Nigeria shines at the 2017 Venice Biennale

Victor Ehikhamenor’s work “A Biography of the Forgotten”

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 The Nigerian pavilion sits like a queen above the almost ruinous beauty of her kingdom, watching the waters lap up the quay like unruly servants. Entitled “How About Now?” this exhibition, curated by Adenrele Sonariwo, it showcases three multi-disciplinary artists at the height of their careers.

The doors creak open and the visitor is ushered into Victor Ehikhamenor’s world where large brushstrokes of colour flow in a continuum of black and white on a draped tapestry. Circles of colour break the monotony and if you look closely, painted faces are discernible, with small discs also mirroring the light from the late afternoon sun. The bronze statuettes in the work reference the World Heritage site in Benin City and threads its way from the colonial past to the modern day re-appropriation of Igun Street where brass casters - some of whom helped him realise this work - have their workshops.

“A Biography of the Forgotten” explores the colonial history of Nigeria, where artworks were carted away from during the Punitive Expedition of 1897.

Victor Ehikhamenor’s work draws on his childhood in Benin City where chalk markings on walls of shrines were common. He describes himself as a cartographer of history whose works are influenced by African cosmology and magical realism.

As you move up the stairs to the upper levels of this grand house, you can feel its history seeping into you with every breath. It beckons you up to Peju Alatise’s majestic installation which takes up much of the top floor. Your breath catches when you see the work for the first time. There are eight children standing together in a circle, facing each other so that you feel like an eavesdropping outsider. Above their heads, the children are encircled by birds, like a halo of hope, while around their feet, they seem almost entrapped. These winged children look like they are discussing the merits of flying away to a place that is better than this earthly realm. This is a dystopian study of existentialism. It is equally compelling and disturbing.

Alatise’s “Flying Girls” questions ideologies relating to class, education and mythology. She wanted to capture the idea of escapism. She is an activist who previously, has spoken extensively and expressed anger at the plight of the Chibok girls and remains concerned about the vulnerability of children in the modern Nigerian setting, in particular, in the context of child exploitation and abuse. Over the years, she has gained a reputation as a diligent and prolific artist who hasn’t shied away from experimenting with various materials and has successfully navigated the narrative spaces between painting and sculpture. I must admit that “Flying Girls” alone makes it worth travelling to Venice for the biennale.

In a third enclosed space, a video by Qudus Onikeku entitled “Right Here, Right Now” plays. It offers a discursive interpretation of the universality of music and dance and its potential to unite divergent cultures. Onikeku is a choreographer and dancer who takes inspiration from Yoruba culture and history.

 This is not the first time Nigerian artists are exhibiting at the biennale. Over the last decade, there have been individual artists exhibiting within a larger collective – as was the case with the Dokolo collection’s "Check List Luanda Pop," in 2007, which was in fact the first ever African exhibition at the Venice biennale.

However, this is the first time Nigeria is representing itself as a nation at this 57th edition of the Biennale di Venezia. This is no small feat. Surely, it must be considered as a good omen given that this year also marks 57 years of independence of Nigeria.

While this may have been the first ever Nigerian pavilion at the Venice biennale, hopefully, it will not be the last.

In all fairness, there were a few other African countries exhibiting around the city. These include Angola, Cote d’Ivoire, Egypt, Kenya, South Africa, Tunisia and Zimbabwe. However, it requires quite a bit of determination and investigative prowess to uncover their exact locations. In general, the biennale’s main events sprawled across Giardini or Arsenale and going outside of these two venues made it virtually impossible to see everything in one day.

On another note, it was equally important to explore the Diaspora Pavilion which hosted 19 artists (including two artists of Nigerian extraction, namely the indefatigable titans; Yinka Shonibare and Sokari Douglas Camp). This exhibition explores, among other things, the underrepresentation of Africans in the historical storytelling, as well as the impact of migration and cultural transmission with the British context.

Set on two levels, this British-led initiative proposed a counter-narrative about the diaspora and its many divergent faces. It investigates what it means to be “other” in today’s modern world and within the artistic context of England. Douglas Camp’s installation, “All the world is now richer” explores the successive stages of slavery using life-size metal sculptures, while Shonibare’s “The British Library” tackles immigration and politics. Also notable artists included Kimanthi Donkor, and Nicola Green. Other pieces worth seeing included; Hew Locke’s suspended vessels, which he uses to explore how ships were used to establish power. Similarly remarkable were the ephemeral wall drawings by Barbara Walker who through meticulous draughtsmanship discusses the ill-treatment of black soldiers in British wars.
Not all the artist lived to see the end of the show. The youngest artists, Khadija Saye, a photographer of Gambian origin, tragically died in the London Glenfell Tower fires over the summer.
There is much that can be said about the versatility of the exhibition and the diversity of the selected artists. It transports the viewer from pre-colonial to the colonial phase before smacking them in the face with contemporary art.

In all honesty, I can’t help but feel that the Biennale would have been far more empowering if more African countries had been exhibiting and doing so in the heart of the biennale where the visibility is more marked and there is more foot traffic.
Where are all our cultural ambassadors?
With houses in the Giardini de la Biennale, it would have felt more like Africa was finally taking its rightful place amidst other nations, rather than being relegated (yet again), to the position of the unloved step-child. Africa may be a continent and yet, even in 2017, it seems almost invisible on the international scene.
Big art events like the biennale remind me of the continued singularity of the African story in the West. Africa should shine at such an event with States eagerly presenting their cultural gems and proudly showcasing positive developments in their countries. Instead, we let the shroud of mystery continue to bind us and the reductionist perceptions remain unbroken.
In the end, shouldn’t an international art fair be, well, truly international?

Venice biennale: from 13 May – 26 November 2017

Photo:  Victor Ehikhamenor’s work  “A Biography of the Forgotten