When Victoria Udondian expanded her career to the critical art sphere, over ten years ago, it was like a dive into the waters of uncertainty.
Non-commercial art contents, especially the avant-garde textures of which Udondian makes, are largely avoided by most full-time studio artists in Nigeria.
From one artist-in-residence programme to another, across Europe, US, Africa and South America, Udondian, over the years, have built a strong career in the international critical art space. For an artist practising outside the academia, Udondian's work has, largely, leaned towards critical art appreciation of African themes. In quite a number of her early works, the artist has questioned, and sometimes, deconstructed notions attached to the trajectory of fabrics woven around their African originality.
The artist's over one decade of creating artistic concepts around African textile has just been lifted higher onto a scholarly realm in the U.S. Last month, Udondian was announced among over 100 beneficiaries of one of the world's most revered awards in art, the Guggenheim Fellowships.
Based in Lagos and New York, Udondian started expanding her horizon in non-commercial art after she set out for a MFA in Sculpture and New Genres at Columbia University, New York; and also attended Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in 2014.
From her earlier artist-in-residency programmes of 2009 till date, Udondian, who had her first degree in Fine Art at University of Uyo, Akwa Ibom State, has textile dominating her thematic focus. She applies fabrics in diverse of repurposed medium to generate dialogue around identity.
The artist's Guggenheim proposal was all about textile, as related to Africa, specifically, her Nigerian roots. Narration attached to the Guggenheim award, in explaining Udondian's work noted that she "questions notions of cultural identity and post-colonial positions in relation to her experiences growing up in Nigeria, a country flooded with cast-off from the West." Specifically of note, is what the statement described as "her interest in textiles and the potential for clothing to shape identity, informed by the histories and tacit meanings embedded in everyday materials."
Between 2011 and 2014, from Austria, later Croatia, Italy and back to Africa, specifically, Kenya, Udondian lifted Nigerian art through the critical art appreciation world. Shortly before embarking on her MFA in Columbia, the artist had Open Studio in Lagos, in which she shared some of her works and experience, from across the world. In Austria, she worked with students, made presentation on her works and discussed African arts. In Venice it was a special purpose art entity of Fondazione di Venezia, with the aim of promoting works of young, emerging artists from Africa.
Out of 145 young African artists who applied for the Venice, Italy-based residency Art Enclosures 2011, Udondian and a South African, Tamilyn Young, according to the organisers, were the only two beneficiaries. From Udondian’s work presented under the themes, Second Hand Museum and Venetian Portraits 2011, some of the installations she re-presented on slide during her Open Studio in Lagos included Nigerian female two-piece wear (buba and iro,) and that of male (buba and sokoto).
Making another history this year, Udondian, according to Guggenheim, is among a diverse group of 175 writers, scholars, artists, and scientists drawn from 53 scholarly disciplines and artistic fields, 78 different academic institutions, 31 states and the District of Columbia, and two Canadian provinces. Few days ago, via Internet chat, the artist shared her journey through the process of picking the fellowship award. She disclosed how two concepts earned her the fellowship. "The first developed project continues to explore my interest in the transformation of space for shared community engagement." The space, she explained, is based on "where collective identities are forged and celebrated outside of a vociferous narrative of divisive nationalism that seems to be propagated by our society today."
Thematically, Udondian brings the project into a specific cultural context Identity. "The project is titled Àdápé II." Udondian explained that Àdápé, in Yoruba, translates as 'Àdá' (to create) and 'pe' (to complete or make it perfect.) The title Àdápé, she said, literally translates to creating a state of perfection. "This title is considered when thinking about the notions of Utopia," stated Udondian whose Lagos base seemed to have influenced the Yoruba contents in the project. "Àdápé is an attempt to create an ideal space of inclusiveness in collaboration with immigrant communities."
She recalled how the first phase of Àdápé was concluded last year at the South London gallery, UK. At the presentation, she worked with those described as "a community of multicultural locals." The work, she said lasted six month as a "commission to transform the gallery with a large scale textile sculpture." The concept, she said, "was then activated through performances."
Udondian, whose art journey through European countries, over the past ten years has afforded her some windows into the nationalism and identity crisis, brings the Àdápé concept into the issue. "With the cold wind of intolerance and nationalism blowing across America and Europe — and at a time when immigrants are vilified and nationalistic biases increasingly divide developed nations — Àdápé engages this community in ways that ask us to consider global migration and questions the state of society without the contributions of immigrant populations."
For the second project titled After the Last Supper, the artist returns to Lagos next year, significantly, to have a debut solo art exhibition. The theme, she said, tracks her previous works. "This project questions Africa’s colonial history, cultural identity and lately, Afro-Sino relationships that shape realities, identities, and psyche within this postcolonial condition," she explained. "This is a sculpture/ installation project that takes 'The Last Supper' by ‘Da Vinci as a starting point, using its biblical connotations as a metaphor in discussing Western, and lately, Chinese dependence on African resources for their development."
Udondian's last exhibition in Lagos coalesces installations, performance and photography of textile art content titled Arti-tude. The work was one of the 12 finalists at African Artists Foundation-organised national art competition themed 'IDENTITY: Who Do You Think You Are? She won the 'Outstanding Production' prize at the 2013 competition, held in Lagos.
Included as part of her Guggenheim fellowship year is a trip to Buffalo University, New York state as a Visiting Scholar for the 2020/2021 school year. "I will be focusing on developing two major projects that are scheduled to debut in a solo show in Lagos and New York between 2021/2022. Guggenheim fellowship resource will be geared towards developing these projects."
On April 8, 2020, the Board of Trustees of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation approved the awarding of Guggenheim Fellowships. Included with Udondian among the fellows for the 2020 awards are Rheim Alkadhi, Artist, Berlin, Germany. Field: Fine Arts; Arturo Arias, John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Professor in the Humanities, Department of Spanish Literature and Culture, University of California, Merced: Recovering Lost Footprints: Contemporary Mexican Indigenous Narratives. Field: Literary Criticism; Lawrie Balfour, Professor of Politics, University of Virginia: Imagining Freedom: Toni Morrison and the Work of Words. Field: American Literature; Blitz Bazawule, Filmmaker, Atlanta, Georgia. Field: Film-Video; and
Sanford Biggers, Artist, New York City. Field: Fine Arts.
Excerpts from Guggenheim:
"Appointed on the basis of prior achievement and exceptional promise, the successful candidates were chosen through a rigorous peer-review process from almost 3,000 applicants in the Foundation’s ninety-sixth competition.
"Since its establishment in 1925, the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation has granted more than $375 million in Fellowships to over 18,000 individuals, among whom are scores of Nobel laureates, Fields Medalists, poets laureate, members of the national academies, winners of the Pulitzer Prize, Turing Award, Bancroft Prize, National Book Award, and many other internationally recognized honors.
Created by Senator Simon and Olga Guggenheim in memory of their son, the Guggenheim Fellowship program remains a significant source of support for artists, scholars in the humanities and social sciences, and scientific researchers. In addition to the generous support of Senator Simon and Mrs. Olga Guggenheim, new and continuing donations from friends, Trustees, former Fellows, and other foundations have ensured that the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation will maintain its historic mission. An exceptionally generous bequest in 2019 from the estate of the great American novelist Philip Roth, a Fellow in 1959, is providing partial support for the wide variety of writers supported by the Foundation."
Udondian's works have been exhibited internationally in Lagos, Venice, New York, UK etc. Among such exhibitions listed on her bio is the Inaugural Nigerian Pavilion at the 56th Venice Biennial-An Excerpt, at Fisher Landau Centre for the Arts, New York. Also listed are shows held at The Children Museum of Manhattan, New York; National Museum, Lagos; Whitworth Gallery in Manchester, Spring Break, New York Fair, Art 14 London Art Fair, among others. Some of her Artist Residencies include Instituto Sacatar, Bahia, Brazil; Mass Moca, Massachusetts, USA; Fine Arts Work Centre (FAWC), Provincetown; USA; Fondazione di Venezia, Venice and Bag Factory Studios, Johannesburg.
Udondian received an MFA in Sculpture and New Genres from Columbia University, New York, attended Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture and a BA in painting from the University of Uyo, Nigeria.