Nigeria’s debut pavilion at the world’s biggest international art exhibition, the Venice Arte Biennale, is encapsulated in its title: “How About NOW?” It is at once a statement of intent and an (implied) taunt to the rest of the world who will be visiting the country’s pavilion come 13 May 2017, when the Biennale opens.
Let us consider the implied taunt first. The main feature of the history of Nigeria’s visual art industry is erasure, or, to be less politically correct, theft.
Decades ago, the Benin Kingdom’s artistic legacy of spectacular bronze works were stolen by colonial powers and scattered across the world. These days they are displayed for entertainment and profit in the British Museum in London, the Ethnological Museum of Berlin and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, amongst others. They are also held in private, perpetually anonymous, collections. The works that were left behind were damned by Western powers as being primitive and barbaric ‘voodoo’ figurines.
Nevertheless, our visual art industry did not implode into extinction. Bronze works continued to find expression and a new age of exemplary art, termed the Modern Era, was birthed. The Contemporary Era followed. Artists like Aina Onabolu, Yusuf Grillo and Ben Enwonwu painted, sculpted and conceptualised masterpieces, dominating the time periods they lived in and still live in. Slowly the world began to take notice. Today, there are dedicated fairs, such as 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair and Also Known as Africa (AKAA). These are contemporary art auctions set up exclusively for artists of African origin and where Nigerian artists routinely dominate.
An industry was robbed, blackballed, condemned to ashes. Still, it rose. Now it stands, and it is inching towards full circle.
Changing the Narrative
Responsible for crafting and directing this conversation is the lead curator of the Nigerian pavilion at the Biennale, Adenrele Sonariwo. The 30-year-old curator is widely regarded as a revelation and an overnight success in Nigeria’s arts scene. Few people know she has spent 12 years in the industry. She is joined by Emmanuel Iduma, a faculty member of the School of Visual Arts, New York.
“The aim of the Nigerian Pavilion is to reflect on the question of now, and of narratives firmly rooted in the present,” Sonariwo explained at a press conference on 22 March 2017. “The presentations by the artists seek to use the narrative of the present to interrogate the minefield of societal consciousness in addressing aspects of identity and belonging as it relates to and confronts our past and future.”
Sonariwo believes that this debut will be a game changer for the global positioning of Nigerian visual art. And this is where her statement of intent comes in.
Her thoughts were echoed by Femi Lijadu, who was representing Godwin Obaseki, Governor of Edo State, commissioner of the Nigerian Pavilion. Lijadu, a keen collector of Nigerian contemporary art, went on to explain that the Biennale was a chance for Nigeria to rebuild its cultural infrastructure and deploy soft power in mending its reputation, perception and voice in the global committee of nations.
Indeed, these have been damaged in recent years by a string of bad news: the kidnapping of schoolgirls by the Islamist terrorist group Boko Haram; the accidental bombing of a camp for internally displaced people by the Nigerian Air Force; the discovery of USD43million, believed to be diverted state funds, in an unoccupied apartment; a former president under whose watch monies for securing citizens’ protection made its way into the private bank accounts of his staff; and other unsavoury events.
Lijadu also explained that Nigeria’s showcase at the Biennale could allow the country to start reclaiming the artworks that were carted off during the colonial years. He revealed that Governor Obaseki had plans for building a museum in Benin City, where these works could be returned to and finally be at home.
Considering all of this, it would be fair to say that a lot is riding on the successful execution of this debut showing. It would also be fair to say that Nigeria’s pavilion is in capable hands, if the résumés of the selected exhibiting artists, who include Victor Ehikhamenor, Peju Alatise and Qudus Onikeku, are anything to go by.
The Artists in Question
Ehikhamenor and Alatise are two of Nigeria’s most accomplished artists working at the moment. Their works are collected globally and command eye-popping prices at auction. Alatise is known for her large-scale sculptural works that tackle contemporary themes, the most often recurring being gender and its associated politics. A mixed-media artist, Ehikhamenor’s works are influenced by the duality of African beliefs and Western/Catholic political intervention. Qudus Onikeku is a globally renowned performance artist, sought after from Burkina Faso to Brazil. He is also a pioneer in Acro-dance, a self-styled fusion of acrobatics and dance that takes inspiration from traditional Yoruba movements and philosophy.
It seems fitting that these artists were selected by the curatorial team. Not only do they have the global clout that would attract attention to Nigeria’s pavilion but they have a track record of creating work that casts time (the past, the now, the future) as the main character, with deference to history itself.
Ehikhamenor will present a large-scale installation titled The Biography of the Forgotten. It fuses abstract shapes with traditional sculpture and explores the effect of colonialism on cultural heritage. The installation will pay homage to those who came before, from the classicists to the modernists, and their contribution to the art world.
Onikeku will explore the present. He will showcase a trilogy of performance films, titled Right Here, Right Now. The trilogy is an investigation through dance of the workings of body memory and its connection to national consciousness. It will provide a window through which time can be altered for a brief moment.
Alatise will foretell the future. She will present an installation of eight winged life-sized girls, based on the story of a 10-year old girl who works as a housemaid in Lagos, dreaming of a realm where she is free and belongs to no one but herself – and can fly. Flying Girls addresses the injustices of the present, but through a vision of a safer imaginary future, especially for girls.
It’s only a few weeks to go till the Biennale, now in its 122nd year. It will be playing host to 85 countries, four of which are debuting, like Nigeria. Nine African countries have been showcased in previous editions.
Nigeria, already known in the global art world for her artistic works in foreign museums, auctions and fairs, will finally have the chance to tell her story on her own terms.