A ‘green’ museum aims to save the environment, one waste at a time. Story by Pelu Awofeso
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 this spot where Restoration is mounted.
In addition to all sorts of found items stitched one to the other, Restoration is pockmarked 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.”
On the day I visit, Tejuoso 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 terrazzo 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 a year 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 (south-east 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 they 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.”
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 show 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.
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 colourful 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 confectionary 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.
The museum’s collection might be all engaging but they are no consolation for the versatile mind that is Tejuoso. They have taken all and every available inch of space available and the artist is thinking of expanding. After a half-hour travelling through Abeokuta’s dusty suburbs, I literally feel a breath of fresh air when I step into the museum, housed in a three-bedroom apartment in an abandoned building on the outskirts of town. Compared to the sunny weather and activity of the peasant population outside, the museum is cool, quiet and calming on the inside, the effect of the surrounding shrub.
“This is the only place I have for now and I am managing it. I have run out of space to add more works, so I am looking for a bigger place,” he says as he tells me the message behind the installation titled Inner Strength, a three-object piece placed side by side in much the same way that medallists do at the Olympics. It is a tribute to self-motivation and success. “What I am saying here in essence is that it is not our father’s assets that determine what we become in life, but what God has deposited in you and what you make of it,” he says, referencing Jamaican Usain Bolt’s astonishing achievements in global athletics in the last three years or so.
“Poverty of the mind”
Much of Tejuoso’s art, it appears, explores shared life experiences and serves as a check somewhat to our collective excesses, but he is also a public affairs commentator. In some of his works, Tejuoso speaks directly at African leaders: “They should please behave like mad people sometimes,” the artist says explaining the installation titled Eru Were. “If you have observed mad people you would have noticed that they guard their belongings jealously, though it is mostly junk. Can our leaders learn to do same with the people they govern, with the resources in their countries? As far as we know, they are not doing that.”
In yet another subtle installation titled Poverty of the Mind, Tejuosho addresses the corrupt tendencies of the continent’s leaders. It is a plate of coins placed on a blue cooler-box containing a stack of sweet wraps. “You see someone who has packed enough goody-goody into his pockets and yet still steals from the national treasury,” he says as we move to the next work. “The problem of the African nation is not that we don’t have money—we have enough; but the truth is that there is no amount of what you grab can make you better but the amount of lives you can impact in the society.”
If he is not thinking of scripture to get inspiration for the next work, Tejuoso finds the push he needs to create by tapping into the stories of some of Nigeria’s world renowned creative spirits. For instance, he produced A Note from Kongi, few months after glimpsing the cover of Soyinka’s latest published play Alapata Apata. Tejuoso thought it was a mouthful, especially as the book title is not words in everyday use. “The title of the book changed everything about my conception about the man,” he says. “I thought he was completely Anglicised and didn’t think he understood or spoke any words of Yoruba.”
I am amused to learn that a good number of Tejuoso’s works have been inspired by verses of the Bible. In fact, his mat/rest series is based on Mathew 11: 28 (“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest…”). Born into a Muslim family, the artist is now a Christian. “I love reading the Bible. I use scriptural reference for my art,” he says as we stand in front of Lonely Thoughts, a creation based on the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.
There is yet another one symbolically titled Owo Ni keke Ihin Rere (Literal translation: money is the vehicle of the gospel), which consists of a worn Bible and 50 Naira note mounted on a bicycle that has lost its front wheel.
“Beyond the physical display those visitors see, I believe that what I do here is a divine calling that the creator has assigned me to do,” Tejuoso says. “What pastors do on the pulpit, I do at Aroko Green Museum.”