After a spiritual upbringing in Nigeria's capital city of Lagos, Bayo Akomolafe founded a network of artists, activists and academics dedicated to using art and ritual to reframe the world's interlocking social and environmental crises.
When Bayo Akomolafe was a child he prayed to God for a “faith-o-meter” – some kind of tool that would measure his worthiness and assure him of his place in heaven. “Of course I didn’t get my prayer answered,” he says. “But I got something better than an answer, I got bewildered, and I am in a state of bewilderment now.”
An academic, poet and philosopher, Bayo Akomolafe has dedicated his life to mediating between the spiritual and the scientific. Raised as a Christian in the hyper-religious Nigerian capital of Lagos, he studied Psychology and then while researching for his PhD spent 7 years lecturing at Nigeria's Covenant University. In 2016, he co-founded The Emergence Network, an alliance of people, initiatives and communities using art, research and ritual to reframe some of the world's interlocking social and environmental problems. First and foremost, though, he is a father. In his book ‘These wilds beyond our fences: Letters to my daughter on humanity’s search for home', addressed to his daughter Alethea, Bayo explores some of life’s most pressing questions related to race, culture and belonging through the lens of fatherhood. By exploring the world at its ‘Aleathean edges', he reminds the reader how wondrous, philosophically and spiritually significant everyday occurrences can be — both when you are a small human discovering the world for the first time, and when you are the adult who helps to guide them on their way.
Bayo was “born, bred, and buttered” in Lagos, a place he describes as “not quite coordinated enough to be called a city,” where there was a church on every corner and on Sunday the streets were full of the sounds of Pentecostal pastors urging their followers to seek redemption. As the son of a diplomat Bayo’s family were more privileged than most, living in a wealthy neighbourhood with a driver to take them to school. When he was fifteen Bayo’s father passed away suddenly from a heart complication, an event which shook the young man’s world. “It was the stark realisation that this world wasn’t made up of ice cream and Nintendo games anymore” he says, speaking via Skype with his 18 month old son, Kyah, sleeping soundly in his lap. “Life became gritty and real then.” In the background of the call is the faint sound of auto-rickshaw horns from the streets of Chennai, India, where Bayo now lives with his afro-Indian wife, Ijeoma, and their two children.
The seismic event of his father’s death was the catalyst for the teenager to begin asking questions about his identity — why had he been raised speaking only English and not Yoruba, the language spoken by his father and mother? Why were all the people he watched and admired on TV white? “It was a period in Lagos when there was a new groundswell of preachers preaching the prosperity gospel,” he says. “They told people that they were poor, not because the policies of the government didn’t work, but because they didn’t pay their tithe. It gave people a new way of explaining their circumstances.” In the years after his father’s death the religious atmosphere at home took on a feverish note, with evening prayers and church becoming even more staple features of family life. In church Bayo repeatedly responded to calls to the altar to profess his devotion to God (“just to be sure”) whilst privately struggling to reconcile the contradictions between his faith and his expanding appreciation of a world that didn’t quite seem to fit a neat narrative.
The everyday spiritual is also about appreciating that humans are merely one element in a much wider orchestra of life.
Looking back, Bayo understands that he was yearning for was something beyond the promise of heaven. “I felt that the practice of turning our heads towards the heavens with the hopes of living better lives here on Earth was producing something that I wasn’t exactly excited about,” he says. “It produced snotty, righteous individuals who are so sure of their spots in the book of life but with no regard, ironically, for the people that the book invites them to embrace.” On a more personal level was the growing conviction that although an immaculate universe in the sky no longer seemed believable, he was unwilling to accept nihilism as an alternative. “Maybe [my father] was like that rusty and eminent ship I used to stop and stare at when we went to the Beach Bar in Lagos,” he writes to his daughter. “Neither tethered to safe havens nor cast away in roving emptiness.”
This ‘middle-ness’ - the idea that we are perpetually living in a state of in-between with no real beginnings and no real endings - is a running motif throughout Bayo’s work. He is a passionate advocate of what he calls the ‘everyday spiritual' as a way of understanding and connecting with other human beings and the planet. “Spirituality is being in awe of things that are greater than you,” he says in characteristic verbal poetry. “By the rising sun, the face of a lover, and also by things that do not promote continuity like loss and grief. These things are not the private events we make them out to be, they’re shared by all other beings and are produced again and again.”
Rather than coming up with ‘solutions', The Emergence Networkis a response to the felt need for ‘alternative’ modes of engaging with the crises we now face in the age of the Anthropocene.
The everyday spiritual is also about appreciating that humans are merely one element in a much wider orchestra of life. To illustrate his point Bayo uses the example of a scientific discovery he recently read about on a flight home to India from a UNESCO conference in France. Scientists had discovered that 25 billion tonnes of biomass buried deep at the bottom of the ocean. “There’s a whole world down there, an ecology of species and bacteria, thousand-year-old subterranean worlds that we are just learning to think about,” he says with a grin. “These kinds of discoveries destroy our conception of life and longevity.”
This systemic and non-linear approach to looking at the world is somewhat at odds with the onward march towards progress that has characterised the last century, to disastrous results. Rather than coming up with ‘solutions', The Emergence Networkis a response to the felt need for alternative modes of engaging with the crises we now face in the age of the Anthropocene, something Bayo has dubbed ‘post-activism’. “Emergence disturbs the concept of linearity and undermines the whole modern project of categorising things neatly once and for all,” he says. “It’s not some kind of new progress narrative which says we’re the new kids on the block now and the rest of you are all dinosaurs.”
The assumption that to be indigenous is to somehow to be connected to a more ‘authentic’ way of living perpetrates the colonial tradition of positioning one culture as superior to another.
Art, with its tradition of bending reality, is the perfect vehicle for exploring these ideas. In his book Bayo uses the example of Picasso, who changed the way people looked at the human form forever through his use of shape and colour. Since launching in 2016, The Emergence Network has curated and organised gatherings and festivals that use art to explore new ways of living in the world. For Bayo, this reimagining is not only part of the project of creating a more ecologically sound future, but is also crucial to the process of decolonisation. For 2019 the theme for the network is ‘Hope in the Time of Hopelessness' and projects include Vunja(Swahili for ‘rupture’), a sci-art project which celebrates black and marginalised bodies. Based in India with an international focus, The Emergence Network operate on the understanding that reformulating the traditions and structures laid out by colonialists is key to the decolonial project. “We may not have a middle passage anymore in the sense of ships travelling from England to West Africa to the Americas,” he says, “but instead we have the forced migrations of Africans whose lands have been decimated by the developmental aspirations of the West, so we’re still stuck in that temporality.”
In an essay titled ‘Dear White People', Bayo writes about the recent boom in wellness tourism to countries like Peru, Colombia and India to participate in ‘indigenous’ ayahuasca ceremonies or meditation retreats. This kind of tourism, he writes, assumes that to be indigenous is to somehow to be connected to a more ‘authentic’ way of living, therefore perpetrating the colonial tradition of positioning one culture as superior to another. Instead, he says, white Westerners could work on connecting with their inner nature and wisdom by fostering a curiosity in the everyday spiritual. “This is a different notion of indigeneity altogether,” he writes, "a living breathing vocation of noticing the enchantment that is around us, in us, with us, wherever we are.”
For Bayo, this means centering his family in everything he does. “I’ve always tried to make sure my work is grounded in life and in the people that make my ground comfortable” he says. “I don't want to do work that leaves them behind.”
Want to learn more about Bayo's ideas and philosophy? Watch a Deep Dive video interview about what it means to be an activist in the age of the Anthropocene on the Emerge YouTube channel, or listen to his conversation with Daniel Thorson on the Emerge Podcast.
Words by Tarn Rodgers Johns
Tarn is the lead editor of Emerge. Raised in the UK and based in Berlin, she is driven by curiosity and an incessant but largely unsatisfied desire to get to the bottom of everything. She is interested in psychology, human creativity and the changing world around us.
Photos by Rishika Nath
Rishika is a Chennai based photographer who is innately drawn towards colour and light. She looks for calm and poise, bringing out the subtlety in every subject she photographs.