Peju Alatise’s “Every Night They Sleep, They Dream of Nothing” achieves an abstract potency through which it projects itself like a vast network of branches of interpretive resonance, transcending its specificity of inspiration and the meaning ascribed to it by the artist, evoking the human condition in a way that suggests a myriad of possibilities, ranging from mythic overtones to existential challenges, possibilities underscored by Alatise’s moving commentary on the inspiration behind the work. The disjunction in size between the human figure and the abstract shape that hangs like a mountain over the pathetic human form, naked and bound to the platform over which the massive abstract upper structure is suspended, in concert with the uniform dour colour of the entire tableau, gives the scene the ambience of an encounter from a mythic place of punishment, a form of hell.
This work, like Alatise’s “o is the new +” in the Paradox, Paradigms and Parasites series, to which this also belongs, successfully creates an image of profound suffering, but in a quietly powerful manner rather than in terms of the dramatic phantasmagoria of the human encrusted wheel of tires of “o is the new +”. The physical stance of the pensive figures in the images of “Every Night They Sleep, They Dream of Nothing”, their emotional state projected through their posture amplified by the utter solitude expressed by the minisculity of their form within a space that dwarfs that form, a space that takes on menacing proportions through the boulder like shape hanging over the cavity on which the human figure is bound, is likely to draw in the viewer to identify with the figure, to experience an emotional resonance with a member of the human species as suggested by that personage, a fellow human in such a terrible condition. The images of the human being overwhelmed by factors beyond their control suggested by the dejected human figure amidst an empty space over which hangs the relatively massive mountain like structure, its grim power amplified by the network of creases running across it, echoes tragic literature in the latter’s depiction of human existence in terms of a network of events in which the individual inexorably finds themselves at a tragic conclusion in spite of all their efforts at bringing about a contrary turn of events.
The subdued human figure, isolated in a depressing space that dwarfs the human form through the former’s relative magnitude, evokes the fate of such characters as Sophocles’ Oedipus, who gouges out his own eyes in finding that he has killed his father and married his mother in spite of all the efforts taken to avoid him fulfilling the prophecy of this occurrence preordained for him at his birth, and Shakespeare’s Macbeth who eventually finds himself utterly defeated in his ambitions in spite of the supernatural assurances he had been given and his efforts to work in agreement with what he saw as the import of those assurances, only for the impossible to happen, Birnam Forest moving to Dunsinane Hill, that being the only condition under which he could be defeated, so the witches had told him, only for the forest to actually move to Dunsinane Hill, but through illusion created by his enemies who had camouflaged themselves as trees in order to gain the element of surprise in the attack , leading to Macbeth’s famous cry of despair, calling for the brief candle of life to be snuffed out, deriding human existence as akin to “a walking shadow, a poor actor who struts and frets his hour upon the stage and is gone to be heard no more, a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
Why has the artist chosen to so isolate a human figure in “Every Night They Sleep, They Dream of Nothing”? Is she suggesting something along the lines of David Benatar’s Better Never to have Been : The Harm of Coming into Existence, which argues that human existence is better never to have occurred on account of the huge scope of negative possibilities that emerge in human life, an overwhelming negativity suggested by the grimly cavernous space within which the human form is bound in “Every Night They Sleep, They Dream of Nothing”?
Or is Peju Alatise motivated by more specific considerations arising from a specific point in space and time? It seems both are the case beceause the artist references as part of the inspiration for this work Wole Soyinka’s great account of his more than one year prison experience, most of it in solitary confinement, The Man Died, in which he struggled with metaphysical themes as well as issues of daily psychological survival. The absolute isolation of the individual created by solitary confinement and the isolation of the human being within the temporal and spatial immensity of cosmos as framing the physical and temporal minisculity of human existence dramatized in Soyinka’s narrative are echoed by Alatise’s description of “Every Night They Sleep, They Dream of Nothing”? as inspired by anguish at the Nigerian condition, the foundation of Soyinka’s experiences and reflections in The Man Died, and the consideration of this within the cosmic context of existence that inspires questions about the “why?’” of human existence.