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Exploring processes, gestures and enactments of history and art making at the 2024 Lagos Biennial

The fourth edition of the Lagos Biennial is on until the 10th of February and has taken over a politically charged site with a layered history, Tafawa Balewa Square. Culture commentator Nkgopoleng Moloi talks with its founding Artistic Director, Folakunle Oshun.

By Nkgopoleng Moloi
Lagos Biennial founding Artistic Director, Folakunle Oshun

Nkgopoleng Moloi: It’s probably very busy at the moment — I appreciate you taking the time for this interview.

Folakunle Oshun: Compared to the beginning of the Biennial, when it was founded in 2017, this edition is on a larger scale. And so it’s more demanding mentally, physically, especially that human relations element – having to work with so many people to build something.

NM: Can you tell us about the scale of this year’s edition?

FO: We decided to move to this huge venue [Tafawa Balewa Square] and that required an army of people to work to get things done. In the last couple of weeks, artists started coming to town. And so the operations part of a biennial became pronounced —accommodation, production. You just breathe and hope that something magical happens, but those elements had to be in place for there to be an opportunity to create something that will resonate for years to come.

Drone view of Tafawa Balewa Square Lagos

NM: Interestingly, you mention organising. My view of curatorial work completely changed when I realised that part of being a curator is being an organiser and administrator, over and above the cerebral work that requires research. But tell me, what do you think the impulse is to do this work – to have a biennial?

FO: The impulse for me or motivation over the years has changed. From the onset, it was just the question of ‘can we do a biennial?’ It was always an idea floating around. It was about being able to steer a narrative towards less commercial and more conceptual conversations. Towards ideas and research. It was also a hunger to try things, to attempt, to see, to scratch the surface and see if there’s anything. A biennial is just a format. It’s like a platform or a grid, a matrix. I thought, ‘Let’s attach ourselves with an existing format or frame and see how far we can climb. Let’s see if there’s anything that we can bring through the Lagos biennial.’ These two really powerful forces, two powerful phenomenons; Lagos as an eccentric and energetic place and the institution of a biennial and what it has become over a century, became a way to navigate the political past of this space specifically. And right now it has become a place to compare notes and see how other people have dealt with their histories, which are similar to that of Nigeria, West Africa, to other parts of Africa. It’s become a place to create heritage in a certain sense. I use the word create very loosely because a lot of the people who show the work here do not necessarily feel that they are creating heritage but are rather reflecting processes and gestures and enactments.

NM: Can you tell us more about the site where most of the activities are taking place, Tafawa Balewa Square? Can you speak to its significance?

FO: Tafawa Balewa was the first Prime Minister of Nigeria. The square used to be a racecourse where the British used to bet on their horses from around 1858. In 1960, Nigeria celebrated its Independence Day in this very square. When the Civil War happened, the military government that replaced the civilian government covered the ground in concrete, built terraces and towers and it became like a military-powered ground – a watch tower. This very militarized district. Since then it has become a commercial space that is used for concerts, weddings and so on. This is the first time, in a long time, that anyone is taking up space for an art project, outside of Festac ’77. Tafawa Balewa was one of the venues used for Festac ’77 [a major international festival held in Lagos, Nigeria, from 15 January 1977 to 12 February 1977]. The site has that cultural significance.

The square was a British racecourse around 1858, the site for Independence Day celebrations in 1960, a military-powered watch tower in the civil war and is now used for events

There are all these layers in a space where pre-colonialism was just swamp or water. There are myths that, you know, it used to be a shrine and the shrine is now underground. And so you overlay the shrine with a race course for leisure and betting, and then you lay that with concrete from the military power ground and then with political events that happen during democracy. There are so many points of connection and references that make it significant.

An installation view of Raul Jorge Gourgel and Sandra Poulson’s Plastic Broken Chairs, Juxtaposed (2019) at Lagos Independence Building

NM: How does the Lagos Biennial deviate from the grid/ framework that a typical biennial offers?

FO: The Lagos Biennial is artist-run. It has no structural funding. The origins of the biennial started with private money from my art sales. So there was zero external control and there’s still zero external control. Even though we have an advisory board, there’s no state control. The contrast is, that it takes place in one of the most economically charged cities in all of Africa. It’s a very contested space – economically and culturally. Lagos is a place where every square inch is contested, and then you have something that has this much potential and it is growing, and everybody wants a piece of the pie, right?

NM: Yes. What is the hope for what the biennial can achieve?

FO: The highest quality of ideas and creativity that the next generation can look to and think; ‘I want a dream. I want to aspire, I want to create something better.’

Ekpiri by Adeniyi Ollagunju. LB2017. Image courtesy of Lagos Biennial

NM: Who are the people that come through to the biennial and how are you reflecting on questions of audience; challenging who considers themselves as audience or who you are in conversation with?

FO: I have a very unpopular stance on the issue of inclusivity when it comes to art events. We want to reach a demographic that would attend a Burna Boy concert because those are the people that we want to talk to. Burna Boy is great, but there’s more. There’s more out there. There’s more in here. There’s more about ourselves that we don’t know. A good example is the fact that history as a subject has been taken out of the Nigerian school curriculum for about the past 15, 20 years. Most young people don’t know a lot about their history. The biennial can be a space for reflection on these histories. That’s the beautiful thing about history and documentation. You can’t unwrite it.

Ekpiri by Adeniyi Ollagunju. LB2017. Image courtesy of Lagos Biennial

NM: I’ve taken a flight, hypothetically speaking, and to Lagos. How do I spend my seven days?

FO: Ah, first you have to get out of the airport – which is like an achievement. I mean, there’s a clichéd tourist experience, but if I’m speaking about Lagos, those are not the kinds of spaces I’m talking about. I’m always careful to create that cliched experience of coming to Lagos because I grew up on the outskirts and I have a different view of what the city is. You can take a visit to Fela’s Shrine, experience the mainland and go to super obscure places.

NM: Can you tell us about one or two aspects of the biennial that you are particularly excited about?

FO: I think it’s the uniqueness of the space, not just in its history, but also the topography. The fact that the site is in the centre of a Metropolis of Lagos, in the centre of the business district. The space is all concrete. It’s outdoors, it’s open air. The fact that it’s so site-specific is relevant to our theme of refuge. It has a direct connection to a lot of the works and installations that the artists are exploring. For this edition, we are not shipping anything to Lagos. All the production is happening on the ground with local materials. School kids have come as well as many people who travelled from elsewhere to witness Lagos in new ways. We want to create something that is extremely impactful.

Follow @Lagos_biennial for more on showing  artists and ongoing activity at the 2024 edition of the Lagos Biennial.

Nkgopoleng Moloi

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