Multimedia Nigerian performance artist Jelili Atiku has emerged as an inspirational figure, not only for the Indigenous people in Ejigbo, Nigeria but also for a global audience. Through his captivating performances held worldwide, Atiku seeks to raise awareness about politics, climate change and social justice.

In an interview with Africanah, the artist and human rights activist shed light on his use of the body as a medium, his dedication to Yoruba culture and his mission to heal from postcolonial trauma, reflecting the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals of Reduced Inequalities.

Photograph of Jelili Atiku by Enoh Leinemann. Image courtesy of Africa is a Country.

It’s no wonder that Atiku has a very strong sense of justice, his early art career was marked by adversity, particularly in his encounters with Nigerian police brutality due to the radical nature of his art performances. This was a “consequence” of his performance, Àràgàmàgò Will Rid this Land of Terrorism, which he conducted in Ejigbo, Nigeria in 2016.

In this performance, the artist aimed to expose the violent nature of the local king, who had been involved in the inhumane treatment of three women. Stripped naked and subjected to abuse, these women had suffered due to a trivial theft accusation. Atiku's performance incorporated sacred elements of Yoruba culture, one of the three largest ethnic groups in Nigeria. He utilized their mystic figures and sacred deities to confront the king's actions.

This powerful act led to Atiku's arrest and subsequent imprisonment in Kirikiri Maximum Security Prison, and only being released in 2019. The trauma he endured during this period, compounded by the dehumanizing treatment, remains etched in the artist's memory. Despite these challenges, Atiku's community support and ancestral connections played a crucial role in overcoming the ordeal.

Àràgàmàgò Will Rid this Land of Terrorism by Jelili Atiku, performed in Ejigbo, Lagos, Nigeria, 2016, photo by Emmanuel Sanni. Image courtesy of

One of Atiku's key principles is to enhance the sensibility and consciousness of his audiences through boundary-pushing performances. His art serves as a tool for advocating socio-political change, human rights, and justice. Through performances like E Don Tey Wey We Dey, Atiku challenges stereotypes about Africa that call its people impoverished, emphasizing its ancient civilization and Indigenous contributions to various fields. The use of earthy colours symbolizes the deep knowledge and sacrifices of Africans, with white representing the purity and protection that the current generation receives from their forefathers.

E Don Tey Wey We Dey by Jelili Atiku. Image courtesy of FARaway Festival.

Meanwhile, Aláàgbá, a performance Atiku conducted in Brazil, delves into the collective resistance of Yoruba ancestors against colonialism. Atiku connects historical events like the Berlin Conference to the fragmentation of Yoruba people, emphasizing the need for healing and unity. 

His ongoing project, Red Day, addresses human tendencies toward violence, exploring the balance between destructive and positive energies. The intentional use of red, black, and white colours in Atiku's performances is rooted in Yoruba symbolism. These colours, associated with the powerful Orisha Èṣù, represent purity, strength, and activation of manifestation. The artist's process involves understanding his audience's collective consciousness of global historical events and merging it with his memory to create engaging and thought-provoking performances.

Red Day by Jelili Atiku. Image courtesy of Contemporary And.

The recognition Atiku received, including the 2015 Prince Claus Award, signifies acknowledgment of the impact of his work. He sees it as a validation of his ancestors' civilization and a responsibility to continue pushing Yoruba ideals forward. As a world-renowned performance artist, Atiku's journey reflects resilience, cultural pride, and a commitment to advocating for justice and equality.

For aspiring performance artists, Atiku emphasizes that performance is inherent to African DNA. He encourages them to embrace the purest artistic form, free from divine methods or rigid regulations, and to recognize the meaningfulness and importance of using one's body as a material for artistic expression.

Jelili Atiku's artistic journey continues to unfold, marked by a deep connection to his roots, a commitment to social justice, and an unwavering dedication to using performance art as a tool for positive change.

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