Flying Girls, an art installation by Peju Alatise presently on display at the 57th Venice Biennale, addresses issues affecting the girl child in Nigeria. Image: Peju Alatishe
VENICE– Discrimination against the girl child is the focus of Peju Alatise’s installation entry at the 57th Venice Biennale. Titled the Flying Girls, the installation is made of eight life-sized sculptures of girls with wings and birds in midflight.
A seminal piece, Flying Girls accentuates the struggles and pains of the girl child in her quest for a just society. As a Nigerian and a woman, Peju bears witness to the maltreatment, discrimination, and atrocities that have become commonplace in a society where very little attention is given to the development of the girl child.
As a witness, it is not surprising that Alatise has taken on the subject of the girl child in Flying Girls. An important issue brought to the fore by the artist is child marriage. In several states across Nigeria, young girls are forced into early marriages. The results have been catastrophic for the young girls. Many have developed Vesicovaginal fistula (VVF) due to complications from childhood pregnancy and birth. Additionally, they are shunned by their husbands who put them in this situation in the first place.
Beyond VVF, childhood marriages have greater implications for the future of the girl child. In addition to health issues, many of the girls forced into childhood marriages are unable to get any education or engage in productive activities. Above all, they are stigmatized and allowed to waste away.
The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) describes the dangers of child marriage thus:
Child marriage threatens girls’ lives and health, and it limits their future prospects. Girls pressed into child marriage often become pregnant while still adolescents, increasing the risk of complications in pregnancy or childbirth. These complications are a leading cause of death among older adolescents in developing countries.”
The risks and dangers associated with being a girl child in Nigeria are real. Ironically, very little has been done to protect the girl child. Peju Alatise aptly notes that the “vulnerability of the girl child and the fact we do not have a government, cultural knowledge and aspiration to do something to help the girl child.” Nonetheless, laws continue to be enacted to disparage the girl child, including those allowing them to be married away at a very young age. Such laws have given room to further objectification and sexualization of the girl child.
A salient example of the pervading sexualization of the girl child happened just as Flying Girls was about to be transported to Venice for the Biennale. In Alatise’s account, the men who came to pack the installation fondled the girls, pinching their breasts and bottoms. It did not bother the men that the girls are between nine and 15 years old, they openly talked about which ones were ready for marriage or for the taking. Even more disturbing is the constant news report about the rape of the girl child.
Confronted by the issues affecting the girl child, Alatise’s response is to locate a space conducive to their existence. Evidently, There is a utopian element to Alatishe’s Flying Girls. With their wings, the girls are able to fly to that ideal place where they are well treated and have the opportunity to archive their goals. They are able to escape from where they are continually marginalized and subjugated.
Flying Girls also subverts the powerlessness that has become synonymous with rescuing the girl child by giving them mystical power. The wings on the girls and the black birds flying overhead put them in the realms of Eleye Aje (Birds of Power). Eleye Aje in the Yoruba tradition are women with immense power. They have the ability to mitigate all situations and shape destiny. As Eleye Aje, Alatise imbues the girls with powers beyond human comprehension.
With all the issues confronting the girl child in Nigeria, it is not surprising that Alatise would make it the focus of her Venice Biennale presentation. In addition to attracting praises from art lovers, Flying Girls is also bringing attention to the plight of the girl child. In Flying Girls, Peju Alatise elevates the girl child above the everyday atrocities by placing in the spiritual world. She re/locates them to a place where they can fly, explore and achieve their dreams.
As it appears, prayers and hard work are necessary for the survival of the Girl Child. The violence of Boka Haram, the terrorist group that kidnapped more 200 Chibok girls, and the constant news of the rape of the girl child, are proof that more has to be done to protect the girl child.
Flying Girls is not just about the struggle of the Girl Child; it is also about how they can succeed if provided with all the necessary opportunities. Peju Alatise is an example of that success.