African Voices

First ever Nigerian Pavilion opens at the Venice Biennale

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For the first time in its history, a Nigerian Pavilion makes its debut at the 57th Venice Biennale

Peju Alatise, Victor Ehikhamenor and Qudus Onikeku will explore life

CNN  — 

For the first time in history a Nigerian Pavilion will make its debut at the 57th Venice Biennale, also known as the Olympics of the art world. The country’s pavilion will be one of 51 others from around the world.

Nigeria now joins African countries such as Kenya, South Africa, Angola, Zimbabwe and Mozambique who have all had pavilions during the exhibition’s 122-year history.

“The journey to Venice Biennale has been about two years in the making,” explains one of the exhibit’s curators, Adenrele Sonariwo.

“When we started the process we didn’t have all the right answers but we had conviction.”

“As Nigerians we call ourselves the giant of Africa. We have amazing talent here and there is no reason why we shouldn’t be at an event of this magnitude.”

Telling an authentic African story

Representing Africa’s most populous nation are three contemporary home-grown artists: Peju Alatise, Victor Ehikhamenor and Qudus Onikeku, who are exhibiting works curated by Sonariwo and Emmanuel Iduma.

“The Venice Biennale is like the Olympics of the Arts. It is the highest level of exhibiting an artist could be honored with,” says visual artist Alatise.

“It is an honorable thing (to represent the country), it is exciting, it is scary.”

In addition to showcasing their work, Alatise says the Biennale gives the artists a chance to tell an authentic African story.

“It is a different narrative when you have someone who has been living outside of Africa as opposed to someone creating content within Africa with the challenges of Africa,” she continues.

Inside the Nigeria Pavilion

The artists shed light on Nigerian life in the 21st century. Describing the pavilion, Sonariwo depicts a journey from the past to the future, beginning with mixed media artist Ehikhamenor.

His installation – “A Biography of the Forgotten” – features hundreds of Benin bronze heads which hang overhead with mirrors placed against a large canvas, to symbolize the colonial era when mirrors were exchanged for humans.

“I am looking at history, the past and those that came before us,” explains Ehikhamenor. “A lot of our ancestors were mislabeled. Their works were considered primitive… I am revisiting that history to dust it and take a second look.”

This is followed by Qudus, a choreographer whose “Right here right now” exhibit consists of a live performance and a film presentation.

“My work is different because it is performance,” he says. “It’s about the ability to share a moment with a live participating audience who are not only receptive but also active participants.”

“I want to share that ability to stop time and share and inquire in all the possible realms of now.”

Alatise’s “Flying Girls” installation represents the future. The eight life-sized sculptures of girls with wings and birds in mid-flight represent the black girl child.

“I thought I would give a voice to the most vulnerable, which is the young black girl – especially in Nigeria,” she says. “It’s not necessarily focusing on that label, but the vulnerability of the girl child and the fact we do not have the government, cultural knowledge and aspiration to do something to help the girl child.”

‘The future can only get better’

Nigerian-born curator and art critic Okwi Enwezor was the first African to curate the Venice Biennale in 2015, and with the inclusion of a Nigerian pavilion the future of the country’s contemporary art scene looks bright.

“The future can only get better because we have bigger and better platforms now,” says Ehikhamenor. “The things that actually build the art industry are getting better and bigger. Museums are springing up. You have a lot of curators that are coming from the continent. You have art fairs, symposiums and Biennales based in the continent.”

“In five years I can definitely say voices get louder and people are heard more clearly,” adds Alatise. “Thank goodness for technology. Technology gives us that avenue. It’s a tool that if the African artist can use effectively, they will reach every part of the world.”

The Nigerian Pavilion opens to the public on May 13, 2017 and closes on November 26, 2017