How Nigeria (Finally!) Got Into The World’s Most Important Visual Art Exhibition

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In the summer of 2015, gallerist, curator and founder of Rele Gallery, Adenrele Sonariwo touched down in Venice. She was visiting the city to see and experience the biggest exhibition in the world – The International Art Exhibition of the Venice Bienniale. The Venice Arte Biennale is also known as the Olympics of the visual art world as artists represent and show their work as a country.

The curator of the exhibition was Okwui Enwezor, a Nigerian, based in Germany. A Nigerian artist, Victor Ehikhamenor was showing at the exhibition but as part of the Germany pavilion. Enwezor had also selected a number of African artists to show in the Biennial official exhibition (separate from country representations). In this, another Nigerian artist, Karo Akpokiere was selected to show his work.

In the Biennale’s 122-year history, about eight African countries had participated and showed their country’s artistic chops on the world stage. In all this time, Nigeria had never been one of them. Not for lack of trying. In 2015, when Enwezor was director of the exhibition, there was an attempt to land a country exhibition/Nigerian pavilion in Venice. However, it did not come to fruition.

That changed in 2017. Sonariwo decided it was about time Nigeria – rich in artistic talent and cultural productivity – successfully made its debut at the most important art exhibition in the world. The reason was simple. Nigeria being represented at such an event would give the country a seat at the table of global contemporary art.  It would open the door of engagement for our contemporary art industry. The hope was, on seeing the Nigerian pavilion, the world would want to know, learn about and see more of where that art came from. The world would know we are open for investment when it comes to the arts.

Against all odds, with the support and endorsement of the Federal Government, with financial backing from private sponsors and patrons and guidance by a steering committee, with combined decades long experience in fundraising, capital project management, cultural advisory, on the 10th of May 2017, Nigeria opened its very first pavilion in the city of Venice, at the 57th International Art Exhibition of the Venice Biennale 2017.

The exhibiting artists were Victor Ehikhamenor, Peju Alatise and Qudus Onikeku.

Victor Ehikhamenor – A Biography of the Forgotten (2017) Bronze, mirror, thread, acrylic on canvas.

Victor Ehikhamenor, on whose canvases there is a proliferation of forms, has chosen to tinker with both the dilemma and material form of history in his installation “A Biography of the Forgotten.” He sourced hundreds of Benin bronze heads from Igun Street in Benin City, a World Heritage Site that produced the famous Benin bronzes. Against large canvases Ehikhamenor alternatively places mirrors and bronze heads as symbols of colonial encounter—the former often exchanged for commodities as valuable as humans, and the latter plundered. In his installation, Ehikhamenor tries to remember the work of ancient Benin artists who came before him but have been rendered anonymous by history. Yet their work was stolen and currently sits in museums and private collections all over the world, all the while being called ‘primitive’ or ‘barbaric’ by those who perpetuated this theft.

Victor Ehikhamenor

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Peju Alatise – Flying Girls (2016) Metal, fiberglass, plaster of Paris, resins, cellulose black paint.

Alatise’s installation is based on the story of Sim, a little Yoruba girl who lives in two alternate worlds. In one world she is a nine-year old who is rented out as a domestic servant in the city of Lagos. In the other, a dream world, she can fly at will. A world with talking birds and butterflies, where shadows are friends. A moonlit world of escapism. Alatise dedicates Flying Girls to girls in Nigeria. A little safe space where they can be children. Flying Girls also draws inspiration from events in Nigeria where girl children have been put in danger: the kidnap of the Chibok girls by Boko Haram, the constitution that allows underage girls be married.

Peju Alatise

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Qudus Onikeku – Right Here, Right Now (2017) Video installation (13 min.)

Presented in three sections— Of Contemplation, Of Poetry, and Of Engagement—Onikeku’s dance film brings into clear focus the tensions between the various senses of time, and how an audience can be triggered to remember. It draws from his recent and ongoing work to infuse dance with the energy of Yoruba spirituality, with emphasis on the significance of self, the commune, and the divine in imagining the role of aesthetics, beauty, and art.

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Aydeji Rotinwa is a writer, journalist and an aspiring cultural, development communications specialist. He has written for publications such as Forbes Africa, The Africa Report, Roads & Kingdoms, This is Africa, THISDAY Newspapers. He has also provided editorial support and written for organizations such as ONE Campaign and Google Sub-Saharan Africa.NEW POST

Rotinwa is a writer, journalist and an aspiring cultural, development communications specialist.

He has had over five years experience in writing for, editing and managing media platforms across print, digital and broadcast. He has written for publications such as Forbes Africa, The Africa Report, Roads & Kingdoms, This is Africa, THISDAY Newspapers. He has also provided editorial support and written for organizations such as ONE Campaign and Google Sub-Saharan Africa. Rotinwa covers primarily: arts & culture, development, social innovation and entrepreneurship stories. SaveSave

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