Sunday 2 April 2017

How About Now… Fresh Energy Debuts Nigeria At Venice Art Biennale

By Tajudeen Sowole
As fogs of doubt, over Nigeria’s participation at the 57th edition of the world’s renowned art and architecture event, the Venice Biennale, in Italy clear, a ray of new dawn emerges.

The Venice Biennale is in its 122nd year of showcasing artists - every two years - under the representation of National Pavilions from across the world.

Installation titled Flying Girls by Peju Alatise, as one of the works heading for Nigerian Pavilion at Venice Biennale.

  Over the past one decade, several attempts have been made, by either government or joint private efforts to get Nigeria participate at the Venice Art Biennale without any
success. But during the last edition, in 2015, Nigeria mounted a Pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale when Belgium-based Ola-Dele Kuku showed his installation Diminished Capacity, in collaboration with the Ministry of Information and Culture.

 As important a landmark as Nigeria’s participation at the Architecture exhibition was, the absence of the country’s Art Pavilion during the last edition, still left a wide vacuum unfilled.

  Interestingly, two years after, Nigeria is heading to Venice with a true reflection of the country’s unfolding new energy in contemporary art. After a preview on May 10,  the Nigerian Pavilion opens to the public on 13, and runs till the end of November, 2017. With the curatorial team led by  a relatively new name in Nigerian art,  Adenrele Sonariwo, and joined by Emmanuel Iduma, who is also, a non-mainstream name in the country’s art management space, it is clear that fresh breath of art is already being inhaled. Few years ago, none of the two names in the curatorial team would have been thought of as leading a debut Nigeria Pavilion on a global stage as Venice Art Biennale.  

 Thoughtfully too, the theme of the Nigeian Pavilion, ‘How About Now?, clearly suggests a new dawn for the country’s art. Sonariwo, whose knowldge of art of Nigerian art could be  assessed from her Lagos-based Rele Art Gallery told preview guests that “the declared aim of the Nigerian Pavilion is to reflect on the question of now, and of narratives firmly rooted in the present.”

 Taking up the curatorial responsibility of a debut Nigeria Pavilion at Venice comes with certain demands. Despite the fact that Nigeria’s name has not been recorded on the list of laureates at Venice, expectation of its presentation would be in line with whatever the country has achieved, generally, as regards visual arts - pre and post-modern periods. For a country like Nigeria whose art professionals, across generations, have made marks outside the African continent - both as artists and art managers - a debut Pavilion to the Venice comes with high expectation.

However, whoever knows the contemporary space of Nigerian art well enough would agree that the choice of the two artists, Peju Alatise and Victor Ehikhamenor, truly represents the current face of art in Nigeria. But unlike the two artists, Qudus Onikeku, a dance-dramatist, is a surprise, but ingenious choice, for performance art, thus expanding the Nigerian contemporary art narrative. “The presentation by the artists expands an understanding of Nigerian contemporary life through installations, painting, and performance,” Sonariwo stated. “Their work 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.”
ictor Ehikhamenor - A Biography of the Forgotten, 2017_Photo Courtesy Victor Ehikhamenor
 Irrespective of how the curatorial team is viewed, within the context of exposure and experience, the entire Nigeria in Venice family is no doubt a compact kind. For example, Wunika Mukan, (Project Manager), is a well known name in several of African Artists Foundation’s (AAF) events over the past five years. And with tested, iconic personalities in art patronage/management such as Prince Yemisi Shyllon and Mrs Kavita Chellaram, as well as photo-artist, Ade Adekola as Steering Committee Members, the team appears well loaded. And with a passionate art collector in Governor of Edo State, Godwin Obaseki as Commissioner for Nigeria In Venice, the team looks good enough to deliver.

 “Going to Venice is an opportunity to express our culture to the outside world,” said Femi Lijadu who represented Obaseki at the Lagos media preview. Wherever the funding for Nigeria In Venice is coming from, Ike Chioke of Afrinvest and a member of the Steering Committee assured that “we will close the funding gap to ensure we get the artists’ works to Venice.”

 With a central theme Viva Arte

Viva, which attracts countries from across the world, Nigeria is among seven participant African nations. “Our journey to

the biennale has been one of great

perseverance,” Mukan stated.

 For clarity, the much publicised performance of Jelili Atiku at Venice Biennale as representing Nigeria, is not part of the official team. But Atiku’s performance is recognised by the Venice Biennale organisers as one of several such representations from other countries, Adekola clarified.

 From Sonariwo’s curatorial statement: Ehikhamenor presents a large-scale work fusing abstract shapes with traditional sculpture, informed by an investment in classical Benin art and the effect of colonialism on cultural heritage. “The Biography of the Forgotten.”

   Alatise presents 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, especially for little girls.

  And Onikeku will showcase a trilogy of performance films, presented as an investigation through dance of the workings of body memory and its connection to national consciousness. exhibited as a triptych—of engagement, of contemplation, and of poetry.

  Few of Ehikhamenor’s exhibitions in the past include Artist Experience at Whitespace, Ikoyi Lagos, 2011;

2010 “Roforofo Fight: Painting to Fela’s Music” Bloom Gallery, Lagos Nigeria; 2006 “Beyond The River” Grenada Embassy, Washington, D.C;

2005 “Body Language” Utopia Art/Grill, Washington, D.C.

2005 “Divine Intervention” Howard University A J Blackburn Center Gallery, Washington, D.C.

2005 “Talking Walls” BB&T Bank, NW Washington, D.C.

2004 “Memories: 2Griot” JoySmith Gallery, Memphis, TN; and 2004 “Songs and Stories: Moonlight Delight” Utopia Gallery, “Discovering the gods” Monroe Gallery, Arts Club of Washington, D.C.

   Alatise showed  Preludes, Pretext and Presumption at Kia Showroom, Lagos, 2016;

In, 2015, Los (Nesr Gallery, Geneva); 1:54 Contemporary African Art- Fair (Somerset House, London), 2014; Casablanca Biennale, (Ifitry residency, Essaouira), 2014;

Wrapture: A Story Of Cloth at Art Twenty-One, Lagos, 2013;

 Material Witness, Nike Art Gallery, Lagos, 2012; and group many group rxhibitions. Among such is Next Fifty Years: Contemporary Nigerian Art, Omenka Gallery, Lagos.

 Onikeku has Choreographed Projects such as in

2014, “MADhouse,” Lagos, “Exile Remixed”, Southbank Centre London;

2013, Creation of «Qaddish» Festival D’avignon;

2013, Creation of Flash. University of California Davis;

2011 – 2012, was commissioned by Festival d’Avignon and SACD to create « Still / life » for Festival d’Avignon 2011

2011; and  creation of «Kaddish Torino Danza 2011.

Also, 2011, Creation of We Dance we Pray, Vuyani Dance Theatre – Johannesburg. His group dance projects include: Dancer in Levée des Conflit choreographed by Boris Charmatz with various tours in Europe, US and Canada; and

2011, Dancer in BABEL choreographed by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, among others.

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