Vexed in Venice


Akinkunmi Akinnola

Months after the short lived fallout from Damien Hirst’s supposed appropriation of Ife art at the 2017 Venice Biennale, the episode remains a compelling narrative on how Nigeria has given away her grip on a gilded artistic legacy, which might best be left in Western hands anyway.

Victor Ehikhamenor (@victorsozaboy) respected Nigerian artist and art writer discovered something unsettling about the Damien Hirst exhibition in May at the Venice Biennale.

Titled ‘Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable’, Hirst’s sub-aquatic fantasy of objects salvaged from an imaginary shipwreck contained an assortment of objects. Ajade Buddha, a coral encrusted sculpture of Mickey Mouse anda life sized facial sculpture plainly titled ‘Golden Head (Female)’– which would become the centre of a mild creative property scandal.

The object of Hirst’s re-imagination was reflected in the face of a woman of West African origin (going by her broad nose, full mouth and generous forehead). What is most striking though are the prominent and numerous linesdimensioned along the entirety of what might otherwise have been a rather homelygolden face; strong reminders of the debt of artistic inspiration payable to The Head of Ife bronze statue and the Ife Terracotta Head sculpture,her celebrated 14thCentury ancestors.

The well-travelled head of the traditional ruler of the royal house of Ile-Ifewhich today is famously displayed at the British Museum was discovered in a Wunmonije compound amidst a number of other brass objects in 1938 when Nigeria was still under British rule. It would come to be recognised as one of the greatest attestations to the advancement, craft and refinement of the ancient Yoruba civilisation, ranking in cultural importance with the artefacts of Ancient Greece and the Roman Empire discovered centuries prior.

Cultural appropriation these days is a short lived expression of black discontent when an art form more readily associated with our race is adopted by a white ethnic majority then typically met with greater critical and commercial fanfare. Offenders don’t even get the proverbial slap on the wrist. It’s the parking ticket that never gets issued because the serial offender has gotten so skilled at flirting with the lustful parking attendant and so confident in the probability of getting away with said misdemeanor.

I was fascinated to learn about Picasso’s African Period at a seminar I attended in Madrid a few months back. Starting in 1907, Picasso wedded the abstract yet linear properties of West African sculpture to the ethereal post-impressionist works of Manet and Cezanne thus heralding the birth of modern art.

Picasso’s embrace of African influences would find its greatest and most seminal expression in Les Demoiselles d ‘ Avignon which though he would later downplay (and it must be said more vociferously than Hirst after him) was a tribute to the august manifestations of the West African sculptures produced in modern day Benin Republic centuries before.

Historically, the Western cognoscenti has shadowed their assessment of the greatest Sub-Saharan African accomplishments with cynicism and doubt. After the artefacts in Ile-Ife were discovered, German Archaeologist Leo Frobenius actually suggested that they had to have been conceived by an ancient Greek civilisation in the 13th Century. He contended that the ancient Ifes could only have succeeded in creating art works of such divinity and refinement because there onceexisted an African Atlantis. One in which a white civilisation had dwelled in parts of modern day Ife, passing down their elegance and erudition to her native 13thCentury denizens. How else could a Sub-Saharan African race produce anything so staggeringly beautiful, so arresting? Surely the Head of Ife was a product of diligent African apprenticeship nurtured underlong-suffering, benevolent European mastery. It is telling that the nonsensical African Atlantis theory was readily consumed by the Western Zeitgeist to which it was fed.
Conversations sparked by Mr. Ehikamenor’s Instagram post should remain a hot topic until tectonic shifts occur in the narrative and African art is accorded its rightful place at the round table.

An appreciation of the absurd should probably place Hirst’s fantasy vessel in proper perspective when considered that at the bottom of his ill-fated ship also lies a bronzed Mickey Mouse. It is unlikely that any number of die-hard Disney fanatics are pondering what Uncle Walt would have to say about this. Neither have we heard boo from any number of the world’s half a billion Buddhists in defense of a religion which pre dates Christianity, admonishing Damien Hirst for reducing the revered symbol of their faith to just another object found in the inglorious belly of the wreckage. Treasures from The Wreck of The Unbelievable may not have been met with such rebuke if viewed through a more objective lens.

Certain schools would argue that the entire experience of Sub-Saharan Africans since the great scramble has been an appropriation of European culture. Surely the mélange of black and mixed racemillennials wondering inside the Palazzo Grassi and out on the cobbled streets and canals of Venice must realise the fact that they have embraced an experience which is far and wide from their source of origin. With each careful sip of ristretto it might strike them that the mother continent is still unable to offer as many sensory indulgences merely as a simple way of life. Steamy expressos and the cafes which serve them remain the preserve of the few and fortunate across Africa.

The infrastructural surplus available in Europe is another reason to argue that African art should readily and willingly align its future with a continent which is in the best position to offer profile, prominence and profit to her art and artists. Museums are numerous, admissions are free. Galleries are thriving creative and commercial ventures not sparse, sporadic pop ups on the creative arts map. In short, our most prodigious artists much like our greatest academic minds are best advised to cross the pond for any real chance of professional fulfillment.
Our most revered works of art should very well be in the custody of venerable institutions like the British Museum and The Ethnological Museum of Berlin where they are accorded the dignity, presentation and commercial viability their creators could only have dreamed of. We ought to single out a Nigerian museum, gallery or arts institution that has existed for over 25 years with enhancements and improvements occurring over that period in order to be awarded the privilege of reclaiming The Head of Ife or the bulk of the Benin Bronzes.

For all the culpability we have in the distortion of our own narrative, it is reductive to think that Mr. Ehikhamenor’s fears that history will exalt Hirst’s work at the expense of the unsung Nigerian artists whose lineage as master craftsmen spans nine centuries are unfounded. On the contrary, his concerns should prompt us to confront this particularly Nigerian problem.

In the last 10 years, the Nigerian art scene has seen more growth, support and creative bursts than at any other time since it could actually be viewed collectively. There are a growing number of artists, curators and galleries to support this claim. Speaking to Mr. Ehikhamenor’s calls that the Ooni of Ife be informed of Hirst’s Trans-Atlantic transgressions against the Kingdom, it is fortunate that there is also a young, agile and enlightened traditional ruler at The Source.

Any shift in the narrative should occur with his blessing, support and the determination of concerned Generation Ys and millennials who are uncomfortable with the status quo and are willing to develop the blueprint for change.
A young international and domestic committee of arts patrons should articulate what the positions are on matters ranging from narrative shaping to restitution efforts as concerns forcefully exported Nigerian masterpieces over the centuries. Art News Africa and Art X should be commended for their efforts to highlight these matters.

A public and private sector partnership is required to play the role of gatekeeper for Nigerian art and artists helping to shape how the nation’s artistic output is perceived domestically and internationally. Perhaps similar in concept to the National Council For Arts and Culture (NCAC) but with a more visible engine room and social media profile able to bring subjects like Biennale pavilion sponsorships and museum refurbishment fund raising to the centre of the national conversation.

Notable financial institutions which have long been the strength and stay of high net worth arts patronage may be required to place even more of their muscle behind these efforts as would prestigious law firms whose professional counsel will be relied on when talk of restitution begins in earnest. We can only sculpt the narrative expertly when we have our best men and woman on the job.

The Head of Ife like a number of other unlicensed exports not only warrants a dedicated and consistent multimedia publicity machine, it deserves a house in its native country. An edifice of outstanding architectural beauty, of a size and scale worthy of the transcendental talents who conceived and created it. A museum conceived to become an international tourist destination which can create spin off industries. Lagos has become cosmopolitan enough to house museums that stage exhibitions in which artworks from other countries are showcased side by side with excellent indigenous pieces.

Conversations on ancient Yoruba art may never unify our young nation with the fun and fervor of an EPL game but it is quite possible that a hashtag and a commitment to keep them at the centre of social media will give the subject just enough push to remain relevant. Imagine what a 30 second video on the cultural importance of Nigerian brass or terracotta figures from the likes of Wizkid or Davido would do to spark a conversation amongst the ‘like’ generation.

The beauty and splendor of the head of Ife should be enough to invoke a traditional pledge in the hearts of all Nigerians not just the people of Ife or the wider Yoruba race. In a culture with no historical documentation it remains the greatest affirmation of the greatness from which we are descended and should be universally regarded as a call to action to fulfil our collective destiny.

Inasmuch as the Golden Heads narrative was the trending topic amongst art lovers, it is noteworthy that 2017 marks the first time Nigeria has had its own pavilion at the Venice Giardini during the Biennale. Unsurprisingly Nigeria’s installations were lauded and hailed as long overdue by art critics.

It is arguable that Nigeria more than any other African country is the author and finisher of its cultural identity. It is exigent that we seize on the energetic and ambitious traits which are highest in our nature by taking ownership of our ancestral art by declaring proudly what we have and can continue to achieve.