CHRIS FREMANTLE

Sweeping

Sculptures by Sokari Douglas Camp at

Camberwell College of Arts, London

26 July – 13 September 2006

Nigeria comes to London. Well actually Nigeria and London have been together for many years. Sokari Douglas Camp CBE! Sokari Douglas Camp is an artist, and more precisely a sculptor. Sokari Douglas Camp lives in London. Sokari Douglas Camp was born in Nigeria, and more precisely in the Niger Delta. We need to be precise to avoid confusion.

The exhibition Sweeping is a group of recent work across a range of scales.

Positioned on the forecourt of the College, and visible to passers on the Peckham Road, is Asoebi Women (2005), made as part of the Africa05 season and shown at the British Museum. Of course its also the eponymous ‘water feature’ for Ground Force – thus essentially and at once Nigerian and British.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, in Purple Hibiscus, describes the women at Christmas in rural Nigeria: “They all looked alike, in ill-fitting blouses, threadbare wrappers, and scarves tied around their heads.” (p91) This sheds a light across the work, one confirmed by Sokari in the text in the catalogue. Poverty and making do are key.

Inside the Gallery are two larger than life size works – a pair of figures, Accessories Worn in the Delta (2006), and a single figure Teasing Suicide (2004). Various other smaller scale works are also included – at least one of these is a maquette, but all stand on their own.

Sokari Douglas Camp works in welded metal. She is immensely skilled as well as provocative and reflective in her work. She addresses Britain and Nigeria, Peckham Road and Port Harcourt. The exhibition is full of life and death.

The statement offered with the exhibition illuminates this.

‘Sweeping is about management, order, facing up to the truth. As we sweep, we whisper things to our chores – I think I do that with my sculpture. I work on things that disturb me, take ordinary experience and turn it into a surreal picture. But life is surreal.’ (Press Release)

But this statement is more interesting if you read it in the catalogue. It goes on:

‘…and women take it in their stride. We tolerate the most extraordinary things.’ (Catalogue)

The last statement, missing from the press release, adds a completely new, feminist, dimension. It becomes less ‘art world’, less distant, more present, more personal.

The process of making sculpture is about telling, or perhaps admitting, the truth. What results from telling the truth as you make art is a new understanding – a heightened awareness.

The Bus, the maquette for the living memorial to Ken Saro-Wiwa states ‘I accuse the oil industry of the genocide of the Ogoni.’  It’s a very unsubtle statement. Other works in the exhibition open up the personal psychological experience in much richer ways. The Bus speaks to the public shared space. It asks “Which bus are you on?”

The figure, Teasing Suicide, that confronts you as you enter the gallery is holding an AK47 pointing in its mouth. I interpreted it as a female figure. I interpreted the pink paint covering the head and shoulders as the consequences of squeezing the trigger. But the work is also one of the most beautiful. Sokari Douglas Camp is immensely skilled at working with metal, and the imagery cut into the body of the figure is just stunning.

The large pair of figures, also I think female, entitled Accessories Worn in the Delta, are loaded down with AK47s and ammunition. They face each other, but they are like caryatids rather than in a personal confrontation.

One of the smaller works, the Coca-cola Ladies (2004) also is a curious configuration. A group of perhaps eight tall figures of women surround a slightly more vulnerable figure in the centre of the group. The figures are made from mild steel, the head dresses red, crushed and cut coke cans. The eight are linking arms, and the whole assemblage is moving purposefully. There is almost a praetorian sense to the group. Making sculpture out of found materials such as coke and beer cans has become a ‘traditional’ activity in Africa, but the psychological strength of this work is huge.

Sokari Douglas Camp’s work is infused by her cultural inheritance. There is no possibility of failing to recognise the colours, patterns and shapes in the work. The short film Sweeping, perhaps just a ‘study’ of the idea, highlights the action focusing on repetition and pattern in the dust. In the background is a house. The front wall of the house made from concrete blocks pierced with a simple repeating pattern – you know – the sort also used for garden walls. In that, as much as in the patterns left in the dust by sweeping, you can see the importance of the cutting and drawing through the steel.

Each work contains a psychologically complex situation – standing, protecting, confronting, crying, killing – genocide. They are personal responses to human experience. My instinct is that the human experience is rooted in Nigeria, and it stands as a challenge to London – Nigeria is conflicted, but Nigeria is strong. It also asks the person in Peckham “Have you experienced anything like this?” to which the answer is probably “Yes.” Just as the Bus, and PLATFORM’s whole remember saro-wiwa project, aims to make what happens in the Niger Delta a reality to people in London, so all Sokari’s work seems explore the idea that ‘ We tolerate the most extraordinary things’.

© Chris Fremantle 2006

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