The urgent need for a Utopian space | Jelili Atiku

The very first edition of the ‘Utopian Nights’ will be taking place in front of Castille Square and Herbert Ganado Gardens on July 29 – headlined by acclaimed Nigerian artist Jelili Atiku... who almost didn’t make it to Malta after his visa application was deemed ‘unconvincing’ 

Performance by Jelili Atiku – the acclaimed artist had just exhibited his work at the Venice Biennale before having his visa to Malta rejected
Performance by Jelili Atiku – the acclaimed artist had just exhibited his work at the Venice Biennale before having his visa to Malta rejected

The very first edition of the Valletta 2018-enabled Utopian Nights will take place on July 29 at 18:00 at Castille Place, where the acclaimed Nigerian artist Jelili Atiku will present a performance piece in front of the contentious ‘migration monument’, designed by local artist Vince Briffa to commemorate last year’s Valletta Summit. 

However, the performance’s original workshop element – where Atiku would have been invited to engage with the local scene for a three-week stay following a stint at the Venice Biennale – had to be excised from the programme due to draconian bureaucratic impositions by the Italian consulate in Lagos. 

His performance at Castille will be followed by a debate at the Herbert Ganado Gardens, starting at 20:00. At the entrance to the gardens, a soundscape of the city of Lagos, Nigeria, recorded and produced by Nigerian artist Emeka Ogboh, will be playing, in which the audience will experience audio-displacement as they pass through a foreign soundscape.

The debate will discuss the present works of Atiku and fellow artist Emeka Ogboh, along with Italian actor and art director Domenico Castaldo and anthropologist Prof. Paul Clough from the University of Malta. Both speakers will confront their aesthetic experiences and their thoughts on migration and displacement with the public. The final part of the night will include a free party in the garden, with the participation of a Malta-based Kenyan rapper Abbas Kubaff, followed by two DJ sets by Emeka Ogboh and Julien Vinet.

Speaking about Atiku’s ordeal with the Italian authorities, Elise Billiard Pisani, the coordinator of the Valletta 2018 strand under which the Utopian Nights fall under, expressed her dismay and disappointment at the way that this acclaimed artist – whose work had just been openly recognised at the prestigious venue of the Venice Biennale – was denied access to the country on what were, ultimately, crass economic grounds. 

Atiku was denied his visa at the last minute, and while the combined efforts of the Valletta 2018 Foundation and the Maltese Embassy in Rome will hopefully ensure that he will at least be able to visit the island three days prior to the July 29 performance, the original setback has robbed Atiku of the possibility to engage with the Maltese cultural scene more directly, given that he was then unable to attend a planned three-week artist’s residency in Gozo. 

“When asked to justify their decision, the Italian consulate in Lagos referred to Atiku as a ‘so-called artist’ and said that his visa was rejected because he did not have enough money in his bank account a few months ago, referring to this as a ‘classic case of a migration risk’. Not only was the reference to Atiku as a ‘so-called artist’ grossly humiliating and just inaccurate... it was also preposterous to reject his application simply on the basis that his bank balance was low at a particular distant point in time. Like all applicants, Jelili had to provide a bank statement which proved that his account was sufficiently funded. Jelili presented a complete application. This rejection demonstrates the arbitrariness of visa grants.” 

Atiku is a Nigerian multimedia artist with political concerns for human rights and justice. Through drawing, installation sculpture, photography, video and performance (live art), he strives to help viewers understand the world by expanding their understanding and experiences, so that they can activate and renew their lives and environments. For over a decade, Atiku has put his art at service of the prevailing concerns of our times, especially those issues that threatening our collective existence and the sustenance of our universe. In 2015, recognising Jelili Atiku’s commitment in transmitting a bold yet sensible message about human rights within Yoruba traditions and codes, he was awarded the prestigious Prince Claus prize.

Billiard Pisani expressed dismay at the fact that Atiku’s original bureaucratic setback has prevented him from engaging more directly with the Maltese cultural and social environment. 

“He has not been allowed to exchange with other artists in Malta, not allowed to enjoy three weeks to build up a unique Maltese performance, inspired by the Gozitan atmosphere and people. He did not have the opportunity to be properly interviewed by Maltese journalists, the pleasure to discuss the Maltese situation with Prof. Paul Clough or with me. It was clear that Italian administration in Lagos did not consider these things to be valuable. In fact it seems that they thought dubious that an African artist, even a widely acclaimed artist like Jelili, could come for a month residency in Europe...”

However, Atiku’s performance will hopefully go on, and should take place in front of the ‘migration monument’ at Castille – in large part because the monument itself appears to be loaded with meanings that are ripe for unpacking. The monument represents the relations between Europe and Africa, but Billiard Pisani remains puzzled as to why “immaculate Carrara marble” was chosen as the main material for this monument, since “the relationship between these two continents is anything but white...” She also emphasised that the event is supposed to be commemorating the ‘Migration Summit’ which only served to reinstate the protectionist approach Europe takes towards Africa. 

In fact, the mission statement of the Utopian Nights – for which the July 29 performance, discussion and party is an inaugural event – appears to be set up to confront such injustices in an equitable and accessible manner. According to Billiard Pisani, the ‘Nights’ will aim to brings together “artists, thinkers and the public to discuss important social issues related to four themes: displacement, borders, encampment and the rise of global commons. Here Utopia is a democratic space – it is a platform for discussion and a participatory project in which everyone can debate, challenge and be challenged equally.” 

Crucially, Billiard Pisani adds that “utopia is not for dreamers; not for the lazy escapist; not for people who can afford to live an ideal life in their own private spaces. The Utopian Nights are intended to provide a space for democracy where other alternatives can be discussed. Each Night will culminate with an open party, providing the participants with an opportunity to get together.” 

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