Inua Ellams sends dispatches from a life lived ‘in the middle’

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The Hausa people of West Africa have historically been keen explorers and Inua Ellams blames some of his own wanderlust on that heritage.

He was 12 when his family escaped religious conflict in Nigeria to settle in London and then Dublin. These days the 32-year-old’s art takes him from India to Libya, from South Africa to Australia. His practice is as varied as his travels: primarily a poet and theatremaker, he also turns to graphic design and Situationist-inspired public events when his appetite suits.

With such a hectic itinerary, you can forgive him for forgetting the details of his last visit to Australia.

“I don’t remember leaving with a bad taste in my mouth so I think it went down well,” he says.

That was in 2014, when Ellams brought his acclaimed solo show, Black T-Shirt Collection, to the Sydney Writers’ Festival. He’s bringing that work to Arts Centre Melbourne this month and returning to Sydney with another one-man wonder, An Evening With an Immigrant.

Black T-Shirt Collection follows two brothers whose fashion enterprise takes them from the markets of Nigeria to global fame, while An Evening With an Immigrant employs poetry, music and performance to track the steps that have carried him to where he is today.

It’s not a sure-footed place; when he was a child his family’s documents were lost in the mail, and so while he lives in Britain once again, he’s required to renew his visa every three years. When home is both everywhere and nowhere at the same time, it gives you a particular perspective.

“I don’t necessarily see the world from the West’s point of view,” he says. “I don’t see the world from a British point of view, but I don’t see it from a Nigerian point of view. I’m an expat so I live somewhere in the middle.”

Much of his writing explores the experience of globalisation. The products of globalisation are fast fashion, food fads and technology that’s obsolete within a few years – small variations on the familiar that are trumpeted as reinventions you’ve never seen.

Ellams doesn’t make the same claims for his work. “Because there’s nothing new under the sun, all stories are arguably the same stories with various accoutrements. What I’m interested in most of the time is how to remix old stories. I say that deliberately because I was a child of the hip-hop generation.”

Black T-Shirt Collection is a personal take on globalisation, “which is the story of the 21st century”, he says. “Arguably, the story of all of humanity, how we met, how we travelled, how we settled, tried to create businesses, tried to live. I just tell that from my point of view. Doing that is what makes the story seem like a new one.”

While his art tackles global issues, Ellams says it’s always necessary to give them a personal aspect.

“Unfortunately, we’re still here where the only way human beings identify with or care about an issue is to put a human face on it … I look forward to the time when we don’t need a human being to carry an issue.”

But existing in the middle gives Ellams some insight into the complexities of globalisation, which he neither condemns nor celebrates. “What’s demonised in one country is heralded as the saviour of communities in others.

“I think I see it more from a positive point of view … in the sense that there are more interconnected communities and the more we know about each other increases the potential for us to learn more about each other. In that gathering of all our varied wisdoms and knowledges, we can only create a more inclusive humanity. That can only be a good thing.”

An Evening with an Immigrant, part of the Antidote Festival, plays The Sydney Opera House on September 3

Black T-Shirt Collection opens at Arts Centre Melbourne on September 5.

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