#IWD: Lanaire Aderemi and the Art of Black Storytelling

Credit: Wami Aluko

This article was originally published on Meeting of Minds

Inspired by the powerful words of Audre Lorde, ‘your silence will not protect you’, Lanaire Aderemi views storytelling as an act of resistance in a world that silences Black women.

As an award winning poet, playwright, researcher and recent sociology graduate, she uses her craft to cultivate and bring stories from the margin to the centre. Aderemi began writing plays whilst an undergraduate student at the University of Warwick.

Inspired by the Egba Women’s Revolt in 1947, a women-led revolt against unfair taxation by the Nigerian colonial government, Aderemi’s first play ‘you did not break us’, is based on the historical accounts of Nigerian women who resisted patriarchy and colonialism. Her second play, ‘an evening with verse writer’, provides viewers with an intimate insight into her creative process, the journey from the pages of her journals to the stages she now performs on.

She developed her creativity from a young age, when her mother told her stories before going to bed and since then, she became interested in storytelling. It’s a major stereotype that Nigerian parents push their children to focus on lucrative careers, such as law and engineering, however Aderemi grew up in a Yoruba household that cultivated her creative spirit, prompting her to focus on the arts.

Lanaire Aderemi. Credit: Wami Aluko

Passionate about Nigerian feminist history, she views the arts as a pedagogical tool, not just for uplifting people’s spirits but for teaching people about history that is often disregarded.

Rather than just focusing on one form of art, Aderemi combines a variety of art forms for her performances through the inclusion of poetry, music and dance. Aderemi believes that the concept of interdisciplinarity is important for her art and is inspired by Nigerian plays that include music in their performances. Even when Aderemi does not have a band at her performances, she utilises the ‘call and response’ method which is integral in Yoruba oral tradition, encouraging audience participation, as a form of collaboration, allowing them to create music with her during the performance.

When I asked Aderemi about the importance of knowledge and storytelling, she emphasised that “the best gift a poet has is the gift of noticing”, highlighting that poets are able to notice silence and for Aderemi this includes the silences, the pauses and the gaps in history and society. She views the creative arts, especially poetry, as a way to engage with philosophical issues and bring the marginalised to the centre. Moreover, she believes that the fluidity in storytelling, whether it’s poetic or dramatised, allows society to empathise with the narrator and the issues they speak on. For Aderemi, it is imperative that her audience can connect to her performances as she brings the histories that were once silenced to the centre.

Lanaire tells me about an unforgettable conversation she had with an Igbo aunty regarding the Biafran War. The Biafra War occurred in the late 1960s, following Nigeria’s independence, where ethnic tensions were at an incredible high. At the event, she mentioned that the particular aunty was so hurt that her daughter was never taught about Biafra in school. The mother’s ability to reckon with the absence of history taught Lanaire about how violent erasure is, not just in terms of the knowledge, but physical violence too because the body keeps the score. She noted that ‘you feel a sense of pain, you feel a sense of frustration and when we’re able to express and articulate these pains, the story becomes fuller because we’re able to bring in our emotions.’ As she believes in pulling stories from the margins to the centre, she uses different ways to do this — she uses people. Importantly, Lanaire tells me that “she values people’s contribution to knowledge, everybody is a storyteller.”

Image Credit: @artbyfunmi

Inspired by FESTAC 77, a month long international festival held in Lagos, celebrating African arts and cultures, Lanaire curated the ‘Story Story Festival’, a 3 day digital festival to equip storytellers with the tools needed to tell their stories to the world. Her belief that it was a transnational celebration of creativity inspired her digitised delivery of ‘Story Story Festival’, with participants across Europe, North America and Africa.

In 2017, she began preparing for her first play, ‘you did not break us’ and was appalled by the way Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti was depicted in secondary school. The late feminist icon was depicted as the first woman to drive a car in Nigeria, rather than a leader of the 10,000 women that overthrew colonial taxation in Nigeria. Like many others, Aderemi believed it was violent to erase the contributions of African women in history.

Aderemi reminds us that there are stories within us, we just have to tell them and learn about the histories and stories of our foremothers.

Her focus on anti-colonial resistance in Nigeria is evident through the play which touches on Nigerian feminists and Nigerian feminist movements such as the Aba Women’s Riot of 1929 and Nana Asma’u who advocated for women and girls in Northern Nigeria. Inspired by the activism of Nigerian feminists and the imaginative modes of resistance and organisation such as the assembling of women and importantly their repertoires of resistance, such as the use of protest songs, chants and music. Furthermore, Aderemi emphasises that there is so much we can learn from our grandmothers’ engagement with systems that caused them to resist whether it’s colonialism, sexism or patriarchy.

Due to the oral storytelling tradition in Nigeria, Aderemi mentions that it is vital to document these stories and that “archiving is necessary, but also political” because history is constantly repeating itself. In 2019, there was a protest in Yaba Market, Lagos due to the sexual harassment women faced in the market and Lanaire noted that the parallels were similar to the Egba Women’s Revolt, with a new form of organising that is reminiscent of earlier forms of organising.

Aderemi reminds us that there are stories within us, we just have to tell them and learn about the histories and stories of our foremothers.

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