This is a series of four short entries in which I talk about my personal relationship, both imagined and concrete, to four African megalopolis: Lagos, Kinshasa, Addis Ababa and Dakar. The first one out: Lagos.
What are your touching grounds to a city? What images circle at the back of your retinas when you hear the word Lagos? To me, it’s all very vague and my mind wanders immediately to just about anything I happen know about Nigeria that is based on a real experience. Such things include the music of Fela Kuti, and a fairly recent and somewhat surprising visit of a group of Nigerian musicians playing Yoruba music in Saint-Louis. Or the British candid camera and street comedy by Three Non-Blondes. When I was still running a popular café in Brussels, I would create play lists with Fela’s groovy music and when played, both workers and customers would almost subconsciously start to make dance moves in between lattes! Even today, if you play Upside Down, you won’t see me sitting around for too long!
And more: Nigerian writers of course. The most obvious classics aside, Ben Okri and his famous spirit child Azaro are the dearest, with the ever re-occurring pepper soup playing an important role in Azaro’s adventures in this and the other world. And a little more recent reference: Noo Saro Wiwa’s fantastic travel book Transwonderland: Travels in Nigeria.* She is the daughter of the murdered activist Ken Saro Wiwa, and was brought up in the UK and at some point in her adult life she decided to get a grasp of Nigeria and rediscover what it really is all about in all its controversies.
I also have a fond memory of one Lagosian artist friend who traveled overland all the way from Lagos to Saint-Louis on a trail of ceebu jën, the national dish of Senegal. It has its varied Nigerian interpretations expressed in jollof rice and my friend would turn that into succulent artistic experimentation and memorable rooftop dinners.
Thinking about all this, it appears that the most powerful export from a country is its art and artists. I’m often wondering how that is taken into account in the decision making in whichever city we talk about. As far as Lagos is concerned, and judged by one book that I read recently, art really does matter in the minds of the policy makers. Hopefully this is true and not just beautiful words in a book! While I was browsing my library shelves, a book popped into my hand, it was the exhibition catalogue Dey Your Lane – Lagos Variations.** Exhibition catalogues are a wonderful invention, and this particular catalogue is a treat. So was the exhibition, with 24 photographers telling each their own stories of Lagos. The opening words to the publication, addressed by the governor of Lagos State Mr. Akinwunmi Ambode, make room for optimism in regard to my question. He stresses the fact that it is important to nurture homegrown talent and believe in the arts, and he talks about how artistic innovation and creativity are the ways to address important global issues. Mayors and governors the world over, listen to this man!
A couple of mentions from the book:
Logo Oluwamuyiwa Adeyemi: Monochrome Lagos (2013-ongoing) is my favorite series in this exhibition. He documents “the theatrical arrangement of almost everything in this great human carnival” and creates an amazing archival reference to Lagos. Have a look at his Homepage: and a blog entry where he asks: “If I stripped Lagos of the colour, what would I find?”
Samuel James’s series Lagos underground (2010) has also very powerful images on the ‘Area Boys’. The photographer talks about Lagos where “people flow like water” and continues: “Such is Lagos, with its twenty million converging souls, meeting, parting, flowing into and away from each other and back again. Such are these tales of passage into the Lagos dark waters – guided by its keepers, the ‘Area Boys'”
Bas Losekoot started to explore the role of the individual in some of the world’s most crowded cities and his subjects in Familiar Strangers (2016) are people in transit in Lagos. He talks about while commuting to the city, we wear masks of self protection in order to “detach from space and reality.” It’s about “being alone together and granting each other a certain space and freedom.” When I think of my own experience of Dakar, I could add that it seems to have an amazing base of “human interface” that provides a fast lane to engage with other city dwellers. Some might call this even frustratingly fast! It becomes ever more crucial to recognize to what degree you actually do need to wear a mask of self protection, it’s an ongoing game of private and public and how you share your time between the two.
Ever heard of rugball, the game that the Lagosians play on the beach? Adolphus Opara’s Rugball (2006-2009) documents this popular activity as a means to find a sense of belonging and keeping out of trouble, and how this game “comes with neither the cliché-ridden rules of football nor the unruly and confusing conventions of rugby.”
I am thankful to all these 24 photographers and many other artists, who by documenting Lagos bring this megalopolis a little closer in all its human richness and flux. At the very end of this catalogue there is also an interesting timeline about certain milestones in the history of the city, ending in predictions that Lagos, which by the independence in 1960 had about half a million inhabitants, will have grown to 36 million souls by year 2050. In case you’re wondering what dey your lane means: it’s yet another survival strategy in a city as big as Lagos: stay on your own lane, i.e. mind your own business! That in mind, I have put Lagos on my list of travel destinations, and that list is very short.
* Noo Saro-Wiwa: Looking for Transwonderland: Travels in Nigeria, Granta Books, 2012.
** Dey Your Lane – Lagos Variations, BOZAR BOOKS and Snoeck Publishers, Ghent, 2016.