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Aftermath performance: mourning in the work of Jelili Atiku

by Akin Oladimeji • June 2024 • Journal article


Completely encased in long strips of red fabric, with a multitude of balloons tied around him, a figure stalks the streets of Nyhavn FIG. 1, a district in Copenhagen, screaming and sporadically charging at bemused passers-by, who film him on their mobile phones FIG. 2.1 He boards a boat and gradually makes his way to Kunsthal Charlottenborg, the red bandages now trailing loosely around his feet. Leading a procession of onlookers, he proceeds through the courtyard into the building and up the stairs into a gallery space, where he screams and rolls around on the floor, popping the balloons. The violent sounds reverberate around the room, while footage of a previous iteration of the performance in Lagos is projected onto the wall, so that screams of the present and past intermingle with one another. Finally, he takes red leaflets that were taped to the wall and hands them out to viewers, before exiting the room. It is January 2014. The performer is Jelili Atiku (b.1968).

Atiku is a multimedia performance artist, born and based in Lagos, who focuses on human rights and social justice issues in Nigeria and the legacies of colonialism. His work is often rooted in historical narratives and shared memories and trauma. In a bid to interrogate the ways that Atiku’s work redefines avant-garde methods of memorialisation, this article considers In The Red (2008–18), a performance series that serves to commemorate the lives lost in the Nigerian Civil War (1967–70) and victims of mass violence on a global scale. Atiku staged seventeen performances in this series across Africa, Asia, Europe and the United States, and yet it has been overlooked in scholarship on transnational memory art. Adopting Marianne Hirsch’s definition of postmemory, this article will examine Atiku’s work in relation to memory, mourning and the aesthetics of lament, revealing the various strategies the artist has utilised in his reanimation of violent histories.

A problematisation of postmemory

Hirsch first used the term postmemory in 1992 when writing about Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel Maus (1980–91), in which he fictionalised his father’s survival in Auschwitz.2 She has since expounded on the term, most notably in the publication The Generation of Postmemory: Writing and Visual Culture After the Holocaust (2012), in which she examines the works of various film-makers, writers and artists who have borne secondary witness to the traumas of their parents at the hands of the Nazis.3 According to Hirsch’s definition, postmemory describes:

the relationship that the generation after those who witnessed cultural or collective trauma bears to the experiences of those who came before, experiences that they ‘remember’ only by means of the stories, images, and behaviors among which they grew up. But these experiences were transmitted to them so deeply and affectively as to seem to constitute memories in their own right.4

Although discourse initially centred on artists grappling with inherited memories of the Holocaust, other authors have since applied the concept to the early works of the British-Palestinian artist Mona Hatoum (b.1952); the graphic novel Vietnamerica: A Family’s Journey (2010) by GB Tran (b.1976); and the performance El Peso de la Culpa (The Burden of Guilt; 1997) by Tania Bruguera (b.1968).5 In addition, much of the output of Kara Walker (b.1969) has been understood as postmemorial articulations of the damaging effects of slavery in the United States.6 Postmemory is a capacious concept – one that not only relates to the children of victims of trauma, but also those who feel an affinity with them, despite any geographical or temporal distance. Hirsch classifies these distinct experiences as ‘familial’ and ‘affiliative’ postmemory. What is at stake, according to Hirsch, is the ‘“guardianship” of traumatic personal and generational past with which some of us have a “living connection”, and that past’s passing into history or myth’.7 It is not only, she continues, a ‘generational sense of ownership and protectiveness, but an evolving ethical and theoretical discussion about the workings of trauma, memory and intergenerational acts of transfer’.8

Across her writings, with a particular focus on photography, Hirsch has deconstructed such tropes as repetition, silence and absence, classing them as specifically postmemorial responses to inherited trauma. She sees the most recycled – and thus ‘iconic’ – images of the Holocaust as capable of producing, rather than screening, trauma in the viewer. Repetition is, therefore, not something that the postmemorial generation has used simply as an instrument for retraumatisation, but rather as a ‘mostly helpful vehicle of working through a traumatic past’.9 In a 2019 essay she discussed how artists engaging in postmemory ‘rely on archival images and documents, highlighting ghosts and shadows, gaps in knowledge and transmission’.10 In this way, they emphasise absence and the inability of victims to speak for themselves. However, Hirsch has faced criticism from other scholars regarding her developments of postmemory, including the view that her definition is not controlled enough, as it theoretically allows for works that do not demonstrate empathy for victims.11 Authors have also noted that artists and writers responding to inherited trauma can seek to exploit something they can never truly understand, and the focus shifts from the victim to the self.12 Moreover, as she has expanded her concept of postmemory to the affiliative, Kathy Behrendt asks, ‘wherein lies her entitlement to claim that one person can have a memory-like relation to the experience of another?’.13 

Indeed, there are inevitable ethical risks in producing either familial or affiliative postmemorial works of art – such as the distortion of a personal narrative or insufficient care paid to the more difficult details of a historical event. Untitled (2003) by Doris Salcedo (b.1958), which comprises 1,500 wooden chairs stacked between two buildings in an Istanbul neighbourhood, can be understood as a work of affiliative postmemory. Installed during the 8th Istanbul Biennial, it referred to the history of migration and displacement in the city, especially the legacies of a violent past in which Jews and Greeks were forced out of their homes. The artist and writer Simon Morley, however, notes that Salcedo’s aim in creating politicised spectators is doomed to failure as the installation is more likely to be interpreted within institutional frameworks and a social milieu quarantined from the world she evokes.14 The academy absorbs and neutralises such work so that the photograph of the piled-up chairs – which is now all that remains of the installation – becomes nothing more than an ‘angst-ridden memento’.15 He also scrutinises Salcedo’s lack of connection to these specific victims and her decision to design an installation that acts as a memorial for them.

Behrendt has also raised objections to Hirsch’s conception of postmemory on the grounds of appropriation in a number of ways.16 She writes that Hirsch’s conception of postmemory has, over time, ‘proven to be quite malleable’, and that in expanding it to include works that lack generational and familial virtues, she risks ‘diluting them’.17 In addition, Behrendt notes that Hirsch’s expanded idea of postmemory would seem to allow the ‘concept to be applied with equal facility to not just the children of Holocaust survivors, but also the authors of fraudulent Holocaust memoirs’.18 There are, then, a number of troubling aspects to a more expanded understanding of what constitutes postmemorial works, and who might be classed as a ‘post-rememberer’.


‘In The Red’

In examining the work of Atiku through the conceptual lens of postmemory, it is, therefore, necessary to assess his relationship to the violent past that In The Red seeks to address. The Nigerian Civil War began in 1967 as a culmination of the tensions between the Igbo ethnic group, who were predominantly concentrated in the eastern region of Nigeria, and the central government. Lasting nearly three years, the conflict resulted in thousands of casualties, including a blockade on Biafra, which led to widespread famine and starvation. In January 1970 the Biafran forces, led by Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, surrendered to the government. Atiku’s father was a soldier who fought for the federal government. He returned home on leave and died suddenly, whereupon the army retrieved his body; no explanation was provided and his body was never returned.19 Too young to be fully cognisant of the war while it was raging around him, Atiku was told stories of his father by his grandparents as he grew up. In The Red, therefore, can be categorised as a familial postmemorial work of art.

The writer and academic Eva Hoffman contends that ‘the second generation’s story is a strong case study in the deep and long-lasting impact of atrocity’.20 Indeed, the present author agrees that such direct, personal connections to historical horror helps the audience understand its results. Although the more general memory work by artists not specifically connected to tragedy can tackle the past in its ethical multidimensionality, Atiku’s ability to draw on his father’s experiences affords his work an authentic, emotional quality. In dealing with generational memories, artists such as Atiku make transparent the way that the past affects the present. Their work not only depicts how history is distorted and filtered via intergenerational transmission, but also the urgency of such a project.21 Thus, it is apparent that Atiku’s postmemorial work has a greater capacity to serve as a tool for understanding trauma.

Not longer after In The Red was first conceived in 2008, Nigeria was subjected to numerous terror attacks at the hands of Boko Haram. A group of Islamic fundamentalists, their ultimate goal is to establish an Islamic state in Nigeria, governed by Sharia law. Simultaneously, various separatist movements were burgeoning in the country, many driven by socio-economic grievances. Notably, this included the Movement for the Actualization of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB), which advocates for the re-creation of an independent state of Biafra. Consequently, Atiku’s work serves as social practice: a way to redress the public amnesia surrounding the Biafran war. The histories that the work addresses is communicated to viewers in various ways: in red leaflets handed out after the performances, on placards carried by performers FIG. 3 or in text written by performers as part of the work itself FIG. 4.

The seventeen performances that comprise In The Red were carried out in cities including Zaria, Lagos FIG. 5 FIG. 6, Tokyo, London, Providence RI, Michigan, Harare, Cotonou, Lome, Hannover, Poznań and Copenhagen. Although each iteration differs, certain motifs remain the same: the artist wears a costume of red fabric that covers his entire body, including his face, with balloons attached; he wanders the streets, screaming at times, spinning around and towards the audience, inducing visceral reactions. In the first performance, the artist was alone on the streets of Lagos; for the performances in Providence and Michigan, university students joined him as participants FIG. 7; whereas in another he tied himself to a ladder FIG. 8. The final version saw him and a group of performers, also dressed in red fabrics and carrying crosses, make their way through the congested streets to a gallery FIG. 9, where they scrawled incoherent messages in red on the walls in reference to the illogical nature of war.22

Red conjures myriad associations, many of which are negative: the red mist descending, they saw red, like a red rag to a bull, caught red-handed. For Atiku, the colour symbolises violence, but he also sees it as signifying ‘energy and the essence of human life’.23 The artist has often drawn on Yoruba performance traditions, and In The Red is no exception, as the costume references the masquerades of Egungun performers in Yorubaland: men selected to wear elaborate outfits meant to represent the ancestors on festival days.24 Bits of wood, beads, cowrie shells and amuletic pouches adorn the multiple layers that make up these costumes. Becoming a conduit for ancestral spirits or deities, Yoruba masquerades dispense advice, dance and enable viewers a chance to reconnect with their cultural heritage in modern society.25 The masquerade has become a means through which various African artists have decolonised their art practice. For example, the artist and scholar Sharlene Khan (b.1977) proposes that such performance artists as Tracey Rose (b.1974) and Mary Sibande (b.1982) have adopted masquerading in a bid to challenge racial dominance in post-apartheid South Africa.26 She traces the proliferation of performance art – particularly that which uses the body – in the country to the abolition of apartheid, examining the ways that masquerading has enabled artists to explore themes of identity and memory in the contested arena of postcolonial South Africa.

In her article about the work of the African American artist Pope.L (1955–2023), Martyna Ewa Majewska argues that the artist’s decision to stage his performances in the streets bypassed conventional forms of art production and commercial viability.27 In his performances, the street becomes a site for the activation of public memory. Similarly, in engendering discomfort in his audience through his corporeality redolent of trauma, Atiku facilitates introspection on the causes of violence. The liveness of his performance bewitches, bewilders and burrows into the onlooker’s consciousness, permitting them to cross the psychic border into an appreciation of Atiku’s intentions.

The artist’s decision to end the series was informed by the significance of the number seventeen in the Yoruba religion.28 Itadogun is a communal reading that takes place every seventeen days as part of Ifá, a system of divination, religion and spiritual practice that originated among the Yoruba. On Itadogun day, worshippers appease the orisha spirits through prayers, sacrifices and rituals in order to avert misfortune. Animal sacrifice is a common practice during Itadogun and Ifá rituals more widely: a way of offering one thing in order to gain another.29 Atiku is himself a follower of Ifá, which encourages the possible interpretation of In The Red as a form of prayer – to consider the artist as a sacrificial animal, offering himself in appeasement on behalf of humanity.

The repetition of In The Red aims to challenge the tendency to distort certain aspects of Nigeria’s history. Atiku draws attention to the mythical narratives of peaceful co-existence often propagated by the Nigerian leadership. Moreover, he suggests that by confronting the fractured nature of the country’s history, one can build relationships among Nigerian citizens that do not rely on ignoring or erasing a fractious past. By re-performing the work, the singular, simple image is rendered unfeasible; Atiku’s iterative framework reflects the unstable nature of the past. By returning to the central impulse of lamenting the dead – and repeatedly reutilising certain, fundamental elements – the project achieves a kind of unity that it would not have if such recurrence was not part of its nature. Hirsch believes the postmemorial artist enables the reinvention of a traumatic past without compounding that trauma. This ‘repositioning’ is what Atiku and his peers attempt in their work.


Remembering red

There have been a number of recent writings that examine Atiku’s practice – particularly In The Red – in the context of Nigerian sociopolitical history and art-historical traditions. For example, Aisha Marie Muhammad considers the hybrid representation of Atiku’s heritage and his Western art school training alongside his interest in social sculpture as espoused by Joseph Beuys. Muhammad notes parallels between the two artists in their role as ‘public servant’, therefore evaluating In The Red as an effective artistic and social model. She writes that In The Red is ‘prototypical of Nigerian postcolonial modernism, a constant negotiation of nationalist indigeneity with Western influences’.30 Her central thesis posits that the series is didactic is nature, forcing viewers to confront uneasy traumas and ‘begging them to take action to prevent further atrocities’.31

Lotte Løvholm, who wrote her Master’s dissertation about the performance series, and also curated the Copenhagen version of In The Red, approaches the work through the conceptual framework of Jacques Derrida’s hauntology.32 She examines how Atiku deconstructs identity as a way of questioning Western essentialism, and investigates the use of spectrality in his performances. Løvholm considers In The Red as a decolonial project in which time is presented as a political strategy, and describes his performance as simultaneously embodying both absence and presence. However, neither writer considers In The Red within the field of postmemory. Indeed, although Løvholm does not reference Hirsch’s writings, it is exactly the duality of absence and presence that postmemorial works of art regularly evoke.

It is, therefore, important to situate In The Red within the lineage of memorialisation and postmemorial works of art. While Atiku is dedicated to incorporating the Yoruba practices that make up his heritage into his performances, he is also highly cognisant of other artists whose work can be considered in postmemorial terms. Atiku has often stated his admiration for the work of Marina Abramović (b.1946), and his use of red can be seen as a reference to Abramović’s recurrent use of the colour, for example in her durational performance The Artist is Present (2010).33

In Balkan Baroque FIG. 10, Abramović sat on a pile of cow bones, which she attempted to clean of blood over the course of four days and six hours, the substance transferring to her white shirt. The performance was devised in response to the aftermath of the Bosnian war and the dissolution of her native country, Yugoslavia. The artist sang folksongs from her childhood and an installation of videos featuring herself and her parents played in the background. The work invokes the tragedies that befell Yugoslavia during the 1990s, which the artist both lived through and ‘inherited’ through her nationality, meaning that she becomes both primary and secondary witness. Among the props used in the performance were bowls of water meant to represent ritual cleansing. It is difficult not to see parallels in the strategies that both artists adopt in their responses to mass violence, as well as in order to induce certain responses in their spectators. It is also worth noting that artists’ visual vocabularies are rich with metaphysical inflections. However, for Abramović this often constitutes a combination of New Age sensibilities, Buddhism and ancient Aboriginal wisdom, whereas Atiku applies Yoruba metaphysics rigorously to his practice.

Another figure who can be considered in this field is Christian Boltanski (1944–2021), whom Hirsch cites as an artist who fully realises the potential to remember the past.34 In his large-scale, inventory-like installations, Boltanski combines documentary and fiction in order to commemorate lives lost in global atrocities.35 For example, Autel de Lycee Chases (Altar to the Chases High School) FIG. 11 comprises six black-and-white photographs, thirty-one tin biscuit boxes and six lamps. It is part of a series the artist began in 1987 after he discovered a photograph of the 1931 graduating class from a private Jewish school in Vienna. Boltanski rephotographed and enlarged each student’s face; each lamp is placed close to the images, suggesting the harshness of a spotlight in an interrogation room. Arranged in an altar-like format, it evokes the potential loss of these students, who lived in Vienna during the Nazi occupation. Boltanski’s use of photography is vital to the understanding of his work in terms of postmemory. Indeed, Hirsch has highlighted the reliance on photography as a primary medium for the transmission of trauma across generations: it is ‘precisely the medium connecting memory and post-memory’.36

As Joan Gibbons has noted, biscuit tins were a commonplace method of keeping family documents secure, and Boltanski deliberately aged the tins to indicate the passage of time. Therefore, while the photographs ‘are ghostly reminders of those who have lived, continue to live or have perhaps died in the Holocaust, the biscuit tins mimic the function of memory as storehouse’.37 Many of Boltanski’s installations speak to the horrors of the Holocaust, which directly connects to his family background. He grew up in the aftermath of the Second World War, hearing stories about his Jewish father hide under the floorboards in order to avoid capture by the Nazis. Such stories were ubiquitous throughout the artist’s childhood.

Spectres of death and destruction pervade the work of Boltanski and Atiku. Their biographies act as an umbilical cord to their subject-matter, and they draw from the experiences of their fathers to great effect. As such, both can be understood as exemplars of familial postmemory. However, whereas Boltanski relies on the photograph – notably found photographs – as ‘ghostly remnants from an irretrievably lost past world’, Atiku instead utilises the transitory nature of performance to speak to the fractured, unreliable nature of history, especially in relation to events of mass violence.38 His performances – ethereal, melodramatic, colourful – allude to the ephemerality of both art and life.

In The Red FIG. 12 is an invaluable contribution to the postmemorial cannon. It is a personal, effective lament and a reminder of the devastating consequences of colonialism. Through the use of certain materials and metaphysical references, through iteration and repetition, it serves to powerfully articulate the legacies of conflict. By viewing the work through the lens of postmemory and considering the role that Atiku’s biography contributes to his artistic language more widely, the viewer can engage critically with its attempt to demonstrate how the calamity of the past informs the present. His work foregrounds the ethical urgency of memorialising the past, instead of burying it.



I am very grateful to the anonymous peer reviewers for their comments on this article. I also wish to extend my warmest appreciation to Jelili Atiku for his insights.


About the author

Akin Oladimeji

is a critic, lecturer and writer. He is currently undertaking a PhD at University College London, which is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council.


  • See ‘“Obaranikosi” Jelili Atiku’, YouTube (29th December 2016), available at, accessed 4th May 2024. footnote 1
  • M. Hirsch: ‘Family pictures: “Maus”, mourning, and post-memory’, Discourse 15, no.2 (1992), pp.3–29. footnote 2
  • M. Hirsch: The Generation of Postmemory: Writing and Visual Culture After the Holocaust, New York 2012. footnote 3
  • Ibid., p.5. footnote 4
  • See C. Lionis: ‘A past not yet passed: postmemory in the work of Mona Hatoum’, Social Text 32, no.2 (2014), pp.77–93,; and C.K. Hong: ‘Postmemory and the imaginative work of those who come after’, Women’s Studies Quarterly 48, nos.1–2 (2020), pp.129–32, footnote 5
  • See, for example, A.R. Keizer: ‘Gone astray in the flesh: Kara Walker, Black women writers, and African American postmemory’, PMLA 123 (2008), pp.1,649–72, footnote 6
  • Hirsch, op. cit. (note 3), p.1. In this quotation Hirsch is responding to the work of the writer Eva Hoffman. footnote 7
  • Ibid. footnote 8
  • Marianne Hirsch, quoted in Hong, op. cit. (note 5), p.131, emphasis in original. footnote 9
  • M. Hirsch: ‘Connective arts of postmemory’, Analecta política 9, no.16, pp.171–76, footnote 10
  • See K. Behrendt: ‘Hirsch, Sebald, and the uses and limits of postmemory’, in E. Ty and R.J.A. Kilbourn, eds: The Memory Effect: The Remediation of Memory in Literature and Film, Waterloo ON 2013, pp.51–65. footnote 11
  • See, for example, S. O’Donoghue: ‘Postmemory as trauma? Some theoretical problems and their consequences for contemporary literary criticism’, Politika (26th June 2018), available at, accessed 4th May 2024; and Behrendt, op. cit. (note 11). footnote 12
  • Behrendt, op. cit. (note 11), p.54. See also D. Stuber: ‘Review of Marianne Hirsch “The Generation of Postmemory: Writing and Visual Culture After the Holocaust”’, Bryn Mawr Review of Comparative Literature 10, no.2 (2013), available at, accessed 6th May 2024. footnote 13
  • S. Morley: Seven Keys to Modern Art, London 2019, pp.247–48. footnote 14
  • Ibid., p.248. footnote 15
  • Behrendt, op. cit. (note 11). footnote 16
  • Ibid., p.52. footnote 17
  • Ibid., p.56. footnote 18
  • Jelili Atiku, in conversation with the present author, June 2022. See also A. Oladimeji: ‘Performing history: Jelili Atiku’s performances, Lubaina Himid’s and Kimathi Donkor’s “Toussaint Louverture”, Steve McQueen’s “Carib’s Leap” and Yinka Shonibare’s “Mr and Mrs Andrews”’, Third Text (12th May 2023), available at, accessed 4th May 2024. footnote 19
  • E. Hoffman: After Such Knowledge: A Meditation on the Aftermath of the Holocaust, New York 2005, p.xii. footnote 20
  • See S. Ceraso: ‘Survivors’ tales: cultural trauma, postmemory, and the role of the reader in Art Spiegelman’s visual narratives’, EnterText 6, no.3 (2007), pp.204–28, available at, accessed 4th May 2024. footnote 21
  • Atiku, op. cit. (note 19). footnote 22
  • J. Atiku: ‘The context’, available at, accessed 2nd August 2022 (URL now inactive). footnote 23
  • See A. Oladimeji and J. Atiku: ‘Shared memories’, e-flux (12th July 2022), available at, accessed 4th May 2024. footnote 24
  • See H. Drewal: ‘Whirling cloth, breeze of blessing: Egungun masquerades among the Yoruba’, in R.N. Williams, ed.: Homegoings, Crossings, and Passings: Life and Death in the African Diaspora, Los Angeles 2011, p.175. footnote 25
  • S. Khan: ‘Postcolonial masquerading: a critical analysis of masquerading strategies in the artworks of contemporary South African visual artists Anton Kannemeyer, Tracey Rose, Mary Sibande, Senzeni Marasela and Nandipha Mntambo’, unpublished PhD thesis (Goldsmiths, University of London, 2015). footnote 26
  • M.E. Majewska: ‘I believed in the image: Pope.L, photography and the spectacle of racial oppression’, Burlington Contemporary Journal 6 (June 2022), footnote 27
  • Atiku, op. cit. (note 19). footnote 28
  • See I.A. Kanu, I.O. Omojola and M.B. Bazza: ‘The concept of sacrifice in Yoruba religion and culture’, Amamihe: Journal of Applied Philosophy 18, no.2 (2020), pp.383–90, footnote 29
  • A.M. Muhammad: ‘Humanity is “In The Red”: an examination of Jelili Atiku’s performance series’, unpublished Master’s thesis (Art Institute of Chicago, 2015). footnote 30
  • Ibid. footnote 31
  • L. Løvholm: ‘Enacting and re-inventing identities: cultural translation, haunting spaces, decolonization, and politics of performance through contemporary Nigerian performance art’, unpublished Master’s thesis (University of Copenhagen, 2014). footnote 32
  • Atiku, op. cit. (note 19). It is also instructive here to consider Janneke Wesseling’s term ‘recapturing’, which describes works that deliberately take another as a source, see J. Wesseling: The Perfect Spectator: The Experience of the Art Work and Reception Aesthetics, Amsterdam 2016, esp. pp.107–13. footnote 33
  • See M. Hirsch: ‘Past lives: postmemories in exile’, Poetics Today 17 (1996), pp.659–86, footnote 34
  • See O. Enwezor: exh. cat. Archive Fever: Uses of the Document in Contemporary Art, New York (International Center of Photography) 2008, esp. pp.30–32. footnote 35
  • Hirsch, op. cit. (note 3), p.9. footnote 36
  • J. Gibbons: Contemporary Art and Memory: Images of Recollection and Remembrance, London 2007, pp.76–80. footnote 37
  • Hirsch, op. cit. (note 3), p.36. footnote 38

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