One Love: Keep Us Together
This gallery conjures up the bedrooms of two masqueraders in an encounter with their inner worlds. As a place where the spirit dreams and shapeshifts, the bedroom is a prism refracting and projecting their lives. The bedrooms belong to veteran urban masqueraders Neenukuu Kpogah (green room) and Nicholas Kuapie (blue room). Both live in the slum community of Ibadan Waterside in Port Harcourt. Neenukuu is a drummer, dancer and youth leader, and works as a security guard. Nicholas, a tall, slim and well-dressed 44-year-old, works as a driver for a wealthy Port Harcourt entrepreneur. Both are members of a Port Harcourt troupe named Gwara Cultural Dance Group. Their motto is the cry ‘One Love!’ to which the group responds ‘Keep Us Together’. Each room is a near replica of their bedroom. The sheets, shirts, shoes and artefacts that appear in the videos were gifted to the artist to furnish the installation. But these are not just bedrooms, they are ‘heartscapes’, a reflection on power, poverty, strength and vulnerability.
The larger videos show the men in repose against the sounds of their breath and their heartbeats. The smaller videos depict the interaction between landscape, dreams and desires as the men move through their slum to the waterfront. The videos feature the men’s favourite films: Nicholas is a devotee of the Arnold Schwarzenegger film Commando, and Neenukuu adores the films of Bollywood veteran actor Darmendra. These portrayals of strong men motivated by duty appeal to these family-oriented men who occupy the violent underbelly of Port Harcourt. The flag waving that appears is an important and powerful gesture drawn from Agaba processions. The black flag is particularly significant. According to Nicholas and Neenukuu, when the artist’s father, Ken Saro-Wiwa, was executed they began to fly a black flag to signal their grief for their fallen hero. It represents a choreography of grief and perhaps catharsis.
The bedrooms open out directly onto the noisy narrow streets of the Ibadan Waterside. It is a community filled with the sounds of one-room churches, family homes, repair shops and convenience stores. The thrum of daily life is infiltrated by the constant buzz of petrol-fuelled generators providing the power that the city’s grid does not. The films in the vitrine also feature the sound of Agaba masquerade from Neenukuu and Nicholas’ own group. This is the cacophony of dreams colliding with hardship; the sound of survival, performing as a heartbeat. The drums of Agaba, like the sound of the generator, keep the lights on. For despite the hardships there is a tender sense of love and closeness at the waterside. And we begin to understand the reasoning behind the cry ‘One Love!’. And its plaintive response: ‘Keep Us Together’.