On the 6th of May 2017, after three years of being kidnapped, tortured, raped and brainwashed by the terrorists of Boko Haram 82 of the 276 Chiboks girls kidnapped in April 2014 were released to the Nigerian government as part of an undisclosed prisoner exchange.
They were flown to Abuja and paraded before news cameras and screaming reporters, while one of them, now lame hid her stump under her hijab, quiet as death.
Just two days before, on the 3rd of March, dozens of teenage girls, no older than the Chibok girls waited inside the gates of their school, rechecking layers of the near impenetrable spanx underwear they had under their school uniforms. It was their last day of school, but they were terrified not joyous. They ran, some alone, others in groups, their destination the bus park at Falomo roundabout. Very few got there before they were hounded down by boys their age, wielding scissors and war shouts. They fought as the sharpened blades snipped their defenses, tried to remember the advice they’ve gotten from their mothers. The pavement was warm as boy after leering boy pried their legs apart and violated them.
The security guards who were supposed to protect them took out their phones instead and hit record.
Just a few hundred feet away, standing like Santeria candles are oversized murals of idealised carefree black girls, with black halos for hair and butterflies flitting past their faces. They watch as the teenage girls are raped in Falomo, they listen to the silent accusation that follows the Bring Back Our Girls protest at Falomo roundabout. 200 plus posters, each depicting a Chibok girl denied by the Nigerian government, cast aside as the ‘lies’ of political opponents trying to spoil ex President Goodluck Jonathan’s good name. These massive murals, like religious iconography are mute but benevolent, much like the white woman who painted them.
I’m sure you’ve never heard of Polly Alakija, and to be honest I don’t even blame you. Polly became a Nigerian by marriage, into an affluent Nigerian family. She then became an artist exploring ‘Nigerian themed concepts’, an euphemism for painting Keke Marwas and Danfos.
As part of the Lagos at 50 celebrations (Lagos is 53/100+ depending when you start counting) murals of women were commissioned for the concrete pillars that hold up the Falomo intersectional bridge. Three guesses who they gave this all important valuable contract to? Polly Alakija, who apparently has lived in Lagos for 20 years and therefore qualifies as a black Nigerian woman able to represent black Nigerian women.
Under Fashola, Lagos became a business, run with ruthlessness and complete disregard for the hardworking poor. Markets were torn down and rebuilt, three tolls were built on a less than 40 km road in a largely residential area, protests kept Fashola from running everyone out of Lagos. But Lagos under Ambode is a full on all out parade of nepotism. How else does a moderately acknowledged artist whose great creative opus is decorating Keke Marwas, get the biggest mural celebrating Lagos at 50, a mural visible enough to give an artist lifetime recognition?
She’s white and rich, that’s why.
Polly Alakija is a physical representation of why the most capable and successful enablers of social injustice are straight white women.
As a white woman married into an affluent Nigerian family, Polly is doubly privileged. She has wealth, and her race that constant give her an advantage over many black female Nigerian artists. But this privilege also offers her a unique perspective as an artist; the opportunity to explore what it means to be a white woman in a culture that has embraced you but you don’t quite understand.
Instead Polly Alakija chooses to take very rare opportunities from actual black female Nigerian artists, using her privilege and influence.
And then she uses that opportunity, already tainted by the fact that it was taken from other artists who have far more right to tell Nigeria’s stories, and then tells a story that is completely tone-deaf and oblivious to the history of the very place where the art she was commissioned to make is situated.
The very humanity of the Chibok Girls was fought for at Falomo roundabout. Black Nigerian activists fought that the Chibok girls might not be erased, just so a politician wouldn’t have to feel international embarrassment. Very much the same way black female Nigerian artists have been erased so that Polly Alakija can receive (arguably without merit) the biggest commission that has been given to a female Nigerian artist.
The Nigerian woman Polly Alakija and the Lagos state government profess to celebrate with the Falomo mural has earned all her victories with sweat, blood, tears and sometimes their very lives. Kudirat Abiola lost her life, Funmilayo Ransome Kuti faced persecution, the Chibok girls were trying to better their lives with an education, much like the girls of Falomo High School. Nigerian women continue to fight to be seen as human, let alone equal. To have a white woman elevated, and offered the mandate to tell their stories without their input or permission speaks clearly for itself.
We are not big on metaphors here: A white woman stands alone under Falomo bridge, drawing what quite literally is graffiti in one of the busiest intersections in Lagos, completely unafraid of the Nigerian Police who harass and sexually assault women for going out on a friday night, unafraid of school boys who celebrate graduating secondary school by raping their classmates, unafraid of agberos who catcall and then use the response as an excuse to harass, sexually assault and even rape women.
She stands painting a mural that acknowledges none of this, a mural that says more about her than it does about us. A mural that says Polly Alakija is a Nigerian woman who doesn’t see race until it profits her, that is feminist until the government requires her not to be, that is a Nigerian until she needs her white privilege to allow her stand alone under a bridge no other black Nigerian woman will dare, and claim to represent all of us.