Isn’t that why we know they are civilized? Isn’t that how we see they had machines? Isn’t that how we know they had a world political order? Based on the evidence of what their artists drew for us.

Any updates on your Child Not Bride campaign?

That was in 2012, 2013. Unfortunately, only a few things have changed. It wasn’t just about Child No Bride. It was about the protection of the girl child. In Nigeria, a person can hire a nine-year-old girl as a maid instead of going to school. They trade these children like meat in the markets.

You and I know this happens. It’s no secret. Who speaks for these children? We need to expose social ills so that we can create a platform where people can talk about them. That’s my goal. Put it on a platform so people can discuss what’s going on. As the world evolves, as things around us evolve, our arts also talk about new things.

But unfortunately, child abuse has not stopped. Nearly 300 children were recently kidnapped in Kaduna before being released. The Chibok Girls were kidnapped ten years ago and half of them are still missing. It would be my wish that I never have to do anything about the abuse of children; it would be because we have evolved and left all that nonsense behind. We are better people and have stopped child abuse, but as long as we’re still doing it, I’m inspired to talk about it.

Is the ANAI Foundation still functional, especially since you are in the UK?

It took a lot of work to find someone to run it. I had to shut it down for the first few years because I didn’t have the right people to run it. A few artists have come to me asking to use it. As long as I trust them and see what kind of work they want, I’ll let them do it. Some artists use the place. An artist is coming to use the facility later this year. It’s for people who are inspired to create something and need a place to execute it.

Why did you move to Britain?

Let’s call it an expansion and not a move. I’m expanding. Sometimes it can feel like you’re in one place; you are not growing the way you want to grow. On our life journey you want to experience this part of the world, that part of the world. I come to Nigeria very often; I spend a lot of time in Nigeria. I was in the country at the end of January. I can’t call it a move; it is expansion. I wanted to expand the company. I wanted to create more international markets.

Peju Alatise A storyteller and her committed art
Installation of When It Rains, I’ll Send For You by Alatise

Can you compare your practice in both countries?

There is infrastructure here. Specific ideas can arise more easily for me here than in Nigeria. There are pros and cons. In Nigeria, we are goalscorers. We save time. We are great producers, as long as our energy is channeled properly. I like that even if we are limited in our materials, we will still produce something extraordinary. The possibilities here are great. There are also limitations.

Although you have all the materials, you may need more money to access certain materials or facilities because they are expensive. Glasgow is cold sometimes. It is so cold that it is difficult to work. So you’re looking forward to summer. My plan was always that if it is too cold to work in Britain, I would work in Nigeria. In Nigeria, it starts raining when May or June comes, and your paint doesn’t dry. Then I do my work in Great Britain.

Your works are always delicate, fragile, even and clear and need space to fully express themselves. How do you come up with them? Are you worried about how they might turn out?

It works in many ways. Sometimes I see the end before I even start. But I have to see something. I have an image in my mind. Then I have a blueprint to work with. Things get easier. Sometimes I see them in fragments.

It’s always a pleasant surprise when everything comes together. Sometimes you can have a great idea, but the materials aren’t there, so you have to change something and use something different.

Regarding torment, I will not use the word torment. I use the word pressure instead of torment. Sometimes I’m under pressure to see a new idea. And then sometimes I see a new idea, and I’m under pressure to produce it, because my mind doesn’t settle until I’ve done it.

You use different media, but do you have preferences?

No, I don’t. It depends on what you’re doing. My favorite medium is the story because all works have a story. What is important to me is that I have a good story. Often the story is the beginning of the idea. Sometimes I see something in my head, but I don’t know the story.

Sometimes I start it, and as I go along, the story comes to me as I’m producing it. Sometimes I have to trust my instincts or intuition. Often the story comes first, so I would say storytelling is my favorite medium.

Is this why you infuse your stories with your Yoruba culture?

Have you ever met your grandmothers? Didn’t you enjoy listening to their stories? I loved listening to my grandmothers. I am fortunate to have been able to spend time with both of my grandmothers. They were fantastic people. They loved their grandchildren and told us stories.

The first time I saw you was at a literary event, maybe after you published Oritameta. Are you still writing?

I’m still writing because ‘Silifat’, a short story book, was only (published) last year. Like I said, my favorite medium is storytelling. So even when I produce art, I write the stories that inspire the work. It will always be part of what I do.

Your career is interesting: architecture, art, writing. How come God put such a talent in just one person?

(Laughs) Very funny. Hmmm.

Why do you say hmm?

It’s because it’s profound. Every person is capable of great and mighty things, but many of us are still asleep. We must wake up to our power. Once you become aware of your purpose, there is nothing you want to do that you can no longer do.

What woke you up?

I am awake by God’s grace. Every day I pray for guidance. Even though I’m almost 50, it’s never too late. According to some people, time is a social construct. Time only exists in clocks. I learn so much about myself.

Man, know thyself…

Where. That is one of the most beautiful things ever said: ‘Man, know thyself’. We can give life and destroy, build and destroy. If you know the power that dwells within you, there is nothing you cannot overcome. One of my favorite Shakespeare quotes is “To thine own self be true.” When you are true to yourself, it means you know yourself.

What are you currently working on?

Normally I don’t feel like talking about what I do. I’m doing a retrospective. When I’m 50, my career will already be halfway. I want to do a retrospective to see where I started and where I am now.

When you’re not working, what do you do?

I am now learning to relax again and sleeping is my favorite. I eat well and sleep. If I get the chance, I sleep as much as possible to recover.

READ ALSO: EXPLANATION: Why NOUN graduates are not eligible for NYSC