Exhibition theme, Living on the Edge, takes on new meaning as artists and squatters at disused railway shed turfed out by state-owned railway company
When the organisers of Nigeria’s first biennial art exhibition called it Living on the Edge, they could not have known how painfully apt the theme would be.
It was inspired by the squatters living in the carriages and buildings of a disused railway shed, and their counterparts across Lagos, where housing is in short supply, and vast wealth and abject poverty exist side by side. Artists were invited “to investigate the realities of the losers in societies around the world – the unseen majority who are pushed to the brink of their existence”.
The families living in the old railway shed were surprised that anyone would want to host an exhibition in their run-down, leaky home, but got involved, digging trenches so it would not flood, sawing wood for the installations and helping to clean up.
But in a bitter irony that reflects the violent gentrification taking place across the complex megacity, just as the show opened last weekend the Nigerian Railway Corporation – the state-owned rail firm – began to turf out many of the families.
The biennial’s organisers said they were dismayed.
“It’s called Living on the Edge, and then you just push them off the cliff,” said Folakunle Oshun, the biennial’s founder and artistic director, who tried in vain to stop the evictions.
As artists and squatters hauled pot plants and strung up lightbulbs between rusting old train carriages at one end of the shed, at the other an old couple stood bewildered among their strewn belongings, trying to pack but with nowhere to move to.
Abdul Raouf Akinwoye, a retired police officer who works with the Nigerian Railway Corporation and an architectural heritage organisation, Legacy, arrived with two “area boys” – Lagos parlance for thugs – whom he had employed to enforce the eviction.
“They came from somewhere and they have to go back to where they came from,” he said, adding with no apparent irony: “We are asking them to go – in tandem with the theme of the exhibition.”
Akinwoye said that after a party organised by the whisky company Jameson’s in the shed two weeks before, some cables had been stolen, and the community failed to return them when asked. They were living there illegally, and this was the last straw, he said.
Evictions are taking place all over the country, but particularly in Lagos, where tens of thousands of people have been chased out of their homes in the past year, purportedly for environmental and security reasons. Critics say the real reason is to make way for luxury housing developments. In Otodo Gbame, where thousands of fishermen’s houses that stood on stilts above the sea were razed, tonnes of sand have been dumped on top of the bulldozed ruins, creating more land ripe for development.
Space is at a premium in upmarket areas of the city. A landlord can charge $50,000 (£38,000) a year for a flat – and can demand that two years’ rent be paid upfront. And space will only become more of an issue: Lagos will be the world’s biggest city by 2100, experts predict, with a population of 88 million.
It is not just the fact of the evictions, but the violent manner in which they are often carried out.
Akinwoye caught one of the squatters, a 14-year-old boy who was walking past him, and forced him to kneel in front of him. “If I ever see you here again, I will tear you apart,” he shouted.
“We are working to sanitise this place,” Akinwoye added, downing the litre of strawberry milk he had with him and then throwing the carton on the floor. He had given the families two days to get out.
“Most of the women are irresponsible people. They harbour criminals. You don’t know them; we know them. Many of them sell drugs – cocaine and beer. You have sympathy for those people; they don’t deserve it. Those women are so devilish in their thinking and acting.”
After the Guardian made inquiries, the Nigerian Railway Corporation said that those who had not yet been forced out could stay for another two months – though the circumstances of the affected families will not have changed in that time.
Sitting by a pile of wood that used to serve as his furniture, Idowu Akin Pelu, a retired administrator for the Nigerian Railway Corporation, said none of the families had money for rent or people who would take them in.
“They said whoever failed to remove whatever belonged to him or her would be arrested and carted away to prison,” he said. “They said people of the world are coming and they want to transform this place to their own standard. We don’t know where to go. We are in disarray.”
“They are harsh. We are poor people. There is nothing like pity at all.”
Forcing people out is not a strategy that will work in the long run, according to OluTimehin Adegbeye, a Nigerian writer and activist.
“Poor people don’t generally tend to disappear just because they’ve been stripped of everything they have,” she said in a recent Ted talk.
Visitors to the biennial who learned what was happening on the other side of the shed were shocked. However, most were unaware of the evictions taking place. Oshun tried to stop them, but as Legacy was not charging him to use the space, he had little power.
Setting up a biennial in traffic-choked, expensive Lagos has not been easy. With no funding, artists were asked to pay their own way and Oshun, an artist and curator known for his meditations on jollof rice, did not know until weeks before the launch whether he would pull it off.
Wooden boxers with footballs for heads fought, representing the Nigerian people and their government battling corruption; the artist, Ayo Akinwande roped them off from a pile of rotting refuse. Puppies that had wandered in from the community living next door slept between the tracks as David Palacios checked up on his dissected ring binders, full of statistics on violence.
Sunlight shone through pictures of women holding candles put up in the empty windows of a wall, eerily lighting them. Chickens pecked at the ground, hopping into a bed of banana leaves below a clutch of luminous framed pictures, all of which featured an orange peel. At the end of the running shed, young men played football.
“It really takes guts to do this without funding,” said Rahima Gambo, a visual journalist and documentary photographer who filled a train carriage with greenery and school desks as part of a long-term project looking at the impact of the Boko Haram insurgency in Maiduguri.
“He [Oshun] is letting us do whatever we want,” she said. “It’s not a clean-cut biennial, it’s very Lagos.”
As guests in shirtdresses and basketball shoes milled about the artworks, on the other side of the railings the evicted families sat together quietly.
Usua Peters, who worked as a train guard for 13 years and now operates a motorbike taxi to supplement his pension, and Theresa, his tiny barefoot wife, hauled bags out of the one windowless room they shared with their three children. Ifoma Uche suspended a black bin bag over her bedroll: she was sleeping in a bush.
“Tonight he (Akinwoye) will go to his home and sleep comfortably, while we’re sleeping out here with snakes. It’s just wickedness,” said Peters, and then broke into unexpected laughter. “Nigeria,” he said, shaking his head in bitter disbelief. “Nigeria.”
By Ruth Maclean. This article first appeared in the Guardian.