Working through an Impasse: A solo exhibition by Ndidi Dike
In early 2020, I was already at work planning a major solo exhibition of new work in a range of media. At the time, I envisioned titling the show, “Intersections and Realities of An Aesthetic Vocabulary.” As the title suggests, I was really thinking reflexively about the conceptual and material engagements found in my past work—engagements with the aesthetics of marketplaces, assemblage, globalization, second- hand politics, structures of commodification, and the ever-changing realties of world trade. Yet, all of these plans were necessarily upended by the unexpected arrival of COVID-19. The pandemic not only redirected the questions I was asking of my own work at the time, but also prompted me to seriously reflect on the role of the artist in moments of crisis, which, in turn, provoked me to recalibrate ideas for the show. The traumatic unleashing of the coronavirus pandemic – a deadly respiratory disease – has and continues to claim countless lives and wreak havoc on communities the world over. The pandemic has affected the disenfranchised, and has permeated, in some form or another, all societies, whether those on the fringes, or the center. Moreover, it has impacted the privileged affluent, making its way up the highest echelons of the social and political strata. It has indiscriminately infiltrated life the world over, impacting people regardless of their gender, race, sexuality, creed, or politics. It is, in principle, the ultimately leveler.
The works in this exhibition, “Working Through An Impasse,” constitutes a varied and complex response to challenges wrought about by the pandemic. Not only did the virus bring the engines of global capitalism to an abrupt halt, but it has also eroded the myth of the West’s invincibility. At the beginning of my sequestered lockdown in mid-March 2020, when ordinary life in Nigeria and other parts of the world was on pause, I found myself going off on tangents, my mind racing in so many directions during the self- imposed isolation. To be honest, one must acknowledge that a lot of artists and people in the creative sector actually live a relative life of solitude anyway. In circumstances like this, there is often the assumption that one will have more time to produce tons of new work. Perhaps, ironically, for me, this was not the case. My response was initially the complete opposite, I went into a deep freeze of sorts, a reflective mode and period of anxiety about my future as a full-time artist. What’s more, I found myself overly concerned about the social, economic, and political impact of the virus on Nigeria, my country with its population of 200 million plus people. What about NEPA? The daily wagers who make up 80 percent of our informal economy, and who live precariously from day-to-day in and beyond Lagos, Nigeria’s heartbeat and commercial center. How on earth can we adhere to social distancing in our markets and “face-me-face you” accommodation?
During the pandemic, I spent considerable time researching various hypotheses about not only the pandemic’s origins, but also its resonance with more deep-seated social and political issues that have motivated both my artistic practice and ethical orientation as a human being. I felt it was important to view the crisis from both micro and macro perspectives, for I believe it is only through these optics that one could marshal an adequate response. As is often the case, the micro perspective set me to thinking about Nigeria, and the distance between the country’s sovereign emergence in 1960 and the current situation, eighty years later. Are we more equipped medically, socially, politically to handle the pandemic—which continues to rage, in new permutations, across the globe as I write these reflections? Taking a macro perspective, I spent a lot of time posing the same questions of other countries on the continent, and those in other parts of the global south. In this time of crisis, it’s crucial that we situate our perspective and ethics at the nexus of the the local and the global, as the world renowned curator Bisi Silva would often remark. For me, it’s as critical that my work be borne out of references to global discourse, and take stock of local contributions in the sense of acknowledging the insight of continental thinkers and those across the global south. During this period of reflection, I found myself gravitating toward the words of probing intellectuals and thinkers such as Achille Mbembe and Arundhati Roy. The writings of both authors expose the fragility of our co-existence and co-dependence; their work speaks powerfully to the symbiotic relationship between nature and the “environment.”
In developing this exhibition, I wanted to mark out new formal and technical approaches to problems that remain unresolved—problems that present themselves in a new guise under the lights of COVID. These are questions concerning globalization, consumption, market culture, and the pandemic itself. In this new body of work, I respond to the collective experience of quarantine and isolation, inequities surrounding sanitation and health, recent histories of racial and political upheaval, and the exploitation of natural resources and human labor. The pandemic pointed up for me that these various concerns are not discrete issues that impact single societies. Rather they are all interconnected and world-effecting. They constitute an impasse, that must be worked through.