The Curious Case Of Jelili Atiku

Cover Photography: Enoh Lienamann

Who Is Jelili Atiku?

According to a statement from Prince Claus website: “Jelili Atiku Nigeria, Performance Art (1968, Ejigbo, Lagos) is an imaginative performance artist whose provocative spectacles use striking attire, unsettling body language and unusual props to open up dialogue and influence popular attitudes. He drops himself right into the heart of Lagos, into the realities of the streets, of densely populated, poor areas, and entices people to interact and respond to his visual presentations.”


The release further stated, “Rooted in Yoruba performance traditions, Atiku brings local elements to international performance practice, creating an extraordinary mix of action, symbolism, storytelling, disguise, costume, colour coding and theatricality. A rigorous researcher, his subjects include commentary on Nigerian human rights in the Assassination of a Political Prisoner; politically charged critiques of the ruling class and Boko Haram; site-specific interventions on climate change, e-waste and fuel subsidies; and Araferaku (loosely translated as A Part of Me is Missing), a moving personal eulogy to his father.


“Breaking new ground in contemporary performance art in Nigeria, Atiku’s sustained experimentation is pushing the boundaries of artistic communication and strengthening public understanding, participation and appreciation. He is an inspirational figure for younger generations and a voice of the future. Jelili Atiku is awarded for creating a new artistic language combining Yoruba traditional art forms with international performance practice; for his thought-provoking performances that challenge assumptions and stimulate dialogue in an unconventional and dynamic form of community education; for taking personal and artistic risks in order to open new possibilities and reach wider audiences; and for his pioneering dedication to establishing space for contemporary performance art in Nigeria.”

Jelili Atiku won the 2015 Prince Claus Laureate, an award created by the Dutch Government in 1997 to honor individuals and organizations reflecting a progressive and contemporary approach to the themes of culture and development.

Jelili’s comments after he picked the prestigious award: “I feel proud of my culture, the achievements of Yoruba Progenitors and all the people who have contributed to the creative energy of the race, Yoruba and all others tribes in Africa. It is a pride to have been born and living in Lagos, the most populous city in Africa.”

What Is Performance Art?

Not to be confused with the Performing Arts, Performance Art usually refers to the nontraditional art form often with political or topical themes that typically features a live presentation to an audience or onlookers (as on a street) and draws on such arts as acting, poetry, music, dance, or painting.

Performance art may be either scripted or unscripted, random or carefully orchestrated; spontaneous or otherwise carefully planned with or without audience participation. The performance can be live or via media; the performer can be present or absent. Performance art can happen anywhere, in any type of venue or setting and for any length of time. The actions of an individual or a group at a particular place and in a particular time constitute the work. Performance artists often challenge the audience to think in new and unconventional ways, break conventions of traditional arts, and break down conventional ideas about “what art is”.

Why did The Nigerian Police Arrest Jelili Atiku?

On the 14th Of January 2016, at about 5.40pm along Ifoshi Road, Ejigbo, a suburb in Lagos, Jelili Atiku stages a performance titled ‘Aragamago Will Rid This Land Of Terrorism’. His performance, like many others he has executed across the Globe, is outlandish, fearsome and full of visual meaning. Jelili is attired in luminous green biohazard gear, a gas mask, holding a staff of skulls and dragging a hefty bag filled with human body parts through the crowded and busy streets of Ejigbo, one of the most populous cities in Lagos.

About his ‘Aragamago’ performance, Atiku says: “It is a processional and public intervention performance with public participation. It borrowed heavily from the philosophical foundation of the statement by George Orwell, which was made in the book 1984,” he explained. In the book, Orwell says, “The object of terrorism is terrorism. The object of oppression is oppression. The object of torture is torture. The object of murder is murder. The object of power is power. Now do you begin to understand me?”


According to reports, his performance and its theme do not augur well with local authorities, especially a certain Oba Morufu Ojoola of Ejigbo, a local chieftain with whom Jelili has had a few confrontations in the past. ‘Oba’ status is not a small thing in Lagos. It is a title that connotes old superstitious power and with the modern age, political clout. Many familiar with the workings of Ejigbo Town claim Oba Morufu, with the aid of the Police and the Oodua People’s Congress (OPC), a highly militarized local vigilante group populated by hoodlums and criminals, wields power over the physical and the metaphysical. It is against this backdrop that Jelili’s outspoken protest art takes place right in the heart of Ejigbo Town, at the tripartite junction of Idimu road, Moshalasi street and Emi Egba street.

Three days after his performance, Nigerian Policemen, seemingly under the instructions of Oba Morufu Ojoola of Ejigbo, raid Jelili’s house, ransack his belongings, destroy artwork, molest his family members and then arrest him. He is subsequently jailed on Monday,18th January.

No official reason was communicated for the arrest of the Jelili, who spent three days in the infamous Kirikiri maximum security prison, after a hurried court ruling. The Lagos State Police Public Relations Officer, SP Dolapo Badmos, said in a text message that the ‘suspect’ had been ‘charged to court.’

We learn Jelili was accused of conspiring with 4 other persons to commit felony to with ‘public disturbance’ with his ‘performance’.

He is later released from illegal detention on 20th January.

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Farabale Weekly spoke to Jelili Atiku after his release and despite his traumatic experience, he is resolute in his response to the question: Will Jelili Atiku continue to perform? “YES. Jelili Atiku as an artwork will ceaselessly pose to engage the public in a dialogue on issues that affect our collective and individuals interests, which include aspirations, human rights, well-beings and human values. Of course, Jelili Atiku as an artist with social and political concern will continue to do his artworks even in the face of intimidation and prosecutions.”       

The Nigerian Art Community Reacts

Segun Adefila, Lead Masquerade of the Crown Troupe, on whether Jelili’s arrest and ongoing court case by the authorities was provoked by his stoking art performance: First and foremost, which is more preferable? To ‘usurp’ power with art or arms? The danger here is that art becomes stifled and at best hypocritical when it has to always massage the ego of the powers that be.”

Photographer and Video Artist Aderemi Adegbite, had this to say about the charges raised against Jelili Atiku: It’s a rape on freedom of expression and the right of an artiste  to  bare his/her  mind.”

Asked if the Art Community was doing enough to bring this case to public awareness, Mr Adegbite said The art community is interested in this case and we hope that justice will prevail. The situation is a pure infringement on human and artistic rights of the artiste.”


What Hope For Performers In Nigeria?

A few days after Jelili’s release, the artist community in Lagos receives another shock. Kabiru Yusuf, the Government appointed Director General of the National theater, who is largely regarded as a crony of establishment, accompanied by men from the Nigerian Police Force laid waste to the ‘Artist Village’, a sprawling settlement of singers, dancers, drummers, playwrights, writers and artists, annexed to the National Theater grounds in Iganmu, Surulere.  

Eyewitness reports claim at about 5am on 23rd January, the police arrived with guns and bulldozers, and forcefully evacuated the artists, any resistance was to be met with bullets or the baton. Many artists nursed injuries, and numerous priceless works of art were destroyed in the process.

Albeit claims that the settlement is ‘illegal’, many young artists have found a creative outlet for their youthful energy in this settlement, including Effiong Edet, a product of the Artist Village, who has gone on to be successful Art Director for major international productions. This madness is becoming a norm, and as you know, when some shylocks are given power, they misuse it and become tyrants to the society. This is the case of the DG of the national theatre. He has called for a battle and he will get it beyond his wildest imagination. Art is a profession and not a hobby I insist. Artists should be respected just as other professionals I insist. It’s time to speak truth directly to power.”




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