Peju Alatise, “Flying Girls” (2016), dimensions variable (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

VENICE — “Now.” Qudus Onikeku pressed his fingers together, snap. “It’s passed,” he observed. “Now.” Snap. “It’s passed. Now.” Onikeku, a dancer and choreographer, was sitting on the steps inside the Nigerian pavilion — the country’s first at the Venice Biennale — located along the Grand Canal at the San Stae Vaparetto stop. By way of introduction to his work and the motivation for its inclusion in the pavilion’s exhibition — whose very title asks the question How About Now?  Onikeku was giving me his take on the slippery notion of the ‘now,’ a state of being that he describes as condensing past narratives and future possibilities.

“I’m not interested in the present, I’m interested in the now,” said Onikeku. “The present is concerned with the past, but the now is so powerful that it doesn’t have time to think about the past, it’s grabbing at the future. That’s when dance becomes so interesting, it’s constantly inventing the now.” Onikeku’s work for the Venice Biennale, “Right Here, Right Now,” is a trilogy of videos that feature three distinct dance performances that bring together elements of modern and African dance, contemporary choreography, and aspects of age-old Yoruba spirituality and philosophy.

For a country mired in a history of colonialism, the concept of ‘now’ is particularly essential. How About Now?, co-curated by Adenrele Sonariwo and Emmanuel Iduma, features three installations by Victor Ehikhamenor, Peju Alatise, and Qudus Onikeku that all deal, in some form, with the notion of time and the impulse to shape a cultural and national identity outside of the colonialist narrative that the country has long been forced into.

Victor Ehikhamenor, “A Biography of the Forgotten” (2017), dimensions variable (detail) (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Visitors to the pavilion enter through Ehikhamenor’s “Biography of the Forgotten,” an immersive work that takes the form of a shrine of sorts, imagery that was deeply influential to the artist as a boy. The work is composed of vibrant, painted canvases covered in drawings that are reminiscent at once of Keith Haring’s animated lines and fragmented forms of tribal figures and symbols — gestures that suggest figuration but remain on the edge of abstraction. Draped from the ceiling and walls, the canvases are covered with mirrors and tiny bronze sculptures, symbols of exchange from the colonial empire — mirrors were commodities traded by white men for human slaves and African art, and bronze sculptures were plundered by white men. Ehikhamenor selected these symbols to reclaim, rewrite, and re-establish Nigerian history.

Victor Ehikhamenor, “A Biography of the Forgotten” (2017), dimensions variable (detail) (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

To create the work, Ehikhamenor sourced hundreds of bronze heads from Igun Street in Benin City, a World Heritage Site that historically produced the famous bronze sculptures. While they were created by artists who were reduced to anonymity, Ehikhamenor here seeks to reverse the narrative of the craftsman, naming the artisans who created each bronze. “When I went back to where I’m from and engaged people to cast bronze, it’s not because I can’t, it’s because it’s how it’s always been done and they have to be named,” explained Ehikhamenor “This is an urgent task for contemporary African artists to correct and to say thank you to those who came before us. I don’t think there is a bigger stage to energize the narrative of the forgotten and anonymous. The classics have been celebrated, but history has tried to pigeonhole primitive art and artists, and subject them to irrelevance.”

For all three artists participating in the pavilion, there is urgency to their work, an impulse towards addressing the wrongs that have been done to the Nigerian people, and which are still being done to, and in some cases by, the Nigerian people and government. They elicit a desperate need to create a narrative that does not just move past colonialism, but which reaches back and precedes it, re-writing the narrative that has been stripped from the country and its people. “Because we have been deprived of language — language was just given to us — our sense of being was taken away. It’s a kind of emergency,” said Ehikhamenor.

In an interview in the catalogue Onikeku says, “As a colonized people, we have lost track of many things. What’s the role of my lineage in the story of Nigeria? If you stay with that narrative, how do you trace back all the way to a space where you can re-write pre-colonial memory?”

For Onikeku, the body remains the one thing untouched by colonialism. As he sees it, the mind was “dented” by education, and the soul by the imposed religion, but the body remained untouched, because even when submitted to pain the body gets stronger. Onikeku’s work tries to address this through choreographies that free the body from history, and which use dance to evoke a visceral response, to trigger memories for audience members. “As a dancer,” he explains, this is what I’m trying to engage…It becomes an important way to heal from that disastrous past.”

YouTube video

The last installation that visitors encounter in the pavilion is Peju Alatise’s “Flying Girls,” a poetic and deeply moving sculptural and sound work that responds to the crisis of young Nigerian girls being rented out by their families to wealthier families for years at a time for domestic help. The work features a haunting installation of young, winged girls, standing beneath a swirling mass of birds, with scattered piles of leaves at their feet. Cast all in black and set on a white stage with an open window through which the birds fly in, the work is at once magical and tragic. As visitors walk around the installation, the sing-song voice of children chanting plays in the background, transporting visitors far away from the chaos of the crowds just outside.

Alatise describes young girls in Nigeria, a population that has become a focal point of much of her work, as disposable in their country, where they are not protected from being kidnapped and sold as sex slaves, and where laws have not been changed to prevent them from being forced into marriage at a young age. The work is one of several that she is creating based on scenes from her novel Flying Girls, which follows Sim, a young girl who is rented out to a family for five years to clean, cook, and care for the children, who are not much younger than she is. Each night, Sim flies to a fantastical alternate universe, where she can chase shadows, rest on the moon, and fly through the sky with her friend — where she can be a child.

Peju Alatise, “Flying Girls” (2016), dimensions variable (image courtesy the Nigeria Pavilion and the artist)

Surrounded by leaves and birds that appear as if in movement, the girls, though firmly planted on the ground, nonetheless appear as if about to take flight. Like the character of Sim herself, through “Flying Girls” we are transported to a world of possibility, where history can be reclaimed, where young girls get second chances.

Transporting us across centuries, each artist addresses a different facet of Nigerian history, seeking to situate themselves in the present, in a ‘now’ that captures and corrects history, and which looks to use artistic expression to guide the future — a future of volition, where identity is shaped rather than forced.

How About Now? continues in the Nigeria Pavilion at the 2017 Venice Biennale (Giardini and San Polo 2559/A, Fondamenta dei Frari, Venice, Italy) through November 26.

Abby Margulies

Abby Margulies is a freelance writer living in the Bay Area, and the senior arts editor for Guernica.