Wakaabout Series: Beauty from the Ashes

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An installation-by Olanrewaju Tejuoso

By Pelu Awofeso

A “green” museum aims to save the environment, one piece of waste at a time. In this Wakaabout Series, Pelu uses the pidgin English term for “one who is always on the move”, waka about to guide you through this unique museum tour.

Olanrewaju Tejuoso is sobbing as he talks about Restoration, one of many installations he has crafted from trash and is on display at the Aroko Green Museum in Abeokuta, capital of Ogun State. He has spent the past hour walking me through the exhibits, explaining the inspiration for and meaning of each when we get to the spot where Restoration is mounted.

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Abeokuta is the largest city and capital of Ogun State The city is 48 miles (78 km) north of the City of Lagos, Lagos State and the population is around 600,000. Photo/Dilemma-x.net

In addition to all sorts of found items stitched one to the other, Restoration is poke-marked with holes. This moment is a trip down memory lane for the artist and the pain it arouses is written all over his face.

“The holes were created by termites. I discovered the damage when I began to put the pieces together,” he says, trying to hold back the tears.

“I had spent a long time working on it and I could not imagine exhibiting such damaged work to an audience.”

Though shaken by the experience, Tejuosho still willed himself to join the pieces together and he came off the episode learning a lesson: “If you want to show the world that you have passed through ups and down in life or that you have accomplished a lot, then you must have signs or scars to show. This is the message I want people to draw from looking at this piece. The termite holes, with their rough and irregular edges, are the scars in this case.”

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“Local Market Foreign Goods” Olanrewaju Tejuoso

On the day I visit, Tejuoso he is wearing a native cap and a collarless indigo-dyed shirt (in blue and black hues) over a pair of faded blue three-quarter jeans, a style that I later find out is now almost uniquely his. He is introduced to me by fellow artist Olusegun Adeniyi, and a moment later we are in a taxi heading towards the museum; on our way, Tejuoso speaks about how he stumbled upon the building (in October 2012) which now houses his creative collection, the hard work of clearing the pile of rubbish inside and the days of scrubbing and scratching that went into transforming the place into the clean and airy space visitors see now.

“There was red mud and rags everywhere; even the terrace floor was all covered with grass,” he says gently, his voice almost strained, from guiding a dozen guests through the installations earlier. “But thankfully, over time, I have been helped by friends and supported financially by a local pastor who, to my joy, is a keen supporter of the arts.”

Now three years old, the museum is stuffed with Tejuoso’s clever (and at times philosophical) art; from the smallish “Those who Dine with the Devil” positioned delicately at the entrance—the doorways and window panes are bare—to the huge “Megacity”, which I instinctively assume to be a clear reference to Lagos, Nigeria’s commercial capital.“No, it is about any megacity in the world,” he clarifies later.

Crusader for the environment

Tejuosho’s concern for the environment and his interest to preserve it began by chance in 2009 when, while riding in a taxi with a friend in the university town of Nsukka (southeast Nigeria) —where he then lived—he flung an empty sachet of water out of the window. He was immediately reprimanded by one of the car’s occupants, who educated him on the non-biodegradable nature of the nylon sachet.

“That was the first time someone sat me down to lecture me on the environment,” he says. “I never thought of having a museum on the environment. Now I have a passion for the environment and this museum grew out of that passion.”

That passion, and the delightful art in the museum, seeks to help enlighten people about how society can make a thing of beauty out of what are generally considered to be disposable. In totality, it is also about the economy, politics and so much more. “It is about humanitarian service, it is about the destitute among us, it is about the solid waste that are a danger to the environment and how they can be reformed into something more useful to the society,” he says.

But long before that fateful day in Nsukka, Tejuoso had been creating art with objects he picked up from refuse dumps. “I started working with waste sometime in 2000 when I was in the College of Education here in Abeokuta but I didn’t know anything about installation art or if it could have meaning. That was before I got into the university (He studied Fine Art Education), when I was influenced by the art of so many people I met.”

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Olanrewaju Tejuoso explaining an installation at the Aroko Green Museum

At the university, one of Tejuoso’s lecturers was the acclaimed installation artist El Anatsui, whom he describes as “a personal mentor”. In the early years, Tejuosho’s creations were based on the concept of rest and so he made use of sleeping-mats a lot and a good number of his works imitated Anatsui’s; but a decade on, Tejuoso’s art has matured with him and the works inside the Aroko Green Museum. He is an artist who is now comfortable in his own skin, conditioned by his multiple influences and who has developed a style that he can call his own.

“The bar codes, which one finds on the packaging of many consumer goods nowadays, are what I am using for my designs now, because many of the materials I pick from the refuse dump are bar-coded,” he says.

Green Classroom

Tejuoso’s works are a confounding yet soothing mix of disused household items and discarded packaging of consumer products collected from Abeokuta’s refuse dumps and environs; if anything, the works show in colorful detail our present—and mouth-watering—consumption habits as Nigerians, a silent interaction between producer and consumer and, more critically, a collision of competing brands. There is everything here: from wraps of confectionery and noodles to airtime recharge cards and beverage cans. Awoko Green Museum might as well be a classroom to study consumption patterns and brand preferences.

Pelu Awofeso is an award-winning travel journalist and blogger. See more of his travel stories here. You can also plan a specially curated trip through Nigeria’s scenic places with Travel Next Door.