Tales of Trauma in Wana Udobang’s ‘Dirty Laundry’ Show

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Water and soap may wash off the blood stains from a rape victim’s clothes, floors, and walls but not the dark memories. At the ‘Dirty Laundry’ exhibition inside the new Whitespace, Ikoyi, the multidisciplinary artist, Wana Udobang, fondly called Wana Wana, interrogates multi-generational stories of sexual abusive, rape, and then other traumatic experiences using poetry-themed installations. Yinka Olatunbosun reports

Two women are washing clothes in basins inside the exhibition hall. A notice on the wall invites others to bring their dirty laundry. A sight of the hung Installations-unframed prints- was a throwback to a time when homes had fabric calendars: our childhood or our parents’. Wana Udobong, a globe-trotting performer has the mastery of transporting the viewers through trauma, personal experiences of self and others using deftly crafted poetry in mixed-media installations.

A history predates the ‘Dirty Laundry’ exhibition: the spoken word artist performed one of her poems in tears at another part of Ikoyi- Bogobiri House when this idea first struck. She, like many women today, bears the burden of inglorious narratives that the world, at its hypocritical best, doesn’t want to hear in public. In 2013, she released her first spoken-word album titled “Dirty Laundry.’’ With this first solo exhibition, she unleashes a cathartic experience.

“I like to call it a documentation of my personal history and those of others,’’ said Wana at the opening of the show. “But, I didn’t see myself as an artist. And as we grow, we always seek permission in our minds. I kept shoving off the idea to the back of my mind. In 2020, I finally thought of the idea of putting that dirty laundry in public. It is a metaphor of shame; putting your business out for everyone to see.’’

With support from Ford Foundation, the project-having survived the pandemic- comes alive, beaming light on deeply agonising stories of domestic violence and sexual abuse. 

In ‘Thick Skin,’ the tone seemed casual for the weight of the nerve-wrecking revelation: an uncle molesting a little girl and a father making his daughter take his supposedly poisoned tea. The first-class graduate of the University for the Creative Arts draws upon personal stories to captivate her audience with portraits of poetry.

“The poem called ‘Dorathy’ is named after my mother and it is actually about my mother. I have written some of these about five, six and seven years ago. But it lets you know what is happening in Nigeria and to the people that those same stories that happened in the 80s are also happening now.’’

The cringe-worthy piece “Epitaph for Girls Who Want to Stay A Little Longer” is dedicated to women who lost their lives to violent marriages. No doubt, social media has helped to amplify stories of women like these but the experiences are not new.

“I hope that in my sharing these experiences in poetry, more people feel courage. Silence thrives in loneliness and isolation. There are a lot of things that happened to women and we are encouraged not to talk about it. Everyone is going through the same things in their homes and they are quiet. The violence and assault continue to thrive because we are not talking. Nothing is changing. If we can all put our dirty laundry out there, then something can start to shift,’’ she said.

When asked if washing dirty laundry in public wouldn’t rob the survivor of personal dignity, Wana responded with rhetorical questions.

“Who determines personal dignity? Who says what is dignified and what is not? I don’t think it is by force to share things. I have always wanted to interrogate the idea of what is dignified, what is classy. When is it dignity and when is it that we are hiding shame? Our culture is preoccupied with perfection or the appearance of perfection. We are very good performers-we perform perfect families. We cry inside,’’ she said. In her view, the culture towards gender-based violence and abuse of minors needs to change – erasing stigma- before laws can be effective. 

In 2020, Wana was selected to participate in the 54th International Writing Program Fall Residency at the University of Iowa to join the ranks of notable writers such as Elechi Amadi (1973), Cyprian Ekwensi (1974), Ola Rotimi (1980), Femi Osofisan (1986), Niyi Osundare (1988) Festus Iyayi (1990), Lola Shoneyin (1999), Obari Gomba (2016) and Tade Ipadeola (2019).