Installation view of Victor Ehikhamenor’s A Biography of the Forgotten, a large-scale installation celebrating Forgotten Nigerian Artists at the 57th Venice Biennale. Image: Victor Ehikhamenor
VENICE: As the 57th Venice Biennale, all eyes are on Nigeria. This is the first time in history Nigeria is joining other countries to celebrate this important global art event. With its first pavilion, Nigeria joins countries like Kenya, South Africa, Angola, Zimbabwe, and Mozambique who have all had pavilions during the fair’s 122-year history.
Also known as the art world cup, Nigerian is been represented by three contemporary homegrown artists: Peju Alatise, Victor Ehikhamenor, and Qudus Onikeku. They were selected from an amazingly creative group of home-based artists because of the uniqueness of their work and experience participating in global art events.
Nigeria’s presentation is titled How About Now. Curated by Adenrele Sonariwo and Emmanuel Iduma, the works on view are diverse and experimental. There are videos, conceptual art, installations, and performances. Looking at the presentations, it is clear each artist exercised due diligence in creating exceptional pieces that will present Nigerian as a country that is part of the global art community.
In the first of our series, we look at Victor Ehikhamenor’s large-scale installation A Biography of the Forgotten.
A Biography of the Forgotten pays homage to anonymous, undocumented and forgotten forebears of Nigeria art heritage. For Ehikhamenor, the forgotten Nigerian artists whose works and names are lost in history, deserve to be celebrated because they “paved the way for the art of today.”
Ehikhamenor’s homage to the artists is not surprising. His works are inspired by artists that he never met or will ever know. As an artist, Ehikhamenor draws influences from local shrines, memorial walls, and traditional places of worship in Uwesan village, his hometown. Many of the murals were designed by traditional artists and artisans who, despite their amazing work, are unknown. Their works are unsigned, making them anonymous in the art historical sense.
However, the absence of authorship has not diminished the significance of the works created by the unknown or forgotten Nigerian artists. Their intricate beautiful works continue to generate intense curiosity among many Nigerian artists who continue to draw from their well of creativity. From Victor Ekpuk to Tola Wewe, Moyo Okediji, Gbenga Offo, and Victor Ehikhamenor himself, the number of Nigerian artists who borrow from the creative genius of the forgotten artists is endless.
In addition to the unknown artists that created the exceptional wall designs that have continued to be a major source of inspiration for Victor Ehikhamenor, A Biography of the Forgotten also pays homage to the bronze casters from the historical Igun Street in the heart of ancient Benin Kingdom. Many of the remarkable sculptures and artworks looted by the colonialists were made in this area. The hard work and dexterity of the unknown artisans that created the work remain a source of admiration for art lovers who throng Western museums where the pillaged treasures now reside.
In many ways, Victor Ehikhamenor bears an affinity with some of the forgotten Nigerian artists that he celebrates. Like many of them, he did not have a formal education in art. While some of the traditional artists and artisans learned their trade through the apprenticeship system, others acquired their knowledge by observing other artisans at work and examining things around them.
A self-taught artist, Ehikhamenor’s love for art grew from experiencing the art around him. From regular visits to local shrines, memorial walls, and traditional places of worship in Uwesan village as a child, he developed an unwavering interest for art. That childhood experience continues to have a significant impact on his artistic career, and he continues to be inspired and influenced by the creation of those before him.
But, A Biography of the Forgotten is not just about the unknown artists. It is also about those forgotten Nigerian artists who challenged Western hegemonic art ideas in the effort to forge a space for Nigerian art. In this light, the installation pays homage to members of the Zaria Art Society. In the face of all odds, members of this group formed in 1958, sought new forms of artistic expressions based on a Nigerian identity. Members were encouraged to search their cultural background for new visual language to incorporate into their art. The result is what is now known as natural synthesis. Yusuf Grillo, Ogbonnaya Nwagbara, Demas Nwoko, E. Okechukwu Odita, Simon Okeke, Uche Okeke, Bruce Onobrakpeya, and Oseloka Osadebe were all instrumental to the actualization of the natural synthesis.
The foundation laid by the pioneers of Nigeria modern art and members of the Zaria Art Society remains a major source of inspiration for Victor Ehikhamenor. In his works, he incorporates cultural elements and visual language from his Benin background. These cultural elements are merged with Western concepts, creating a hybrid or synthesis.
Ehikhamenor‘s A Biography of the Forgotten follows in the tradition of natural synthesis. The installation consists of several large canvases bearing the motifs, drawings, and paintings of images found on wall murals and shrines in Benin. Interwoven with the large canvases are mirrors and hundreds of Benin bronze statuettes hanging overhead. Although the Ehikhamenor‘s addresses a fragmented history, it also reflects interconnected narratives of the colonizers and colonized.
In addition to referencing Ehikhamenor’s cultural background, the mirrors are also significant in other ways: They are reminders of a moment in colonial history when the colonialists presented mirrors in exchange for African art and commodities like human slaves. The mirrors also serve as an opportunity for self-reflection. Ehikhamenor seems to be reminding viewers about the hegemonic history of colonialism and its pervading corrupt impact on modern accounts.
The narrative around A Biography of the Forgotten gives it greater credence. As a writer and notable storyteller, Victor Ehikhamenor understands the impact of a cogent narrative. Beyond rekindling the atrocities of colonialism, the narrative around Ehikhamenor’s installation is also a reminder of the inequality and hierarchical relationship in global art discourse. It points to the privileging of Western art history over that of African countries. In spite of the achievements of the unknown artists and pioneers of Nigeria modern art, art history continues to favor the colonizers.
The negation of the achievement of the unknown artists that Ehikhamenor celebrates and the contribution of Forgotten modern Nigerian artists like Uche Okeke, Demas Nwoko, Bruce Onobrakpeya and their peers was the impetus for this installation. In A Biography of the Forgotten, Ehikhamenor excavates the past in the effort to bring meaning to the present. The forceful insertion of the installation into the global art discourse makes it even more relevant.
How About Now, The Nigerian Pavilion through November 26, 2017