Lagos, Nigeria, is the largest city in Africa and one of the most populous urban areas in the world. With a burgeoning population of somewhere between 8 million and 21 million people (depending on how you measure it), this massive multicultural conurbation sprawls from the mainland across a collection of islands and peninsulas that forms an expansive lagoon connected to the Gulf of Guinea. Since 2014, when Nigeria overtook South Africa as the continent’s largest economy, Lagos has entered the world stage as a place of global financial significance. Now it is staking its claim to global cultural significance as well.
In 2017, the city hosted the first-ever Lagos Biennial, which ran from October 14 to November 22. Curated by Nigerian artist Folakunle Oshun and titled “Living on the Edge,” it comprised artist talks, seminars, film screenings, and a large art exhibition, all of which, according to the biennial’s website, investigated “the realities of the losers in societies around the world — the unseen majority who are pushed to the brink of their existence; in both political and cultural ramifications.”
The artists who participated in the biennial came from across Africa and around the world. The designer who prepared the main exhibition hall came from Austin, Texas.
Jeanne Schultz, founder and principal of Jeanne Schultz Design Studio, first became involved with Lagos during her final semester at The University of Texas at Austin. While enrolled in an African art history course taught by Moyo Okediji, she met visiting Nigerian artist Jelili Atiku. Atiku put on a performance with the students in which Schultz participated. The process was so moving that she stayed in contact with the artist, eventually working with him on another project that did not come to fruition. That collaboration did, however, bring Schultz into contact with Oshun, who reached out to her in late 2016, when he was putting together the biennial, and asked her to be its design architect.
The biennial took place within the Nigerian Railway Corporation’s compound in Yaba, a neighborhood in Mainland Lagos. The exhibition space itself was in the old running shed, a late-19th-century building originally erected as a place to repair steam engines. Though abandoned and dilapidated, the structure did house some old rolling stock, as well as a few squatting families.
Schultz’s first experience of the running shed was through videoconference. Her Nigerian collaborators gave her tours of the space with their smartphones. Using that data, along with information from online maps and the curators’ input, Schultz, working with a team of UT students — Hannah Ahlblad, Xinmei Li, and Ian Amen — produced a series of drawings. The drawings organize the art by type and establish an order of procession through the framework of the running shed’s colonial-era architecture.
Schultz and Li also designed an enclosure for artist Lamis Haggag’s installation, “How Do I Look on Paper?” The artwork was composed of a jasmine plant connected to a system of electrical sensors; the enclosure, a deconstructed cube made of wood framing members, polycarbonate panels, and metal brackets.
A week before the opening of the biennial, Schultz flew to Africa to complete the installation with the rest of the curatorial team and the participating artists. While she had experienced the space many times remotely, it did not prepare her for the reality on the ground. “You only have a certain field of vision when you experience things from a screen,” Schultz says. “It’s much different when you see them all together — all the senses at the same time, down to the stench and the animals running around, the dripping water.”
It was the end of the rainy season in Nigeria. Water poured in from holes in the old shed’s roof. But these unaccounted-for challenges became opportunities for the biennial team. Budget and logistical issues (the cost of fuel and the sprawl of Lagos) put the materials chosen for the enclosure of Haggag’s artwork out of reach. So Schultz sourced replacement materials directly from the site: bamboo, plastic sheeting, and nails. A local carpenter, who wore flip flops while he worked, completed the erection. He built his own scaffold out of rotting wood, held 50 or more nails in his mouth, which he spat onto the hammer one at a time, and cut the bamboo with a handsaw.
Improvisations like this typified the approach of the biennial team, who banded together with the visiting artists, local laborers, and an army of volunteers — the whole neighborhood pitched in — to put on a show for the world.
Aaron Seward is editor of Texas Architect.