Aindrea Emelife on Curating the Nigerian Pavilion at the 60th Venice Biennale

ArtReview sent a questionnaire to artists and curators exhibiting in and curating the various national pavilions of the 2024 Venice Biennale, the responses to which will be published daily in the leadup to and during the Venice Biennale, which runs from 20 April – 24 November.

Aindrea Emelife is curating the Nigerian Pavilion; the pavilion is located at the Palazzo Canal, a new venue in Dorsoduro, that has never been used for the Biennale before.

Photo: Enrico Fiorese

ArtReview What do you think of when you think of Venice?

Aindrea Emelife I think of the historical fabric of Venice; transnational trade and geopolitical changes, and a tandem relationship between modernity and industrialisation. But mostly, I think of the late Okwui Enwezor and his All the world’s futures exhibition.

AR What can you tell us about your exhibition plans for Venice?

AE How do you imagine a nation? Can we create a contemporary parable? In an attempt to imagine a Nigeria of the future, or a ‘new’ Nigeria, Nigeria Imaginary presents a multitude of ideas, memories and nostalgias of the country boosted by a deserved criticality to enable dreaming. Many of these artists take moments from history as starting points, sitting within these imagined pasts to consider new configurations of both the past and the present.

Nigeria Imaginary presents the work of the eight artists – Tunji Adeniyi-Jones, Ndidi Dike, Onyeka Igwe, Toyin Ojih Odutola, Abraham Oghobase, Yinka Shonibare CBE RA and Fatimah Tuggar. The works in this exhibition function like points in a manifesto.

As well as this, the exhibition features a curatorial research project – The Nigeria Imaginary Incubator Project, which was launched at Art X Lagos in 2023. The project is dialogical; it thrives in conversation with the community. The Nigeria Imaginary Incubator Project surveys the minds of today and showcases the direction of collective cultural thinking. It puts you amongst the horns and the yells and the church songs and the singing. The words and sentiments of Nigerians became key grounding points in the development of this exhibition. The community walks with you as you experience the exhibition.

Nigeria is a place of potential. Together, the artists reflect the historical condition of the contemporary present and propose alternative realities for the future. On this occasion, Nigeria is retold through politics, memory and desire. It is an understanding of where we are, and what we have become – and it is a preview of what lies ahead.

In some ways, the Nigeria Pavilion acts as the Mbari Club: a centre for cultural activity established by African writers, artists and musicians that was founded in Ibadan, Nigeria (1961) by Ulli Beier, with the involvement of young writers including Wole Soyinka and Chinua Achebe. It was a place and a mission; a laboratory for ideas – an aligning sentiment and function for this exhibition concept. Mbari was a testament to both collective and artistic imaginaries. It is in these sentiments that Mbari and Nigeria Imaginary shake hands. The latter takes on an inherited duty with a new school of artists and reimaginings.

AR Why is the Venice Biennale still important, if at all? And what is the importance of showing there? Is it about visibility, inclusion, acknowledgement?

AE Artists have incredibly important things to say. If we think of art as a learning tool, or a teaching tool, a coming together of artists from across the world has the potential to allow us to learn more about their respective countries, the world and ourselves. The expansion of our view on the world is an urgent matter. Interrogating the distinction between form and meaning is essential.

Who is included matters, is presence, is political. It is incredibly poignant that this year’s Biennale has such a high presence of African participation. 

This is important as if we are to investigate the world, we must do this truly and are doing ourselves a disserve by leaving entire countries – or continents – in darkness. There is so much more than what we have been told. 

AR When you curate exhibitions do you have a specific audience in mind?

AE I think a lot about a youth audience, and I certainly had that in mind with this exhibition. The Nigeria Pavilion will tour back to MOWAA (Museum of West African Art) in Benin City, Nigeria – so I was thinking about the local audience also. Nigeria has one of the youngest populations, with seventy percent of Nigerians under the age of thirty and an average age of seventeen. I have a lot of digital activation planned; from a dynamic website to collaborations with musicians. 

It was important to think about the journey of the exhibition, and also about the relevance or value it will have to those in Nigeria. I hope, to all, their previous beliefs or understandings are challenged. The exhibition is an invitation to dream with us. 

After all, imagination is the most fertile and powerful tool of liberation that we possess.

AR Do you think there is such a thing as national art? Or is all art universal? Is there something that defines your nation’s artistic traditions? And what is misunderstood or forgotten about your nation’s art history?

AE I have always found the idea of a national art quite interesting because I feel we cannot trap an artist solely into nationhood. Art is the emotional memory of the world – and so whilst artists reflect on their nation, they are often reflecting on a wider, global conversation. We are never really strangers. The story of Nigeria is a story of many people, places, conversations and relationships.

Uche Okeke, a seminal artist of Nigerian Modernism, wrote his manifesto ‘National Synthesis’ at the tipping point of Independence, and called for a Nigerian art that championed our local identity but also interacted with a more expansive of advancing Black and African modernity in a global context. ‘Young artists in a new nation, that is what we are! We must grow with the new Nigeria and work to satisfy her traditional love for art or perish with our colonial past. […] The key word is synthesis, and I am often tempted to describe it as natural synthesis, for it should be unconscious not forced.’ [Uche Okeke, ‘Natural Synthesis’, Art Society, Zaria, October 1960]. 

I am interested in nationalism, how it can be agitated and how it relates to universalism.

AR If someone were to visit your nation, what three things would you recommend they see or read in order to understand it better?

AE Chinua Achebe’s novels The Trouble with Nigeria [1983] and Things Fall Apart [1958] are necessary reading to understand the state of things – then, and still now – and also the imagined fictions. Though I am based in Lagos (as well as London), I would recommend visiting another place: Benin City, to understand the enduring rich architectural and artistic legacy – from the guilds to the Benin Moats. I would also recommend that they visit the Osun-Osogbo Sacred Groves.

Lastly, I would recommend something I have been recommending to myself – to explore the nature of Nigeria. Nigeria has had, and still has, a remarkable range of natural beauty – from rainforest to savanna woodland to semi-desert. I have a trip to Gashaka-Gumti – Nigeria’s largest national park – at the top of my list. 

AR Which other curators have influenced or inspired you?

AE I would not be here if it were not for the late Okwui Enwezor. Though I did not get to meet him – his work, his writings and his mission are an enduring source of inspiration. During my education at the Courtauld Institute of Art, I aspired to be a professor, not a curator. Then I stumbled across a catalogue for the exhibition The Short Century: Independence and Liberation Movements in Africa, 1945–1994 and everything changed.

I am inspired by Professor Chika Okeke-Agulu, whose entire career and work has helped place my own research mission, which although expansive, has a definite focus on Nigerian Modernism. Okeke-Agulu’s book Postcolonial Modernism: Art and Decolonization in Twentieth-Century Nigeria [2015] is duly dogeared, underlined and has taken space in many a suitcase. It is on my desk now, here in Venice. 

Perhaps inspired or influenced is not quite the right sentiment but I am endlessly curious about Ulli Beier, the German-born founder of Black Orpheus – the Nigeria-based literary and arts journal that became a powerful catalyst for artistic awakening throughout West Africa – who was a key participant in the genesis of the Mbari Club. Though not without criticism, I am curious about him as I am curious about these early dedicated forces in Nigerian modern art – how to revive these missions, connect these dots and bring lost stories to the fore.

AR What, other than your own work, are you looking forward to seeing while you are in Venice?

AE I am very much looking forward to seeing all the other African pavilions! I am also looking forward to seeing John Akomfrah’s presentation for the British Pavilion, the group presentation at the Benin Pavilion and Kapwani Kiwanga at the Canada Pavilion, as I am very interested in their work. 

I am also very curious about the many Nigerian modernist works featured in Adriano Pedrosa’s main exhibition. 

I am also looking forward to some of the exhibitions; in particular, Rhea Dillon’s presentation at Palazzo Diedo in partnership with The Kitchen, New York, and Josèfa Ntjam’s swell of spaec(i)es in the courtyard of the Accademia.

The 60th Venice Biennale, 20 April – 24 November

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