by Elaine McGinn
I missed registration. I had previously received emailed instructions on where to meet the other participants at 3 pm; I pushed my way through the heaving crowds at the main entrance to the Biennale and eventually located the empty dressing room. I was early, so I took a walk in and around the main gallery and located the Jelili Atiku installation space.
Returning to the dressing room, I noticed a heavy curtain drawn across an upstairs gallery space; I pulled back the curtain and there before me, like a modern W. Blake Vanitas scene: an explosion of shimmering fabrics and reflective surfaces, the female form in many shapes and sizes and at various stages of dress, gathered in groups around the walls and light filled windows. Some of the participants were already adorned in various shades of pink, some in silver and gold metallic gowns, complete with long flowing sleeves and trains. Artiku’s description of the costume alluded to the Yoruba deity known as Yemoja, movement of sea and waters, so I had expected a Goddess style but the sumptuous vision before me, far exceeded my expectations.
Missing registration left me uncertain as to whether I would take part in the performance. I was anxious to learn if my presence was needed so approached a group of women who were busily working with scissors and staple guns. Two of the young women were adapting a smaller dress to fit the larger frame of a third, who stood upright with her arms outstretched between the fitters. Not put off by the fact that I hadn’t registered, they asked me to wait while they found a suitable dress. As I waited to be fitted, I began to consider the nature of the performance that I now knew I would be part of and it was about to begin in a matter of minutes; I was, excited by and grateful for the opportunity to Perform in such exquisite surroundings and with a successful Performance Artist. I consulted my received instructions again, and noted that “… direct attention was to the promotion and enhancement of feminine energy and freedom.” J.A. It wasn’t long before two women were frantically cutting down the sleeves of a glittering pink costume, explaining that the dresses had been mixed up and there were only very small sizes available.
The performance began. Seventy-two women of many nationalities and ages began their performance, walking down a flight of stairs, straight into the Biennale crowds. I made my way from the Cordererie area in Arsenale, Venezia towards my designated position. My agitation was mounting, tripping over my dress and standing on he trains of others; I was pushed and shoved by members of the paying public vying for photographs: the ‘Goddess’ had entered the lions’ den. I felt cold, irritated and detached. I had arranged for my photographer to capture a few shots of the piece, but the performance was kept within the confines of the Biennale, and the prohibitive cost of the entrance fee made it impossible for photographers and others to view – there would be no personal record of the event.
Arriving at the Giardino delle Verini we found our designated number card and positioned ourselves, each in front of a cubic structure of cane and cord. Inside the structure was a wooden plate, a layer of soil, a bowl and a carved wooden figure that we were to carry for the entire performance.
Wearing a carved wooden headdress, a form of female attire influenced by the D’mba of Baga people of Guinea, Jelili Atiku navigated his way through the rows of women and distributed brass figurine necklaces to each of us. An assistant carried a large wooden stump-like structure on his head. The headdress, called The Universal Knowing Body, was studded with 72 long, rusty nails and its weight a noticeable heavy burden on the assistant whose face dripped beads of sweat onto the path at his feet.
The next stage we would be led by Atiku to the edge of the Giardino delle Verini and at the steps of the canal we would board, 6 women to each boat, and taken 10-20 metres out to sea; we were to scoop a little of the sea water into the wooden bowl and return the water via canal to the other side of the garden. Suddenly I became aware of the many difficulties and dangers implicit in the proposed ritual: slippery steps; hot sun and trying to maintain balance clambering in and out of the boats whilst using both hands to hold onto the cubic structure and its contents. My concern for the older women in our numbers was increasing but somehow, seventy-two Goddesses managed to escape injury and we found ourselves back on shore.
The final stages of the performance proved to be as prescriptive as the opening. The artist, exalted on a white horse, resplendent in a shimmering gold suit, led us through the Biennale main building and into his installation space. Assistants rushed to cattle ranch us into a disorderly queue where we were to “release our power of human development and creative energies”. Some of us held hands in an attempt to muster up some sense of authenticity in the performance. At one stage, we wrapped our necklaces around the rusty nails on “The Universal Knowing Body” whilst the artist lashed together our cubic structures with rope, perhaps an offering to the female inspired wooden headdress maintained a solid presence in the centre of the space.
The aim of the performance, to promote and enhance feminine energies, had somehow fallen short. This Goddess felt cut-off, belligerent, obstructive, annoyed and sometimes fearful during the performance; perhaps not the artist’s intended emotional response but, at least it was honest and real.
The performance seemed to rip through my own sense of what it is to be a woman in the world today, making it difficult to find some emotional authenticity with which to fill the performance. My tenuous connection to the work was further lessened by the remoteness of the artist throughout; a lack of appreciation for all the women who had spent a great deal of time, money and energy – that feminine energy that made Akito’s project possible was completely overlooked.
In the days since, I have pondered on the original ethos of the work, the concept that proposed to deliver a powerful female experience and soon my thoughts were drawn to that moment I pulled back the curtain and saw the very pulse of femininity surging through the women in the dressing room.
It was in this nourishing creative arena that I was reminded of Julia Kristeva and her adoption of Plato’s idea of the chora, meaning “a nourishing maternal space” (Schippers, 2001). The idea of the chora, with reference to the uterus and containing certain elements of symbiotic care, continuously presented itself in a place where real creative energies came to the fore.
The young women ‘dressmakers’, who had been plucked from the invisible team of administrative Staff at the Biennale, became the unlikely Goddess makers and embodied the role of the Mother. A kind of doll play emerged: cutting, ripping, stitching, joining, and maintaining a quiet resilience throughout, brought seventy-one Goddesses to life. I was mesmerised by their blunt bladed scissors, ripping and slashing through the uneven fabric, like a kind of brutal re-enactment of a birthing scene; the idea of separation through the violence of shredding and rupturing actions reminiscent of Kristeva’s term “abjection”.
Thrust into a demanding situation: to turn seventy-two women into Goddesses, the dressmakers carefully attended to each of us, they were efficient and remained calm and dignified. They rose to, and exceeded the challenges with limited skills, tools and materials and yet produced many original garments. Now THAT was the real performance that promoted and enhanced feminine energy and freedom but unfortunately, there wasn’t a man on a horse to give it status.
Jelili Atiku’s Mama Say Make I Dey Go, She Dey My Back took place on 12 May 2017 at the preview of the 57th International Art Exhibition at the Venice Biennale in the Arsenale.