Today marked an historic occasion at the Venice Biennale: the opening of the first-ever Nigeria Pavilion, located in the Scoletta dei Battioro e dei Tiraoro, an early 18th century building that was once home to Venice’s gold thread and gold leaf guild. The exhibition inside is called “How About Now?”, as good a title as any for a country that has had to wait as long as Nigeria has for a national pavilion. After an introduction from Godwin Nogheghase Obaseki, the pavilion’s commissioner and governor of the Edo State, who was in traditional Benin costume, the assembled crowd moved into the building.
Victor Ehikhamenor has filled the ground floor with an installation that features canvas-covered walls coated with painted patterns and shapes, as well as mirrors and small bronze sculptures that hang from the ceiling. He sourced the sculptures from Igun Street in Benin City, a World Heritage Site that produced the famous Benin bronzes. The installation is a reference to the Benin artworks sized by the British during the colonial occupation. Ehikhamenor studied in both Lagos and the U.S., and has had a varied career to date, working not only in visual art but in journalism and book design. (If you’ve read Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, you have likely seen his work.)
On the third floor is work by Peju Alatise, a woman who originally trained as an architect. Her large black-painted sculpture, made over a three-year period, from 2013 to 2016, shows eight life-size girls standing in a circle. They appear to have sprouted wings. Above them circles a flock of birds. When she made the piece, she had in mind Nigerian girls who have been kidnapped and forced into servitude. The kidnapping three years ago of 234 girls from Chibok was only the most visible incident, she says in an interview in the pavilion’s catalogue. And most reports tend to focus on girls who are sold abroad, rather than the ones who are forced into servitude locally, within Nigeria. Alatise has written a book about a Yoruba girl who is rented out as a domestic servant in Lagos; in the girl’s dream world, she can fly.
Between the two floors, on a mezzanine, is a darkened room in which is screened a video of performances by choreographer and dancer Qudus Onikeku. In, the video, Onikeku says, “As artists and dancers we have a responsibility and our responsibility is to help the society remember” through empathy. Speaking to the crowd in the pavilion, he told us we would see his real work on the patio outside the pavilion, where he would do a performance.
At one point in that performance, which combined spoken word and dance to count down the years in Nigeria’s history, Onikeku paused to hand out tambourines and maracas to members of the audience, then sat on the ground and began a kind of meditation. “Right here, right now,” he said. “There is nothing intellectual about it. Or philosophical. It’s just a question of being here, now. Without any preparation more than what we have now. So we aren’t going anywhere. We are not showing you anything. You are not going to see anything, because you are part of something. You are not an audience. You are an active participant in this. So I need you to be present.” I stopped filming, and started participating.