The under-carriage of the popular Famolo Bridge linking Ikoyi and Victoria Island is being transformed by British-Nigerian artist Polly Alakija. But Solomon Elusoji wonders if Alakija’s murals can withstand the threat of miscreants who are in the habit of defacing public infrastructure
The Falomo Roundabout is busy, as vehicles go in circles, making their way in and out of Awolowo, Bourdillon and Kingsway roads. The Falomo Bridge, which connects Kingsway to Akin Adesola Street, stretches over the roundabout and at one of the columns that supports the bridge, Polly Alakija and her team are at work.
Alakija is one of Nigeria’s finest contemporary artists. In 2013, she held a hugely successful exhibition, Here and There, at the Wheatbaker, Ikoyi, displaying 62 pieces of her works that span 24 years of art. Her medium varies from pencil sketches to chalk and charcoal drawings, but have the striking similarity of painting for a figurative picture of the world. “I am moved to paint because I want to share the beauty I see around me,” she said, in a 2013 interview with this writer.
Alakija was born in 1966 in Malvern, England, and studied Art at the Oxford Polytechnic, before later completing a teaching diploma in the Montessori Method. She had her first exhibition when she was 18. In 1989 Alakija moved to Nigeria, where she married and subsequently began a family. Since 2005, she has worked in Nigeria, South Africa, and England and has exhibited both internationally and locally. Nowadays, she finds herself doing more of mural art, focusing on educational projects and holding small, quiet exhibitions.
At Falomo, Alakija is recreating paintings of women on the bridge’s columns. Women are a recurring theme in her works and they appear at Falomo Bridge as symbols of strength, as important components that allow societies function properly. “A lot of people have asked me ‘who are the women?’ They are nobody in particular,” she said, in an interview with THISDAY. “The first time I met these women is when I’m on the column painting; they are representations of women as pillars of strength; they are silent, they’re strong, they carry this heavy burden.”
A cursory look at the paintings on the columns, which were still ongoing as at the time of writing this piece, reveals that all the women are facing one direction, which creates an emphatic effect on the viewer. “What I want to achieve is for you to see rows and rows of faces looking at you, emphasising the strength of the imagery, of the women,” Alakija said. There are also representations of cowry shells on the columns, which Alakija notes is intended to speak about Five Cowries Creek, a distributary near Falomo.
It is palpable that she is much interested in the history of the spot on which she’s working on. A close look at the columns that have been painted reveal tree shapes and branches sprouting at the edges. “As I progress, I will be bringing in more of that,” she said, “because when I was thinking of what to paint here, I was thinking about the history of the site, what was here 50 years ago, what was here 100 years ago. And I think a lot of young people in Lagos today are not hugely aware of their cultural and natural history. And the reality is two hundred years ago, this spot was probably a mango swamp.”
But she’s not particular about people fixating on the metaphors conjured by the imagery, stemming from her belief that art should be as figurative and visually invigorating as possible. “My project brief from the Commissioner for Housing (the direct initiator of the project) was to create an inspirational mural,” she said. “So I want whoever looks at this to feel good about life, to feel a bit uplifted.”
Alakija’s work at Falomo is not limited to beautifying the columns. There is also a re-landscaping aspect to it. She was contracted by the Lagos State government, as part of its urban regeneration programme, to transform the much-trafficked spot into a pleasant environment. “It’s all part of Lagos State’s plan for urban regeneration,” Alakija said. “We are re-landscaping all of it, uplifting the whole area and part of that is the artwork. It’s about making them safer, more pleasant and more secure and it’s also about having a more socially inclusive city. So, it’s about creating a pleasant environment for everybody in Lagos State.”
Although the job is to be completed by May 27, Falomo Under-ridge is already exuding creative vibes. “I see a lot of people driving round and round several times now so they can see what’s going on; I have quite a lot of people come in the afternoon after work to see the progress,” Alakija said. “So that’s what this is about – it’s taking art out of the gallery, bringing it to the streets, and using it to reach out to people who’ve possibly never been in contact with art before.”
But, one wonders, what happens to the regeneration when it is completed? In Lagos, it is common to see graffiti, banners and posters of all sorts on electricity poles, flyovers, and walls of public and private properties, defacing the city’s face. The major culprits are religious centres and politicians, when electioneering season surfaces. Although the state government, through the Lagos State Signage and Advertising Agency (LASAA), continues to work tirelessly in clamping down on individuals and organisations involved in such environmentally degrading activities, the fear that Falomo’s regeneration would be tainted persists.
This, however, is not a future that worries Alakija. She has been involved in several public display of art and she reckons that people tend to respect beauty. “We do have a certain commitment to make sure it’s maintained and looked after,” she said. “But in my experience, when you regenerate a place like this, when you put in something beautiful, people tend to respect it. I’ve never had an issue with street art before; the murals I paint rarely get defaced. I think the community usually are proud of it.”
She could be right. She has worked with school children from Kuramo Primary School and Archbishop Taylor Nursery and Primary School to create artwork on two BRT buses currently on the state’s road. There is also a mural which is currently being displayed on the walls of Kuramo Primary School that has not been tampered with. Perhaps, art might be the way to go if public spaces in Lagos are to be kept out of the reach of reckless defacers. And considering there are similar projects – most notably the ones at Stadium Road, Ojuelegba and LASUTH, Ikeja – to the one at Falomo going on at several spots in the city, it seems the authorities have taken note.
Meanwhile, an aide to the Lagos State Commissioner for Housing who spoke on condition of anonymity, said there are measures that have been put in place to ensure that the space is properly maintained and kept pristine. “There are a couple of things that we have put in place and are still going to put in place,” the aide said. “For example there is security; we will ensure that the project is not messed up.”
By May 27, Alakija should have painted her last column and Falomo Under-bridge transformed into a public space befitting of Lagos’ burgeoning megacity status. “I think it’s brilliant that Lagos State is embracing this,” she noted. “If I think about the process I would have to go through in the UK to get a public commissioning like this off the ground, you’ll be talking about years in process. I feel grateful that I have been given this opportunity and I am very excited that Lagos State is supporting the arts.”