A homeless artist’s Fight Club philosophy: “It’s only after we’ve lost everything that we’re free to do anything.”
I am Dele Akerejah’s suffocating sense of routine.
The artist sits at a small table, clipping and pasting together his latest work, surrounded on four sides by off-white walls that certainly wouldn’t be offended by a fresh paint job, quotes from the movie “Fight Club” and snippets of abstract philosophical theories rattling around in his mind.
Recently his head seems a bit foggy, his senses dulled. It could be from the medication he’s been taking for the past eight weeks: Aripiprazole and Lorazepam. Then again, he doesn’t know if he’s actually even taking the drugs — he thinks he may be part of the placebo group. More likely, he figures, his languid condition stems from the mind-numbing routine one is subject to while living in a mental institution.
A particular line from “Fight Club” runs repeatedly through his head: “This is your life and it’s ending one minute at a time.”
He sees a lot of similarities between the film and his current situation. In the movie, an unnamed narrator is jolted from his mundane, insignificant existence by the abrupt arrival of a free-minded existentialist alter-ego named Tyler Durden. Tyler is able to force the narrator into acknowledging his meaningless reality and, in so doing, knock him free of his homogenized way of life.
The artist sets down his paste and extends his work to arms-length, studying it thoughtfully. This is the only time when his mind is clear, when he doesn’t feel like a prisoner to repetition. When he’s working on his collages he feels liberated. For him, artwork is his Tyler Durden.
I am Dele Akerejah’s essential desire for fulfillment.
It’s been nearly two months since Dele Akerejah was released from the Psychiatric Institute of Washington, where he spent 75 days as a participant in a schizophrenia medication trial. Now he leans against the wall of a dimly-lit room, random 90’s songs blaring from the amplifiers on the small stage behind him, points of flashing neon lights periodically dancing across his face.
Every few minutes, the DJ, a friend Akerejah met in the homeless community who is also serving as the event’s bartender, interrupts the music with an energetic reminder of his dual roles. On the walls of the small venue are displays of a variety of artwork: collages, paintings, graphic designs, etc.
Most of the pieces are Akerejah’s — this is his art show, after all. He calls it the Dope Show, and it’s the first solo event sponsored by his arts and leisure company, The Dopamine Clinic. ‘Company’ may not be the right word for it, as the term traditionally suggests some form of consistent revenue generation. That’s something Akerejah is still working on. For now, it’s more of a loosely assembled artist troupe, ever-evolving in its mission and goals.
There are five other artists displaying their work alongside Akerejah’s, but his stands out distinctly. He creates collages using various newspaper clippings, magazine cutouts, construction paper snippets, even apple juice lids. Some are flat, many are three-dimensional books. Collage artistry, as it’s known, is his favorite medium.
“You can feel it,” he explains as he picks up the nearest piece and moves his hand carefully across its surface. “Something about it gives the art more texture than just being able to appreciate it with your visual sense.”
It’s a relatively small crowd so far, but it’s nevertheless a major stepping stone for The Dopamine Clinic. Akerejah is hoping that the show will bring him a new level of exposure and help establish his organization as a major player in the D.C. indie art scene.
The whole event has a vaguely subversive undertone, and Akerejah’s statement that he is “guerrilla curating an underground art show” seems rather fitting.
I am Dele Akerejah’s lack of tangible possessions.
On a fold-out table close to the stage, just to the left of the makeshift bar lined with mid-shelf vodka and a host of somewhat sporadically selected mixers, are displayed some of Akerejah’s favorite works. Among them is one titled “Madness is a Privilege”. It’s a collage booklet compiled entirely of quotes from “Fight Club”.
“The entire personality of the Dopamine Clinic is inspired by the movie ‘Fight Club’,” he explains, his eyes widening slightly as he launches into a well-articulated critique of his favorite film. “It’s the idea of this guy, who’s a marginal, using these existentialist techniques to become himself.”
The concept of escaping the confines of environment and circumstance in order to truly discover one’s true identity intrigues Akerejah. In particular, he associates with the film’s rejection of material wealth in preference for a freer, basic lifestyle liberated from the restraints of superficial pursuits. Fight Club lays out in no uncertain terms its conviction that in a generation void of major conflict or political upheaval, today’s man has come to define himself by what he owns, not who he is.
For a formerly homeless man living off of an infrequent-to-nonexistent income, that’s an alluring axiom, and one that he claims has shaped his current circumstances.
He says he has, in a way, become poor by choice “in an attempt to find [himself], to discover [his] true identity.”
Whether his poverty is a product of his philosophy or his philosophy a product of his poverty is dubious — in reality, it’s maybe somewhere in-between — but Akerejah is honest about his lack of material belongings, a fact that is especially evident while standing in his one-room Northwest D.C. apartment, which he rents with help from his mental health service. The walls are covered floor-to-floor with galleries of his artwork, but it’s rather stark as far as furniture goes.
There’s a refrigerator and a stove; a wooden dresser and a rocking chair. There’s a small nightstand, but no bed beside it; he makes up a pallet of blankets each night to sleep on (“The concrete I used to sleep on was a lot harder”). A Macbook Pro rests on a small table in one corner, a reminder that even the most spartan among us can’t get along without at least one Apple product.
Among the items stacked in one of the small cabinets is an assortment of lye bottles and packages of hardened oil, components in his soap-making project. In a brilliantly devised parallel between his work and “Fight Club”, Akerejah has incorporated soap-making into the various endeavors of The Dopamine Clinic. And it truly is a rather brilliant parallel: in the movie, Tyler uses soap as an ingredient in producing dynamite, representing the utility of household items as weapons of violent awakening; Dele’s collages of newspaper clippings and leftover candy wrappers represents the utility of household items as tools of artistic awakening.
“Everything is connected,” he muses, the words gliding out of his mouth with a deliberate certainty. “Everything.”