When Victor Ehikhamenor left his home country of Nigeria in 1994, his first stop was the South London district of Peckham. Almost three decades later, he was approached about participating in an exhibition exploring the relationship between that city and Lagos.
Speaking by phone from Lagos, Ehikhamenor, who also spends time in the United States, said he was fascinated by the idea. “I have so much memory” in Peckham, he explained. “It was almost like I was still living in Nigeria but in a different environment because of the experience I have there.”
Other artists voice a similar sentiment with their works in the exhibition “Lagos, Peckham, Repeat: Pilgrimage to the Lakes,” now on view at the South London Gallery. The exhibition is a fitting tribute to its host neighborhood, which is sometimes called “Little Lagos” because it is home to one of the largest Nigerian communities in the United Kingdom.
The show, which runs through October 29, features 13 Nigerian and Nigerian-British artists, including Yinka Shonibare, Ndidi Dike, Seyi Adelekun, Adeyemi Michael, Karl Ohiri, Temitayo Shonibare, Emeka Ogboh, and Onyeka Igwe. Their works are influenced by their personal lives and journeys, and span mediums such as sculpture, installation, photography, and film.
Among the exhibition’s most notable works is a newly commissioned one from Ehikhamenor, Cathedral of the Mind (2023), that is made out of rosary beads, brass, thread, and rhinestones on lace fabric and wood. The work is from his 2017 series “Rosaries,” and touches on themes related to history, spirituality, and religion. It delves into practices associated with travels abroad and speaks to the duality of Western religion and Nigerian spirituality.
Peckham was “the place that I became the Christian that I am today because I was born and raised a Catholic,” the artist said.
Ehikhamenor said he had the “blues” when he first arrived in Peckham. He didn’t have legal papers or stable employment, and he wasn’t doing any creative work. With little else going on, he reluctantly attended the latter part of a one-week Christian event through the invitation of a friend. It became a turning point in his life.
“My memory of seeing a Christian pastor to pray with me is very similar to my grandmother going to a traditional healer or a native doctor,” he explained. “You look at that duality. That’s what I usually bring to my work.”
In October 2022, South London Gallery reached out to artist and curator Folakunle Oshun, stating that they’ve always considered putting together a show to reflect on their host community, Peckham, in South London.
The initial conversations centered around migration, both on a larger scale and on a scale specific to Lagos and Peckham. Oshun, who is based between Lagos and Paris, began visiting London to familiarize himself with the city, as someone not born or raised in the United Kingdom. Specifically, he was interested in the irony of citizens of a newly independent country going to the base of their former colonizers. (Britain colonized Nigeria in the early 1860s; Nigeria gained independence in 1960.)
“The vision started on that point, and then [I was] looking for artists that could give different perspectives, different personal stories, on these scenarios and the reasons that necessitate that migration,” said Oshun, the founder and director of the Lagos Biennial.
Oshun said he was “also thinking about the concept of double consciousness postulated by W.E.B. Du Bois and how you could be in one place but your mind is in another, and that embodiment of place, space and home. Like a migrant travelling from one place to another, pitching their tent and staging certain totems or props that are characteristic of home.”
When it came to deciding who should be in the show, Oshun knew he didn’t only want UK artists with Nigerian heritage—he was searching for artists still based in Nigeria, as well as ones who had left the country on journeys of various kinds. He also wanted to account for multiple generations: people whose parents migrated to the UK in the 1960s and ’70s in search of educational opportunities and a more stable economy, people who left because of military coups, younger artists born in diaspora. And then there were also artists he had always wanted to work with.
Lagos and Peckham’s similarities don’t end with their people. Both have at various points been bounded by bodies of water. Lagos was formerly known as Èkó; its name was changed by the Portuguese to its current one, meaning Lakes, after a coastal city in Portugal. Peckham, meanwhile, once had its own lakes. Oshun made the connection during his research process, which involved reading Robert Hewison’s 2022 book Passport to Peckham: Culture and Creativity in a London Village at the behest of Margot Heller, director of South London Gallery.
Some of the artists in the show likewise animate history with their work. Onyeka Igwe, whose work was shown at the Lagos Biennial by Oshun, is exhibiting her 2020 film No Archive Can Restore You, which lays bare colonial residue that can still be found today around Lagos. She shot the film in an empty building that once belonged to the Nigerian Film Unit, a production company which was an arm of Britain’s then-colonial government.
According to the London-based filmmaker, working on films like the one on view is “all about a relationship with Nigeria, a relationship with family and cultural heritage. What has been great about thinking through those things as an artist is it’s allowed me to have my own relationship with Nigeria.”
In 2018, she started traveling to Nigeria by herself, establishing a relationship with the country through her interests and curiosity, to research and work on her films. Her hands-on investment in Nigerian culture marked a departure from the mediated experience of the country she had as a child and growing up.
Other artists reach back even further, underscoring how the history of colonialism in Lagos is also a part of British history. Ehikhamenor, for example, focuses his attention on the repatriation of artifacts that were looted or stolen by colonizers.
In the West, Ehikhamenor said, people “don’t tend to create the link between our yesterday and our today. You have all these museums that have a lot of African works that were either stolen or looted during colonialism, but then you move to another section of the museum; there is nothing that speaks about African modernism.
“You can’t find an Ablade Glover. You can’t find a Ben Enwonwu,” he added, referring to two painters—the former from Ghana, the latter from Nigeria—who revolutionized their medium during the 20th century.
By reaching into the past to show its connection to the present, shows like “Lagos, Peckham, Repeat” can help write new histories—and retrieve forgotten ones.
“More exhibitions like this should happen,” Oshun said. “Not just to show that there are political or ethnographic dimension for Africans or Lagosians or Nigerians, but also to [assert] one’s self or place in society.”
“Lagos, Peckham, Repeat: Pilgrimage to the Lakes” is on view at the South London Gallery until October 29.