I feature this article by Odun Orimolade DEVOURING MONSTERS: THE COSUMERIST CANNIBALS OF MAY OKAFOR’S APPLE TRAY INSTALLATION, written for May Okafor’s exhibition Of Consummates and Cannibalism at The Revolving Art Incubator, Silverbird Galleria, Lagos.
Beasts of desire…
The installation “…Of Consummates and Cannibalism” by May Okafor addresses a systemised infiltration of the Nigerian commercial environment and society by extension. Off the beat Okafor assumes the stance of a satirist observing and in very Nigerian fashion challenging our status as a nation that is cannibalizing our future. In this she traces the evolution of our desires that have led us to blatant consumerism and how this trajectory has led us to the state of recession we are confronted with in contemporary Nigeria. Also how our over dependence on foreign goods and services plays out in our current situation. Okafor decries how we as a nation hardly export anything to the countries that we bequeath our economic reserve by promoting foreign education, health, technology, entertainment, food, and all other plethora of minuscule needs or wants we may have.
The Apple fruit is the case study subject for Okafor’s visual discourse. In this she engages current trends in the open Nigerian fruit market as reference point for other local goods and commodity markets in the society. The apple is a fruit that is entirely imported into the Nigerian local market and in Okafor’s words has “become even more common than oranges and other home grown fruits”. Everything about it then is alien and instead of being exotic, it is as mundane and common as home-grown fruit in its popularity. As such the apple-packaging product (which becomes waste in a country that also has challenges in waste management) becomes material and a metaphor for consumerism and cannibalism. The Styrofoam apple packaging crates as the main material of the installation addresses the seemingly careless disposition of the nation towards importation and consumption of foreign goods.
Strangely enough, a lot of these products have nothing to do with direct advertising. Instead, they are based on social orientation. Majority of the Nigerian citizens are still under the colonial chains. This is such that what comes from outside, no matter what it is, is perceived to have better value and to be trusted than the domestic ones. This Okeke describes as not allowing people to think. Here mass consumption of foreign goods is drowning mass production of local goods. This makes people complacent and germinates a continued dependency that incapacitates (Okeke 2015).
May Okafor uses a visual that employs ideas of the insatiable anthropophagic to demonstrate how an archetypal metaphorical subject of cannibalism appears in Nigerian daily life. This she approaches in the critique of social striving for consumerism that is anchored in a want for foreign goods and services. She postulates an ethical decadence that damages national development through an orientation of blind consumerism in favour of non-Nigerian goods and services. The prevalence of this kind of consumption is projected in the spread and the movement of her site-specific installation. The installation connotes the depth of developmental handicap that lies within the apparatus of orientation that fuels this consumer idealism. The installation visualises a bewilderingly poor minded society that results from an illogical and unconstructive drive to consume and acquire. The installation could be apprehended as an intensely dismal allegory depicting wastefulness and denied gumption in the weaving of our post colonial history as a nation. In this the accomplishments, knowledge and understanding that wisps as part of our pre colonial history become fables of a different people. These qualities are inapplicable in our modern day development where we are largely dependent on external accomplishments and cultures while eating out avenues of progressive internal exploration. Through her work, Okafor presents a mirror that affirms we are cannibals of foreign consumerism. We have adopted a consumer culture of unconscionable appetite for imported items with the equivalent local ones suffering negligence and large scale derision.
The results are grotesque, much like the literal definition of cannibalism. In her work, Okafor links the object of the package to cannibalism through the consumption of the commodity. This she uses as a reference for all other consumables in goods or as services within the Nigerian market.
As a people, we succumb to the mental attitudes related to the phenomena of pleasure and euphoria that does not add up to satisfaction. We easily become addicted to things of vainglory rather than positive sociocultural/ socioeconomic things. This describes the counterfeit culture that is in fierce battle with self sustenance, sufficiency and self approval that revolves around the consumption of foreign produce huge quantities and cheaper prices. In this case the physical product not what feeds the need, rather it is the fact that it comes from outside the locality. It feeds the delusion of lack of self worth, while feeding into the concept of mediocrity and fuelling this hunger to ‘be like’ or elevate by adoption. The deception is that it only panders to the feeling of being better or attaining some elevation in the adoption of something foreign as an after effects of self loathing that may be accrued to demoralisation through the influence of a colonized mental state. These social challenges are associated with the arguments of decolonization.
The physical installation imbibes a constellation of forms similar to that of tadpoles cut from the Styrofoam apple crates. This Okafor intimates that by nature tadpoles become cannibalistic when there is inadequate food or space. This trait is likened to the infiltration of imported goods in the Nigerian open market and how they completely overrun locally made goods. The organic swirls and turns of the installation echo the unpredictability of the corruption that fuels the spread and growth of the kind consuming products that beguile our populace out of miss-orientation.
Meaning is garnered from the very material of the apple tray itself as much as the development of form that Okafor pushes with action of cutting. This performative quality that is embedded into the process of the installation brings the closeness to the issue in individual experience of the activity. The action to disseminate through cutting or the development of new form from pre existing form advocates re orientation and re shaping of the value system and channelled thought processes concerning the issue at hand leaning to the idea of restructuring of dispositions to the ideas behind the actions that create the installation and the reference to contemporary Nigerian consumerism. The form here follows function and lends a subjected honesty to the generation of the resulting form. This is helped by the evidentiary quality of the material used. It adjuncts the plausibility that it does not just represent but the sensual experience navigates the audience through the experience developing new knowledge and reflection by interaction.
In relation of the material to the subject in itself the composition, it poses characteristics of that which does not degenerate fast. This reference lends itself to the strength of the orientation of the consumerist culture. On the other hand it is also has the characteristic of being a very highly flammable substance that would disintegrate and could likely expand in its reach of destructiveness. This speaks to the idea of eradication alongside concepts of adopted imported ideas that do not favour the development of the Nigerian economy. This is supported in Derrida’s reaction to the issue of material in the process of deconstruction and the value of its etymology and beginnings within the issue of the discourse itself. He was of the opinion that every structural phenomenon has a history and the structure cannot be understood without understanding his genesis. This brings us right back to the apple and its place in the Nigerian market as a position point for all other goods and services that occupy dominating positions in the flow of the commercial industry. Through the chopping, cutting and shaping of form, Okafor mixes cynicism with productivity to create an enlivening aura for the required reflection desired for re orientation. The installation ambiguously removes the tray object from its functional context at the same time retains a contiguous alley to that function in itself and the broader extensions of meaning and the realities that it highlights.
The site specific nature of the installation opens up for a fundamental condition of free-flowing intensities for expression; it also underlines the mutative quality of the issue being addressed in that it permeates a plethora of areas of commercial activity in the Nigerian society. The developed form is allowed to grow into any length to which its materiality can extend at the same time existing within the impetus of the artist as a communicative system where she can curb and puppeteer her visual narrative.
Okafor’s installation aims to cut and rework perceptions of what has gradually invented itself as a norm within our social culture. This she does by exposing its ferocity and generative qualities in consuming the hopes of progressive development and self approval within an over bearing pressure of influence through past colonial states, pop culture and systematic orientation. Her presentation of the blatantly apparent yet unseen evidences and reconstructing their manifestations in their occupation of local commercial space, forces a review and reflection of their means and access within our environment. The ruins of the deconstructed Styrofoam tray in the installation create avenues for new intensities of experiencing the mundane and apparent and challenge a notion of human agency that fortifies the monsters that we allow to feed on our society.
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By Odun Orimolade, 2017
(This article was published with permission. Odun Orimolade is recipient of several academic awards, including the Prof. Y. A. Grillo award (1998), Nigerian Cards Ltd Award (1998), Rector’s Award for Academic Excellence (1998), Jeromelaiho and Associate Award (1998), Insight Communication Award (1998), Fasuyi Art Prize (1998) and Conrad Theys Bursary Award, South Africa (2011)