Lagos, a story of disappearance by Andréas Lang is a journey to the ultimate consequences of human enterprise on Earth. At a first glance, the vanishing, colonial past of Lagos is made of the clues slave trade left in city architecture; but afterward it becomes evident that its memory is wrapped into the daily life struggle of people. This happens in more than an aspect the sophisticated view of Andréas Lang discovered with a subtle and unconscious exploration of meanings. Where history meets the present Andréas unveils the very face of brutal exploitation, a sort of extinction – the total loss of historical identity – that is also a psychological exile.
Indeed, Andréas’ sensibility in telling Nigeria’s heritage, and arguably colonial legacy, reminds me of a pass of Beloved the masterpiece by Toni Morrison. In a rough translation it sounds so: places are always there. If a house burns, it disappeares, but the place – the image of the place – persists, and not only in memory but also in the world. What we can remember, Toni Morrison says, is an image swaying in our brain, and in front of our eyes. Colonialism is a footprint, just the same of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere or defaunation in the tropical forests all around Nigeria. And if you’re brave enough to face the demons of the past, you realize that footprint is a restless vestige which takes future hostage. But Lagos Disappearance explores the footprint and shows how time and oblivion are real forces; time, indeed, is a power that shapes, or disintegrates, our human capability to cope with, to react. No one better than Friedrich Hoelderlin might give the meaning of it: “Doch, uns ist gegeben auf keiner Staette zu ruhn. Es schwinden, es fallen die leidenden Menschen, blindings von einer Stunde zur andern. Wie Wasser von Klippe zu Klippe geworfen, Jahr lang ins Ungewisse hinab”. Being geworfen is the current status of humanity in Anthropocene’s new colonialist age marked by the anonymity of exploitation. So, this is a conversation about Lagos, and us.
Andréas – It shows all the layers in Lagos. It looks like a mountain (the city landscape). It has an aestethic beauty for me. The story of the past and the story of the present, the sense of deception along with the ambulatory trait of African cities: the stones, the trash, some bowls and trees; and then, in the corner, you see the colonial building dated back to British times with its charachteristic peach color wall. Trash is always present in Africa. These pieces of civilization all around immediately connected with pollution and destruction. They’re very visible in Africa both in the urban and in the rural landscape. Even in natural enviroments wherever there’s a human settlement you immediately realize that something different is going on; you can detect the effects of civilization through plastic bags. Plastic shopping bags are free and if you buy only a banana, sellers give you one. Usually, people have no consciousness of environmental implications because survival on a daily base is a so imminent driving force. So, plastic is a part of urban and rural landscape.
Elisabetta: In some ways, plastic, too, is a foreign thing, an imported one, a colonial object now widespread. Plastic is a capitalistic object. You always pull the observers to think about the real nature of objects taken for granted. Objects are not always the same. Some of them are only Plunder, others are Altware, said G.W.Sebald who thought that Gottfried Keller described the golden age of a time when human relationships were not yet regulated by money.
Heinrich der Gruene, Sebald reports, was used to spend time in a dark lobby full of any kind of trash: zwecklose, veraltete, wunderliche Dinge. These objects tell the story of Capitalism, Sebald declaires: while capital runs all the time, “diese Dinge gehoeren der Daemmerung, sie sind ausserhalb des wirtschaftlichen Handels und darum sind sie nicht mehr Kommerz-Ware. Sie sind für die Ewigkeit geeignet.” Maybe, we should ask ourselves which category is appropriate for plastic.
Andréas : Lagos is booming, it’s one of the few booming places in Africa. You can see an emerging bourgeoise, super luxury cars and even fastfoods along with boxes to keep hamburgers. In general people are very nice, very communicative and open. I met excellent people and made new friends, also with artists and photographers. It was also thanks to them that I got a deeper insight of whats going on in Lagos. If you consider the reactions of people to illegal demolitions – I found a video on youtube which I use in the exhibition – the locals present were really upset; they perfectly understood the scale of destruction and its intrinsic violence against the integrity of the community.
Elisabetta: There’s open yards all around and all the time…Archeological sites, new foundations, hard to identify what’s really lays above and under. But there’s also abandoned homes and buildings, lost clothes and the pointless plastic bags. Even books. I see not only a language of disappereance but also a permanent Aufloesung that has to do with the contemporary difficult to hold, keep and protect the past. In the sense you discovered in Lagos, it is also a consequence of Colonialism. Yet, the omnipresent garbage looks like the offal of time. I think time is a permanent hypothesis in your photos. The ongoing feeling of emptiness and disintegration, and its undisturbed ran we call progress. Walter Benjiamin identified history in Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus: the angel is a flying demon, with the face turned to the ruins of past; but beyond his shoulders, the wind of progress is so strong that he cannot close his wings. The progress, in Benjamin’s view, is this frightened Angelus who cannot resist the future but, at the same time, contemplates a complete destruction. The balance of history is totally unbalanced.
Andréas: I dont really know what the original purpose of that building was, but to me there is something very Western in its appearance. I felt, it went along with my research: here, you have the past (maybe, glory and wealthy bourgeoise) but now it’s all gone. And with the handcarts in the front, loaded with petrol canisters, it becomes a very African scenario.
Elisabetta: Personally, I find this photo simply magnificent. There’s so much affliction….The building is sumptuous but it seems lonely. It’s obviously ancient, but I think it contains a sort of purity. At the same time, the entire building talks of the beauty of scars: it recalls that beauty tolerates scars. For me, it is a very impressive example of your “archeological narrative” just because the building is partially eroded by the past. Ancient ruins – Greek or Roman, especially for Europeans – dominate archeological celebration. But here you captured the living soul of modern archeology that is the troublesome coexistence of fragments and living objects.
Andréas: I think that what’s going on in the digital era is the loss of beauty. I have the impression that all these virtual parallels create a detachment from the real world in the sense of the estetics of the real world.
Elisabetta: I agree. And I do believe that is a relevant problem, too, in our awareness of the ecological decline we now face. Consider animal representation in social media and tourism industry (very expensive eco-safari as well): animals are depicted as iconic items, not as species. Their wildness is beauty on sale. Stephanie Rutherford assumes that defined “visual grammars” of wild nature is actually a form of government. Many part of conservation narrative is also so colonialist, so white. And it counts on a totally human point of view – an assessment of nature, not a way to stay in.
Andréas: On top of the right building, you can see a fresco depicting the Yoruba people, the native people who were sent to Brazil and suffered from colonial slave trade. This fresco is a reminiscent of their culture when they decided to put it on a bulding in colonial style. In Nigeria, usually heritage is split among family members, so many times there are heritage problems, unresolved. Many buldings can survive in a limbo state, and this adds to the illegal demolition under way and corruption as well. The red gate with the big H has a very particular estetic. In Africa there’re so less visible traces of African history, not of the local folklore, but of the history. And now there’re the developers who sweep away what remains of the past.
Elisabetta: Last week eminent ecologists talked about the annihilation of biodiversity: we face a mass extinction era that is a sort of turning-life-into-nothing. What you say about Lagos is that the other side of planned and business-designed destruction is always the loss of past. When destruction becomes a chapter in the plot of history, history itself seems to implode. The present time is a battlefield where economic interests devour the possibility of past as a framework to write in your identity. I do believe that biological extinction shares this aspect of our reality (Dasein, you know) with the empowering power of economics on our life.
Andréas: People in Lagos are quite awake and seem very comfortable with trade and finance. I had the opportunity to visit stock exchange in Lagos, to film and take photographs. Its been quite an experience. There are many extremes in this megacity, great misery in contrast with big finance at work. There are two forces – poverty and business – and which one of them will prevail? They seem to work together in shaping the future of the nation, but it is definately shaky ground to look at Africa from a European perspective. Pasolini maybe realized something similar when he filmed his Notes towards an African Orestes and then abandoned his planned project where he wanted to place the greek tragedy Orestes in Africa.
Andréas: It’s totally new colonialist. In Jean-Pierre Bekolo’s terms – colonialism is a virus and a disease that is still affecting Africa, but, more seriously, the body infected cannot be separated by the invader and vice versa. Polo is quite a symbolical remains of the British Empire and actually the British imported it in 19th century from their colony India and then exported it into the rest of their colonies. This Polo tournament was attended by wealthy Nigerians and western business men living in Lagos. The players were international, from Britain, Lebanon, Nigeria etc. I wanted to show the “backstage” of the tournament, where the social reality comes in, including the white horse. What really is Polo in an African country.
Elisabetta: I was thinking you described a white horse as a symbol of foreign and invasive entertainment. Maybe we might talk about “colonial animals”.
Andréas: It is a sport stadium built by the government, especially for parades and national celebrations. Again something strange is going on here, they remind of the Napoleonic eagle and also eagles are typically european emblems. African dictators, like Bokassa for example, were using those same symbols of power.
Elisabetta: Another example of animal representation for the sake of a psychological invasion. Nigeria has a lot of species of raptors, but here on the roof top eagles are definitely European. I feel ambiguity in these eagles. In the Western imagination, eagles and hawks announce glory, but they can be also a symbol of the perils it implies or even a prophecy of ruin. I especially love the way Russian poet Aleksandr Blok, singing the plight of his country, questions the imminent future: till when does the kite fly? till when does the mother cry? Species become increasingly rare all around us and I perceive them, in your photos, as testimonies of our mistakes. Like the woody lion in your Eingang zur Chefferie.
Andréas : Not far from Lagos is the village of Badagry, it used to be a Portuguese port and slave trade center. It is the landing bridge on a small island with the so-called “the point of no return”, across from Badagry. The immanent cruelty of slave trade becomes quite tangible in these places and the people suffered unspeakable conditions on the slaveships. Those who survived the passage to the New World would never return to their homeland. For me, slavery has a likely cruelty and horror as the Holocaust did.
Elisabetta: I think you have been able to show that humanity cannot be really virgin and we constantly come across point of no returns, I mean crossing points; they tell us of the impossibility of a sort of human innocence. In your narrative Bilder, to me, you seem to ask about the meaning of life and for the place we should give to the past. A possibile answer I find, again, in Hoelderlin’s Hyperion perspective. Life is tracking. Tracking something we cannot properly grasp or see, but that is constantly with us.
In Hoelderlin’s words: “Ich ziehe durch die Vergangenheit, wie ein Aehrenleser über die Stoppelaecker, wenn der Herr des Landes geerntet hat; da liest man jeden Strohhalm auf (…) Wie ein heulender Nordwind, faehrt die Gegenwart über die Blueten unsers Geistes und versengt sie im Entstehen”.
Aknowledgement: Andréas Lang’s project came about in collaboration with Goethe Institute Lagos.
Credits for all photos: © Andréas Lang, Lagos/Nigeria 2017 – all rights reserved , no part of these images may be reproduced, stored or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical photo copying, or other-wise, without prior permission in writing from the copyright owner.