Performing Owambe: Lagos as Simulacrum

In Mike Ezuruonye’s Lagos Real Fake Life, we encounter postcolonial urban Lagos as simulacrum, presented with an oxymoronic pastiche of the real and the fake simultaneously enacted as the defining attributes of everyday life in Nigeria’s megacity. As simulacrum, the reality of Lagos is replaced by a false representation organized around images, narratives and codes that signify the city as a performative realm of bogus identities.

Lagos resembles a city of inchoate dreams, excess and ostentation, one in which “Instagram boys” tangle with slay queens for prominence on the dance floor of Eko’s unending parties; Lagos is the come-alive city of repute, of Africa where the original fakeries of social media constitute a radical contingency for all reality. Lagos Real Fake Life offers an account of the realism of the synthetic, generating an image of Lagos that is both real and unreal, with uncertain futures sought on the grounds of shifting signifiers. In this Lagos, “people borrow cars and borrow clothes all for Instagram,” and Lekki is coterminous with a ghetto in the mainland.

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At the heart of the intersection of the fake and the real is the performance of class and ostentation, one graphically presented by Lagos’s Owambe culture which is the recent genre fixation of the many neo-Nollywood films on Netflix. Enter The Bling Lagosians, directed by Bolanle Austen-Peters.

In this installment of Lagos as simulacrum, Mopelola, the matriarch of the Holloway royal family is insistent on having a lavish birthday party, not minding the huge business debt that threatens the survival of her family’s financial empire and legacy. Her superficiality is matched by the frivolities of her husband, Akin Holloway whose secret affair and materialistic lifestyles fate the family’s business to doom.

One of their two daughters is a marriage counsellor whose marriage is undermined by her sexual infidelity and fakeness, while the second daughter Tokunbo Holloway, a Nollywood scriptwriter, appears to be the only honest person in the family, although she has dreams of winning an Oscar. While unpacking the narrative complexities of all of these, The Bling Lagosians gives a sense of ostentation as a quality of the rich that enhances their performance of elitism and class. The film, like The Wedding Party and Chief Daddy, centers around the Owambe event as the central element of plot and narrative.

Conceptually, at the core of Owambe is therefore how it serves as a marker of social visibility and presence for those who attend or host parties. Owambe — meaning “it is there” is the assertion of the sociality of presence, one that recognizes the subjectivity of the individual who hosts the party or even of those who present themselves through their physical attendance and/or presents to hosts and guests. Seen in this light, we can read the Owambe event as a cultural realm of performance, a self-presentation, in the manner of Erving Goffman, that is employed by its participants to project carefully constructed identities that circulate elite power and ostentatious wealth

It is through the structure of Owambe that we can appreciate how ostentation presents its own aesthetics — something that is immediately evident in the title of The Bling Lagosians. The adjective “bling” in the title suggests how ostentation is rendered through expensive clothing or jewelry, as well as materialistic attitudes associated with them. Bling is the rhetorical strategy that invites attention to the sartorial worldliness which characters perform through fashionista, limited-edition watches, yacht parties, plastic surgeries and cosmetic breast enlargements that are, in the words of Mopelola, “a magnificent work of art.” These are all aesthetics of ostentation that assert the African upper-class woman’s agency as modern subjects impervious to stereotypical narratives of anguishes and suffering.

To understand how Owambe structures the narrative of The Bling Lagosians, we need to scrutinize Mopelola’s ‘party manifesto’ which she announces to her party event planner:

My party must be unrivalled in the land of Eko partydom and with even more splendor than my 50th. The big boys and the inner caucus of the Lagos elite, the custodians of Lagos class, the one percent of the one percent. Frankly, anyone who hasn’t received an invitation should sit back and reassess their reason for being on this planet in the first place.

Like her Caribbean-themed 50th birthday party which has been voted top Lagos party by Society Forbes, Mopelola is suggesting that class is the modality through which the ostentation of Owambe operates. Owambe is the conceptual and signifying location of Eko partydom and class. Similar ideas can be found in Biyi Bandele’s Fifty with class operationalized through a party event and other aesthetics of worldliness and pleasures.

The wedding invitation card itself, as can be seen in The Bling Lagosians, is a symbolic representation of elite policing of urban space; it is the modality of excluding the unwanted from the celebratory event, but as the character of the thief in The Wedding Party 1 shows, the card can find its way into the hands of nonelite subjects who stroll into the venue of the Owambe and disruptively reconfigure it to include their own agency.”

Despite Mopelola’s preference for “the inner caucus of the Lagos elite,” the Owambe space is one that bears witness to the contradictions of class and elitism, especially since the geographies of Owambe rarely foreclose the participation of lower-class individuals whether as participants or attendants. Their involvement brings to the Owambe space the presence of everyday Lagosians whose “blings” are their urban savviness and capacity to render elite spaces vulnerable to the workings of the quotidian. That said, we may construe the inclusion of the lower class in that elitist space as one that signals their status as an excluded class. They are excluded to the extent that they are included only at the fringe of the party, either as helps or as opportunistic flaneurs that encounter a festive space which they enter to disrupt, as in the example of the thief in The Wedding Party.

In Wole Soyinka’s recent reading of the aesthetics of the aso-ebi — as a key signifier of Yoruba weddings, there is this sense of Mopelola’s conception of the Owambe as a prohibitive practice which many ironically use as an instrument of exclusion by ensuring that they “select material whose price is beyond what they consider the means or class situation of the unwanted.” When word gets around that the Holloway’s financial empire is almost liquidated, Dunni, another of Mopelola’s friend, repeatedly says she “cannot invite such people to my party.” Mopelola transitions from a bling Lagosian into an unwanted, a pariah.

Although her linguistic infelicities signal a rich woman who is not as educated as the rest of her ‘friends,’ Dunni has been accepted among them because of her wealth and is assertive about her conscious deployment of fashion as a symbol of belonging. She imagines her future party as an exclusive Owambe meant “not for the masses” but “only for people of my class and calibre” by which she means the custodians of the Lagos elite that, ironically, Mopelola, by virtue of her family’s precariousness, can no longer lay claim to.

To conclude with Simi’s musical track on“Owanbe,” at the heart of Nollywood’s Owambe genre is the question of the performance of class and Owambe becomes a cultural event that is both a performance and the means by which class operates in films that uncover the politics of display and the play of the unreal. In Simi’s lyrical narrative of the Lagos party Life, a speaker asks, “Who take jalopy take block G-wagon?” In other words, Owambe constantly reminds people that the present space of festive celebration does not permanently erase the concrete workings of social categories. This is the ambivalent nature of the Lagos party culture, but as Mopelola reminds us, being a Lagosian makes you live on the edge.

James Yeku is an Assistant Professor of African Digital Humanities at the University of Kansas. He writes on digital cultures and African popular media.

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