Migrants & Miscreants: The Illuminating Art of Muyiwa Akinwolere

Akinwolere stands by 'Those Who Are Crushed (NorthEast)By Pelu Awofeso

Muyiwa Akinwolere is hammering tiny holes into a dozen or so flattened Coca-Cola cans when I walk into the building in Ikeja government reserved area (GRA), where he is currently living out a Visual Arts Residency Program instituted by Ventures Africa. Shortly, he moves with the cans a few meters away, where a blanket of red cans, already stringed together, covers a large portion of a lawn. The picture that comes to my mind is that of blood gushing from the neck of a cattle just slaughtered.

“This is a work I titled Those Who Are Crushed, and there is a large percentage of them really,” Akinwolere says a few minutes later when we sit down for a chat. “The idea is to show the Nigerian angle to terrorism.” The second work in the series, Those who Are Crushed—NorthEast, which hangs from the roof of a bungalow behind him, is 50% done and is made from cans of various brands of drinks; when completed, it will take the form of a map of the North-East part of Nigeria.

“This is to show the impact of terror on the populace in the region. I discovered that these cans have been used by Boko Haram as part of the materials to produce Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) and felt they would be very useful for my narrative,” the graduate of Fine Art of the Obafemi Awolowo University says. “Later, the cans will be perforated and some parts burnt to depict gun shots and bomb blasts, both constant features of insurgent attacks.”

Akinwolere with two of his paintings (titled Fencing} reflecting on leadership in Africa Two other works are closely related to the ‘crushed’ series: Tapestry of Unrest and Flash in the Pan, both executed on lithographic plates, a material Akinwolere is experimenting with for the first time in a decade-long career. “Tapestry concerns issues that have snowballed into terrorism in Nigeria,” Akinwolere says, while walking me through all the works he has completed in the past six months of his residency, and which will be exhibited in 2016.

“When injustices have been allowed to go on for a long time, people look for different means to express their anger.”

Flash in the Pan, done on lithographic plates and measuring 10 ft. by 7 ft., hangs on a wall in the compound, outside the already packed studio space, glittering in the afternoon sun. It is a work I admire for its unique character and vibrant color scheme, one I would gladly buy if it went on sale. “When Boko Haram first reared its head [sometime in 2002], we all thought it would be a flash in the pan,” Akinwolere explains. “But we have since been proved wrong, as recent events have shown.”

Within a week of my interview with Akinwolere, the insurgents struck again in both Yola and Maiduguri, the city in North-Eastern Nigeria where the Islamic sect first wreaked havoc, repeatedly bombing worship centers, kidnapping and killing hundreds of civilians.

Besides Boko Haram, Akinwolere is also painting the migrant-refugee crisis, which is currently pressuring Europe into action and has now become a global headache. In April, 2000 migrants braved the dangers of travelling on the Mediterranean Sea, hoping to arrive in Europe. Since then almost one million civilians—mainly from the Middle East—have fled their countries, seeking asylum in Germany, Italy, France and Sweden.

Akinwolere with two of his paintingsPrior to this recent surge, migration was thought to be the exclusive preserve of Africans.

“For me, the migrant issue didn’t start today—it only increased in recent years,” Akinwolere says. “I also learned recently that the Spanish government is trying to send their jobless nationals to former Spanish colonies for work. With the ‘Migrant Series’ I am thinking about mobility and movement. I am thinking of dispersals. For so many reasons, people need to find work and they won’t stay where there is a sort of dryness or economic downturn. They will move to where they perceive greener pastures. So, you see, it goes both ways.”

Pelu Awofeso is a Travel Journalist and Author. He is also the winner of the CNN/Multichoice African Journalist Award in Tourism.