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Nigerian visual art set to make history at Venice Biennale


Peju Alatise and Victor Ehikhamenor

The world’s most prestigious and storied contemporary visual art exhibition, Venice Biennale, now in its 57th year, will welcome a new guest in 2017 – Nigeria.

It may come as a surprise to some that Nigeria, rich in artistic, cultural talent and productivity is just enjoying her debut on art’s biggest global stage.

The world has long known, enjoyed and benefitted from our country’s artistic riches. Why else do old Benin empire artefacts sit in museums in Europe and in the Americas today? Why else do works by Nigerian artists sell in international auctions at record-breaking prices? Yet, there’s arguably no fitting reflection of our nation’s cultural progeny.

It is this reasoning that informs the curatorial direction of Nigeria’s inaugural showing and the artists selected to interpret same, aptly titled, ‘How About NOW?’

“The exhibition is a timeline. It arrives from the past, then, to take off to the future. Quite simply, the time for Nigeria is now,” said the curatorial team of the exhibition when asked for a statement.

Exhibiting artists Peju Alatise and Victor Ehikhamenor are among Nigeria’s foremost glocal art citizens. They are both fearless artists who explore local narratives, asking urgent questions of the social and the political status quo with a proficiency and skill that connects not only to their immediate community, but to a global audience. Alatise and Ehikhamenor also do this with a staggering amount of deference to history.

They know where we are coming from. They seem to know where we are going.
Alatise is known for her large scale, sculptural works tackling contemporary themes most recurring of which is gender and its associated politics. She was a 2016 fellow at the Smithsonian Institute of African Art, which allowed her to explore the history and performance of an ancestral Yoruba masquerade – a festival originating from southwest Nigeria. At the 2014 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair, hers was generally adjudged to be the standout piece created in response to the kidnapping of 234 Chibok girls. It featured a series of panels of anonymous Nigerian girls using the Ankara fabric. It was titled, ‘Missing.’

Ehikhamenor recently completed three residencies in 2016 alone, creating a new cache of work in Capetown, Johannesburg and Bellagio, Italy. He exhibited at the 2016 Dakart Biennale in Senegal and solo, with the Gallery of African Art, London, at the 1:54 Contemporary Art Fair. A mixed-media artist, his works are influenced by the duality of African beliefs and Western/Catholic political intervention. His motifs are figurative symbols derived from his childhood memories of village shrines in Benin Kingdom. In 2015, he was one of the 11 Nigerian artists invited to the Biennale Jogja in Indonesia where he created an installation of drawing, drums and water titled ‘The Wealth of Nations’. The installation was commentary on how the discovery of oil has fuelled corruption in Nigeria.

Recognizing that this is an opportune time to tell a multi-layered story, Nigeria’s presentation at the Venice Biennale will also be accompanied by performance. This will be presented by Qudus Onikeku, an accomplished performer and contemporary dance artiste with an impressive resume.

Though Onikeku is more revered abroad than at home for his art form, he has been particularly active at home in the last few years. A graduate of   Ecole nationale Superieur des arts du cirque , he is a pioneer in Acro-dance, a self-styled fusion of acrobatics and dance that takes inspiration from Nigerian cultural traditions and philosophy. Onikeku has performed, been a visiting professor, fellow, an artist in residence at various creative institutions all over the world, from Burkina Faso to Brazil.

Nigeria’s pavilion ties in with the Venice Biennale 2017 theme, Viva Arte Viva, (Long Live Art) by creating an immersive experience delivered not only in painting, and sculpture and installation but in performance by a group of artists who are unarguable frontrunners in their own fields. As a group, these artists are driven forward not only by the notion of history that came before them but also by the opportunity to create our shared future.‘How About NOW’, Nigeria’s inaugural outing at the Venice Biennale will open on May 13, 2017.

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