Lab Project

Lagos Legacy

The Nature of Memory
Dare Dan

“Memory is a serious fiction”

Simon Njami

I don’t know when I started remembering as a child. Could it be when I hid my fingers from the flaming candle ‘cause it burnt the first time? Or when my mouth watered like that of Ivan Pavlov’s dog at the sight of a bottle of Coke? Or was that I mastering Fear and Desire, and not learning to remember in actuality?

But I remember two mothers´ fighting over their children’s fight, and the next minute, the two children start to play again, sharing toys and laughter and forgetting they just had a fight. Whereas, for the women, it is the beginning of a lifetime discord. They’ll always remember the pellets of abuse thrown at each other; assailing one another, despite the fact that the basis of their fight has long been erased. I also remember reconciliation as a form of a forgetting exercise; the lofty quest to unremember a supposed faulty encounter with a person or a circumstance in an effort to reestablish an affair gone sour.

At the [A]FA /[Applied] Foreign Affairs exhibition in Lagos, the luminous evening is almost wrapping up the event when a friend, for the second time that evening, tells us of an installation, not within the immediate premise where all others are, but somewhere on the outside. She was taking us there earlier when her phone rang and she had to run with the promise that she’d be back. We wait. This time, it’s the phone again and she needs to dash home to be back later. But we can’t wait this time, so she points out a direction and we troll.

The event, which is by the [A]FA Lagos Legacy lab, is a joint project by [applied] Foreign Affairs, Institute of Architecture, University of Applied Arts Vienna with Legacy 1995. The objective is to gather committed people for the common cause of preserving and promoting the character and appearance of historic monuments, the environment and cultural entities in all parts of Nigeria. A subsidiary of Legacy 1995 is based within the Nigerian Railways compound in Ebute-Metta, Lagos, where the event is holding. And the works we’re seeing, are by Adeola Olagunju, Aderemi Adegbite, Cansu Ergün, Frida Robles, Jon Krizan, Katerina Johannides, Mathias Juul Frost, Stephanie Rizaj, Tito Aderemi-Ibitola and Toms Kampars— a mix of Nigerian, European and South American artists and architects, curated by Baerbel Mueller and Stefanie Theuretzbacher.

I’m with a girlfriend. She has been excited since she came in here. It is an open event and spirited people are everywhere sighting and—in some cases, meditating—on deep aesthetical and spiritual installations. Children, too, are everywhere; they’re mostly children of the staffers of the old Nigerian Railway Corporation. They’re running and riding monocycle of varying heights; falling, sweating and happy. The venue is spacious and beautifully absurd— just as the art pieces. We see a set-up that must have been inspired by a Yoruba cosmology, the religion deity of Ifa. Another installation, hanging up on a tree, mixes up the greenery of a plant and that of plastic—Plant or Plastic, you almost can’t tell at first sight; something about the modern way of life I guess: modern inventions taking up nature.

There are a couple of abandoned trains here and there, too. This place has a history; it still habours the smell and touch of colonialism. Some of the artists used the dilapidating locomotives to home their projects, making colourless graffiti on their bodies and installing electronic visuals in the old cabinets. The wheels of the trains haven’t moved an inch in decades. They’ve taken the colours of grim decaying rocks, looking stolidly unmovable. We (everyone and the trains) are under a wide, long and high shed,—It used to be a departure station for the trains I guess—giving the premise a darker colour of the evening, indigo.

Again and again, my guest thanks me for inviting her. She says there is a way what she sees here feeds her mind. In what ways? I don’t ask. I had invited her so we can catch up after a long time without seeing each other. And catching up—I believe—is what we’re doing.

We take the direction we’re told. To see the installation on the outside, we go through a damaged barbed wire and into another section of the compound. A man in brown uniform stretches out on a chair. He has a cane with him. He is shouting at a bunch of children to leave an entrance which will be our own exit to the said installation. We greet the man and ask where this piece of installation might be.

“Go out to the street”, he says.

“…and keep to the right as you walk. You’ll find the place. Just keep to your right!”

We thank our man and exit the compound. The children are there, by the gate, desiring still to join their mates at the main event. We walk and keep to our right.

To remember is to pick the bits and pieces; to pitch members of a past together in making a single unit; a module of the event. To remember is to engage one of the human’s most interesting ability.

Some of us beat ourselves hard to remember; would pay a million bucks to roam the void of our sleep, picking things and elating at the abutting of dream and reality. We want so badly as many entries to epiphanies as possible. Some of us forget too often and pay the price— I’m such.

We are getting lost but we don’t mind; we’re enjoying each other’s company all along. She is wearing a pair of brown rimmed glasses I’ve always known her with. But I don’t know her eye defect.

“What’s the name of your defect?” I ask.

She says it. I’ve never heard of the type.

“…and how does it impair your sight?”

“The cornea causes blood or other fluids to build up and prevent the retina from properly filtering light. Light is blocked and fluid builds up causing sudden loss of vision. But the severity of vision loss depends on where the blockage or clot occurred. For me, it is by atherosclerosis.”

She is a fast speaker. She levitates over the eye medical terminologies as though she’s an ophthalmologist, an expert.

“Sounds quite complex,” I say.

“How did you get to know all this?”

“It’s right there on my face; I bear the disease,” she responds jokingly, pointing out her eyes.

We laugh.

“You look to me as the best candidate to play hide and seek with”. I tease. “I simply just ask that you hand me your glasses and then you look for me”.

She irks and chases me up the street. I outrun her by a yard or so. At the time, we forget to maintain the right. When I allow her to catch up with me, she jabs me in the rib and I hold her hands. She says she must hit me the second time for mocking her. I allow a second time, and then a third. It hurts a little but I laugh all the same. She then says she won’t play with me again, childishly. And what I feel she means is that she won’t be serious with me again. At that moment, pouting her lips at me, she looks very beautiful and I like her. I want to tell her but I don’t. We are back strolling and chatting and maintaining the right.

I began being conscious of the ability to remember as a young teenager. My uncle and I would sit hunchback over a scrabble board. With tiles dancing in our minds as well as out of the bag and between our fingers, we would set out to beat each other at the game of letters and numbers. He’d beat me—he always did. But the game, after dropping the last tile, wasn’t the end for him: He would review it, tile by tile, pointing out my weakest move as well as my strongest; the highest earning two-letter word, the premiums and words making their debuts on the board. In the process, he would teach. But none of these interested me as much as his ability to replay the game we had played a day before— Word for word, linking the elements rightly on the board, he would replay the exact unit of the game we had the previous day. At no time did I fall short of being totally amazed at this seemingly magical ability.

I tried it a couple of times, too: bringing alive a dead game; recapturing a moment wholly and replicating his stunning ability to remember. But I never for once did find my way around the magic.

We’re giving up on finding the installation on the outside by the right. We’re getting lost in the dim evening night and we don’t care ‘cause we are catching up. Then we meet two guys we had left at the main event earlier. They, too, are looking for the installation on the outside, and since they have a better description, we follow them. Soon we’re there; apparently, my friend and I passed by it in its obscurity while chasing, chatting and ‘catching up’.

Memories are dancing tiny lights; they are a legion of luminous shadows. The most potent challenge for many merchants of memories is to make floodlights of phantasmagoric hues; focus a still beam to read meaning of a fixed time and place not present; things not at sight, thereby making sense out of time washed away in the sea of a past, and deny memory its nature by gripping firmly a slippery and evasive postexistence.

The art piece is installed in an abandoned shipping container. It is dark on the inside except for the moonlight streaming in through the numerous rust at its top. Roped with a peculiar feeling, one totally different from what I had felt for the other installations, I feel nighttime further makes it look like we found the place at the right time. The roof of the container let the blue sky in on the framed mirrors hanging from jagged edges of the corrugated iron. The mirrors hang at a different depth into the air in the empty and worn-out container. They reflect nothing but night. The whole scene is a simulacrum of memory; the silent and irregular rotation of shadowy images and reflections from the mirrors, which turn gently from gravity and the little air that can wound-up their edges.

I walk into the container and, for a split second, feel myself walking in my own mind. You’re in many places at a time, reflecting, like a spirit, and it is night so you can’t tell how many of you is watching you. There are texts on the mirrors, written in white paints. They shy away from sight like timid memories. One can never pay attention for too long; cannot finish reading a text before it turns silently and voluntarily away like a maiden, like a new bride. Another text-on-mirror approaches the same way one turns away: slowly and silently before it ever gets to be fully read. Many memories have escaped me this way. And even when you hold still the mirror and read the text to the end, the meaning, like a difficult joke, like an antic, still disguises in the mind, leaving you staid. I hold out, pick on one of them and read:

“ The force of time is a dream making love to absence.” I think about it.

Another reads:

“Between the two pathetic show of courage and humiliation against which he is fused by the clashes of others, the foreigner persists.” Again, I think about it.

The artist is not here—she certainly didn’t set the installation to be seen at night like this. The writer, too, is not here—I doubt if she set her words to be read on mirrors. So I am free to own the sphere this very moment. The other guys have left. And maybe my friend knows something is working up on in me; she keeps her calm and simply watches as I walk up and down in the container like one would rove in his or her mind.

This is how memory comes to one: naked, yet incomplete. Perhaps this is why this installation must be away, here, hidden; why it must be an unfulfilled promise, searched, missed, lost in hope, retraced, and found by chance.

I would later learn that the artist is Frida Robles, an essayist and visual artist from Mexico, and the words are that of Julia Kristeva, a Bulgarian-French philosopher and psychoanalyst.