Peju Alatise is paying it forward but she hadn’t realised it would cost so much.
She will pay in full, still.
We have met three times, in as many weeks talking about her new venture: a first of its kind artists’ residency dedicated to the visual arts in Nigeria. The venture will also house a ceramics studio, another first.
It is to be called the Alter Native Artists Initiative (ANAI).
ANAI does not necessarily have anything to do with the provocative sculptural installations through which Alatise has made a global name for herself as a visual artist, over a two decade career; and has won her commercial and critical acclaim.
Her works command hammer prices in thousands of pounds at auctions all over the world. A few weeks ago she won the FnB Joburg Art Fair Prize worth R100, 000, the flagship award at Africa’s leading art fair given to ground-breaking artists.
ANAI is entirely non-profit.
The first time I meet Alatise it is in her home and studio in a Lekki Expressway gated estate and on a rainy day. Though I have woken her out of sleep, she recovers gracefully. Throughout the interview, she offers jokes, we swap stories about incompetent Taxify drivers, while she shares how and why and the frustrations of setting up a non-profit foundation and ceramics studio in Nigeria. She tells me the solar power provider she hired to provide electricity - because of unreliable government supply - has taken the money but not provided the service and is also missing. The money she is at risk to lose has many zeroes and has given her many migraines. Also, the Standard Organisation of Nigeria had her jumping over bureaucratic hurdles and slipping money under tables to approve the importation of the equipment the Foundation requires.
The second we meet, it is in a coffee shop and Alatise has just left a meeting where she was pitching the foundation to possible partners: cultural institutes of international embassies. She is visibly excited about the possibilities of not carrying all the weight herself. She orders a fruit cocktail that’s laced with an energy drink. She talks with her hands. Her laughter fills the room. She rehashes however she is in a legal tango with the Corporate Affairs Commission who have refused to register the foundation in the name she wishes.
The third time we meet, and subsequently over the phone, the frustrations are piling. The gardener she trusted to grow plants that will carpet the grounds of the foundation has killed all the seedlings. The web designer is not picking the phone. Her financial advisors have warned that the overheads of this project are nearing suicidal heights.
"We have faced all kinds of challenges and these challenges are not business challenges," Peju tells me, in her home.
"We haven’t started facing challenges of market, production, and staff. But in Nigeria you must waste money before you even start."
The idea for the foundation came from a personal need and history.
Alatise found herself constantly constrained in the materials she wanted to use, in how she wanted to express herself as she became more adventurous in her work. She wondered how artists of lesser means or training got by.
In addition, she had taken an early interest in ceramics and has always wanted to explore the under-utilised resource, as well as inspire a revival of the now moribund industry.
"In Nigeria, you don’t have to drill 200 feet into the ground to find clay. You step on it everywhere," Alatise says.
"Ikorodu is entirely clay, that’s the soil structure. Around every lagoon is clay. The raw materials for clay is there."
Also, she had found it difficult to engage with international artist colleagues who had expressed interest in collaborating with and learning from local Nigerian artists. There is currently no standard means for them to.
Finally, she wished to engage and empower women in the community with creative training via which they can create goods which will turn create a source of income for them.
The Foundation seeks to solve this quartet of needs.
It is a purpose built residency that will facilitate training of Nigerian emerging and established artists. It will provide space for them to engage in self-chosen experimental, traditional and contemporary projects taken on board through applications or produced from training by international experts in the field.
It will be a bridge of exchange between international and local artists. World class experts in chosen mediums will train local artists on same. Local artists will engage with industry best practices. International artists will tap inspiration from the cultural and artistic wellspring that is Lagos. The foundation will be a platform for mutual exchange of ideas, culture and experiences.
ANAI will be a custodian of long-standing creative and cultural industries - ceramics in particular. Alatise hopes her setting the example, creating a successful ceramics module - of production, quality control, e.t.c. - in her studio will lead to it being repeated elsewhere. According to her research, the ceramics industry was crippled in the 80s due to the economic policies of the then military president, General Ibrahim Babaginda. Today?
"It is easier for me to bring in 300 containers of ceramic plates and cups than for me to bring in a kiln."
"We don’t make coasters. We don’t make tiles but we can import a million of it."
The kiln is the equipment the S. O. N. extorted money from her for.
Alatise hopes the studio will attract emerging visual arts talent fresh out of school, accomplished artists like herself from all over the world, established Nigerian artists who need space and time to explore new and hopefully socially conscious, collaborative projects.
Also, against all odds, she insists the studio will be ready. In two weeks.
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