There are an awful lot of cockroaches at the Tafawa Balewa Square. You can see them at night, dark and brown, sifting their way through the piles of human filth in the square, slithering in between the slabs of concrete that make up the pavements of Lagos metropolis. I do not find them entirely unappealing, on the contrary as I made my way last Friday to Freedom Park for the showing of Qudus Onikeku’s “We almost forgot”, a dance art presentation that was one of many events of the Lagos Live Festival, I looked upon them with a certain fondness as they fled before me and from the crunch of the feet of my fellow pedestrians on their way home from a hard days slog. There is much to admire in their industry, in their dedication to a role prehistoric, conferred upon them by nature as scavengers and clean-up crew, their presence a testament to a vivid existence, to the unapologetic sprawl of a vast bustling metropolis.
I submit that this is a subjective perspective, that what I consider fondly another may yet from its very presence recoil in repulsion, or worse embark in a fit of exerted stamping, annihilating in a muffled squelching these considerate workers of the dusk.
It is this predisposition I satchel along with me whenever I’m invited to, or on my own accord decide to attend an art performance, exhibition or installation. Being a person of letters, I hinge a lot of my appreciation of art on the written word, tangible as the medium is, that can be taken up and away to be mulled upon, held up in consideration and digested, with room, time and perspective enough for a sophisticated discernment. With the visual arts however I entertain a certain distrust, not of the artists intent but rather of my own prowess for understanding, an anxiety nurtured that there before the whorls and the swirls, the rags, loops and delicate arrangements, in that stark absence of words I will come away with meaning lost, some nuance inexperienced, a perspective by my own lack of aptitude, compromised.
There is a strange haunting music blaring out of the speakers when I arrive, distinctly Celtic with the characteristic folksy nature of it, with an undercurrent perhaps of the piping chimes of an eastern influence. The backdrop of the stage is one of old sacks of the sort used in the import of grains from sunny climes, across it in a dearth of order, unstructured scrawls in blue paint as those that can be observed on the tunnel walls and side streets of low income metropolitan cities, establishing a gritty expectation for the tone of this evenings presentation. The lighting is low, a supressed yellow that casts brilliant bilateral shadows across the stage, and in a spotlight, as though held in place by its beam a lone figure is caught in the rhythms of a strenuous dancing, in jerky motions moving to the swells and dips of the music, fingers in a claw, shoulder blades stark in their shadow against the dreary backdrop, dropping low close to a floor rippling with the loose leaves of a forest ground, and up again in the air, a wild but measured sequence that soon captures the gaze and the breath of the audience.
Ever so briefly the lights dim and the shadowy figures of our performers slowly appear on stage, as ghosts, albeit ones kitted in human garb. One stands separate, a figure feminine, tall and imposing and fifteen minutes or so into the night’s performance the first words of the evening are spoken.
“Why do people remember?”
“So they can determine the truth”
Her voice is clear and unrestrained, carrying far across the stage and washing across the audience seated around it almost it seems by its own passion than by the wizardry of modern technology. And by its resounding pitch we are dragged into this tale.
It is a tale dark, of war and its accompanying horrors, of lives lived on the settling wake of a retreating normalcy and by the weak light of a distant hope, in fear and in a constant danger, of the depths of depravity to which man unfettered is able to descend, this delicate species still struggling as we are in our new found consciousness and beneath the press of our varied and sometimes conflicting emotions.
It is a tale told in dance, with brief sessions of injected speech, heartfelt poetic recitations that as much lubricate as they are a part of the plot, a delicate interweaving of poetry and dance, each a beauty in its own right, the one acting in perfect complement of the other.
The mortar shells and bullets rain down in disrupt of a calm once taken for granted, the timing of once benign activities like a school run to the schedule of automatic gunfire and the timetable of an inconvenient struggle. We see a mother in distress as she searches for her son, “Sweet brown eyes and rosy cheeks, has anybody seen John” she cries over and over again, the dancers caught in the exertions of their enactments, a mass of squirming raging bodies as in dance they express our narrators torment on the dimly lit stage.
If at this stage of the performance it appears we have been rather kindly couched from the horrors of which our narrator speaks, this misconception is forcefully rent in the final scene which is perhaps the most horrific. It is the telling of a massacre, wild and frenzied, with machetes, of an entire household. Our narrators voice trembling in the ghastly recounting of it, in screams that roar to a crescendo she at one point describes the chopping action of their assailants machetes “up and down, up and down, up and down” persistent in its deafening repetition, imprinting gruesome images of an absolute horror until the smell of blood rises in your nostrils, the sound of metal striking bone ringing in your ears and you find yourself in recoil, burrowing deep into unyielding plastic seats from the shock of it, from the absolute reaching corruption of it.
What is this thing? This strange beast of sound and music and dance and fury that forces you to confront humanity at its most depraved? This artistic bellow that sometimes in its energies gets so violent – a girl thrown repeatedly and rather violently against all the available surfaces of the stage, a character with microphone wire choked and tugged in a death struggle, eventually besting his attacker and slamming him repeatedly into the ground – that you start to fear for the safety of the characters.
It is a performance, or as I prefer to consider it- an installation that will bring your biases to the fore. With its war theme and its characters distinctly African, the tropical forest flooring of fallen leaves and the grimy backdrop of sack sheets one may be forced to situate these events in some third world African region but look closely and it is a bias that doesn’t quite fit. There is nothing quite uniquely African about this tale. The rhythms of the dancers are modern eclectic, with a subtle hint of the orient and a tinge of directorial insane, as is the accompanying music. And the use deliberate, of names like John in their implied mainstream anonymity all collate for a brief confusion until wise to their intent you realise that this is a study in humanity that can indeed be situated in any corner of the globe where man is to be found skulking in his stark imperfections.
“We almost forgot” is a performance that you need to see to appreciate. While its message is clear, of the horrors of war and the savagery of man, its considerate narration is perhaps its one pitfall. In allay of my earlier anxieties, in ensuring a clarity, that it is not as I feared one of those performances where you’re left confounded, scratching your head and mumbling shadowy opinions to your friends about metaphors and analogies in dance about the great mysteries of life, it has engaged narrative verse, and almost suffers for it.
The language is generic, short-changing almost of the glorious vision of dance and rhythm playing out onstage. With words and phrases that jar in their tepidness – chops into my cousin who is four, carnage , a short fattish man, it sacrifices an artistic nebulousness and sophistication for the cheap thrills of pure shock horror. In a medium that presents ample opportunity for showing, for more esoteric verse it engages in a lot of clichéd telling. It is hardly a negative though, nothing more perhaps than a matter of taste, and while to a less discerning audience it is probably not jarring enough to be noteworthy, it was there, a warm dampening on the overall brilliance of the entire performance.
Qudus Onikeku, artist and choreographer has put together a visual and auditory feast that is both entertaining and enlightening, waking you up to horrors unimagined, sensations arguably left unexperienced and tales in reference to its title, almost forgotten. It is an impressive installation by the young artist who, if judged only by the gasps of awe and the rounds of applause of his affected audience, is quite deservingly celebrated in the global cultural space.