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Worldly, young Nigeria

I feel like there are so many narratives to be gleaned from Lagos,” says artist and designer Karo Akpokiere. Born in Lagos in 1981, and still resident in the city, his creative work is immersed in the hustle of one of Africa’s most congested cities.

Straddling both traditional and digital illustration techniques, his work has appeared on T-shirts, decorated busses and smartphones, been deployed by advertisers and even appeared on art exhibitions. Clearly delineated black lines are a hallmark of Akpokiere’s work. His commercial projects tend to show a strong interest in pattern and interlocking forms, while his personal projects, most of them drawings about Lagos, are narrative based.

It is the latter that intrigues. Earlier this year, Akpokiere, who studied graphic design at Yaba College of Technology in Lagos, exhibited some of his Lagos drawings on All the World’s Futures, expatriate Nigerian curator Okwui Enwezor’s group exhibition at the 56th Venice Biennale, Italy. His drawings, many populated with writing, generated a great deal of attention. When I caught up with Akpokiere at his display in Venice he was conducting an interview with an Austrian TV crew. My subsequent interview, the first of numerous exchanges, with him was interrupted by an Israeli curator eager to speak to him about her forthcoming show “about Africa” in Tel Aviv.

5-generator-orchestraThis interest is partly accounted for in a statement by US-based Nigerian curator Ugochuwu-Smooth Nzewi, in the catalogue accompanying Enwezor’s exhibition: “His graphics-based language departs from the usual forms of representing the city, which are mainly through easel painting and documentary photography.” Text rich and tending towards visual allegory, rather than offering plainly descriptive scenes, Akpokiere’s congested drawings of Lagos bristle with energy. Populated with traders and religious men, consumer objects and fragments of urban-speak, his drawings capture the pervasive and intertwined influence of religion, commerce, bureaucracy, travel and hustle on the Lagosian character.

The title of Akpokiere’s Venice display was Zwischen Lagos und Berlin. The German title translates as “between Lagos and Berlin,” which pretty much sums up the artist’s year so far. Now back in Lagos, Akpokiere was a guest artist at the Atelierhaus Mengerzeile, a Berlin artist studio based in a former piano-making factory, when he first caught up with Enwezor. His initial proposal for his biennale display was an animated piece accompanied by a comic-book publication called Mega City Times. “It was all meant to be centred around Lagos,” he explains. The idea of a publication was quickly canned: the 2013 Venice Biennale drew 400 000 visitors over its six-month duration; printing that many comics was unworkable. Things evolved from there.

“I was caught up in a lot of movement—back and forth between Lagos and Berlin—when I was creating the new drawings,” says Akpokiere. “I tried to represent that instability in the drawings, just the constant motion.” His drawings neatly dialogue with an on-going European news story: the arrival of refugees and migrants from elsewhere. Akpokiere’s drawings offer a first-person account of the difficulties and strangeness that come with moving between Africa and Europe. A subtle sense of homesickness pervades his entire series. Elsewhere is strange.

While working on this project, Akpokiere found himself trying to answer a simple question: “What is the best way to represent Lagos without actually showing it?” His answer owes a debt to his training in graphics. Many of Akpokiere’s drawings in Venice focus on bits of signage and urban lettering that marked his passage through Berlin and Lagos. “Only E.U. Citizens,” reads one drawing. Another quotes a Lagos prohibition, “No: Hawking, Preaching, Advertising”. Says Akpokiere, “I am more interested in icons and symbols that represent the city.”

It is not just formal or official signage that intrigues this artist. Akpokiere is fascinated by graffiti appearing in the yellow busses that move Lagosians on a mass scale. “I am trying to make contact with the people who do those drawings, to collaborate,” he says.

“Maybe we will create a letterset and typography that represents the city through our eyes.” He is also researching the largely undocumented history of pre-colonial and post-independence design in Nigeria. “I would love to know how people in Nigeria, and in Lagos especially, engaged with typography before the British came.”

These diverse interests are matched by the diversity of Akpokiere’s creative output, including product design. Shortly before his Venice debut, Akpokiere attended the opening of the travelling exhibition Making Africa: A Continent of Contemporary Design at the Vitra Design Museum in southern Germany. A pair of slip-on shoes by American online retailer BucketFeet featuring his fabric design was selected for display (and is now on view at the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, Spain, until 21 February 2016). His Tokeria shoes feature a geometrical design inspired by the Japanese woodcut aesthetic and African geometric motifs. Lagos and Berlin, Nigeria and Japan: Akpokiere’s work tells the story of young Nigeria’s fluent and engaging worldliness

Sean O’Toole

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