Deferred Promise

Written by Dr Tatiana A. Thieme

This is part of a series of short reflections from the field following February’s trip to Zaria. 

On the campus of Ahmadu Bello University, a quiet and humble sculpture garden made up of students’ work lies behind the Fine Arts building. The garden is rather hidden behind a circle of trees and a small fence, so one must know it is there to happen upon it. Once you step inside, you walk through the labyrinth of sculptures in awe of the virtuosity and creativity that marks each piece, wishing dusk weren’t fast approaching. Most pieces provide social justice commentary and critique, with remarkable aesthetic detail. The profile of Jamaican Reggae artist Bob Marley is held up by thick dreadlocks that seem to melt into the ground like gigantic tree roots. A number of sculptures depict the Al-Majiri youth navigating the streets, bowl in hand, wearing third hand garments that seem 5 sizes too big for their slight frames. A piece titled ‘Jungle Justice’ depicts a male figure sat with arms tied back, tire over the neck, presumably on fire, head hanging back screaming in pain. Powerful female figures are portrayed in ways that combine strength and vulnerability, maternity and feminism. Other less representational sculptures play with abstraction and bricolage, using re-purposed metal, electronic and mechanical scrap such as engine parts, large gear bits, cogs and suspension springs. Discarded vehicle parts, trash turned into art.

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This sculpture garden holds a constellation of stories, skills, and aspirations, enmeshing local and distant imaginaries. Not far from there, on the other side of ABU’s campus, a concrete skeletal structure of a large conference centre sits in the middle of an open field. Though the space seems completely unused, its proportions reflect a proud presence for its own sake along with an in-built obsolescence. The structure holds a kind of deferred promise for events yet to take place. It has no past, only stately paralysis, and yet the walls are already showing signs of decay given the exposure to the elements and the passing of time.

On some days, a few labourers work on the site in slow motion. Sometimes even just one body is visible from the road, making a semblance of adjustments to the mammoth structure. The scene becomes a sort of site-specific performance of incremental progress that legitimises the building’s status as ‘in construction’. The sole labourer confirms that this is a place on its way to becoming a space of purpose. And yet for now, its use value seems like a distant asymptote, eliciting a number of speculative musings amongst pedestrians walking past, debating (even mocking) the hidden meanings behind the nodes of unfinished construction across the country, underpinned by the quiet persistence of hope. This scene is familiar to landscapes across Kaduna to Zaria, punctuated with the appearance of stalled construction projects including uninhabited dwellings that perform the intention to serve (or be imagined) as accommodation, but seem abandoned before even having been inhabited.

Image: The abandoned structure within ABU Zaria’s main campus. Apparently it is the skeletal structure of the school’s conference building that’s remained incomplete for a couple of years.

And yet, as we walk past the empty conference centre as night falls, the enormous structure seems replete with meaning, a sculpture in itself. Some might see it as a critique of the state of misallocated investments, quixotic plans of grandeur and future ambitions in the name of ‘modernity’ and ‘development’ that sit empty. To me, especially after a year working with my ABU colleagues and a week of evening walks across the campus, from the sculpture garden to the guest house, this unfinished structure puts in sharp relief the otherwise everyday efforts to make do, make work, and make space across the University and beyond its campus in settings, buildings, and corners that accommodate all manner of things. These different rhythms co-exist side by side, the unfinished and the on-going, both pointing to extraordinary possibility.