LAGOS: Site-Specific Sculpture [Journal Archives]

Near Surulere neighborhood in Lagos, Nigeria at a fabric market

I am stationed in Lagos, Nigeria for about 7 more months for The Fulbright Fellowship for Sculpture. For my project, I will be collaborating with students and faculty from The University of Lagos on the diasporic Kentifrica Project.

In addition to working on the Fulbright, I am also seeking inspiration from this bustling and complex geography of Nigeria to inform my next bodies of lifelong studio work. These next bodies of work brewing will be inspired by my personal experiences navigating the geography of West Africa for the first time as a Kentifrican/African/American womxn. Thus far my journeys in Lagos have piqued the interest of my lifelong fascination with the head as a platform for site-specific sculpture. I have always been obsessed with the way that Black/African people use their heads as sites for communication, carrying items, getting attention, and just being badass in general. I am in awe at the way Lagosians use their heads as sites for transporting goods. My favorite feat was a man riding on the back of an Okada (motorbike) with two full-body mannequins on his head!!! ‪I wish I could have snapped a picture of that, but I am very careful about photographing here and many Lagosians do not like it. (Side note: of course, I wouldn't either and have been the victim of people's exotic travel fantasy pics without my permission! Not taking invasive pictures also relates to my moral ethics I developed while working with and researching the histories of West African colonial photographs for The Uninvited Series so I am always extra cautious.)

Being here in the hustle and bustle of Lagos I am focusing on the head as a site for the transport of prized commodities such as food, tools, and building materials. I have seen feats beyond my imagination and learned that kids are taught early at home how to balance things on their heads. I have seen huge platters, rugs, building equipment, sewing machines and you name it on top of people's heads. My horrible American posture makes anything I place on top of my head go careening to the ground and it also reminds me of when a white classmate told me that I should make some paintings of me with a basket on top of my head and lions trying to eat me. Throughout my journey as an artist, I have always been troubled by being an American and being stereotyped as needing to be depicted with a basket on my head. I always felt offended by it due to the connotations of being "village/tribal" (yes the colonial hate and xenophobia lie deep inside of me too. It is an ongoing project to rid myself of all the ways that I was taught to view The Continent and my connections to it.) or not being from America even though I am several generations born in America tracing back to the Middle Passage as the point of origin for my fraught relationship to citizenship in this country i.e. by default via kidnapping. But when I arrived and saw the balancing I could never! I mean the physics, skill, and cunning that it takes to embody that form of grace, resilience, and practicality I was ashamed of my posture and how much I could never. Take that racist classmate! lol

I am working up the nerve to start practicing carrying items on my head and perhaps incorporating this process into video performances. I already have visions of photographs as well. Due to the nature of my Kentifrican Project being diasporic I am also thinking about converting the museum to be transportable on my head instead of a suitcase or table and I am envisioning traveling with it and taking it to market places!

This "head as a site for site-specific sculpture" as a conceptual idea came about in 2009 when I attended my MFA interview for CalArts. Micheal Ned Holte was on the panel to interview me and he made an observation that changed my life and supported my intense desire to study at CalArts. When viewing my portfolio that showcased photography, braided headdresses, and drawings he said, " Kenyatta, you make site-specific sculpture, in which the site is your head." At that moment everything clicked! My mother's obsession with hair, my own obsession with hair and adornment/headdresses, my obsession with drawing only the head, and my obsession with creating intimidating sculptural components that traveled on my head out into public spaces. Up until that point, I didn't have the language to describe what I was truly interested in concerning my artistic relationship to engaging the head as a concept within African/African-American culture. Now that I am here everything is solidifying.

I have always been intrigued by the Yoruban concept of Ori (The Orisha of the Head) in which people are thought to have a body, a soul, and a third entity that guides one's thoughts and the path to success or trouble. The head is valued and seen as sacred. My host Dr. Peju Lawiola told me that in some areas people do not carry items on their heads due to the sacredness of their head/ori.

Since I have been in Nigeria I have been researching and learning more about this concept from Yoruba scholars. I also have begun experimenting with creating altars for my head and engaging with my head as a site for performance, landscapes, and still lifes more explicitly. I see all of these ideas colliding together in an interesting way but first I have to practice balancing. Wish me luck! lol

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