Wan Chuku & the Mystical Yam Farm

D. Denenge Akpem

Wan Chuku and the Mystical Yam Farm

Featured artist for WÁKATÍ: Time Shapes African Art

Curated by Moyo Okediji, PhD.

Oklahoma State University Museum of Art

October 2015 – February 2016

Painting under the smiling watchful eye of the Akire mother painters

Mother with baby on back painting at Akire shrine, southern Nigeria

Installation and Performance Description

In Tiv, my paternal language, "wan” means child and "chuku" means little.  Something or someone really small, a tiny child or baby is "chuku chuku."  Tiv are also the yam farmers of Nigeria, located in the fertile farmlands of Benue State.  “Wan Chuku and the Mystical Yam Farm” references being in a mystical wonderland, connecting to Amos Tutuola's book My Life in the Bush of Ghosts about a boy in colonial Nigeria who becomes lost in the mythical bush of ghosts and all of his wild adventures there.  It also connects to the child in Dr. Seuss' The Lorax who is entrusted with the last truffala seed, full of all possibility of building a new, beautiful, and healthy future for the earth.  

The black and white stripes for the abstract, ornamental tree forms rising from each yam mound are based on Tiv anger cloth (prounounced “ahn-gair”)--a mark of prestige that reflects Tiv loom-weaving traditions.  They also reference "dazzle camouflage" used for wartime ships to confuse the enemy via optical illusion.  I am not encouraging war, just the aesthetic use of this concept to create a slightly disorienting atmosphere that, along with the shifts in architectural scale.

My families have traditionally been farmers--specifically tree farmers--on both sides of the Atlantic, in the central California Dutch immigrant community and in Shangev Tiev, our home district in Tivland. Grandpa had orchards of peaches, plums, nectarines, and even walnuts and almonds as well as dairy cows, the primary economy.  I remember being very small and picking strawberries with Grandma, so small we could lay between the rows of strawberry plants and see the sun dappling in between the leaves, the way the earth looked up close.  Eating warm, freshly washed California strawberries—there are no words to describe what a happy experience that was.  Dad has orchards of oranges, lemons, mangos, cashew, and all kinds of vegetables including groundnuts (peanuts), pineapple, beneseed (sesame seed), and of course, yams**, and my parents always enjoyed collecting new plant cuttings and trying them out at the compound. 

I sculpt trees because I love their form and because they are such an important part of my heritage and reflect the concepts of growth and persistence; growing trees takes time, love, patience, and skill.

Benue State, Nigeria carries the same name as the Benue River that flows into the Niger River, emptying out into the oil-rich delta region to the south.  Benue contains very fertile farmland and in the ‘70s during the heady post-independence years, it was referred to as "the breadbasket of the nation."  Tiv people are, among many other skills and talents, known as yam farmers.**  A yam seed or cutting is the truffala seed; in it lies all possibility.  If you have not eaten pounded yam, you have not eaten (yet).  Thus, the mystical world springs from the yam mounds which have been ritually oriented north-east-south-west in honor of the directions and centered with a clay pot of sculpted clay fruits, familial bounty, over which dangles precious crystal pouring down through a canopy of leaves.*** 

For the performance, I painted the walls using a mixture of paint and soil with abstract designs—somewhat reminiscent of dwellings, architectural spaces--referencing the style and ritual manner of the Akire mothers.  Visiting curator, art historian, and artist Moyo Okediji, PhD. has done extensive study and training with the Akire painters in southern Nigeria (Yoruba) and offered this video so that I might play it over top of my live painting.  The projection, slowed and ethereal, reflects their presence painting along with me.

A soft soundscape of crickets, water, Saturn’s rings, and cicadas plays softly and intermittently in the background.

*My paternal language from Benue State in southeastern Nigeria

**African yams used for poundo (fufu), not sweet potatoes

***Leaves printed from my sketches of abstract leaves


Many thanks to the amazing staff at OSUMA for assistance in bringing this installation and performance to life and to Moyo Okediji for featuring my work in this exhibition and for allowing me to utilize excerpts of the Akire mother-painters' video footage as an overlay to the exhibition and performance.  It was an honor to include projected film footage of the Akire mothers painting as I did the live painting in the installation on opening night.