As a female voice in a male dominated society, Peju Alatise is an artist who has never shied away from exploring the harsher sides of reality. Her work has dealt with difficult topics in Nigeria, such as the kidnapping and enslavement of 234 girls by Boko Harem (many of whom are still missing), repressive state policies or the common practice of teenage girls being forced into arranged marriages. Yet despite this critical stance against the present, Peju’s work also contains hope for a brighter future, especially one for Nigeria and her people. Peju’s practice spans multiple mediums including textile, sculpture, painting, architecture and writing but has always stayed rooted in her heritage.
U.Mi-1 is a brand inspired by the diversity of culture and to the communities that art and fashion can connect. Never one afraid to speak her mind, we catch up with Peju and ask her about contemporary Nigerian culture, traditional craftsmanship, her current work and cultural issues that need to be fixed now.
Please briefly introduce yourself and your practice.
My name is Peju Alatise, I practice visual arts and architecture professionally and write when I’m not working.
Like U.Mi-1, your practice is heavily inspired by Nigerian heritage and the present. How do you see Nigerian culture today?
Nigerian culture is influenced by so many ‘contaminants’ (I do not use this word in a bad way). No culture can boast of purity in any case. With an estimate of 200 million people with hundreds of languages, the diversity makes an interesting cocktail of traditions and nuance; then you throw in external influences, social media, contemporary lifestyle… it would be quite the task to simplify in a few words.
You took part at the first Nigerian Pavillion at the Venice Biennale in 2017 and have exhibited internationally. How does it feel to present Nigerian culture on the world stage? What are some things unique about Nigeria and her culture that you want the world to better understand?
I would be reluctant to assume myself as a purveyor of Nigerian culture. I’m more of a critique of It. It is easy to describe Nigeria in terms of its politics and economy but quite the opposite when describing Its people and culture. When I have to engage in cultural subjects, I zoom into a part of one of its ethnic groups and explore their mythology and cosmology.
I guess in a way, my work is to tell stories that evoke a sense of empathy and offer a connection that though we’re different, we are essentially the same.
You’ve mentioned that Yoruba culture is a big source of inspiration of your work. U.Mi-1 is also heavily inspired by the diversity of tribes in Nigeria. How important is it to you to keep this connection to your roots alive and relevant to contemporary times?
My grandmothers were a big part of my childhood. Their stories and folklore are today a big part of my narratives. They are very much a part of who I am and how I identity myself. It is absolutely natural for me to engage with these parts of my life. I cannot hide from myself.
Flying Girls (2016). Exhibited at the 57th Venice Biennale, 2017.
U.Mi-1 also works with traditional textile makers in Nigeria to reinterpret these craft for a contemporary audience. What are some other ways you think these traditions could be made relevant for today?
The best way to remain relevant is to attribute value to these traditions. But so much as to be fixed first. Infrastructure such as better education, roads and basic utilities have to be in place. It’s a long road to recovery but it’s possible.
What projects are you currently working on? What do you hope to explore/research in these projects?
I want to go deeper into yoruba cultural practices I want to explore the histories and how it connects with the rest of the worlds. These connections are necessary to understand especially now that we live in a more divisive world.