Sunday, 12 May 2013

Nigeria Rising… A long walk to Venice Biennale


By Tajudeen Sowole
THAT Nigeria does not have a pavilion at the 55th Venice Biennale holding from June 1 to November 24 is belated news. However, what should not be surprising is that come 2015, the country will make a bold statement at the art ‘Olympics’, no thanks to the efforts of a private initiative led by Ego Boyo.

Nigerian artists and connoisseurs can calm down and take some deep breath. In fact, preparations for the country’s participation at the show have begun and possible challenges gradually been identified.

The Biennale has, over a century, been one of the most prestigious cultural institutions in the world. It holds every two years — odd number years — and is 118 years old.
Commissionaire, proposed Nigeria Pavilion for Venice Biannale 2015, Ego Boyo during the meeting organized by the British Council, in Lagos, recently.
Ever since its foundation in 1895, it has been in the avant-garde, promoting new artistic trends and organising international events in the contemporary arts in accordance with a multi-disciplinary model, which characterises its unique nature.

Famous for the International Film Festival, the International Art Exhibition and for the International Architecture Exhibition, it continues the great tradition of the Festival of Contemporary Music and Theatre, now flanked by the Festival of Contemporary Dance. The Biennale promotes numerous publishing initiatives in the same sectors and is an agenda-setting moment, when the most significant trends in art are presented to a huge audience of art lovers, artists, curators and collectors.

Already, the list of participating artists in Massimiliano Gioni’s exhibition, titled, The Encyclopedic Palace, has been announced

The list has a fair number of artists who have been featured at the New Museum, where Gioni serves as associate director and director of exhibitions. Among them are George Condo (who had a show there in 2011, curated by Laura Hoptman), Phyllida Barlow (a 2012 show organised by Gary Carrion-Murayari), Otto Piene (who was included in the 2012 show, Ghosts in the Machine, organised by Messrs. Carrion-Murayari and Gioni), Ellen Altfest (a 2012 show by Jenny Moore) and Tacita Dean (a 2012 show by Margot Norton and Gioni).

The show will also feature a dizzying array of artists as well as cultural items such as Shaker Gift Drawings and Haitian Vodou Flags and young British artists who, according to Gioni, are "dealing with media culture in an innovative and unusual way."
The Biennale has always been closed to Africa. The few exceptions being Egypt, South Africa (before the international boycott) and, in 1990, ‘Five Contemporary African Artists’ were invited to represent the continent.
Artist, Nike Davies-Okundaye, speaking during the meeting.
Since then, the art scene has considerably changed. Dak’Art, the Senegalese contemporary art biennale, has sustained itself since 1992. South Africa hosted two biennales, in 1995 and 1997, the latter curated by Okwui Enwezor who subsequently was appointed artistic director of Documenta 11 (2002). And, in 1999, with the support of the Ford Foundation, the Forum for African Arts, was created, whose mission was to secure and sustain an African presence in Venice.

Headed by Salah Hassan, the Forum put on two successful exhibitions: Authentic/Ex-centric (2001) curated by Salah Hassan and Olu Oguibe and Faultlines (2003) curated by Gilane Tawadros.

These are but a few examples of shows that demonstrated contemporary art practices from Africa and the Diaspora. Yet, it apparently took an ‘African tour’ to Senegal, Mali, Burkina Faso and South Africa, to convince Robert Storr to make a rather belated call for proposals for an African Pavilion in 2007.

THE discussion on Nigeria pavilion in 2015 drew stakeholders in the visual arts sector to the Moorehouse Hotel, Ikoyi, courtesy of Ego Boyo-led Temple Productions with the support of the National Gallery of Art (NGA), Abuja and assistance from the British Council, Lagos.

“Nigeria’s participation at the event will ensure the country is seen as a serious player in the contemporary art scene especially as it shows it takes its artists seriously enough. It also shows a certain commitment to engage with discourse of contemporary art, but ore importantly, it is a great platform for commissioning new artworks, and exhibiting them to one of the widest possible audiences that can be hoped for,” said the British Council in a statement to support Nigeria’s journey to the Biennale.

Though participation of countries in the Biennale is usually effected at the governmental level, maybe, because of the large funding required in mounting a national pavilion at the six-month long event, Nigeria, is going to the 56th edition in 2015 on the platform of a private initiative.
 

For Boyo, Nigeria’s current plan to be part of the global art event is inspired by her visit on holiday in Venice in 2008, where she met a gallery owner, Adriano Berengo.

During conversation with Barengo, she got to know the importance of Nigeria participating in future Venice Biennale.  And “I began to research the possibility of such an exhibition which would then include a possible appearance of 
Visiting Director of National Gallery of Zimbabwe, Doreen Sibanda.

Nigerian Film and eventually Architecture.”

The focus, she insisted,  “stayed on art as a medium, I felt the country had ‘conquered’ and would be able to participate at international levels without any problems of quality.”

She recalled how an attempt to take Nigeria to the biennale in the past was not successful as it was “challenged by the fact that a country's participation in the Biennale is usually at the behest and sponsorship of the nation state, which was not forthcoming at the time.”

Currently, the missing government support of the past, Boyo assured, has been secured. “This was done and with the necessary institutional and governmental support in hand by way of commitments from the Ministry of Tourism, Culture and National Orientation, the NGA and the great support from The British council, Lagos who gave invaluable advice”.

The planned Nigeria Pavilion, according to the initiators, will focus on just visual arts. Reason? Art from Nigeria is not likely to raise questions about quality or technical format ‘the way film did during the 2007 edition’.

Some Nollywood films had been presented at the 2007 edition, which drew flaks and comments about standard format at such an event.

Indeed, Nigeria’s creative professionals such as artists and curators in the visual arts sector of the culture industry may not have been represented via a national platform, but they have been impressive, individually and in non-governmental outings on the international stage.

Nigerians have made marks at such global gatherings as the Documenta 11 exhibition (2002) in Germany, which was directed by Enwezor. He is currently the director at Haus der Kurst, Munich.

Also, Bisi Silva, as a Nigerian curator, led Africa to its recent, perhaps, first ever largest representation at any visual arts event of global strength last March when 22 artists from West Africa showed at the Marker section of Art Dubai Fair 2013. The yearly Dubai art fair is a gathering of over 75 art galleries, 30 countries from across the world.

THEMED Nigeria Rising: Journey to Venice Biennale, the discussion was robust and healthy, though there were vituperations. As laudable as it sounded, the challenges have started emerging.

Some of the challenges addressed shortly after three background presentations by art promoter, Boyo, who currently carries the toga ‘Commissionaire, Nigeria Pavilion’; Katrina Schwarz of Visual Arts section, British Council, London; and visiting director of National Gallery of Zimbabwe, Doreen Sibanda

The complexity of having a non-government group spearhead Nigeria’s participation in the Venice Biennale started emerging as the presentation of National Gallery of Art (NGA), Abuja, which was ‘misunderstood’ nearly turned the gathering into a tumultuous one. However, Boyo, who had earlier disclosed, “we almost made it to the 2013 edition”, appeared to have scaled through the apprehension raised, particularly, of a possible hurdle from government.

Anxiety started when the artist and teacher, Mike Omoighe, of Yaba College of Technology, Lagos drew attention of the gathering to the Director-General of NGA, Abdullahi Muku’s address.

Omoighe had cited a “threat” tone of the remark read by Muku’s representative, Mufu Onifade. While Muku expressed NGA’s delight about the proposed-Nigerian Pavilion, he however drew the attention of the British Council to the  “essence of collaborating with the NGA in all matters relating to contemporary Nigerian Art.” 

Muku reminded the gathering that it is the NGA’s ‘statutory responsibility’ to ensure that contemporary art of Nigeria is preserved and “properly propagated in accordance with the Country’s legal provisions.”

Muku warned foreign organisations to stop taking Nigerian art outside the country without consulting with the NGA. He cited what he described as lack of consultation in a project of acquisition of Nigerian art involving UK-based Tate Gallery.
“Only recently, the Tate Gallery was in Nigeria for acquisition of Nigerian Art. The action was precipitated without consultation with the NGA. Such actions are expected to be expedited in consultation with the National Gallery in order to preserve and sustain the mutually benefitting cultural relationship that exists between Nigeria and the United Kingdom,” Muku pointed out.

However, Boyo doused the rising tension that emanated from the perceived threat tone of the DG’s remark by disclosing that the government has been very supportive, so far. Also, there was an assurance from Onifade that “the NGA fully support the ongoing plan for a Nigeria Pavilion at the 2015 Venice Biennale.
President, Society of Nigerian Artists (SNA), Oliver Enwonwu.

With the presentation of Schwarz and Sibanda, which showed how the British Council provided logistics and other supports for the successful hosting of Zimbabwe Pavilion at the 2011 Venice Biennale, there is an indication that the Boyo-led proposed-Nigeria Pavilion has a stronger chance of success: the private sector blend offers by Boyo is an advantage given the challenges within the civil service system.

Perhaps, suggesting that the NGA is waking up to its responsibility, the D-G used the gathering to disclose the plan of government to give Nigeria its first biennale this year. He stated: “I must, at this point, quickly remind this august gathering, of the lofty efforts of the NGArt at organizing the first-ever Abuja Biennale coming up later this year,”
 With this development, the NGA has added to its yearly, Art Expo Nigeria, but yet to revive African Regional Summit on Visual Arts (ARESUVA), which only had two editions, the debut in 2008 and another a year after.
                                                                      With additional report from Gregory Page-Nwakunor.  

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