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Issue 234

Ayo Akingbade Captures Capitalistic and Personal Rituals

At Chisenhale Gallery, London, the artist uses documentary and drama to look into colonialism, loss and spiritual awakening

BY Finn Blythe in Exhibition Reviews , UK Reviews | 09 JAN 23

‘Show Me the World Mister’, Ayo Akingbade’s latest exhibition, begins in near darkness. At Chisenhale Gallery, the artist has tinted the high windows to a hue redolent of the colours created in West Africa during the Harmattan season, in which a dusty breeze blows from the Sahara. Two new films – The Fist and Faluyi (both 2022) – set in Nigeria, the country of Akingbade’s parents’ birth, play consecutively in the space. The installation, divided by a central seating axis in aluminium, steel and polycarbonate, underlines the thematic separation between both works while alluding to the gallery’s industrial past as a veneer factory and brewery.

Ayo Akingbade
Ayo Akingbade, The Fist, 2022, installation view. Courtesy: the artist; photograph: Andy Keate

In The Fist, Akingbade follows a working day inside the Guinness brewery in Ikeja, Lagos, the first to be built by the company outside of Ireland and the UK, in 1962. Though the brewery’s establishment succeeded Nigerian independence by two years, Guinness had already exported to the continent since the 19th century, with its original distribution network based on established colonial shipping routes around West Africa. By the time of the plant’s completion, Guinness – or, at least, the more potent Extra Foreign Stout variation, brewed to withstand lengthy transportation – was long cherished in Nigeria as something culturally its own.

Akingbade’s film speculates on the legacy of this enduring colonial vestige, employing fixed, regimented shots that mirror the mechanical processes of the brewery’s production line. Through her lens, the factory becomes a relentless agent of order. Brown bottles are corralled along endless conveyor belts, adding to a deafening cacophony that prevents spoken communication among the workers. The film is reminiscent of Bert Haanstra’s Oscar-winning short Glass (1958), which depicts the juxtaposition of artisanal glass blowers with mechanical factory work. Though Akingbade evokes something altogether eerier in her densely woven industrial soundscape. However, like Haanstra, she opts to show us wastage: broken bottles and spilt stout are hastily swept away. 

Ayo Akingbade
Ayo Akingbade, ‘Show Me the World Mister’, 2022, installation view. Courtesy: the artist; photograph: Andy Keate

Akingbade toys with ideas of subjugated labour and control while leaving plenty of room for interpretation. The lingering wide angles emphasize the scale difference between the hulking machinery and diminutive operators. The title, The Fist, is a source of ambiguity. Does it refer to a symbol of solidarity, a salute against oppression or something more violent?  

On the other side of the central axis, Faluyi represents a stark departure from The Fist, swapping documentary for drama and industrial interiors for the verdant hills of Idanre, Akingbade’s parents’ hometown. Faluyi is a more personal contemplation of the artist’s relationship with Nigeria. The main character, Ife, is a young girl coming of age in the wake of her father’s death. Shot on lucid 16mm film, Akingbade makes full use of Idanre’s unique topography, interweaving the myth and mysticism of ancient burial sites with Ife’s conflicted spiritual awakening. Ife surveys her valley with mournful eyes after a euphoric ceremonial dance on top of a prayer mountain. Then, in the following scene, the closing shot, she disappears into the night on the back of a motorbike, her glittering party dress a joyful farewell. 

Ayo Akingbade
Ayo Akingbade, Faluyi, 2022, installation view. Courtesy: the artist; photograph: Andy Keate

The Fist and Faluyi relate to Akingbade’s Nigerian heritage, and both films explore ritual: one daily and monotonous, the other transitional and transcendent. Faluyi exemplifies Akingbade’s growing confidence in short, scripted dramas. In style and content, the film is reminiscent of Jitterbug (2022), a drama short commissioned by Artangel, chronicling a day in the life of an 18-year-old student in Hackney, east London. Both are shot on 16mm and follow the emotional passage of teenage girls into adulthood. In her Chisenhale exhibition, Akingbade’s deft handling of different genres – documentary and drama – adds further nuance to her wider investigations into colonialism, labour, loss and coming of age. 

Ayo Akingbade’s ‘Show Me the World Mister’ is at Chisenhale Gallery, London, until February 05. After Chisenhale, the exhibition will travel to Spike Island, Bristol; The Whitworth, The University of Manchester; BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead; and John Hansard Gallery, Southampton. 

Main image: Ayo Akingbade, Faluyi, 2022, installation view. Courtesy: the artist; photograph: Andy Keate

Finn Blythe is a writer based in London.