Nigerian Pavilion
The Nigerian Pavilion. Venice Art 2017. Copyright Greenbox Museum Foundation.

Nigeria with commitment

Every time that I have arrived in the ‘port of Islam,’ which is a name people sometimes give the city of Jeddah, they have smiled at me on their posters: larger than life Nigerians advertising telecommunication services to the clearly many pilgrims that arrive from Nigeria at King Abdulaziz International Airport to visit Mecca on Hajj or Umrah and perhaps then to continue to Medina, before returning home again. At least that is what the Saudi Arabian government expects them to do. So is it not logical then in Venice, during the once-every-two-years international art fair, after having taken a look at the works of Maha Malluh and Abdulnasser Gharem, two of the most accomplished artists from Riyadh, to follow curiously a path that leads me to the first ever pavilion of Nigeria at the Venice Bienniale? I thought so. And found that pavilion, hosted in a charming former art school, after a short trip by vaparetto on the city’s Grand Canal, which might remind visitors of the lagoon and islands of the maritime city of Lagos. 

Three artists, two men and one woman, carried that twin flag of both the universal language of art and the local experience of the nation, the most populous one - by the way - in Africa. Three people to share with the many visiting lords, clowns and princes of this imaginary Planet Art a mere spark perhaps of the dreams and tough struggles of, mind you, 190 million people with a multitude of ethnic histories. But they are not alone these three. On my way home by Easyjet the same evening, I took time to read much of the book that came with the exhibition: How About NOW? and was struck by the supportive and genuine statements from both the federal minister for culture Alhaji Lai Mohammed and the governor of Edo state, Godwin Noheghase Obaseki, who acted as the ‘commissioner’ - but don’t ask me what exactly that means - for the exhibition. Allow me to quote the minister, whose name suggests he may have passed Jeddah’s airport as well: ‘The Government of Nigeria is committed to fully exploiting the immense artistic and cultural potential of Nigeria, a country that does not always receive due positive credit for the talent and energy of its people. We will continue to do everything in our power to provide the support and enabling environment required for our artists and arts sector workers to continue creating and thriving.’ He may one day, I hope, find somewhere in an exhibition that large stamp by Saudi Arabian artist Abdulnasser Gharem who shares this vision to: ‘Have a bit of commitment, Amin.’

Other people shouldering Nigeria’s presence in Venice are the curator Adenrele Sonariwo, founder in Lagos of the Rele Gallery and Foundation, associate curator and editor Emmanuel Iduma, a novelist and writer of essays on art and soon a book, expected in 2018, of travel stories, a steering committee of ten: Ike Chioke, Eric Idiahi, Anshu Bahanda, Ade Adekola, Gbenga Oyebode, Kavita Chellaram, Prince Yemisi Shyllon, Olufemi Lijadu, Yvonne Fasinro and Nwakaego Boyo, sixteen sponsoring business enterprises, editorial consultant professor Frank Ugiomoh, project managers Wunika Muyan and Arinola Olowoporoku, communications staffers Bidemi Zakariyau, Tony Usidamen, Ayodeji Rotinwa and book designer Sodeinde Oladapo. These people made possible: Nigeria in Venice, The Nigerian Pavilion at the 57th Edition of the La Biennale di Venezia. But note also a page with more acknowledgements by the curator and more importantly the names of the authors who interviewed and discussed the artists and their work: Fernando Villarroel, Didi Cheeka, IfeOluwa Nihinola, Yinka Elujoba and Yemisi Aribisala, who contributed an essay: Photograph of the Nigerian.

The book includes, I think that was a good idea, a bibliography selected by several Nigerian writers and publishers with titles that may help shape people’s understanding of contemporary Nigerian experience. Selections were made by Irene Nwoye, Rafeeat Aliyu, Ade Adekola, Abubakar Adam Ibrahim, Kola Tubosun, Adebiyi Olusape, Suzanna Ushie, Chike Frankie Edozien, Tunji Olalere, IfeOluwa Nihinola, Helon Habila, Dami Ajayi, Sulaiman Adebowale and Emmanuel Iduma.

And then naturally the artists and their work. You may link to them here to see my pictures and read a few word about them.

Victor Ehikhamenor

A Biography of The Forgotten

Qudus Onikeku

Righ here, right now

Peju Alatise

Flying Girls


May 19, 2017.