Project Akido – Monumentalizing African excellence to the world
History’s earliest records tell us that art in its various forms was a fundamental part of African civilization. A quick browse reveals that from the spoken word that was used to keep legacies alive, to the timeless inscriptions on cave paintings and the intricate designs of monuments erected by our ancestors, it is clear that the predisposition to lean on the power of creativity as a pillar for our development is innate. Today, the impact of our musicians, artists and writers has positioned Africa’s creative prowess as one of her most globally competitive exports, even though we are yet to scratch the surface in unearthing the full potential of art as a bankable industry. It is on the backdrop of this that the partnership between the Sao Foundation and 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair titled “Project Aikido” is writing itself into what will become the history of the evolution of African art and music from being token to becoming normalized beyond the continent’s shores.
Project Aikido is a vehicle created to bring African art and music to the global ecosystem of artists, makers, and community organizers who co-create art, events and local initiatives called “Burning Man”. This festival takes place annually in Black Rock City, a pop-up metropolis that is co-created by participants in the Nevada Desert, United States. Beyond the communal and participatory spirit of the festival that draws tens of thousands of revelers annually, the Burning Man is a showcase of some of the world’s most monumental artwork. The colossal pieces on show along with the participants of the festival whose list includes a wide range of high net worth individuals and tech giants such Mark Zuckerburg and Elon Musk has cemented the Burning Man’s role as a major influencer of popular culture, design, music and business. Project Aikido will be the first to introduce African art to this prestigious gathering.
The call for artists to submit their work for this prestigious opportunity birthed the marriage between Project Aikido and Usha Seejarim, the South African artist whose creation ‘The Resurrection of the Clothing Peg” will tower in its 14 metres of immensity as Africa’s ambassador at Black Rock City this year. The monument which is being built in Lagos, Nigeria is a deconstructed clothing peg that stands on one branch of the clothing peg, supported by its spring and made up of steel pipes – a symbol that is meant to provoke thought about monumentalizing the what is often viewed as the banal domestic role of a woman.
“A clothing peg is genderized, it is associated with the roles of a woman. The function of a peg is to hold things together, but if you clip it onto your skin it hurts. But if you strip away a part of it, its function is taken away. In this part of the world, women’s roles are very much defined along these lines, but what if we were to monumentalize dissecting these roles?” says Usha about the symbolism that is represented through this sculpture.
Usha Seejarim is no stranger to this scale of project as she is best known for her work creating the 2 metre tall beaded portrait of Nelson Mandela that stood as the backdrop to his state funeral. However, this particular project is undoubtedly a much more personal expression of her journey as an artist. Her distinctive signature is her use of domestic objects that are otherwise deemed ordinary to create discourse around female roles in society.
“I became more aware of ordinary domestic objects when I became a mother”, Usha shares as she narrates how this direction in her work developed just as intuitively as her embarking into a career as an artist. “In high school I had a choice between 4 subjects, including Arabic and Home Economics. I faced resistance from my step father who saw Art as a hobby”, but even when her choices were not entirely understood, she followed her heart. “I don’t think they really know what I do, but they know it’s a big deal” she says referring to her family who now support all her work.
Her journey is representative of two major narrative shifts that are represented by “The Resurrection of the Clothing Peg”, encouraging the acceptance of art as a career and business to Africans at large and contributing to a global conversational deviation from what is stereotypically African. Project Aikido is an embodiment of African excellence, as it is dominated by the values and ideals centered around a selfless sense of community and collaboration to achieve a goal.
“Every time I get off a call with anyone on this team I can’t help but reflect on how selfless everyone is, and how involved everyone is. In the West the artist is God, but in this project we are all working together to make it happen” Usha shares with a sense of admiration for her team mates.
Once the project has been completed, in the true spirit of furthering art and its development on the continent, a percentage of all proceeds will be donated to the Sibikwa Arts Centre in Johannesburg, South Africa. This center promotes and provides quality arts education to South Africa’s youth. Financial proceeds are not the only thing that will be repatriated after Burning Man, “The Resurrection of the Peg” will be brought back to Lagos, Nigeria where it will call the new National Theatre home so we can all have an opportunity to marvel at this monument that symbolizes the essence of African excellence at work.