Monday, August 12, 2013


Performed by Folashade Adebayo, Kemi Aderinto, Taiwo Aiyedogbon, Ruby Onyinyechi Amanze, Simi Dosekun, Ema Edosio, Kimberli Gant, Wura-Natasha Ogunji, Mary Oruoghor and an Anonymous Stranger

We are facing the sea. It is a cloudy day at Bar Beach and we are sitting on raised platforms looking out over the Atlantic. This place is fast becoming Eko Atlantic, a planned extension of the city constructed on reclaimed land; developers describe it as 'the new financial epicentre of West Africa.' It feels like a science fiction novel--creating land from sea. A god-like arrogance fuels the project. Humans are drawn to epic feats and Lagos is a city of extremes and exaggeration, so why not here? City workers tend the sand. Police officers sit waiting. They will yell at anyone who attempts to walk onto the beach, especially lovers who dare to take photographs by the shore. This place is only open for public holidays and barely even that.

Such a feat does not happen in a vacuum of course. In August of 2012 an ocean surge pulled 16 people to their deaths and flooded parts of the island. Scientists and critics attributed the sea swell directly to the project. And earlier this year a teacher tells me of how her student is now homeless because of the Eko Atlantic. Bulldozers came to remove the shacks on the beach and now many people are without shelter. The arrogance of politicians and businessmen. I have never understood this, the math of people's lives, that you can exchange one thing for another as if they are equal, as if Eko Atlantic is greater than or equal to the dignity of humans, is greater than or equal to homes, is greater than or equal to the efforts of a father who lives on the beach with his family and works hard to send his child to the French school because he knows it will make her life better than his own. Greater than or equal to. Humans are so terribly arrogant. Or perhaps it is pure lack of imagination that prevents the developers from taking care of the people affected by the project.

Image: Ema Edosio

And then there is us, Queens, a group of four artists making performance under a cloudy sky. It began with a story. I asked artist Ruby Amanze to write a score or directions or impressions about Nigeria that would become a public performance piece. (See Palestinian artist Emily Jacir and American artist Clifford Owens). Ruby writes: I think about worship. What it means to worship something or someone. I think about worshiping oneself. Being god-like somehow. I see a throne. Women can’t sit on those here. But what if? And a crown. Something about wrapping your hair with one of those traditional, elaborate, crunchy fabric headwraps. But the fabric is super long. Awkwardly long and maybe heavy. And the wrapping takes forever and makes your arms tired. And then your head gets a little wobbly as a result of the weight. But it’s still a crown.

For the performance we sit on raised platforms wearing sky-high crowns. We are queens for a day, attached to each other by a length of aso oke. The crowns are awkard, they wobble on our heads. They are at once regal and not. Ruby and I begin the piece. After about an hour we trade places with two other performers, students from Yaba Tech who are now fully committed to the practice of performance, Mary and Taiwo. We fit the crowns to their heads and step down onto the beach.

My friend Connor walks up and asks for the name of the gele knot near the top of the crown. My sister, Folashade has tied it. She replies, Afojusoko, face the husband. He laughs, let's call it Afojusokun, face the sea. I love my people.

I ask Ruby what the experience was like for her. “Facing the sea I was thinking, this is all mine.” I was thinking the same thing. But we are thinking so much more. This is all mine. I am thinking about history and conquest, the slave trade, colonization, land, property. But more importantly I am thinking, “This is all mine, meaning what I see and what I imagine is all mine. I can make it whatever I want it to be.” And in this pause from the chaos of Lagos, we are here staring out at the sea and while we wear these crowns whatever we imagine is ours.

Other women wear the crowns throughout the afternoon. One of the beach police officers is extremely excited when I ask her if she would like to participate. And later a stranger sits confidently with the wrapped fabric atop her head. She is quiet and smiling.

Near the end of the performance Ruby and I once again wear the crowns. We decide to stand up during the final moments. There is commotion on the beach. My sister tells me that there is an oga that is higher than the police officers we bribed. He works for Lagos State and wants us to stop performing immediately. From the raised platforms Ruby and I stare at each other. The small arguing crowd comes closer. We hear the oga say, “I don't want you to get the impression that I'm a bad man.” One of the police officers says it's time to come down. I look at the non-existent watch on my wrist. Ruby and I are still staring at each other and now we are laughing. I'm wondering if we will be physically pulled off of the platforms. It's about 5:35pm now. I actually thought we might get kicked out much sooner. We continue laughing while also maintaining our composure. We are queens after all. Someone in the crowd says, “They're praying.” This brings the arguing to a halt for a moment and buys us time. “Oh, they're praying, well, let them finish praying and then they can come down.” More laughter from the queens.

Image: Soibifaa Dokubo

A friend see the photographs from the performance. She couldn't be there but is so excited about the piece. She tells me, “You know women go through so much in this society, but I love how when a woman puts on that crown, in that moment she feels untouchable.” That's exactly what it feels like to face the sea while wearing a crown that is connected to another woman wearing a crown and facing the sea. Untouchable.