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Icons of a Metropolis: An Interview with Ade Adekola

Think Africa Press speaks to the Nigerian photographer and conceptual artist.
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The Thirst Quencher, an icon from Ade Adekola's Lagos work.

Photographer and conceptual artist Ade Adekola spent years looking for and shooting the people that he feels define the creative force that drives the Nigerian city of Lagos. He calls them the “Icons of a Metropolis”.

The icons all live, literally or metaphorically on the streets: the cart pusher, the child bride, the scrap merchant, the oil scavenger, the traffic policeman, the sweet vendor and many more. Individually they may go unnoticed, but together they tell a story – a story of Lagos on the one level and the “global metropolis” on another.

Ade Adekola speaks to Think Africa Press about his work and the city that inspired it:

What are the main concepts that you worked with on “Icons of a Metropolis”?

In general, I explore issues of the human condition that allow us to reflect on the way in which we live our lives in society. The “Icons of a Metropolis” series explores issues of the human condition at its creative zenith within the urban context of a mega-city.

The series displays 20 different characters – is there one that particularly fascinates you?

There are many icons that I could have chosen from. I had to limit myself and 20 was a good number that could convey the spirit of the city and address the issues of urban creativity. They all fascinate me in different ways. “The oil scavenger” is a real creative force. He recycles used oil that seeps into our gutters from poor disposal habits. To him there is no waste when oil can be recycled and then repurposed.

“The thirst quencher” fascinates me because the final product is incredibly beautiful – it speaks volumes in the most sublime of ways, touching on issues of innocence, its purity and its loss. “The challenger” addresses or reveals issues of cultural anomalies that are unique to Nigeria – where hierarchy and authority are not transparent because of legacy structures and cultural biases.

How did you come up with your character archetypes?

I wanted to concentrate only on those character archetypes that fulfilled functions that were in some way universal, which could be found in any city irrespective of geography and cultural bias. But I stumbled on archetypes that were unique to Lagos which were so strong, I had to include them.

Did the categorisation happen prior to you going to the field or was it something that developed after taking the photographs?

In general I tend to have a clear idea of what I’m trying to express prior to going out into the field to take photographs. I have a name for it – I call the ideas my “visionettes”. However, the icons project took about four years to come to conceptual fruition so there was a lot of reframing done.

Do you see differences in the form of the African metropolis compared to Western ones?

Metropolises are surprisingly similar. Their structure and the actors within them tend to perform similar functions too. The major difference, given that my lens for making this distinction is street photography, is that in the African metropolis I explored, all of life in all its forms is discernible from the streets. The creativity, the inventiveness, the theatre, and much of life, happens on the street. In what you would call Western metropolises, the creativity, the inventiveness, and the theatre have all been codified, formalised, standardised and institutionalised. They have been liberated from the streets. There is material for another project here.

Will there be a travelling exhibition related to Icons?

It would be ideal to have the Icons tour various cities around the world. ‘Icons of a Metropolis’ was actually conceived and produced as a travelling show. There are over 80 individual artworks and a book to support this. I would need a curatorial partner to pull this together. So far though, we have secured venues in Nigeria and Germany with hopefully more cities to follow.

During your stay in Lagos you must have experienced the local art scene. Could you tell us about it?

I make it a point of duty to search out the creative spirit and I cultivate relationships with many artists whose works I admire. I collect their works too. The recent trend seen in the works being produced in say the last 18 months is very exciting for contemporary Nigerian art. There is definitely something in the air that points to a renaissance of sorts. The quality of work being produced is steeped with a richness of ideas bent in some cases toward a contemporary interpretation of traditional mythology and in others a bold expression of artists as contemporary myth-makers. The scale of experimentation and execution also shows a fearlessness on the part of some of the artists. Some collectors too are keeping up by extending their palettes beyond representational craftworks. We could do with more collectors, especially institutional ones.

Do you think that art can change the world?

We live in a world that is nothing more than a collection of ideas, a set of actors engaged in a series of interactions about those ideas, and another set of actors engaged in the creation or enhancement of tools to facilitate the transmittance of experience. Much of our humanity is created and supported by expression. So if you can change the means and modality of expression, you can certainly change the world.

The problem is that we have come to rely too heavily on verbal utterances rather than on imagery. So we are less adept at reading and interpreting ideas delivered through visual imagery. Art is a vessel or conduit to deliver a cultural payload and, apart from being a recording of contemporary issues for posterity, it brings issues, debates and discourses – or the lack of them – to our awareness.

You studied architecture, media and technology at the Architectural Association (AA) in London. How did this training influence the way you perceive art?

I had a rather broad and unique education. Sometimes I think it was too unique. I was taught how to inquire, how to search for ideas and inspiration for expression by looking and being alert to the world around us. I was also taught how to frame and re-frame – if you will, how to rapidly switch tracks between cognitive tasks of analysis and synthesis and thus how to develop unique perspectives out of singular context.

Technology, in my view, is a representational discipline. It enables one to express an idea, communicate that idea, and, thirdly, it allows one to transfer experience of the idea. So my education at the AA can be summarised thus: Express or birth ideas; communicate frames of reference; transmit experiences. This is what I aim to do in all facets of my professional endeavours and something which I believe is central to art in all its forms.

What are you working on now?

My current series is titled “Ethnoscapes – Icons as Transplants”. It is an extension of ‘Icons of a Metropolis’ however it explores a different issue: globalisation and identity. I approach the issues of globalisation by superimposing portrait foregrounds of Lagos with background of American, Asian or European cities to create hybrid environmental portraits. The visual juxtaposition of foreground and background creates a space in the middle-ground where perception is heightened. In pairing the images in this manner I can reveal the tensions which polarise, the paradoxes of identity, the consumption homogeneity, and sometimes the quirkiness and humorous sides.

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