LAGOS, Nigeria – As the party gets underway, a stunning dark-skinned African woman stands quietly amid lively chatter. “She is an artist and an activist,” my friend explains. “She is a sculptor, a painter, an architect and a storyteller.”
My mind races to conjure up a perfect opening that might impress such a talented woman, but she is the first to speak. Her voice, low and modulated, transports me back to another evening at a new art space, Art Twenty One Lagos.
“Peju?” I exclaim.
A month earlier, the Nigerian Field Society invited its members to an evening with Peju Alatise and her newest exhibition Wrapture: The Story of Cloth. Peju walked into the art space unannounced.
Her throaty, passionate voice that evening, one month ago, had summoned us to gather.
“I am Yoruba,” she said, referring to the name of her tribe. “I am Nigerian.”
“But, I feel a strong disconnect with my birthplace,” she said.
“My art is my journey, my commentary is to question the hypocrisy within all societies and my country.”
I was fully engaged in listening to her impassioned eloquence. My eyes feasted on the massive, three-dimensional installment that erupted in a kaleidoscope of color. No longer just the artist, Peju was at the helm—the master storyteller—guiding us through the sheer complexity of each piece and her journey in creating it. Her voice rose in ferocity mirroring the turbulence in her work, and lowered in tenderness when recalling her personal voyage.
Peju got straight to the point. “I have a loud voice and I use it. My art gives me the freedom to reflect societies maladies. I must be brutally honest in hopes to shake and shock the viewer.”
The installments were powerfully vivid and provocative in their detail. The cloth was Nigerian print from the local markets, pulled, creased, draped, twisted, rolled and combined with beads, resin, paint and dyes to fashion stories, the narratives woven— sexuality, repression, Yoruba mythology, religion, abuse.
“In Yorubaland a piece of cloth is worn as a wrapper that covers a womanʼs body,” she said. “Generations ago, patterns and colors printed on a cloth identifies a culture and an ethnic group. Here, I use the cloth as a symbol of intimacy, privacy, spirituality, beauty, death, folklore and violation.”
Peju was asked if she is a feminist. “Hey, I live in a third world country. Just to be treated with respect in my country is an act of feminism,” she quipped. “Of course, Iʼm a feminist! But if I were a man I would still be a feminist! With all of Africaʼs problems, the least urgent is equal rights for women.”
Nine Year Old Bride was an installation meant to address womenʼs rights. A looming four meters high by two meters wide, the sculpture was covered with thirty-eight meters of fabric, draped and wound, to reveal female forms frozen in resin.
“I knew a girl who was forced to marry four husbands before she turned twenty,” Peju said outlandishly. “There are young girls employed as maids that are barely older than the children they are asked to care for. Nobody is fighting for these young girls, not even their mothers.”
Child brides in Nigeria outnumber all those in other West African combined, according to a Ford Foundation study issued last September. Child marriage is not illegal under Nigerian law and more than a dozen out of 36 states have not ratified the Child Rights Act of 2003, which sets the minimum age for marriage at 18.
In 2010, outraged Nigerians sparked a national debate when a senator, who allegedly married a 13 year-old Egyptian girl as his fourth wife, argued that Islam places no restriction on the age of marriage for a girl. (Egyptʼs Child Law of 2008 makes 18 the legal marriage age.)
“The practice came under scrutiny in July,” read a recent article in The Guardian, “when legislators tried to scrap a constitutional clause that states citizenship can be renounced by anyone over 18 or a married woman, apparently implying women can be married under 18.”
Nigeria ranks fourth out of 162 countries for its high rate of slavery following India, China and Pakistan, according to the 2013 Global Slavery Index. Modern-day slavery is defined as child marriage, human trafficking and forced labor, according to Walk Free Foundation, a non-profit initiative.
Peju teamed up with Art Twenty One Lagos and solicitor Edward Keazor to raise awareness of child abuse in a campaign called Child Not Bride. The drive held at the Eko Hotel on Victoria Island was to petition the United Nations to stop the Nigerian Senate from making underage marriage the law. To date they collected over one hundred thousand signatures.
“My voice is loud, my art is my truth. But the government seems oblivious and people seem not to care,” said Peju. “The majority of the populace is either trying to survive or [is] aggressively in pursuit of acquiring possessions.”
Peju is not idle in giving back to her community. She trains both women and men in sewing and beadwork hoping that mastering a craft builds self-esteem and some financial independence.
Other classes are also taught at various schools throughout Lagos.
“I think I make a difference to mostly the younger generation of artists,” Peju continued. “I am often invited to speak with students. I make myself accessible to them and offer training.”
Now, back at the party, as we stand among friends, I understand why I had not recognized Peju tonight. She had performed her art, weaving a tapestry of urgency and vitality, churning emotions, challenging norms and inspiring thinking at her exhibition one month ago.
Back then, I met the storyteller. And on this evening I am wrapped in the tale.
“All I have is my story, my truth,” Peju says gently in parting.
Lesley Lababidi is an author of Cairo’s Street Stories: Exploring the City’s Statues, Squares, Bridges, Gardens, and Sidewalk Cafés. She is based in Nigeria.