What can we learn from the past, how do we find meaning in the present, and what awaits us in the future? These three questions provide the bedrock of the first ever Nigerian exhibition at the Venice Biennale, otherwise known as “The Olympics of Art”.
Since 1895 the world’s oldest cultural biennale has risen to become one of the most prestigious art exhibitions. Eight African countries are represented at the prestigious showcase this year: Angola, Côte d’Ivoire, Egypt, Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, Tunisia, and Zimbabwe.
Nigeria makes its solo debut this year. Though superbly rich in artistic and cultural talent, the country hasn’t had nearly enough representation on the international art scene. Godwin Obaseki, Governor of Edo State and commissioner of the Nigerian Pavilion, says that “opportunities like the Biennale offer a platform to establish national pride and develop a more positive narrative for the country.“
Curated by Adenrele Sonariwo and Emmanuel Iduma, the Nigerian exhibition at the 57th Venice Biennale, titled How about now?, features a rich multi-layered journey showcasing the country’s past, present and future, with an emphasis on the present, or as preferred by the artists, “the now”.
Mixing videos, conceptual art, installations, and performances, the exhibition showcases exceptional pieces by award-winning visual artist, writer and photographer Victor Ehikhamenor, acclaimed writer, poet and mixed-media storyteller Peju Alatise, as well as performance artist, Qudus Onikeku. The combined genius of these three artists creates a contemporary, as well as far-reaching exhibition, that tells a fresh African narrative, while presenting Nigeria as part of the global art community.
Biography of the Forgotten by Victor Ehikhamenor
Paying homage to the unsung and unrecorded pioneers of Nigerian art, Victor Ehikhamenor’s “Biography of the Forgotten” amalgamates bronze, mirrors, thread and acrylic to create a pure masterpiece.
In this installation, he tinkers with both the dilemma and material form of history while paying homage to the historical Igun Street in the heart of the ancient Benin Kingdom. He sources hundreds of Benin bronze heads from the World Heritage Site that still maintains its guild structure to this day, addressing a fragmented history.
Against large canvases, Ehikhamenor alternatively places mirrors and the bronze heads, which bear metonymic weight, as symbols of colonial encounter – the former often exchanged for commodities as valuable as humans, and the latter plundered. In addressing the now, “Biography of the Forgotten” reenergizes historical time and material, reviving the past in an effort to bring meaning to the present.
Flying Girls byPeju Alatise
Using metal, fiberglass, plaster of Paris, resins, and cellulose black matte paint as primary mediums, Peju Alatise uses her storytelling skills to create a fantastical masterpiece. Based on a book that Alatise is set to publish, the piece describes Sim, a little Yoruba girl who lives in two alternate worlds.
In one world she is a nine-year old girl who is rented out as a domestic servant working in Lagos, and the other world Sim lives in a dream world where she can fly at will. Alatise describes “Flying Girls” as a body of work dedicated to girls in Nigeria that offers them a little safe place for them to be children.
Right here Right now by Qudus Onikeku
Harmoniously combining elements of modern and African dance, contemporary choreography, and aspects of age-old Yoruba spirituality and philosophy, Qudus Onikeku presents his artistry in three sections: Of Contemplation, Of Poetry, and Of Engagement.
His 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.
Onikeku says: “I’m not interested in the present, I’m interested in the now, the present is concerned with the past, but the now is so powerful that it doesn’t have time to think about the past, it’s grabbing at the future. That’s when dance becomes so interesting; it’s constantly inventing the now.”
PHOTOS: Ibeabuchi Benson