On sustaining a good practice in Lagos
by Karimah Ashadu
Having spent my formative years in Lagos, Nigeria, being resourceful is a trait that is innately embedded in me. Nigerians on the whole are a thoroughly resourceful people. Almost nothing goes to waste in a vibrant mega city with unique challenges such as a lack of formal industry, frequent power outages, and a thriving yet wildly fluctuating economy, to name just a few. Resourcefulness is your lifeline in getting anything worth doing done. This relates to the average person, as well as to industry game-changers, business owners, designers and artists.
This resilient mindset is what keeps me going and it lends itself well to making films and videos, with a very small team, which is the way that I prefer to do it. I see us as having a small footprint but big ideas. I always think about how I can best achieve the vision that I have in mind with the limited resources available to me – as a Nigerian it is in my DNA. For instance, using untrained actors from the streets brings a raw energy and authenticity to the work that I really enjoy: real people bringing a real vision to life.
I started making films and videos about 16 years ago. Initially I trained as a painter, though I turned my focus to performance and video art because it felt instantaneous. As a struggling student at the time, I did not want the burden of physical work, and I realised that video art is easier to store. It is different now, because my practice has expanded beyond the digital, for example sculpture, drawing, installation. It is more about the relevance of the medium channeling my intentions rather than the space it takes up. As a female artist of African origin, I have come to the realisation that taking up space is a good thing. There is an art to how one takes up space, and one has to consciously tune into that.
At the beginning of my moving image work, I would exclusively fashion recording devices out of recycled materials and found objects, to enable my camera to move and capture in the ways I desired. This energy and approach has stayed with me. When I make physical work like sculptures or installations, I obsess over the materials that I am using and what I am potentially leaving behind in the world; thus there are certain materials that I gravitate more towards than others.
Brown Goods (2020) is a short film featuring Emeka, a Nigerian migrant trading used electrical goods on Hamburg’s infamous Billstrasse. Having left Nigeria for economic reasons, paradoxically he relies solely on “African money” in Hamburg. I shot Brown Goods in Hamburg with a crew of 3 and a handful of subjects. I also made a series of sculptures as an extension of the work. These sculptures are readymades – essentially, used car parts like Mercedes windows and Porsche windshields. Putting them in a museum context and showing them as works of art immediately elevates their value, which really correlates to the themes of Brown Goods. In a work like Plateau (2021-22), I made a variation of sculptures from found clothes and elements of the earth like raw tin and clay from Nigeria’s Jos Plateau region. On the one hand I love the residue of use that used clothing denotes; they hold a certain timelessness that is fascinating. Similarly, the ephemerality of a material like clay or granules of a mineral like raw tin is simply exciting; it can be made solid, or return back to the earth should circumstances inspire.
When I think about sustainability, I consider sustaining a practice and all that it entails. I think of longevity – specifically in terms of creating work that is relevant now, but that also stands the test of time. As artists and human beings, we cannot know what the future holds, so how do we create work that is relevant in the future? Relevance for me means leaning into the frequency of what I consider the creative channel, going within, and working deeply by intuition. I have found that in this way, it is possible to create works of impact and authenticity.
First and foremost, I create for myself, and when it engages others that is a huge bonus. But fundamentally, I am here to seek answers to my own questions and not those of others. My art practice is a reflection of my life and must be lived for me first before anyone else. It is only by starting with the self, taking a good, probing, often-times uncomfortable look, that we can contribute anything of worth to the world and the people that live in it.
I am currently working on a new video installation titled Machine Boys. This piece explores the informal economic system of motorcycle taxis in Lagos, also known as “Okada”. Banned due to the government’s inability to regulate it, the work portrays a hardy group of bikers who continue in this profession, seeking to attain financial autonomy and independence. They embody a particular branch of masculinity, and in this performance a beautiful vulnerability emerges, questioning Nigeria’s patriarchal culture. Although it is a short length, about 8 minutes, I shot the work over a few years. I kept coming back to it because it had quite a lot to teach me, and I returned at very different stages of my life, which made it all the more poignant.
Wreath is a sculpture that I created as an extension of the video work. An interwoven relief of tyres, it conjures up notions of commemoration and legitimacy. One of the reasons I chose brass as a medium is because it is a sustainable metal and infinitely recyclable. As I sat, quite pleased with myself with that choice, my ego wondered who on earth would possibly want to recycle my artwork! It made me realise that getting all aspects right is sometimes tricky, but as long as one is eco-conscious, questioning and doing the best that one can, I consider that a step in the right direction.
As an artist and human being, I think a lot about what I am leaving behind when I am finished with my earthly experience. I wish to leave a legacy that is not only relevant through generations, but one that gives more than it takes.
Karimah Ashadu is a British-born Nigerian artist living and working between Hamburg and Lagos. Ashadu’s practice is concerned with labour, patriarchy and notions of independence pertaining to the socio-economic and socio-cultural context of Nigeria and West Africa.