Victor Ehikhamenor On The First Nigerian Pavilion At Venice Biennale And Damien Hirst’s Cultural Appropriation

by - Published on 30/05/2017

How about now? is the title of the first ever Nigerian pavilion at the 57th edition of Venice Biennale. “It was about time”, I’m tempted to say. If we think that only eight African countries [out of 54] made it to Venice and that Christine Macel, French curator of Biennale, has only included a few artists based on the Continent in her main exhibition, it feels like we’re still far away from achieving a noticeable African presence at the Venice Biennale, no matter all good intentions.

And so confirms Victor Ehikhamenor, who salutes countries like Kenya for managing to bring their exhibition to the Venice Biennale against all odds. Unfortunately it isn’t even included in the Biennale website’s list of exhibiting foreign nations as the Kenyan government had officially cancelled their participation.

It wasn’t a smooth sailing for the Nigerians either, but everybody did their very best to make this happen. How About Now? reflects on the notions of time and identity by presenting the multidisciplinary practices of three contemporary Nigerian artists. Invoking themes like history, fantasy and memory, alongside more fundamental concerns related to nationhood and self-awareness, Victor Ehikhamenor (b. 1970), Peju Alatise (b. 1975), and Qudus Onikeku (b. 1984) respond to the multifaceted approach in which to conceive Nigerian contemporaneity.

griot-mag-Victor Ehikhamenor on the first Nigerian Pavilon at Venice Biennale and Damien Hirst’s Nigerian appropriation-ictor Ehikhamenor Peju Alatise Qudus Onikeku
via instagram/Victorsozaboy

We had a conversation with artist Victor Ehikhamenor, author of the site situ installation A biography of the forgotten. He told us about the nigerian presence in Venice, its highlights and what it takes to succeed in the challenge of increasing the visibility of African arts at the World Cup of contemporary art in Venice. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, a little ‘less jaw-jaw’ and more actions. Venice Biennale is just the beginning.

GRIOT: Tell me about your experience in Venice and what it means for you to be here?

Victor Ehikhamenor: Venice has been good, it’s one of those career defining moment for any artist coming to show here. It’s the oldest biennale in the world and the most important, so I’m glad to be part of the Nigerian team who’s exhibiting here today. It’s even more important because my country hasn’t attended before and this is the first time they have been able to put the whole thing together and be present. I’m very glad to be here.

What role did you play in this process? Were you only involved as an artist or also as one of those who made the project come true?

Just as an artist, doing my very best, putting my country first and working with one of the most capable team. I would go to war with them, you know, especially the chief curator, Denrele [Sonariwo], was a true partner. That is what you’re supposed to do as an artist if you’re invited to participate to your country’s pavilion at the Biennale: you make sure you put your best foot forward, that’s part of the challenge. If the country can help you, fine, if they can’t, you pretty much make sure that you make it happen. It was very important that everybody tried to do their very best to make this first one happen regardless of the difficulties that we encountered.

Does the work you did for the Biennale have a special bond with this city?

Not necessarily, it has a special connection with my city in Nigeria, Benin City. It also has a special connection with my country in the sense that I wanted to look back in history and be able to reconnect. But when we are looking at Venice, it is part of Europe, so in that sense it also recalls our first encounter with europeans. It’s important for both cities, but mostly for mine, that was the starting point for me. I’m heavily influenced by the art created by my forefathers there, so in that sense it’s quite relevant for my city but not as much as Venice. Venice is just a venue.

griot-mag-_Victor- Ehikhamenor- on the first Nigerian Pavilon at Venice Biennale and Damien Hirst’s cultural appropriation_a biography of the forgotten
A biography of the forgotten (2017), Victor Ehikhamenor, Nigeria Pavilion, 57° Venice Biennale

If I recall well, it’s not your first time in Venice, nor in Italy right?

No, it’s not. I’ve been here before, in Venice especially. I exhibited in the German pavilion as part of Tobias Zielony’s work {Venice Biennale 56th}, he invited me to contribute a piece of fiction about human trafficking in Europe. One of the characters ended up in Venice and to avoid being taken by human traffickers committed suicide from the Rialto Bridge. I hadn’t been to Venice when I wrote that story, so it was just based on imagination. Tobias was working on a photography project about immigrants who come to Italy, so they invited me to present the piece and I also made a drawing.

That was the first time I’ve come here, two years ago when Okwi Enwezor was the curator of the Biennale. It was an exciting time for me, also because the artistic director for that year was Nigerian, so it kind of made me to start to yearn for my country to actually be part of the big game, instead of just being an attachment to somebody else’s pavilion. I knew we were rich enough, both in human resources and materials, to put something together and make it happen.

Collecting and showing or talking about contemporary African art seems to be the new trend. ‘Contemporary African art is on the rise’, they say. What’s your take on that?

Contemporary African art is affordable for them, I mean for the big collectors that are paying millions for a piece of work. There is no artist from Africa whose work is actually and constantly demanding those kind of figures, apart from El Anatsui and Njideka [Akunyili CROSBY] who is in the US and is a recent thing, Lynette Yiadom Boakye, Wangechi Mutu, Julie Mehretu… Those are people whose works are sold at a higher price, but it doesn’t represent all the artists in or from the continent.

griot-mag-Victor- Ehikhamenor on the first Nigerian Pavilon at Venice Biennale and Damien Hirst’s Nigerian appropriation-Wedding Portrait (2012), Njideka Akunyili
Wedding Portrait (2012), Njideka Akunyili

So the trend is there, everybody is now excited about it because they got tired of the US, Asia and so on… So Africa is the next thing as usual. It’s almost like when Europeans first discovered it, everybody wanted to come, grab a piece and colonize… I’m not asking anyone to come and build art institutions for us, but we have to take advantage of this moment and build long-lasting institutions now that everybody is excited about African art.

Art management and the art world are still very much in the western hands, but as africans we need to find a way to create our own institutions, schools, to create our own buyers, raise our own collectors, so that when these people who are making it hot now come and go as they want, we’ll have our own collectors who understand our works!

Who’s collecting American art? Americans mostly! Who’s collecting British art? British people! Even if other countries come and join them, they have their home based collectors. So we have to raise our home based collectors as well, because it has become a problem having to constantly rely on the western countries to come and validate us.

So we need to build our own institutions, which is what I stand for, and it’s also why after I came back from the US I stayed, and probably will remain, in Nigeria to see what can be done. Venice Biennale is just the beginning. So yes, all that attention is good, even if I don’t really understand that silly word they keep using, Africa is “rising”, Africa has risen a long time ago… Anyway, all this attention is still a very small drop in the ocean of money that is spent in the art world.

griot-mag-Victor_ Ehikhamenor- on the first Nigerian Pavilon at Venice Biennale and Damien Hirst’s cultural appropriation-Flying girls (2017), Peju Alatise, Nigeria Pavilion 57° Vencie Biennale
Flying girls (2017), Peju Alatise, Nigeria Pavilion 57° Venice Biennale

You were part of the African Art Forum Panel in Venice. Tell us a little bit about it and how it has been received.

I don’t really know how people received it, I mean, it was quite packed with different people, mostly from the art industry. It was good but I think this kind of discourse should probably be happening in Africa more than here, so that hopefully some of our leaders can hear them, some of our newspapers can talk about them.

What do you think would happen if 30 african countries actually had a pavilion in Venice? 30 out of 54, about half of them! So imagine if half of them put their art together and showed here in Venice, the balance would shift! Who are we asking? Who are we talking to? One thing you have to realize is that for most of this people, you work with who you know.

Christine Macel [57th Venice Biennale’s curator] probably doesn’t know that many african artists [he giggles.] Do you understand? When Enwezor curate the 56th Venice Biennale, he understood, he knew who to call and it was quite mixed and balanced. We don’t know how many times we’re going to have people like Okwi Enwezor again, who have the foresight to say “Look, there’s art beyond the European shows, there’s art beyond the American shows” and go really deep into the Asian and African continent to bring out artists that are doing big things in their country and that people would never have known otherwise.

I’m not criticising the whole Africa thing in the Venice discourse, but enough of this. I mean, I was invited and I couldn’t refuse but when you do conferences it’s like a sermon, we need to get more countries involved. We can’t keep jumping on that: “Ah, Venice is not including Africa”. Let just build our own thing, like the way we have embraced technology. Let’s begin to look at art from that perspective.

griot-mag-_Victor Ehikhamenor- on the first Nigerian Pavilon at Venice Biennale and Damien Hirst’s cultural appropriation-Qudus Onikeku creates movement identity that fuses dance and acrobatics
Qudus Onikeku performing at the opening, 57°Venice Biennale

You’ve almost answered my next question but let’s dig deeper. Every time a new African pavilion happens to be in Venice it seems a victory after a long battle, however African art has always existed so it shouldn’t be surprising but quite normal. What do you think about this lack of representation of the continent here in Venice at the world’s biggest art event?

Venice is expensive! Like Raphael [Chikukwa, curator of the Zimbabwe pavillon] put it during the Africa in Venice talk. He said “Venice is one of the most expensive party where you are asked to bring your own drink” [he laughs]. There’s no better way of putting it, Venice is expensive! Nigeria had to raise about  $300.000! Not that we don’t have people that would invest that amount of money, but people aren’t aware of the importance of art and culture, so we need to create more awareness and stop speaking too much English, you have to break it down to the people.

Venice is expensive it’s true, but at the same time, you have a few African countries that manage to more or less consistently attend the Biennale. Look at the Angolan pavilion for instance, it’s their fifth or sixth time here in Venice and they won the Golden Lion in 2013. You see, this is my personal take, but I think this lack of a real African presence in Venice isn’t only due to the lack of funding, but mostly comes from a lack of political will…

Yes, for sure! First there’s interest, then there’s money, you understand? If you have an interest but you don’t have the perseverance to fight through, how do you navigate that system? I mean I was an observer of the entire Nigerian pavilion starting from day one when the dream was still like a seed. There are so many nuances, so many people that don’t even want it to happen! I don’t know about other countries but in Nigeria the ministries are painful! Most of them are useless, some of these systems are rotten, they are hindrances to the progress of moving the art to where it should be.

griot-mag-Victor- Ehikhamenor on the first Nigerian Pavilon at Venice Biennale and Damien Hirst’s cultural appropriation
Magnetic Memory, Historical Resonance – still video, Antònio Olé, Angola Pavilion, 57th Venice Biennale

During the opening week of the Biennale, Damien Hirst’s exhibition has given a lot of talk about, especially the Ife’s Head controversy which you actually brought to the light on your Instagram profile. Some accused him of cultural appropriation, but others say it’s a useless and counterproductive controversy because “if he decided to NOT include any example from Africa (besides Egypt) in his list of the world’s ancient treasures, perhaps someone would have accused him of blatantly refusing to acknowledge the African contribution to the world’s artistic heritage.” What do you think about this statement?

[He giggles] I find it interesting, like I’ve already said, I’m done with the Damien Hirst thing, I didn’t come to Venice for that, you know. It was an Instagram post, the people who are now writing some of this stuff haven’t even taken the time to go and look at what I post on my Instagram profile, nor have followed me. They’re just feeding on medias. If that statement was written by an African person, I would say it’s only a drunkard who would turn his back and look away if  he saw his mother being beaten in a market square. That’s all I have to say about that.
We have to see things from different perspectives, I guess this is why God gave us two eyes and a brain, to reflect on things. People will see it differently you know, there are people who believe that the slaves’ trade was a good thing, ok? They supported it, they caught slaves and they sold slaves, but there are also people that fought for slavery to stop.

griot-mag-Victor- Ehikhamenor on the first Nigerian Pavilon at Venice Biennale and Damien Hirst’s cultural appropriation_
via instagram/Victorsozaboy

So if somebody in their power, have enough knowledge to say that it’s ok for Damien Hirst to make a copy of Ife’s head and have postcards made out of it and not reference where it was  originally from, then it’s fine. If that makes them sleep well and they think that this is just a controversy, then it’s fine. I wouldn’t say I’m a controversial person, that was just my point of view, I had no idea it would bother people. I just saw it and I said what I felt at that particular time.

To be honest some of our so called intellectuals have done the worst things, I’m using the word ‘intellectual’ lose here, I don’t even know if that is the right word. Like we say in Nigeria, some just “blow grammar”, they just want to speak lots of  english and not do the hard work of building a viable art sector. I think those who live outside the country should visit regularly, open their eyes and encourage young artists. It is much easier to sit in a Western developed institutions and start vituperating, that’s not the way to build the Nigeria art industry.

I’m not here for Damien Hirst, I came here to represent my country, to lift up that green, white and green flag. Good or not, it’s going to be written in history that Nigeria has participated in Venice Biennale for the first time, and that’s important to me, I’m gonna hold on to that fulfillment, to that goal that has been achieved and go home very happy with a big smile on my face.

griot-mag-Victor- Ehikhamenor on the first Nigerian Pavilon at Venice Biennale and Damien Hirst’s cultural appropriation_-
via instagram/Victorsozaboy

Your highlights at the Biennale? What artist or pavilion or show deserves a standing ovation?

The Zimbabwe pavilion was just beautiful, every single one of them. But I also want to applaud Kenya, because there are people that run marathons, they will fall and decide not to run again… I don’t know what they went through but they pulled it off and they have something on their walls. They made it happen you understand, so these things deserve applause, because it’s not so easy.

I also enjoyed Mark Bradford in the American pavilion, I like his work. There are other pavilions that were quite so so, I don’t even know if you call it art or something else, but I’m not here to criticise any pavilion {he laughs}, everybody tried.

Like which one?

I don’t know but some places I went to, like the Canadian pavilion, it looked like a construction site, I don’t even know what it was supposed to be. It was closed so I couldn’t experience anything, but I heard it was supposed to have a water fountain or stuff like that. I guess when you come to places like this you see what we consider an art shift, probably we have to pay attention and not just completely ignore what is going on.

One thing is that there’s a lot of video art. South Africa was a full video art installations, and Moataz Nasr also, who represents Egypt. The meaning of his video might fly over people’s head if they don’t know what happened in Egypt, but by the time I got halfway through I realized he was talking about the revolution, how it went and the after revolution. These are questions that Egypt still needs to answer, I think this is what Moataz is trying to raise here. I’m very familiar with his work and he did a great job, including building the space.
Regarding Germany, I guess you have to experience the performance itself, they won the Golden Lion but I guess they performed for the jury. I didn’t experience anything when I was walking on glass, I don’t know what happened, so I can’t talk about what I didn’t see. We see art differently, still.

Venice in 5 words.

Beautiful, lovely, difficult to navigate, expensive but exciting.

What’s next for you after the Biennale?

I go home and rest [he laughs].

How About Now? continues in the Nigerian Pavillon through November 26. Giardini and San Paolo 2559/A, Fondamenta dei Frari, Venice, Italy.

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