Venice Biennale is an arts organization in Venice, Italy that organizes a prestigious bi-annual contemporary art exhibition. Art collectors and dealers flock to the event and it helps artists get discovered and make sales. This year is a landmark year for Nigeria, with a special pavilion for Nigerian artists included. This is the first time in the exhibition’s history that Nigeria has had a pavilion, though other African countries like Kenya and South Africa have been featured before.
Three Nigerian artists—Peju Alatise, Victor Ehikhamenor, and Qudus Onikeku—are representing their country this year. Alatise describes being part of the exhibition as a great honor and a chance to tell “an authentic African story.” The Nigerian pavilion has a theme titled “How About Now?” and exhibit curator Adenrele Sonariwo says that, taken as a whole, it’s a journey through Nigerian history, from past to present to the future. Ehikhamenor’s installation shows an aspect of the colonial era in Nigeria. Qudus offers a look at the present through a live performance and film. Alatise’s installation is a look towards the future.
Peju Alatise has begun to be recognized on the global stage in the last few years. She was selected to be a 2016 fellow at the Smithsonian Institute of African Art and her work has sold well at British auction house Bonhams. Alatise’s installation at Venice Biennale is titled “Flying Girls” and consists of life-sized sculptures of girls with wings. “I thought I would give a voice to the most vulnerable, which is the young black girl—especially in Nigeria,” Alatise says. The installation is “based on the story of a ten-year old girl who worked as a housemaid in Lagos while dreaming of a realm where she was free.” The sculptures are able to point out injustices of the present while painting a hopeful future.
Victor Ehikhamenor is a mixed media artist who relies heavily on traditional sculpture techniques. His exhibit is called “A Biography of the Forgotten” and features hundreds of Benin bronze heads with mirrors. It’s a way of paying homage to those who came before. Ehikhamenor explains, “A lot of our ancestors were mislabeled…I am revisiting that history to dust it and take a second look.” Qudus Onikeku is a performance artist and choreographer whose work includes dance and acrobatics. His exhibit is called “Right here right now.” Of his exhibit, Onikeku says, “I want to share that ability to stop time and share and inquire in all the possible realms of now.”
For what The Guardian calls the “art world’s biggest global stage,” Nigeria’s inclusion this year is important. It speaks to the thriving art scene in Nigeria and suggests a promising future for a global recognition of Nigerian talent. This year’s exhibition began on May 13 and will continue through November 26.