The planned resuscitation of the now defunct Junkyard Museum of Awkward Things should excite a section of the local art public. But the Junkman would do well to lead his audience to new frontiers, argues Okechukwu Uwaezuoke
Here, perception is everything! Still, that inevitable eerie feeling persists. Standing on a gangplank amidst weird forms does something to a sensitive visitor: it makes his imagination begin to play tricks on him. The myriad of forms – human, animal and mythically grotesque –are contrived from discarded rusty metals, rags, decaying pieces of wood, soda or lager beer cans and tops and strips from old car tyres, among a miscellany of other things. But in this enclosure, they represent the physically-tangible thought-forms of the artist. Each of these grotesque contraptions seems to demand for the bemused visitor’s attention…
This scene: the interior of the Junkyard Museum of Awkward Things. It is really a repurposed lock-up store in a shopping centre along the Lekki Expressway in Lagos. The artist, Dil Humphrey-Umezulike – better known in art circles as Dilomprizulike and calls himself the Junkman of Afrika –holds court here as the lord of the manor. Or better still as a prophet from the biblical times.
Flip over to the present. The museum has long ceased to exist in Lagos. This was after it had been shifted to what could be deemed its permanent site in the Lagos outskirts community of Ajah. Curiously, it has reincarnated in a space at the Oriel Mostyn Gallery in Llandudno, Wales. Meanwhile, the artist – who has been recognised by the UK-based newspaper The Independent as one of Africa’s 50 greatest cultural figures – hopes to visit Lagos in April. “I’m flexing to reopen the Junkyard project,” he announces.
Indeed, his artistic practice and credo are woven around this Junkyard project. In other words, there would be no Junkman without the Junkyard Museum of Awkward Things. In this space, he seeks to breathe life into found objects and creates a special realm of existence for them. This endeavour could somewhat be likened to the political self-determination of the downtrodden. Objects that have been cast aside and left at the mercy of the elements now have a decent shelter. Previously deemed worthless, they are currently valued as art. Even as un-presentable and un-burnished as they might still appear, they are presented as “museum pieces”.
Also, ecology enthusiasts would also hail the artist’s solo efforts at ridding the environments of non-bio-degradable detritus. The Junkman, through his art practice, takes a swipe at a consumerist society, whose values are as fleeting as products they discard. According to the US-based Professor of Art history, Sylvester Ogbechie, “The Junkman’s interrogation of urban detritus is an increasingly sophisticated response to the obverse of globalisation’s allure, its ever-expanding legacy of industrial and consumerist waste. Unlike most artists with an apocalyptic vision, The Junkman seems to predict that social order is at risk not from some vast technological mishap (say a nuclear mushroom cloud) but that we simply risk being undone by waste. An organism dies when it can no longer separate itself from its own waste. The Junkman confronts polite society with the messy fact of its reliance on profligate wastage. His work is increasingly topical and accomplished.”
Topical it is, no doubt. Yet, it’s been a while since the artist, who then sported large dreadlocks, has graced the Lagos exhibition circuit with his presence. If his installations are easily recognisable, it is because of their unique mixed media compositions. An example is “Waitin’ for Bus”, one of his exhibits at an Africa Remix show in the UK.
Perhaps, one of his classic installations is “Wear and Tear”. He describes it “as a concept”, which “attempts to expose the often overlooked and underrated elements of the African-Urban communal life which largely influence it.”
“The alienated situation of the African in his own society becomes tragic,” he continues. “There is a struggle inside him, a consciousness of living with the complications of an imposed civilisation. He can no longer go back to pick up the fragments of his father’s shattered culture; neither is he equipped enough to keep pace with the white man’s world.”
Then, there are also his performances, which are no less engaging. A quick dissolve to sometime in the not-too-distant past. The venue is the former Goethe-Institut’s creek-side premises along Ozumba Mbadiwe Street, Victoria Island, Lagos. The Junkman is standing before a seemingly attentive audience as “Professor Junk”. Using a chalkboard, he explains what looks like a mathematical equation meant to denote the society’s decadent values. Another performance, “Who wan’ Visa”, is a commentary on the hellish experience Nigerians face while applying for an American visa.
Really, the performances are no more than complements to his installation pieces. One of the earliest of these alluding to an orange seller was one of the events at the opening of the Junkyard Museum in Lagos, which drew the venerable Ghanaian-born University of Nigeria, Nsukka-based conceptual artist, Professor El Anatsui.
The Junkman’s narrative art takes a swipe at the decadence of Africa’s moral fabric. He blames the governments for their ineptitude and mocks the people for their gullibility. Among his kindred souls in the continent, he arguably stands out as the most cerebral and the most acerbic. So far, his renown has earned him invitations to 2006 edition of the Dakar Biennale and the third Guangzhou Triennial in China in 2008, among other events. In 2010, he contrived what he called “Busy Street” for the Herzliya Museum of Contemporary Art in Israel from local rubbish to reflect Israel’s consumer society.
The 56-year-old’s artistic pedigree has since dwarfed his academic credentials: a BA degree in Art from the University of Nigeria, Nsukka and an MFA from the University of Dundee, Scotland. Several workshops and residencies have further burnished his profile.
Being away for so long from the local contemporary Nigerian art scene has undoubtedly hurt his renown. For among the younger generation of artists, there are several to whom his name fails to ring a bell. Even among those he once regaled with his installations and performances, there are probably a few who still vividly recall his themes. This is one good reason why he needs his planned resuscitation of the Junkyard Museum of Awkward Things.
Yet, beyond what he has always been known for, his devotees would probably be drooling for something new.