Wandering down the Riva S. Biasio I gaze at the superyachts, thronged at the quay, and the African street vendors selling cheap knock-off handbags: poor immigrants trying to make a living contrasted with the absurdly wealthy visiting one of the great gatherings of the globalized art world. This image has become a sort of a cliché, especially during the last edition of the Biennale di Venezia, curated by Okwui Enwezor, with its emphasis on art from the global South and the reading of Marx’s Das Kapital as its centrepiece. The gap between the boats and the causeway where the vendors and I are standing might be a meter, but the spaces in between signify whole worlds.
Before walking towards the old shipyards, I visited the much talked about show of Damien Hirst, called Treasures of the Wreck of the Unbelievable, a sort of Disneylandish trove of an imagined archaeology of shipwrecks. A small scandal sparked over an appropriated bust from the Ile-Ife kingdom after one of the artists invited to show in the first national pavilion of Nigeria, Victor Ehikhamenor, had visited the spectacle a couple of days before, and accused Hirst via social media of profiting from a heritage he had no respect for. One might argue—of course—that appropriation is part of Hirst’s programme, that to him, there is no real difference between using visual heritage from Nigeria, Egypt, Disneyland, or Greece, and that an underlying shared cultural history might be at the core of the exhibition. However, looking again at the superyachts, where a meter is estimated to cost a million dollars, I couldn’t help but to think of Leo Frobenius (1873–1938) and his “discovery” of similar heads from Ile-Ife between 1910 and 1912. His claim that art of this quality and naturalistic beauty was clear proof of a Greek colony having existed there, linking it then to Plato’s Atlantis, which to him seemed more likely the case than to consider the artists from the region. Today we know that the sculptures made from terracotta or copper iron represent a splendid history of the 14th and 15th century’s Yoruba kingdom and that furthermore had been centered in proximity to the ancient site of Ile-Ife. Today this area is home to one of the oldest post-colonial universities on the continent of Africa.
The bitter irony of this story being that Frobenius considered himself (and is still considered by most) as someone who loved the cultures and arts of the African continent. Appropriation, while certainly in world history being one of the motors for cultural development, is also a question of power imbalances, and decolonization is an intellectual battlefield in the histories of ideas. While contemporary art can not claim to be above its intricacies; and although I would defend Hirst’s right to appropriate anything he likes, it still places his “work” directly into the abyss between the African street vendor and the superyacht.
While pondering these unpleasant questions I headed towards the central show of this year’s Biennale, curated by Christine Macel, Viva Arte Viva, to meet up with Nigerian performance artist Jelili Atiku, who was invited to participate, and to discuss appropriation, art, the potential of healing, and the spaces between Venice and Lagos. This years biennale shows a curious turn towards the anthropologization of art histories, so to prepare myself, I re-read Writing Culture, an old book on The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography—edited in 1986 by James Clifford and George E. Marcus—on my train ride from Zurich to Venice. When I meet Jelili Atiku he wears an elegant Nigerian suit with Yoruba patterns and a little hat, perched atop of his greying hair. We sit and I order some water and Italian ham for us.
Damian Christinger: You just came back from the opening of the first Nigerian pavilion to represent your country at the Venice Biennale, I went to visit Damien Hirst’s show-off. How do you see the controversy that has ignited over the last couple of days?
Jelili Atiku: To me it is not so much a question of what Damien Hirst knows about the Ile-Ife kingdom, or how much the small card in the show says about its origins, or even perhaps how he turned something beautiful into a shining object. But rather it is much more about how little we know about it ourselves. Cultural objects hold ontological truths, so to appropriate them without giving them a new context where these truths can be transformed into something which has new meaning, is to strip them of the value they hold. This is as much true of Damien Hirst as it is of our own relationship towards these artifacts. As long as we Nigerians don’t understand the potentials of our traditions, we can’t transform and recontextualize them in a positive way.
DC: As one of your long term performative projects you’re campaigning for the presidency in Nigeria. Not an easy job to actually have, I imagine. Why are you doing this to yourself?
JA: To participate in such a process means to strengthen the ideas and ideals of democracy, which still hasn’t fully arrived in our country. To run for president means to engage in a discussion about who we are and who we want to be. Nigeria is still a deeply divided country, and it is not enough to point towards the problems stemming from our colonial roots; we need to re-examine ourselves.
DC: Nigeria is participating for the first time with a national pavilion. Taking into consideration what you just said: Is there such a thing as a Nigerian identity?
JA: Yes and no. There is a sense of who we could be, leaving the extremists views aside, and that there are a lot of different cultures. As far as I know Switzerland has four languages and considers itself a nation of the will. Nigeria has over 250 spoken languages. I would argue that we first would have to come to terms with our individual cultures existing inside Nigeria’s borders and then have an honest discussion about who we are, where we are different, and how we would like to learn from each other. Therein lies the potential for an identity of the 21st century. Art offers the possibility of exploration and negotiation. This is another reason why I chose to run for the presidency as a performative act.
DC: What are your performances based on?
JA: They are always based on the interaction with the community and they always draw from my roots. These roots are manifold and rhizomatic though. There is a foundation in my Yoruba culture and in the global traditions of performative arts. I try to blend ritualistic aspects with a contemporary visual approach. I always do drawings before a performance, so as to get an idea for the visual aspects beforehand. But the most important aspect is definitively to connect with my surroundings and the community present.
DC: While walking here I noticed the street vendors again, which by now have become part of the topography of most south European cities. All over Europe, and also in the US now with Trump, there is a very strong backlash against immigrants. And yet here they are, now a part of our post-migrant community. Will your performance address this?
JA: Indirectly. But first let me point out something that isn’t discussed enough from an African perspective: The foundation of the wealth of the West, and especially that of the US, was built on the backs of forced labor from Africa. Slavery is a form of extreme forced migration, the ramifications of which can still be felt all over the world. Globalization means something different here and in Nigeria. To us it means a leveling of the playing field, coming to terms with seeing eye to eye. It seems naïve to me that you accept the free flow of capital, goods, and production from all over the globe and then expect the people to just stay put and not wanting to participate. The performance here will not address this directly, but is based on the flow of materials, ideas, and forms that are characteristic of an international gathering of the arts. Voters in Europe and the US are so focused on the issues of immigration now that they tend to forget that the real dangers to their lifestyles will come from climate change. These changes will set in motion new forms of forced migration like the world has never seen before. There seems to be a lack of will by the nations to address these issues, so they need to be tackled by a global community. What I intend to do, in a nutshell, is to perform one ritual, a procession, that proposes an artistic approach towards these issues: The key to survival will lay in female hands.
DC: Artistic knowledge to tackle climate change?
JA: We are in dire need of alternative knowledge of any kind. Be it remembering indigenous knowledge and applying it to the globe, or producing new knowledge by poetic means. It seems that the traditional ways of Western thinking, which brought us to this mess, aren’t able to deal with it. “Learning from the Global South,” as proposed by this year’s documenta, might just be an artistic starting point, but this is actually related to where I am and who I am, and also where I can make a contribution. To apply these ideas to a wider context is up to the communities.
DC: There seems to be a strong yearning within the spheres of Western culture for non-dual forms of existence within the arts, this year’s Biennale seems to have a strong tendency toward the anthropologization of art histories, toward experiencing a more holistic approach to our existence with the means of art production and perception. How do you see this?
JA: This is a process which might be strongly connected to the crisis of Western thought, as it is evident in the current political situations and a future in jeopardy. Furthermore, this is maybe exactly the nexus to the claim for learning from the global south. We have experience in reconciling traditions by way of new forms of decolonized thinking, a painful process, which we are still in midst of, but in which we had a head start, and born out of necessity. These are exactly the kind of conversations we should have now, and art might be one of the most suited means to do that.
The ritualistic gathering of the art world in Venice every two years has a lot in common with the religious processions that also take place in the golden city, albeit a couple of months later, for example on the 21st of November during the Festa della Madonna della Salute. This procession took root in the 16th century after the end of the plague, to commemorate but also to find a way for collective healing. The art world summit has always had a tendency towards self-assurance (who are we and where do we stand?), and we find this as well in the yearly processions with the added hope that what had befallen the city might not come back (I wouldn’t go so far as to describe the tourists as a plague…). The performance that Jelili Atiku conjured for Viva Arte Viva has a lot to do with both aspects. Mama Say Make I Dey Go, She Dey My Back, gathered 72 woman from all over the globe (who travelled to Venice on their own dime) and of all ages, dressed them in pop-style costumes (which appropriated Jewish ritualistic gowns), and sent them on a two-hour procession onto the canal, on the north side of the Arsenale, and through the old shipyard itself. On the canal the women gathered the brackish water into a carved calabash, thus invoking the Yoruba concept of “Igba Iba” (of collecting the whole world in one bowl of water), purifying it, and incorporating it into the vast amount of artworks on display.
DC: Why women?
JA: Water is what defines Venice as a place. The questions regarding different bodies of water, be it the rising of the sea levels, the lack of water due to the extreme weather conditions in the sub-Sahara, the contamination of it in the rivers of Nigeria, or the way that companies take it out of the ground to sell it back to the people, are all problems that we will be dealing with more and more in the future. The planet as a whole and our human condition are in need of a re-evaluation, a re-calibration. In the Yoruba tradition, from where I can think from, water is associated with the female aspects of the universe. I created this performance to direct attention towards the potency of feminine energy, body rituals, and ontology, so as to serve as a catalyst for our possible utopias. The focus here is to create discourses on re-thinking the essence of women to the wellbeing of humanity, and to activate a shift in consciousness towards the direction and adoption of the values of feminine energy.
DC: Your performances seem to blend the spiritual with the political.
JA: The two are inseparably linked. If I do a performance in Nigeria on the street, people are not quite sure what they are witnessing. But they instinctively understand that there is a link to the traditions they know. By blending my Yoruba roots with art practices from the global contemporary, the visual language, which might be understood globally, I try to engage with the community. When I address the problem of Boko Haram, I also address a spiritual problem. Woman are too often the victims of male aggression, if we want to heal our worlds, we need to harness the female energies, the positive knowledge and spirituality they contain. To me, this is deeply political.
DC: In “Writing Culture”, a book I was reading on my way here, Stephen A. Tyler states, while describing post-modern ethnography: “A post-modern ethnography is a cooperatively evolved text consisting of fragments of discourse intended to evoke in the minds of both reader and writer an emergent fantasy of a possible world of commonsense reality, and thus to provoke an aesthetic integration that will have a therapeutic effect. It is, in a word, poetry—not in its textual form, but in its return to the original context and function of poetry, which by means of its performative break with everyday speech evoked memories of the ethos of the community…” Would it be fair to apply this to your performance here in Venice?
JA: Well, there is a reason I am an artist and not a theorist (laughs hard). But yes, what I think might apply most is the link to different traditions of performative arts. The break away from the “everyday” is what allows us to engage with communities on a poetic level. For example, my blending of Yoruba rituals with the ideas embodied by the Jewish ritual gowns, creates a poetological friction that might prove to be understandable by the diverse public of the Biennale. I would suggest a post-ethnographic approach altogether, and would love for performance art to be the agent that evokes an emergent fantasy. I think if Damien Hirst would have a more poetic approach, instead of a bombastic one, then the Ife head would maybe smile at him.