Now is the Appointed Time

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Ayodeji Rotinwa previews Nigeria’s participation at the Venice International Art Exhibition, held biannually and this year, themed, Viva Arte Viva!

“How About NOW?”

Nigeria’s debut showing at the world’s biggest international art exhibition, the Venice Arte Biennale is encapsulated in this question and title of the country’s presentation. It is at once a statement of intent and also an (implied) taunt to the rest of the world who will be visiting Nigeria’s pavilion, come May 10th 2017 when the Biennale opens.

Let us consider the implied taunt first.

The main character in the history of Nigeria’s visual art industry is (attempted) 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 were promptly scattered across the world, to foreign lands. These days they are statuesque entertainment for display and profit in the British Museum, London, Ethnological Museum of Berlin, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, amongst others. They are also held in private, perpetually anonymous collections.

To note, these works had been in existence, and were being created, centuries before the colonial powers initiated their campaign of plunder in West Africa and beyond.

Eventually, the works that were left behind were classed and damned by Western powers as primitive, barbaric, figurines of voodoo.

Still the visual art industry did not fold up into extinction. Bronze works continued to find expression. A new age of exemplary artists was birthed, termed the Modern Era. And then the Contemporary Era followed. They painted, sculpted, conceptualized master pieces. Artists like Aina Onabolu, Yusuf Grillo, and Ben Enwonwu dominated the time periods they came up in and the world slowly began to take notice. Today, there are contemporary art auctions set up exclusively for artists of African origin, dedicated fairs; with Nigerian artists routinely dominating both.

An industry was robbed, blackballed, condemned to ashes. Still, it rose. Now, it stands. The industry is inching towards a kind of full circle.

So how about we participate in the world’s biggest international art exhibition next? How about NOW?

Responsible and credited for crafting and directing this conversation is lead curator of the Nigerian pavilion, Adenrele Sonariwo. The 30-year old curator is widely regarded as a revelation in Nigeria’s arts scene. Few people know she has spent twelve years in the industry to now be seen as an overnight success. She is joined in the curatorial team by Emma Iduma, a faculty member of the School of Visual Arts, New York.

Of the pavilion, Sonariwo explained at a press conference announcing it, “the aim of the Nigerian Pavilion is to reflect on the question of now, and of narratives firmly rooted in the present. The presentation by the artists seeks 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 also believes that this presentation and this debut will be a game changer for the place of Nigerian visual art in the world. And this is where the statement of intent comes in. Her thoughts were echoed and elevated by Femi Lijadu, Steering Committee member of the Nigeria in Venice project representing Governor Godwin Obaseki, Commissioner of the Nigerian Pavilion; and a keen collector of contemporary art of Nigerian artists.

“This is coming at a reflection point in the history of art in Nigeria. It is a vibrant opportunity for our beautiful culture and artistic identity to reverberate throughout the world,” Lijadu said.

He also went on to explain that the Biennale was also a chance for Nigeria to rebuild its cultural infrastructure, deploy its soft power in mending its own reputation, perception and voice in the global committee of nations.

Indeed, these have been damaged over the years by kidnap of school girls by terrorist group, Boko Haram; an accidental bombing of an IDP by the Nigerian Airforce; an attempted suicide bomb attack by a Nigerian on US soil; a former President under whose watch monies for arms and citizens protection made its way securely into private bank accounts of his staff; and other such unsavory, embarrassing events.

Lijadu also explained that Nigeria’s showcase could be an entry point and / or an argument for the country to start reclaiming the artworks that were carted away during the colonial years. He revealed that that Governor Obaseki had plans of building a museum in Benin, from whence these works were taken and where they can return and finally be at home.

Considering all of these, it would be fair to say a lot is riding on the successful execution of this debut showing. It would also be fair to say Nigeria’s pavilion is in capable hands if the resume of selected exhibiting artists are anything to go by: Victor Ehikhamenor, Peju Alatise and Qudus Onikeku.

Ehikhamenor and Alatise are two of Nigeria’s most accomplished artists practicing at the moment. Their works are collected globally and command eye-popping prices at auction. Alatise is known for her large scale, sculptural works tackling contemporary themes most recurring of which is 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. Onikeku, is a globally renowned performance artist, sought after from Burkina Faso to Brazil. He is 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 it is these artists that were selected by the curatorial team. Not only do they already have global clout to attract attention to Nigeria’s pavilion, they have a history of casting time (the past, now, the future) as a main character in their works, in the narratives, they choose to share with the world. They have a track record of creating work with a deference to the word itself: history. Sonariwo revealed that their presentation in installations and performance will toe this familiar line, a meditation on time in the context of Nigerian art and society.

Ehikhamenor will tell his story from the beginning. He will present large-scale installations, titled “The Biography of the Forgotten” fusing abstract shapes with traditional sculpture and exploring the effect of colonialism on cultural heritage. The installation will pay homage to those that came before, their contributions to the art world, from the classicists to the modernists.

Onikeku will explore the present.  He will showcase a trilogy of performance film 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 could be altered for a brief moment.

Alatise will foretell the future. She will present an installation of eight winged life-size girls, based on the story of a ten-year old girl who works as a housemaid in Lagos while dreaming of a realm where she is free, who belongs to no one but herself, and can fly. “Flying Girls” addresses the injustice of the present, but through a vision of a safer imaginary future, especially for little girls; and a recommendation to society.

Its only three weeks to go now till the Biennale, now in its 122nd year. It will be playing host to 85 countries, four of which are debuting like Nigeria. 9 African countries have previously showcased in past editions.

The statistic Nigerian art enthusiasts, historians, supporters, stakeholders, citizens should care about most though is: NOW.