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The Second Hand Museum

WRITTEN BY: Orlando Reade

DesignNigeria

In 2012, the Nigerian artist Victoria Udondian had a residency in Manchester, England, where she created an installation for the city-wide exhibition: We Face ForwardArt from West Africa Today. She had a month’s residency to prepare, during which she spent in the collection of Frank Willett, a leading English archeologist and scholar of traditional Nigerian art, housed at the Whitworth Art Gallery. The resulting art-work, Aso Ikele (1948), was a huge piece of fabric, in three parts like an Italian altar-piece. Udondian usually buys second-hand clothes for her works at Badagry market in Lagos State, but for Aso Ikele she was also working with clothes donated by a local textile recycle company. Named after the traditional cloth used to protect the home, ‎Aso Ikele was stitched together with fabrics that evoke the historic trade links between Manchester, one of the centres of English manufacturing in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and West Africa, where today the fabric is spun for clothes sold on English high-streets. In her fabric works, Udondian is especially interested in “how stories become history.” Her expertise – in the history of West African fabrics, and their place in global exchange – means that she sees a story in the fabric she uses. In Manchester she didn’t have a loom to use so had to weave her work manually. “History,” she points out, “is manual too.”

Udondian trained as a tailor and studied painting at the University of Uyo in Akwa Ibom State, southeastern Nigeria, but these days she produces paintings to raise fund and has recently started a clothing line, supported by a government business grant, hoping to study for an MFA; she has just been offered a place at Columbia University in New York. Her work as an artist consists in works in fabric, often for large-scale installations, and the creation of a discourse around the fabric.

When I visited her studio in Lagos in August 2013, it was populated by bulging “Ghana must go” bags, whose name commemorates the government policies which expelled Ghanaians from Nigeria in the 1980s; Udondian adorned these everyday commodities with a dense tapestry of found fabrics. For the 50th anniversary of Nigerian independence in 2010, she created an installation Lost & Found, an installation stringing t-shirts dyed in the national colour green across the CCA Lagos; the artist Jellili Atiku used the installation for a performance. In 2011, during her residence at the Fondazione di Venezia, she created an monument to another independence movement: an outdoor installation using one thousand red shirts to commemorate the soldiers of Garibaldi who fought for the unification of Italy.

During her residence in Venice, Udondian displayed, for the first time, an installation of her Second Hand Museum, an installation of mannequins dressed in formal Yoruba and Victorian fashions. Their rich appearance, however, disguises their origin in the Okrika bales of second-hand clothing, bought by the artist in Nigeria and repaired by local tailors. Exhibited less than hundred miles away from Milan, the centre of European fashion, it would be a mistake to see this work as a homage to the textiles industry or a celebration of the artist’s craft. Udondian points out that this exhibition made “ballgowns out of used panties”. Habitus, the project that originated in Venice, is designed to think through ‘the consequences of the overproduction of goods and the reckless accumulation of clothing intended as consumer goods’ (source: the artist’s blog). This is no celebration of cultural hybridity, but a serious commentary on the societies these fabrics move between.

Fabrics rarely reflect the national, cultural identities that they come to signify; Udondian’s research has discovered the extent to which traditional ‘African’ fabrics conceal colonial and commercial encounters with the rest of the world. Udondian has begun to see history as something fabricated. In 2012, during a residency at the Bag Factory Studios in Johannesburg, Udondian began to appropriate from Nigerian indigenous designs to produce a textile piece for South Africa, creating a fictional history for the amufu fabric, the only handmade fabric in Durban, to accompany this new work.

I met Udondian during the workshop for artists shortlisted for the National Art Competition run by the African Artists’ Foundation in Lagos. Udondian’s contribution, Arti-tude, won a prize for its ‘outstanding production’, and it is in the production that her work performs its critical thinking. That work featured eight photographic self-portraits of the artist, wearing eight costumes she had created; unlike her Venice exhibition, this piece featured ‘live sculptures’, chosen to represent different aspects of Nigerian multiethnic society. The presentation of clothing reflects “how much of what we wear has been influenced by globalisation, imperialism, colonialism …”. The clothing on display represents “Yoruba styles, Igbo styles, Hausa style, the Calabar style (the big ball gown), inspired by the Victorian styles of the nineteenth century.” She doesn’t, however, allow the richness of the style to mask its origin; designs of the imported t-shirts are still visible on the Benin dress. The decision to fabricate these styles with materials from the used clothes sector, she says, reflects the contemporary demand for second-hand clothes and “who we are today”.

The self-portraits allowed Udondian to begin her research with herself, choosing locations which she found particularly poignant; one photograph was taken at Freedom Park in Lagos, the site of a colonial prison, now a place of relaxation; the location for another is Bar Beach, where a huge new development, Eko Atlantic, is being built on land reclaimed from the sea. In one self-portrait, Udondian poses with bare breasts in a wedding dress worn by the Ibibio tribe. The design for the dress came from an anthropological photograph taken in the early twentieth-century. I ask Udondian how she feels about the colonial history of anthropological photography, she says she had mixed feelings about it, but was mostly interested in what she could learn about the fabric.

This work always has an archival element, and a strong desire not merely to evoke but to teach her audience. She talks of Portuguese traders in West Africa exchanging textiles for human life, of nineteenth-century Obas wearing shirts made by English tailors underneath their traditional attire, and of Frobenius describing the raffia clothing (exotic textiles remained a luxury) as ‘grass-like’. These histories are markedly political. Udondian points out that these archival photographs, of kings of Benin dressed in supposedly traditional attire, are evidence that “the fabrics we wear, indigenous wears, are all imported, and inspired by our early contact with Europeans”. Udondian’s research has made her particularly attentive to the use of Dutch wax fabric, and lace from Austria and Switzerland, where she recently had a residency, at the Villa Strauli. Her work during that time used lace to reflect on the Nigerian government’s ban on lace imports in the 1970s, noting, sadly, that Nigerians would still prefer foreign lace. The influx of foreign and exotic fabrics has contributed to the decline of local textiles traditions. The Second Hand Museum has been about “creating histories” and drawing the government’s attention to the failure to care for the living traditions of weaving, and the preservation the histories of Nigerian textiles; it is Udondian’s long-term project to transform her Second Hand Museum into a permanent institution. She was inspired by the resources available at the Whitworth Gallery, and frustrated: “we don’t have that in Nigeria and no one is doing anything about it”. One Nigerian archive she visited was embarrassingly badly kept, full of dust.

Today’s traditional attire in Nigeria has, she says, “gone eccentric, it no longer matters that the fabric is from Europe, the style from the West. Most people prefer things to come from outside Nigeria.” Udondian has encountered this problem with her own clothing line, hearing that people prefer to hear that clothing comes from the cities, Lagos or Abuja. Asked if her project is about celebrating Nigerian culture, she firmly disagrees.

“The more I get involved in these histories, the more I start to question everything. For me it’s more about questioning, critiquing the government, than celebrating. We are not producing textiles in this country. Where are all our clothes coming from? How are we preserving our traditions? And how do we track back all of the changes? The attire I make is satirical, drawing people’s attention to a tradition that is lost to history.”