The art of travel

Visiting Nigerian conceptual artist Olaniyi ‘Akirash” Akindiya is one of those people with the uncanny ability to bore his way into any scene.

Gregarious and big-hearted, he can turn what could be a mournful sojourn into a meaningful stay.

Since he has been in Johannesburg he has met many people, in the process building relationships — and not in the way that they advise at management consultancy workshops; at those workshops it is about building a contact base, never really about knowing people.

Akirash, who approached me at a gallery opening on the day he opened his show, Isicelo/Petition, has been in South Africa for several weeks on a Commonwealth Connections international arts residency. He is based in Austin, Texas, and was a guest of the Tupelo workshops, an initiative of the Bag Factory Artists’ Studios, which, under the leadership of Sara Hallatt, has become a vibrant venue for Johannesburg’s visual-arts crowd.

The two-week workshop brought together about 20 artists, including Zimbabwean sculptor Tapfuma Gutsa, Cape Town painter Dathini Mzayiya and Ugandan collage artist Benon Lutaaya.

Dedicated and innovative
The Nigerian artist, winner of one of the seven 2011 Commonwealth Connections international arts residencies awarded last year, was described by a critic as ‘one of the most progressive, dedicated and innovative artists of his generation in West Africa”.

In its citation, the Commonwealth Foundation noted that ‘his work is daring, original and informed by both the world and global contemporary art practices, while remaining true to his West African identity”.

One of Akirash’s stated aims is to ‘immerse” himself in Zulu and Ndebele cultures. Some of the works in Isicelo/Petition are portraits of people whose faces have been painted in a manner reminiscent of the Ndebele. About this, he said: ‘I make statements on people’s faces and bodies by using [traditional] symbols, signs, proverbs [that] are fading away.”

He said the purpose of his current exhibition was to examine Johannesburg.

His show looks at the lives of the underclass and their struggles to lay a claim on a space they can call their own in the city. His current show is derived largely from found objects, including paper and old car lamps, which he has made into intriguing forms.

The itinerant artist, who was born in Lagos, is currently in Cape Town, where he is taking part in the Infecting the City festival.

After he takes down his show in Johannesburg, he will travel to Tanzania for more than a month before returning to Austin, where he is preparing for a solo show in September. After that he will go to Ghana where he is expected to build a studio for women artists he has been working with for four years.

Asked what he made of the ­Johannesburg art scene, Akirash said the city could accommodate more venues to encourage the development of the arts, adding: ‘I’m not seeing much collaboration among artists here.”

runs at Nirox, Arts on Main, corner of Main and Fox streets, in Johannesburg’s CBD, until March 10

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Percy Zvomuya
Percy Zvomuya is a writer and critic who has written for numerous publications, including Chimurenga, the Mail & Guardian, Moto in Zimbabwe, the Sunday Times and the London Review of Books blog. He is a co-founder of Johannesburg-based writing collective The Con and, in 2014, was one of the judges for the Caine Prize for African Writing.

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