- The Chaos
All history is organized chaos. We who are born in an ever-contested landscape recognize this, and perhaps we recognize it more intensely. We are therefore, from our relationship with others—with whom we together affect the landscape—thrust towards an education that compels us to learn the management of chaos.
Chaos for the archetypal Lagosian begins from childhood, without warning. She considers it the norm at first that there are a thousand other people trying to stand at the very spot where she stands on her way to school, that bus fares change depending on the time and weather of the day, that the water surrounding the city is black and calm on one end while on the other it is white and thrashing against everything. Later, when she is older, she knows to hold her bag tightly as she walks in a crowd. When she finally can afford a car she memorizes all the potholes on the city’s roads. Her body knows what time to wake up if she must get to Victoria Island from Ikorodu before work hours. On some days, when she drives past on Third Mainland Bridge, she can swear that a beautiful housing estate she sees floating in the distance was nothing but the black lagoon when she was a child. Yet all her life, her mind has always organized chaos into patterns, and no matter how much the city morphs, to her it stays recognizable.
But for Lagos, chaos is not a secondary skin—it has always, in fact, been an integral motif of the land, so that nothing exists in Lagos that has not once been under contention. And much has been said about the contentious history of Lagos, but let us consider a not-so-fictional one: about seventeen thousand years ago, a cataclysmic tremor tore away some long stretch of earth southwards of what would later become the Sahara. This torn-away piece of earth wasn’t completely stripped off, and in the end it became suspended halfway into the ocean, trapping itself between what is now the Lagoon and the Atlantic. Thousands of years after, the Aworis descended from Isheri and found their way into the trapped piece of earth which might now be referred to as an island. A great hunter from Ile-Ife began to rule among the Awori, installing himself as Olofin, and his twelve descendants became the Idejo—white cap chiefs who are custodians of the island’s history and the first owners of land. Hot on their heels were forces from the Benin Kingdom, who came to establish a portion of the island as a military outpost. Before the Benin Kingdom’s interference, all the tussles for land had been internal, probably even between the Idejo themselves. The coming of the Benin forces introduced a new power dynamic, and arguably, a new name. Eko.
While internal tussles were happening on the island, the Portuguese—who at the time had become masters of the waters from around the fifteenth century—referenced the Lagoon in their maps but didn’t mark any settlements. Eventually, after the Benin relationship with the island was established, the Portuguese began to do business with Eko. Their business consisted mostly of dealing slaves and it was the Portuguese who first called the island Lagos.
History is long and windy and chaotic but any serious attempt at historicization demands resilience. Enter, the British.
People speak of Lagos as a “No man’s Land” but it is arguable that the reason why this appears to be so is because the city has always been on the receiving end of the actions of outsiders.
In the 1800s, after Britain had become the dominant power over the seas, it began to pursue a certain kind of utilitarian notion, that one must benefit from doing good. Britain had already taken the moral high ground in matters surrounding the anti-slavery movement (although it is worth noting that France abolished slavery about fourteen years before the British) and was now usurping slave trade on waters where it had control. It was around this time that the “issue” of Lagos came up in the British political sphere. It was also around this time that a missionary party from Abeokuta, led by the Bishop Samuel Ajayi Crowther, mounted a strong lobby to convince Britain of a need to interfere in the Lagos situation.
But there is nothing as treacherous as a benevolent empire—an empire is a farmer running a poultry: the chicken is fed only to ensure the farmer’s longevity. The pretext for the British in taking over Lagos was to “bring an end to the African Slave Trade,” to “extend civilization to Africa” through commerce. Yet, immediately Britain took over Lagos it extended its imperial conquest to what has become modern day Nigeria.
Today Lagos appears pervious to everything, absorbing people, culture and language from everywhere. But this was not always so. Lagos wasn’t always friendly or receptive to immigrants. As early as 1850, Oba Kosoko, king of Lagos at the time, had a number of the Saros (returned slaves from Sierra Leone) killed. In fact, Lagos is recorded to have mounted one of the greatest resistances to European invaders of the 19th century by Africans. The British had to bombard their way into the city, destroying more than half of it, forcing Oba Kosoko off the throne, replacing him with Akitoye who ended up signing the anti-slavery treaty and opening the door for a proliferation of outsiders. The barrier to “ending African Slave Trade” was now removed, but there was another barrier, one that prevented the British goal of “extending civilization to Africa through commerce.” This time, enter, the Bar.
- The Bar
The topography of Lagos seems antithetical to the massive, over-populated city it has now become. As Kaye Whiteman writes, “No one would have planned to build such an enormous city on the basis of such an unusual configuration.” But what was the configuration like?
Many of the world’s most important cities are located along the seas or oceans and Lagos is no different. Yet, instead of offering invitation and easy access as associated with such cities, Lagos originally offered resistance. The resistance was a naturally occurring sandbank across the entry to the Lagoon from the Atlantic. It made any kind of navigation perilous, especially for larger ships. This sandbank, named quite easily as “the bar,” is what became the Bar Beach.
As early as the fifteenth century the Portuguese already saw the bar to be a problem. It was always shifting and treacherous, the shallow water around it never deeper than 14 feet. There was even a concentration of sharks by the bar, so that when people eventually began to attempt traversing with smaller ships and the thrashing water would sometimes overturn such vessels, the sharks would snatch any survivors.
The bar was thought of as a kind of security by some, and the Portuguese even considered it the perfect place to carry out clandestine slave trade activities since they could hide behind it without interference by the British who were now halting such trade everywhere they encountered it. But in the end, when the British moved in to take over the city, the bar failed to be a protection. British gunboats slipped through the bar in December 1851 and bombarded half of the city to shreds.
Yet the bar remained an economic problem. Large ships still could not dock at the Lagos port. To unlock the city’s potential this problem had to be solved so that maritime trade could fully kickoff. A solution to the problem required an alteration of the landscape—an alteration that would redesign the bar itself and Lagos as a whole forever. The British decided to create two moles—a Western and Eastern mole—on both sides of the water together with channel dredging. The project began around 1905 and ended in 1912. Afterwards the volume of trade through this new hub spiked, establishing Lagos as a new economic force on the continent. But this solution presented yet again another problem.
Unlike history, ocean sand moves in predictable ways. For the sandbank, the creation of the moles disrupted the normal littoral drift so that sand and sediments which should usually be deposited on the shores of Victoria Island and Lekki were now trapped on the Western side of the Lagos port.
Hundred years pass. Upper-class communities spring up just behind the sand bar. Ikoyi. Victoria Island. Lekki. Then, one day, the entire bar—the Bar beach, with about two kilometers depth of beach front—disappears into the ocean due to continuous erosion. This “sudden” disappearance of the bar and redesign of the landscape now posed a new problem which, this time, was an environmental one. The upper-class communities previously protected by the bar were now exposed to furious surges of the Atlantic. Lagos was becoming, literally, a city under water.
- The Market
A friend of mine once declared that Lagos was busy being a market. It was on a day when we were seated around drinks, chatting about the crisis of globalization and capitalism in the city. In the usual way of many African intellectual debates a finger pointed, eventually, towards the west. This finger claimed that the root of the problem was an Americanization of thought. It was necessary, the finger said, for a new kind of thinking, one that was local, one that had nothing to do with the capitalist grip of America and the rest of the west, one that allowed a “different way of being.” We drank red wine, ate and left. Yet, for me, a question continued to linger: If Lagos was not a market, what else could it be?
When one thinks about the history of Lagos and how it has spread itself, it becomes difficult to think about the city as anything other than a market. We know that from the beginning the importance of Lagos was in fact predicated on how much of a marketplace it could become. First for the Portuguese who saw it as the perfect place for slave trade and then for the British who established it as a port for maritime trade. But let us for a moment forget about the grand players and consider in very literal terms how markets function in Lagos for the everyday person.
About 90 years ago, in 1929, there was pressure by the “commercial class” on the Secretary of the Lagos State Council to curb the widespread, dangerous practice of traders exhibiting their wares directly on major roads in the city. The commercial class also suggested that proper market accommodations be built for the traders. Even more importantly for the commercial class, was the fact that a better organized market would make it possible for thousands of these petty traders to be properly taxed, which would boost the state’s revenue. The traders were accused of littering the drainage systems with their waste, of exposing foodstuff they were selling to public gutters, thereby creating health hazards. The activities of the petty traders were also heavily impacting on the state’s finances: there were claims that unclogging drains blocked from the waste of petty traders cost fifty percent of total waste clearance in certain areas and in the financial year of 1931-1932 36,000 pounds was spent on general health and sanitary measure, plus another 13,860 which amounted to a total of 49,860 pounds.
On reading these reports from 1929 one might immediately imagine these traders to be haphazardly distributed across the city. Even today, when one moves around Lagos, the traders are there, apparently disorganized, taking up walk spaces, and sometimes, like in the cases of Ketu-Ikosi Road, Lawanson in Surulere, Lewis and Okesuna and Foresythe in Obalende to name a few, closing off the road, making it almost impossible for cars to drive past. Yet, since 1929, these traders have been more organized than is apparent. A report from 1929 shows how every street actually had an association of petty traders, each paying a weekly sum of three pence. The associations even hired clerks and engaged lawyers when legal assistance was required. It was an underground but booming market, solid, close to the people in a way that the Lagos State Council could never be. It was also closer to the tradition of how the state was established and how its geography would eventually come to spread. Every major bus stop and motor park in the city is a market for example. Ajah, Obalende, Idumota, Oshodi, Yaba, Oyingbo, Ikotun, Ketu, Mile 12, Iyana Iba, and so on.
It has taken long to get here, but we can now consider the landscape in relation to the city as a market. Land ownership in Lagos is probably one of the oldest sources of contention in Lagos.
- The Gesture
So, in light of its historical predicament and the current situation of the city a question seems unavoidable: What kind of gesture is a biennial in Lagos today?
In 2016, when the first Iwaya Community Arts Festival (organized by the Vernacular Art-Space Laboratory, Lagos) held in Yaba, it set the stage for a new kind of conversation around art in Lagos. Art not merely as a fleeting thing to be consumed by people of a certain cadre but also as a functional unit in the social landscape. It saw participation by outsiders and by members of the community. People walked on the streets seeing art around them, and seeing representations of their own lives in art. It must have become apparent there and then, that a Lagos Biennial was inevitable. So, the next year, when the first Lagos Biennial held, the Railway Compound in Yaba seemed like a continuation of this conversation with the Lagos social landscape, only that this time it was a truly Lagos event, not one limited to a small community like the Iwaya Community Arts Festival. However, the Lagos Biennial also introduced another angle into the conversation: