The Megacity and the Noncity

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“Megaheart, Megasoul: A Group Portrait of Lagos”

WRITTEN BY: Amber Croyle Ekong

Nigeria

At its core, the label “megacity” is bestowed in recognition of a singularity, for a specific and special global impact that is vast and expansive, as a signifier of a rich identity. Like other megacities, Lagos is a leviathan, encompassing the distinct complexities of its more than twenty million residents within a collective territory of experience.

In the spring of 2013, the photography exhibition GO-SLOW: Diaries of Personal and Collective Stagnation in Lagos made strides towards identifying the particularities that are uniquely Lagos. The idea of go-slow, whether interpreted as a noun, an adjective, a command, or a lament, most importantly conjures feelings of recognition among Lagosians, allowing a familiar point of departure for the artists to respond in conceptually unique ways. In its first manifestation at Skoto Gallery in New York, the show presented the work of ten contemporary artists, all Lagos-based, whose images demonstrate nuanced interpretations of go-slow while providing a window into the qualities of the inner being of the city.

Notably, the artists of GO-SLOW were able to provide a group portrait of Lagos as a megacity while ignoring the usual metrics for determining such a distinction. Rather than using economic measurements and development indicators, their analysis goes deep into expressions of the heart of Lagos and the soul of Lagos. Their work provides evidence of the city’s internal contradictions and complexities, defining Lagos as a megacity comprised of megaheart and megasoul.

LAGOS: MEGAHEART

The heart is where love and rage co-exist on a spectrum of truth. The heart is the command centre: a life force, the source of movement, the manager of inner flow, the beat maker, the system keeper, a place of daily ritual, and a tally keeper of triumph and sorrows. The heart of Lagos is something to both criticize and admire for how it doesn’t work, for how it does work but by its own rules, and for its distinctive rhythms that cannot be found elsewhere. While the GO-SLOW artists provide unique visions of the heart of Lagos, all share a common basis for their representations in a foundation of love, leaving a sense of hope behind even the sharpest criticism. 

Questions of the heart, such as pride and judgement, are brought to the forefront in the image Dis Na Lagos. With this carefully composed still-life, Chriss Nwobu delivers a bleak report of the state of the basic workings of Lagos, beginning with a fully functioning wheel that becomes a seat – a resting place rather than a tool for moving forward. Lagos is represented in a seemingly sweet package: the figure of a woman, beautiful in her stature and attire. And yet, alone in this stark setting, Miss Lagos is the only one to blame for her current state. She is physically healthy, but perhaps too proud to solve her own problem. Miss Lagos, although clearly licensed to drive, sits still and looks complacently, content to pose and wait for the solution to come to her.

If Nwobu’s message reveals that underlying Lagos’ veneer of entitled elegance is a ridiculous passivity, the image provided by Uche Okpa-Iroha shows an opposing scene of chaos with an underlying grace. In Shunting, Okpa-Iroha presents a story of movement in a moule bus scene at a Lagos bus park. In a rush of passengers vying for a place on the departing bus, the distinct rhythms of the moment appear in the geometry of the figures and their parallel gestures. Giving witnesses to this common and daily ritual makes clear that Lagos, at its heart, is founded in logic and order, even in the midst of passion, intensity, and struggle.

Ade Adekola takes a similar viewpoint to a new level by bringing iconic status to the characters of Lagos. While the man pictured in Praise Crier is of the type that would most often provide just a background soundtrack to the rhythms of the street, the composition isolates him from the specific chaos of any recognizable geography and promotes him and his message as the only worthwhile point of focus. Adekola has provided a triumphant spokesperson, a unique symbol within the Lagos landscape and now a tourist destination in his own right, ensuring that the presence and importance of the praise crier will no longer go unnoticed.

Other works from GO-SLOW describe the heart of Lagos in terms of authority, organization, and accountability. In Akintunde Akinleye’s work, Lagos Paradox 2, the words “NO TRADING” and “NO HAWKING” take centre stage in a temporarily abandoned lot, however it is easy to note the instant contradictions to this decree presented by the remnants of debris surrounding the signs. Evidence of the presence of many people suggests a setting where both trading and hawking would be inevitable, making a mockery of the meagre bureaucratic attempts to prevent it. Humour aside, the image makes powerfully clear that the people of Lagos are the true authority over the space of the city. 

Uche James Iroha exposes similar contradictions in a more direct and dramatic fashion with Looking forward but standing on the fence from his Power and Powers Series. Six males stand above the residential buildings and among the power lines as a strong multigenerational presence aligned in stance and posture. With wires tangled in a confused and jumbled mass behind them, their formation suggests a clear sense of authority as witnesses to the negligence that surrounds them. Although electricity should provide the consistent lifeblood of the city, the reality of fickle supply lords over daily life like an unpredictable dictator. In spite of this, James Iroha’s figures will not submit. They have found their own power in their connection with each other fueled by the underlying knowledge that they will one day succeed in triumphing over such indignities.

Reflecting on a more acute situation, Aderemi Adegbite documents the effects of political recklessness in his Medicine After Death Series. In One Bucket More, the raging fire provides irrefutable evidence of the deadly effects of negligence, where reliance on faulty systems has disastrous results. Lack of public services, inadequate infrastructure, and the inability of government to provide proper housing for the most needy add up to a scenario in which a fire can destroy a whole community before help arrives. Rather than using his bucket to fight the blaze, the figure walks away, resigned to the grave reality of the destruction raging behind him, most likely carrying away what’s left of his possessions. However tragic, such an action reveals strength and resoluteness, the will in the heart of the people of Lagos to move forward even when much is lost.

LAGOS: MEGASOUL

The soul is where the light of purpose lives in a location that’s both elusive and all encompassing. The soul is a wandering journeyman: unborn and un-dead, more easily felt than described, an essence that is most at home in the security of oneness. Unlike the flamboyant drama of the heart, the soul is more subtle - its truth expands beyond the simple dynamics of any single scenario to reveal eternal certainty. The soul of Lagos is found in the union of the individual spirit and a shared psychic history that memorializes the past and provides a guide into a unified future. It’s a presence that points to a greater source and shows us what Lagos could and should be as its highest self. As the GO-SLOW artists find the presence of soul in humble territory, they change the meaning of place and create new landmarks of divine spirit.

Using himself as the subject of his image, Abraham Oghobase jumps backwards against the wall and connects with those who were there before him. While informal advertising is ubiquitous in Lagos it is also largely ignored - Oghobase’s physical act of laying hands upon the words resurrects and honours the modest aspirations of the person who painted them, creating communion in the space. With this action, the city wall ceases to be a defensive barrier and instead provides support and strength to Oghobase, letting his inner yearnings and vulnerabilities take centre stage in the Lagos streets.

While Adeniyi Odeleye doesn’t show himself in Shifting Realities 4, his presence is evidenced by the intimacy of the viewpoint of the image. Coming into close contact with the raw and unpaved road, Odeleye chooses a different narrative than the typical story of traffic and lack of infrastructure providing a perspective that is far more captivating in its tender approach. His caring gaze exposes his own humility while showing greatness and meaning in a low place, redefining the “bad road” by the richness of its colour, the presence of life, and the evidence of history formed by the sun and the rain. These beautiful wrinkles on the elderly face of Lagos render the things of man, the cars and houses on the horizon, barely significant by comparison.

By positioning her work in neglected territory, Adeola Olagunju shares Odeleye’s respectful approach, allowing Lagos to be viewed as a place of story and history. In Sojourner, Olagunju positions herself in the doorway of an abandoned train, luggage in hand, standing in between the shadows and the light. As she leans against the wall, her determined gaze reveals her intention to move into her future – she is a woman prepared to step into her purpose, supported by the lessons of the past. In this way, the image leaves little space for the present moment, transcending the worldly logic of time and obligation.

Charles Okereke’s work transcends time as well with an otherworldly vision of a street scene. Occupying a space that is both day and night, the blurry vision clarifies the fundamental unity underlying the soul of Lagos. Merged favours ambiguity over distinction and erases the preoccupations of the individual along with the specifics of place. In this portrait of a nameless essence shared by man and his surroundings, its significance is much easier to feel than to verbalize.

 

LAGOS: MEGACITY

If Lagos is to be considered a megacity by the measurement of its humanity, then it must be a location of dynamism that encompasses contradiction and paradox: a megacity of megaheart and megasoul. 

The GO-SLOW artists create a collective portrait of the heart of Lagos that is elegant and dynamic, stagnant and lazy, chaotic and rhythmic, unscrupulous and dangerous, humble and dignified. They have collectively uncovered the soul of Lagos, which is vulnerable and forgotten, rich and colourful, purposeful and timeless, ambiguous and unified. The complex truths revealed through these strong artistic works provide the evidence that allow Lagos to assume the distinguished title of megacity. It is a label that must be continuously re-evaluated and expanded upon, requiring constant self-reflection by its inhabitants along with conscious intention to bring Lagos forward into its place of purpose.