If we were made green
By Afopefoluwa Ojo
She draws the head, considers it making, God breathing life into dust saying, let there be light, thinking what if darkness had wanted to remain what it was, hidden, hiding. The hunk she meets while making the head will not be named until a large portion of their knowing is unraveled, beneath screens, a multiplicity of beings. Who are you? What’s your name? If I told you you’d reduce me to a googlex search, upside-down smiling face, who uses those anymore? Let’s meet again. The first time she meets him is waking up from an art dream to find him peering over her work, dissecting the crux of it, the unfinished head made upside-down, a metaphor for what her life is.
About her work, he says things she’s heard before but not quite the same way, another might consider his analysis vapid but she giggles, smiles as he says, it’s somewhat reminiscent of the dystopian amalgamation that happened in three thousand and seventeen. Really? she says, that’s a great angle. Later in a moment of wonderment, when the knowing has unraveled, and a large portion of the mystery has come undone, she asks, why me? Or a variation of the question, why do you love me? Maybe not love, and so, why this? Simply, why this? He says with much gaiety, the art is great but you ... you are so interesting, but what she hears is what his whole body says: It is the mystery of the art.
Her process is nothing like humdrum routine work, a clocking in and clocking out. It is absolute veneration of materials, paper, walls, alternate versions of herself, complete obeisance to creation, altered states induced by psychoactive substances. The euphoria of coke-induced conversations about the validity of pansexuality, laughter, anger spurts. She paints herself as the baddest bitch in the world, swirls of brown become her exact complexion, green glitters on eyelids, hair, mid-arms, thighs. When it’s LSD, she’s a floating mass of everything but primary colours, with multitudes of ant-like humanoids bowing to her. This is her design.
She is holding a show in Lagos when they meet, this upside-down head, she says Lagos makes her feel this way, heady, as though trying to cross an endless road, never getting to the other side but she is Senegalese and likes the feeling. She likes that it makes her paint this. When he is in bed with her later, he finally says his name, Dele, and she tells him her parents died when she was fourteen, she returns to painting because of this, never looks back. What’s your biggest fear? she asks. That my creations are turning against me.
Dele’s architecture moulds recycled materials, plants foliage as roofs, builds a floating high school in the slums, where water refuses boundaries and sewage spreads beyond its borders. Then the work he does for the rich, a restaurant that morphs into a tourist attraction as a function of its wonderment. At the launch of the restaurant, he looks sharp, they tell him, crisp white shirt, triangular-shaped slippers, rare blue leather. The style is common, but the leather is not, it stands out. He spends time thinking this through, architecture as art, or architecture as salvation. Architecture as both, he decides. His wife stands beside him sipping red wine from a glass, more showy than he is, proud of his work. When he is at Harvard, he starts a folder of designs on his alienware. His plan is to unveil it as a surprise project, perhaps an exhibition. He redesigns the whole of Lagos, from Ikeja to Shomolu to Ikoyi, makes a modern pre-colonial case for the city, an architectural revolution without the burgeoning colonial eye.
Sandbag homes that go running into skylines, libraries made of recycled shipping containers redefining industrialisation, schools on water made from locally sourced wood resting on plastic drums to keep them afloat, shops made of timber and adobe mud-blocks, woodland spas without electricity right in the midst of wildlife, lit only by candles in hand-painted mason jars making interesting patterns on the wall with rainwater-capturing ecosystems, and for his obsession with these materials—clay and straw—he designs the biggest bridge that spans the whole city. His friends see the work, they say it’s so strange. He says someone has to do it. They say it’s turbulent, that they see architecture as something that saves, not something that disrupts. They say these massive buildings on water that go up up up with rubber wires holding them out to boats while fishermen fish, and these little shacks built on water under the third mainland bridge that we’re supposed to be getting rid of, you’ve gone and romanticised everything, and why are those men dressed like traditionalists?
Initially, if anyone should question his ideas, he slows them down with sparse words saying, it is a purely personal artistic pursuit, I have merely re-imagined a reality. But he is planning the revolution and his army is a bunch of muscle men, his uncles’ and aunts’ sons, cousins, who call Dele brother as cousin dilutes the strength of blood, reduces their connection with the Harvard-schooled fresh kid doing ‘great things.’ But more because Dele gives them what is sufficient for them to keep working for him. And when there are emergencies like, my wife is about to give birth I have no money, he says, don’t worry, I’ll pay. His cousins collect water tanks that stay too long in old buildings, wood, cans, and dump them in the warehouse, which is his grandfather’s compound. Someone else walks into the compound and says, someone needs to clean up this mess, Dele walks into the compound and beams.
At the restaurant launch, after congratulating Dele, a young man asks him, what’s next for you? Dele wants to say nothing, open-ended, mysterious nothing, but not to be curt he says, just seeing how things go, waiting for the next thing that pops up. The young man tells him, my name is Adams, and I can’t wait to see what you do next, I have always followed your work, I am a huge fan. And through excitement as he turns to leave, steps lightly on Dele’s blue leather slippers but walks away quickly, too nervous to stop and apologise, the seething anger in Dele’s eyes is a work of art.
Two weeks later he’s home up at 5 a.m, a life hack, wake before the world wakes, opens his alienware and sees fastmail from an Enitan Adegbite, asking to meet with him at Terra Land (once Terra Kulture until taken over by the government) on Victoria Island. Enitan Adegbite writes, Dear Dele Stiqler, I hope you’re well. I am writing to inquire if you’re available for a quick meeting at Terra Land tomorrow. It’s about your floating school. We are looking to work with you on a more expansive project. He does a quick googlex search on her, photographs pop up, each one shows a thick hank of large braids that covers a side of her face, shielding an eye. The rest of the braids are thrown behind her back, exposing the other eye. She is eighteen and works for the government. Ever since young people planned the most successful takeover, bearing arms and killing every older person in power, restitution like guerrilla warfare, kill or be killed, the government has become a powerhouse run by young people. Now they are obsessed with equality and redistribution of wealth, and the president is a thirty-something man from Imo State. Their motto: all fingers become equal. Subtle vibrations course through Dele’s skin as he reads the fastmail once again. He knows, as we sometimes do, this is one of those fastmails that precedes greater things.
Nice to finally meet you, Enitan says when they meet, I ... we are very pleased with your work. Pleased? Dele chuckles as he says this, you sound like my dad saying you are ‘very pleased’ with my work, however I appreciate that you’ve shown interest. We want a more expansive project, Enitan continues, we know it is a private project. We know that everyone thinks the new government is seizing freedom by taking over private projects, but soon everyone will understand that we’re making this happen for them. I understand, Dele says, I am not one of your problems. But thinking about his cousins whom he needs as they are to achieve his dreams, unable to imagine them become equal in any way, he says, but fingers will never be equal. Enitan smiles and says, then you are one of our problems. We need you to believe. We really do. But that’s not why I am here. The floating school. We want that model replicated across the whole city. Exhilarated, Dele says, I’m listening ...
The only difference between them and their fathers’ fathers is the intensity of feeling they have for the people. Sometimes the president will sit on his bathroom floor wailing about his people suffering, for his people to suffer is for him to suffer. They sit around the boardroom, some of them present from other spaces and planets as walking, talking holograms. But how do we make such a rigorous change without affecting the people, someone asks. Someone suggests they create a camp, call it the madhouse, house people section by section while Dele and his team reinvent the city. In the madhouse, we teach our people to maintain their new wood houses, can libraries, schools. Someone says a madhouse might work for the poor but not the rich.
Enitan, the chief equality officer says, if you of all people still see rich and poor, then the work we’ve been doing is a damn lie. The president agrees to build the madhouse. No one asks why they call it the madhouse, they’ve always been nominally interesting: the papier mache revolution, becoming the unbecoming movement, etcetera. For fear of the madhouse, for fear of its name or for fear that they may never return, the people recruit themselves to build the city with Dele. They learn materials, reasons why things are as they are, put personal touches on their spaces: straw mats as blinds, polyester as bed covers, wrap their cups with leaves. Dele feels these people are his people, never believed he would live to see the day architecture becomes an active collaboration with the people.
When he sees the upside-down painting of the head, it reminds him of the madness of this period and the artist reminds him of the madness of his youth, she tells him her name is Dominiqua when he asks. In bed together, he is back to being the young man who led the revolution, and she the artist who paints unyielding self-portraits, constantly re-imagining herself. He says to her his biggest fear is that out of his love of materials, he took a great chance with the biggest bridge spanning the city, using clay reinforced with straw. That’s dumb, she says. My friends said the same thing. It’s not going to last Dominiqua, leave the city as soon as you can. I have nowhere to go, she says. Go back to Senegal, he pleads. There is nothing there for me, she says. I am a killer, he says crying into her arms, the bridge collapses and takes more than half the city with it. Can’t something be done about it? she asks. He says nothing and she says, unfortunately, I have no form of self-preservation left in me.
He and his wife drive around Tanzania and they hear via the news airwaves that Lagos’ city bridge is falling down, reports of loud crashes and people screaming, Dele swears he hears Dominiqua wail, panics, and breaks into a sweat. His wife grabs his hand, squeezes it.
They park their car at Milman City Mall where they stop to buy provisions for their new home.
Afopefoluwa Ojo is a writer who lives and works in Lagos, Nigeria. Her work has been published in the journals Overland, Experimental Literature Africa vs Latin America Vol. 1, Intense Art Magazine, and others. She is co-founder of Arts and Africa, and runs a book club called the Barely Literate.