by Roisin Jenkinson
My performance, “Mama Say Make I Dey Go, She Dey My Back” at La Biennale di Venezia 2017 integrated the intersection of processional rituals, fashion, mystical and abstract sound, and rituals with natural resources and objects. It is created to direct attention to the potency of feminine energy, body ritual and ontology so as to serve as a point of reasoning and catalysts to our utopia. The focus here is to create discourses on re-thinking on the essence of women to the wellbeing of humanity and activate a shift in consciousness towards the direction and adoption of the values of feminine energy. It believes that enhancement of feminine energy and freedom of women would release the power of human development, peace, harmony and creative energies in the world.
What could happen with 72 women in one room? In this social media crazed world, we read and hear a lot of gossip about grown women feuding with one another, for reasons that become irrelevant. This affects how we see the world and each other, convincing us that women can’t get along with other women. I have known this to be a falsehood, because I have grown up surrounded by incredible and inspiring women, whether they’re family, friends, work associates or even celebrities I see online, but even then a part of me expects the rumors of feuds to manifest out of some truth. Which is why it is beautiful to see young women today, such as in the pop industry, supporting one another, and when I walked into the ‘behind the scenes’ space where we prepared for Jelili Atiku’s performance Mama Say Make I Dey Go, She Dey My Back at this year’s La Biennale di Venezia, I immediately felt the warm energies of all of us.
After Jelili conveyed passionate words of encouragement and gratitude (among the technicalities of the performance), we began getting ready in beautiful purple-royal dresses that reflected light. We had some difficulty getting the dresses on, because the measurements weren’t exactly right, however we exchanged dresses and helped each other getting them on, and that support was extraordinarily beautiful to witness and experience. Wearing the dress, I felt like a princess and it brought out my child-like joy.
Before we headed outside to perform, all 72 of us held hands in a circle and made the ‘huuu’ sound which we would make towards the end of the performance; the first sound we all hear when we are in our mother’s womb. This circle of connection which was unseen by the public, I realised as the performance progressed, was essential to the feeling of connectivity I felt throughout.
At about 4pm we stepped outside, beginning our walk, beneath a blue sky with the sun beaming down on us and our dresses coruscating from it’s rays of light, towards our destination. I felt proud to be a woman, which manifested in the way I walked with chin level to the ground and a slight smile as I observed people observing us and capturing a shade us on their phones. That simple act of stepping out where others can see you, added a feeling of communion greater than 72 to that of connection. We were not just representing ourselves or even just women across the globe, but we were representing humanity as it should be; connected in communion with one another.
When we arrived at the official starting point of the performance, we each took our place while Jelili walked row by row (in full costume) handing us a necklace of a small brass figurine one by one, to which we would breathe into it 3 times, symbolising the transference of our energy like how God breathed life into Adam. As we waited for everyone to receive a necklace, I worshiped silently, thanking God for his perfect timing and marveling at how the Holy Spirit has been moving to bring me and all who’ve experienced the event to this moment of communion and connectivity. For instance, how the sea levels rose the previous night, flooding San Marco’s square, was evidence of nature responding to the feminine energy. In accordance to my faith, which is the core of my identity and being, it was the Holy Spirit working in nature with the tides to let us know this is the right time. I also observed our pathfinder, Babatunde Elufidipe, who lead the way the performance would take while carrying on his head the sculpture, entitled Universal Knowing Body, that represented the pain we (women) go through once a month. I could see him struggle under it’s weight with the heat of the sun beaming down on him, which gave me deep reverence and gratitude towards him that I projected a prayer of strength and endurance for him. Throughout the performance, I constantly looked all around me at the beauty and wonder of it all.
When we had all received the necklaces, we picked up the cubic structure in front of us – containing a Opon-Ifa (Yoruba divination tray) with earth, a Iroke-Ifa (Yoruba wooden female divinity figure), and a calabash (bowl) – and followed Jelili and Babatunde in single file to board the boats. This is the part I was most anxious about, because I cannot swim, but with careful steps, cautious measures and a helping hand, I got into the boat. I clung to the seat as we were paddled out, but the beauty around us comforted me, casting out most of my fear. We filled the calabash with water and after a few minutes on the water, we were brought back to shore. What I found interesting is how when we were on the water, the audience were back on land, creating a distance between us as if we were going away for a short time in order to reconnect with nature and regain some energy through rest to then return re-energised to re-connect with people on a stronger level. I cannot separate this from what I believe, so to me we were very much under the influence of the Holy Spirit within nature.
We waited for each boat to return to land one by one before continuing our journey of communion and connectivity. Some of the women forgot to fill up their bowls, but instead of being too proud to share, those with water gave some to others without. This is one such example of the support between each of us. I cannot think of a better word other than it was Beautiful to be a part of. It was really nice to have my sister performing with me, but as we were waiting for the rest of the boats, I found myself constantly looking behind me to see if she got off the boat yet, depicting the big-sister-worry and the bond between us of blood being thicker than water. While the connection between us as women was strong, the connection I had with my sister was stronger, adding another deeper level to the performance.
Jelili then rode a beautiful white mare and we followed them and Babatunde (who was still carrying the sculpture) to the final destination of the performance where we positioned the containers on the floor and one by one removed our necklaces to wind them on the nails of the sculpture, making ‘huuuuu’ sounds as we lined up. I do not know how to describe those final moments, but the whole performance was building to this feeling, this energy, this atmosphere the created an experience of Community, Connection and Beauty.
After the performance, when we were back in ordinary clothing, my sister and I returned to see Jelili connecting all of our containers and the Universal Knowing body with a string and my-oh-my, there it was.
It was such an incredible and empowering time to experience. My gratitude to Jelili Atiku goes deep for, on a personal level, giving me this opportunity to perform and be a part of this, and on a wide scale, for understanding and presenting the importance of women to the world. I also want to thank Babatunde Elufidipe for his strength and the 71 women I performed with for their support and the Holy Spirit for bringing us all together. Each one who performed, whether woman, man or horse, has their own story to tell of that day. I am but one of 74.
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. Photographs by Aderemi Adegbite.