At the first ever national pavilion by Nigeria at the Venice Art Biennale opening this week, Victor Ehikhamenor presents a large-scale installation A Biography of the Forgotten under the pavilion’s theme “How About Now?” 

According to Ehikhamenor’s artist statement, “the installation pays homage to the anonymous, undocumented and forgotten forebears of Nigeria art heritage, artists whose works and names are lost to history but paved way for the art of today.” Acknowledging that it is important to encounter the installation at the pavilion, he, however, notes that it is even more important for people to understand the premise of the visuals they will see, its dualistic purpose and the role Europe played in the looting of artistic treasures in Africa. 

What is the premise of this presentation and who are the forgotten forebears and anonymous artists Ehikhamenor brings to the world’s attention? 

“A Biography of the Forgotten could suggest a different context of appreciation or appropriation for a modern artist to whom history has not been kind despite their contributions to modern and contemporary Nigerian art. While for contemporary artists like me who are privy to an actual depth that is beyond what critics have been able to access in documented texts like books and exhibition brochures, the visual references and residual meanings of the neo-natural synthesis present in the installation run deep,” he explains.

As an artist, Ehikhamenor draws inspiration for forms and ideas from the images embedded in his childhood memories and those from regular visits to the places he encountered as a child. Among them were the local shrines, memorial walls, and traditional places of worship in Uwesan village. The traditional artists and artisans, hardly ever referenced with a name, but who designed the village landmarks have an important place in history and in the development of his art. These artists have for many decades created intricate beautiful works that continuously arrest his curiosity.

Victor Ehikhamenor, A Biography of the Forgotten (Installation view), 2017.

Ehikhamenor also holds in high esteem the bronze casters from the historic Igun Street in the heart of the ancient Benin Kingdom where most of the artworks stolen by colonial marauders were created. Though he grew up knowing of this community, his first significant artistic encounter with the guild of casters from Igun was in December 2014. Since then, especially when he comes across early Benin Bronzes in museums around the world, he realizes, even more, the range of their influence. Elements of their trade are woven into the installation to give credence to their role in history. The same Igun Street is today, a heritage site in Benin-City, Edo State and thankfully, some of the bronze casters now sign their works. 

Another group of forerunners who have influenced Ehikhamenor and some other contemporary artists of today as he explained above are the pioneers of Nigeria modern art and members of the Zaria Art Society who formulated the natural synthesis ideology in the 50s. The ideology encourages an artist to go back to his home community, to see and work with what comes naturally to him or her, without being forced. Unaware, Victor had already adapted the neo-natural synthesis ideology. He would from time to time, visit his village, Udomi-Uwesan in Edo State, import some of the visual elements of its traditional art and experience into his work. This has more or less always been a natural impulsive process for him. For this particular approach to stylizing, he acknowledges long-existing artists like Uche Okeke and Obiora Udechukwu who used Uli symbols in their work. 

One would think that with the advancement of technology and easy access to information, writings and documentation on this more recent forerunners would be clear and direct in highlighting their contributions to the development of contemporary art. Rather, there is still a need to point out their impact on contemporary art to the western critic to debunk claims that the techniques used by Nigeria artists today are tied to or influenced by exposure to western art techniques and styles. “These people should know that the discipline, tenacity, skill and sophistication has always been there but because the African continent has been branded primitive and dark, these qualities went unnoticed or rather unacknowledged. This contemplation on the old and the way it influences and inspires new art practices takes into cognizance the fact that Uche Okeke, Demas Nwoko, Bruce Onobrakpeya and their peers already pulled the western wool from the eyes of Nigerian artists.

In the installation, mirrors and bronze statuettes are interwoven into several large canvasses that bear drawings and paintings. The presence of the mirror signifies two things – “the objects the white man exchanged for African art and commodities like human slaves, and a call for self-reflection and introspection”. It is his desire to wake up an aspect of history that seems to be gathering dust in the memories of the colonizers and the colonized, and there is no better time than now. 

Victor Ehikhamenor, A Biography of the Forgotten (close shot), 2017.

As if by some divine programming, a few days to the biennale’s opening, Ehikhamenor stumbled on a piece in British artist Damien Hirst’s exhibition titled ‘Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable’ which opened last month in Venice. The exhibition features a variety of sculptures supposedly salvaged from a shipwreck. Among the lot was a piece titled Golden Heads (Female). This piece bear undeniable similarities with a notable Nigeria iconic sculptural object called the ‘Bronze Head from Ife’ or ‘Ife Head’ created in the 14th century. Wondering if colonialism had not damaged enough and contributed to the erasure of Nigeria’s artistic history, he points out the danger the copied head and the incorrect reference poses for the ownership of the sculpture in the near future. 

In his interview with HuffPost on Hirst’s copied Ife Head, which ironically is another reason Ehikhamenor’s exhibition is more than relevant today and important for owning the narrative of our artistic history, he explains he is not “particularly against getting inspiration from iconic works like this” but against weaving “a warp narrative around it and commercializing it”. He adds, “one must also be mindful of the past relationship Nigeria has with Britain in regards to carting away some of our best works during the Benin punitive expedition of 1897.” 

Although his installation is meant to question history, and redirect attention to the forgotten contributors of Nigeria’s artistic heritage, A Biography of the Forgotten is also Ehikhamenor’s gratitude to “the  modernists and classicists who have walked this path before him but do not have their names documented due to reasons including the disparity of written communication, ignorance, and the fact that traditional makers at the time did not expect their works to travel beyond their immediate environment.” The installation is also another reminder that there are people who have created works from which we feed off and that have contributed to the skillful and celebrated arts that we have today. 

Installation images courtesy Victor Ehikhamenor.