Installation view of still from the final performance scene in Wey Dey Move (the film) at Het Nieuwe Instituut. The protagonists become possessed during a party. Hermes Iyele, lead performer and movement director of the film, dances with Blessing Offiofong. Image credit: Aad Hogendoorn
Wey Dey Move – talking to artist and curator Dele Adeyemo about Black aesthetics and dance
Reclaiming urban space through dancing. Manuela Zammit speaks to Dele Adeyemo about their exhibition at Het Nieuwe Instituut showing the liberating force of West African dance traditions in Nigerian street culture.
Constant flux is the order of the day, and even more so in a rapidly-developing city such as Lagos in Nigeria, shaped by flows of capital and lagoon waters. In their artistic practice, Adeyemo explores how the city’s youth moves with the time and tides in and around the spaces claimed by logistical capitalism, reclaiming them through dancing. Their contemporary dance practices are based on West African spiritual traditions in which dance and performance affirm humans’ embeddedness within planetary cycles and rhythms.
Can you tell more about contemporary Lagos and how the urban landscape, the natural environment and the social fabric of the modern-day Nigerian city are still actively shaped by the country’s colonial history?
“Yes, Lagos is a space shaped by its colonial history and patterns of development set in motion during this period. Since it was annexed by the British in 1861, Lagos’ urban development has been characterised by the forced dispossession of Indigenous communities, expropriations of land by state and private enterprise, and the dredging and sand filling of natural swamp habitats. This process, repeated at various scales all over the city, is most spectacularly exemplified by the private development of Eko Atlantic City, a billion dollar luxury real estate development that reclaimed over ten km2 of land from the ocean adjacent to Victoria Island.”
“Interviews I recorded with Nigerian dance communities unfold, showing the ways in which dancing together is a way to create joyful spaces amid the ebb and flow of lagoon water”
While visiting Wey Dey Move, I got the sense that the different elements that make up the central installation in the exhibition also refer to this entanglement between the colonial past and modern-day development. Is this the case?
“The exhibition design, with the film Wey Dey Move (literally) at its heart, is inspired by the lifeworlds surrounding the Lagos lagoon and the sedimentary circulations that govern this rapid urbanisation and real estate development. The lagoon metropolis of Lagos is a space in constant flux. The flow of its rivers and the Atlantic ocean spill alluvial sands into its waters, which gets mixed with floodwater from the rainy season, ultimately crashing against a massive volume of unfinished construction works. This sedimentary raw material is also an integral infrastructural element to Lagos’ urban environment. In the installation, it is present in its various states and stages; from sharp river sand, to cinder block, and finally concrete. The installation appears to be spilling out into the centre of the gallery from two semi-spherical giant baskets symbolising the calabash; a traditional vessel often used to transport water. And the Yoruba proverb Igbá nlá méjì s’ojú dé’ra won illustrated on the wall states that two halves of the calabash make one universe.
At the edge of the installation on two screens, interviews I recorded with Nigerian dance communities unfold, showing the ways in which dancing together is a way to create joyful spaces amid the ebb and flow of lagoon water and a constantly changing environment. I wanted to draw attention to the fact that it is from these precarious spaces that we see a great wave of creativity rising to the surface, bringing life from the streets of Lagos to the forefront of a Black global culture. These dance communities are a contemporary expression of deeper forms of West African spirituality that developed dance and performance practices through traditional social rituals like masquerade.”
While reading about your research and artistic practices, I read that you consider slavery to be “the ghost in the machine of logistics and modern urban development.” Could you explain a bit more how you see logistical urbanism as an afterlife of transatlantic slavery?
“Nowadays urban development in cities is dictated by logistical calculations. Amazon capitalism, with its optimisation of the flow of goods, data, people, and everything else, determines everyday life patterns. Where did logistics get this desire for optimisation and synchronisation? Transatlantic slavery was known as the triangular trade specifically because it created an integrated network of global exchange linking together industries and consumers in disparate geographical locations, through transcontinental supply chains. When you consider transatlantic slavery as an integrated system, by following the development of its financial institutions, legal instruments, and other infrastructures, the foundations of a globalised logistical system starts becoming apparent.
As stated by cultural theorists Stefano Moten and Fred Harney in The Undercommons, ‘Modern logistics is founded with the first great movement of commodities, the ones that could speak. It was founded in the Atlantic slave trade, founded against the Atlantic slave.’ This understanding shifts our conception of logistics from being a set of complicated and abstract techno-scientific processes, to its original site: the embodied experiences of millions of people. A seemingly infallible, objective science is uncovered as yet another coercive, human-created system. Since most modern-day urban spaces are designed with the aid of logistical systems, the places we move through and live in repeat the coloniality of categorising, racialising and gendering earthly bodies for the extraction of maximum profits. In this sense I see logistical urbanism as an afterlife of transatlantic slavery.”
“I see logistical urbanism as an afterlife of transatlantic slavery”
How does this spectral aspect return in your work?
“Much of the work in Wey Dey Move looks to the lagoon-side community of Oworonshoki and their ways of living because they provide concrete modes of how our relationships with each other and the world needn’t be extractive. While conducting a modern way of life, they remain attentive to social practices such as masquerade performance, in which the ancestors and spirits in nature are celebrated, which helps to maintain a sensibility for the contingency of existence and the fragility of life. The film, co-written with my Nigerian collaborators Hermes Iyele and Sunday Obiajulu who live in this space, is an immersion into the magical realism of everyday life of some community members. At certain moments, our protagonists become possessed by the water spirits of this geography, who come onto the land to inspect how human-made infrastructures are disrupting their watery lifeworlds.”
Elsewhere you have stated that your work mobilises a Black aesthetics. This term has a long political and cultural history, and it is closely tied to the development of African identities, in America, Africa itself, and elsewhere. I am curious about how Black aesthetics manifests itself in your work and what does this term entail for you, perhaps in relation to Nigerian identity and ways of world-making, more specifically?
“I see my body of work as building on a Black aesthetic practice. By this I mean that I am working within a particular Black radical tradition that used sound, movement, and other forms of creative expression as explicit acts of resistance to forms of racialised violence produced through slavery, colonialism, and their ongoing legacies. The perspective of Blackness is one that is intimately aware of the pernicious brutality of power. What the academic field of Black Studies does is reveal how the history of Black people in Africa and the diaspora, is deeply intertwined with all of the world’s history. What would Europe and America be like without the immense wealth generated by the transatlantic slave trade or colonial exploitations? In the words of political activist C.L.R. James: “This is the history of Western Civilisation.” Therefore to foreground these questions is to foreground issues central to global history and the human condition.
However, as theorist Cedric Robinson highlights, the creative expression of people of African descent could not and can never be reduced to a mere reaction to the forms of violence that they have endured, precisely because it derives from African traditions originating in places before and beyond that violence. I see Black aesthetic practices as keeping alive cultures rooted in African cosmologies and offering different modes of relating to the world centred in sociality, indeterminate life, and practices of care which often stand against the selfish individualism of a capitalist value system.”
“Worlding practices insist that we can no longer place ourselves above and outside natural processes and rhythms. This is what a person learns, or rather, begins to feel when they dance”
In Wey Dey Move, the visitor encounters dance and masquerade as a mode of self-organisation, of resistance and protest, and as a way of living and having fun together. It is also, as in Remi Kuforiji’s video work Water No Get Enemy, an alternative form of mapping – very different from Western cartography which enforces a ‘detached gaze from above’. In your exhibition, the youths’ bodily movement and dance unite the spiritual, social, and environmental worlds of Lagos. Dance is an embodied spatial practice that stands directly against the disembodied forces of capital and corruption. What can you say about this tension between embodiment and disembodiment, and between two radically different modes of world-making that ‘confront’ each other in the city?
“On the one hand, there is capitalism as world-making practice, deriving from the Western tradition of dualism, based on fundamental separations, for instance between nature and culture. Here, tools such as the map are employed as a device for abstracting and extracting value, inscribing terrestrial entities (both human and non-human) within the notion of property that can be owned. On the other hand, there exist what I call ‘practices of worlding’ that explicitly or implicitly acknowledge the impossibility of separating ourselves – our selves – from the world.
Worlding practices insist that we can no longer place ourselves above and outside natural processes and rhythms. This is what a person learns, or rather, begins to feel when they dance. Their movement rhythmically attunes to their surrounding environment, awakening a sense of how deeply entangled all earthly bodies are. Recognising that bodies in nature, including our very own, speak with an ineffable intelligence, raises the possibility of ways of knowing the world beyond the vanity of the logi(sti)cal mind. This realisation is the basis for building caring communities, something which youth movements such as Slum Party, Afrocan, and Love Divine Festival, highlighted in the exhibition, instinctively understand.”
Wey Dey Move runs at Het Nieuwe Instituut, Rotterdam, until January 8th, 2023
Manuela Zammitis a writer and researcher