Art
Image courtesy of Tyburn Gallery.

Victor Ehikhamenor's Latest Work Explores Controversy Through the Lens of Bini Spirituality

The Nigerian artist's latest is a direct response to last year's Venice Biennale in which sacred Yoruba art was stolen.

In May last year, Victor Ehikhamenor was at the center of a controversy with Damien Hirst, who he accused of reproducing the recognisably Yoruba headcast at the Venice Biennale in Italy. Referred to as the “Head of Ife," the naturalist work of brass is made from a lost wax technique dating back to the 14-15th century. It was discovered in Nigeria in 1938 on a building site in Ife, historically the heartland of Yoruba Kingdom as far back as 11th century.

“The British are back for more from 1897 to 2017. The Ooni of Ife must hear this," began Ehikhamenor in his Instagram post, which exposed Hirst's skimpily credited borrowing from the artefact which the British artist re-titled as “Golden Heads (Female)" at his own show at the biennale called “Treasure From The Wreck of the Unbelievable." The controversy overcast a notable achievement for contemporary Nigerian art; the opening of the country's first pavillion at what is considered the Olympics of the art world.


Ehikhamenor was one of three artists who represented Nigeria at the annual event in Italy, along with Qudus Onikeku and Peju Alatise. His own installation, “A Biography of the Forgotten," was the subject of a separate dispute, this time with the owners of space set aside for the Nigerian pavillion who said they had researched the images in his work and consider some to be associated with rituals that are not appropriate to the Christian religion.

Image courtesy of Tyburn Gallery.

“What they didn't know is that the Prayer Room was more religious than what I've done," he tells me at the opening of his exhibition at Tyburn Gallery titled “In The Kingdom of this World." In March, the gallery will present a solo project at the 12th edition of Art Dubai by Ehikhamenor, who is also one of the resident artists at the annual fair. The title of the show is in tribute to Ojiso which in Bini translates to “King of the Sky" and refers the the creation story of the first ruler of the Benin Kingdom in what today is southern Nigeria.

How did he feel when he received the email from the Nigeria team relaying the problem?

“It came as a surprise and initially I was quite angry, then I realized that there's nothing that can be done, you just have to make your statement and stand your ground. I wasn't going to change my work for them."

Image courtesy of Tyburn Gallery.

Had the allocated space been the only one available at the biennale, he may not have shown his work at all. “So imagine what is not being said that make African art or work from Africa not to get to certain places. This will detect where the works go, how much can this work go for and all of that," he explains.

With its focus on the origins of the Bini people and the intersection of their religious beliefs with the Christianity brought in by the Portuguese in the 16th century, are the works he's made for “In The Kingdom Of This World" a direct reaction to the near debacle at the biennale?

“It's a direct reaction. Something has to be a catalyst at every artistic point in life," Ehikhamenor says. “I'm just wondering if it was an American that brought those works that has bronze in them, would they call it fetish? So it goes back to the skin tone, your continental bondage and luggage that we have to carry. And at what point do we have to look beyond people and look at works for what they are?"

Image courtesy of Tyburn Gallery.

The three wall installations in the exhibition are the largest at 262 x 177 x 10 cm and stretch from the ceiling down and close to the floor: “I Am Ojiso, The King From Heaven," “My Last Dance As King Before Sir Harry Rawson's Army Arrived" and “I Am The Queen Idia, The Angle Of Kings." The first two are images of Ojiso, who is believed to be the founder of Benin Kingdom, and Oba Ovonramwen who reigned before the British conquest of 1897. They were made using chaplet rosaries which the artist fashioned from gold, white, bronze and coral beads, which are sewn onto perforated black lace fabric, itself mounted on a sturdy canvas.

The ornate assembly does convey the majesty accorded to both founder and later king, especially because coral beads are of utmost importance as indicators of wealth or high office—the equivalent to the insignia of knighthood. Syncretism is no more than a necessary compromise of an often indigenous and imposed religion, a practice which historically has been not just a common feature, but required for the propagation of the Christian faith. Ehikamenor's approach is a simple and clever way to depict this fusion which has evolved over the centuries.

Image courtesy of Tyburn Gallery.

The second set of works are designed perforation on paper, nine of which were on display at Tyburn, each depicting different figures with explanatory titles as such: “I'm Am Ohen, Custodian of Memories," “I Am Odibo, I Followed My King To The Grave" and “We Are Uzama-nihion, The Seven Kingmakers." The holes which give the works simplicity and elegance of shape and character are in fact detailed drawings the artist made on the reverse side with ink pens.

At first, clueless framers he went to would make the inked drawings the face of the works, until he corrected them. Why are the less striking surfaces more important?

“I like the purity of it, I like the way it breathes, the way it gives you a certain calmness," he says. “It has that celestial nature to it which I find interesting."

Image courtesy of Tyburn Gallery.

The plain surfaces which must have seemed uninteresting to the framers as to be the actual work to be displayed are in fact an exercise in spatial dimensions which Ehikhamenor has undertaken, similar to ideas of art that speaks to the present “space age" in Lucio Fontana's “La Fine Di Dio" (1964) which in his native Italian translates to “The End of God." Fontana's stated belief was that “making a hole was a radical gesture that broke the space of a picture"—as did slicing a canvas, all of which is true of Ehikamenor's paper perforations.

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This Afro-Feminist Marching Band Is Challenging Negative Stereotypes of Black Women In Paris

30 Nuances de Noires is fighting the erasure of black women in public spaces one march at a time.

If you stroll through the streets of Paris and its suburbs and stumble across a parade of black women wearing shiny outfits, singing and dancing, consider yourself lucky: you've just come across the Afro-feminist marching band '30 Nuances de Noires' (30 Shades of Black).

The band was created by dancer and choreographer Sandra Rose Fanchine. Tired of the erasure of black women in the public space and of the negative stereotypes associated with them, Fanchine has brought women (and a few men) together in this project. Professional and amateur singers, dancers and musicians, they have all accepted to embark on this journey and use their talents to launch this much-needed conversation in France.

Sandra Rose FanchinePhoto by SEKA photography

The band's musical coordinator, Célia Wa, is a flautist, singer and composer. When Fanchine invited her to take part in the project, she was very enthusiastic to have the opportunity to play alongside other black female musicians and take part in something that portrays black women in a positive light and in a flamboyant way. She was also keen to play alongside other black female musicians and coordinate them, outside, in the public space, where music is accessible to everyone. But it wasn't easy going. "It's hard to find women who play wind instruments" she explains. "But especially black women. So, we decided to incorporate a few black men musicians—men who understand the meaning of the project and support us. They don't try to dominate the space, they wear dresses and headwraps, they really blend into the group."

Célia WaPhoto by SEKA photography

Wa hopes the project will encourage many young girls to become professional musicians by showing them that being a fulfilled woman, having a music career and a family life, is possible.

Awori is the singer of the band Kamiawori, and a singer and dancer in the parade. She accepted Fanchine's invitation to join the band because she realized a brass band made of women—especially black women—was something unique that she wanted to be part of. "Throughout history, women had been forbidden to play wind instruments because blowing into those instruments was assimilated to a sexual act", says Kamiawori. "As a result, nowadays, the majority of people playing these instruments are men, so the fact that Sandra was looking for black women only was really appealing to me".

Earlier this year the band had the chance to travel to French Guiana to do a performance with black Guyanese women. This is the kind of future she wants for the project. "I want us to go to places in France where there aren't many black people, as well as to the former French colonies and the French overseas territories," she says. She hopes the project will start conversations everywhere, and empower black women to talk about their issues in their own words and organize their own emancipation.

AworiPhoto by SEKA photography

***

Read on for our conversation with Sandra Rose Fanchine. This interview has been edited for length and clarity

Can you tell us about yourself and your background?

I'm 51 years old, I was born in Martinique and grew up in Côte d'Ivoire. I'm a hip-hop dancer and choreographer. I first came to France 22 years ago to study graphic design but along the way, I found hip hop and started dancing out of passion. With my background in graphic design, I knew I was going to be a choreographer eventually, I was convinced I could use hip hop beyond its performance aspect, bringing my visual artist's knowledge to it and using it to promote a narrative. So, when the age of maturity came, I became a choreographer. My first work considered the social construction of femininity, and I then created a piece which dealt with the memory of the black body. 30 Nuances de Noires is my third choreographic work.

Where did the idea of "30 Nuances de Noires" come from?

It came from my professional frustration as a black woman. When I was looking for a job after my studies, my graphic design work was very culturally influenced by my life in Martinique and Côte d'Ivoire. I was proud to show the aesthetics and the colors, to me it was beautiful but it wasn't seen as such, it was seen as something unworthy and my work was always devalued.

I also had to face that devaluation in my personal life. I wanted to partner up with a black man, but I could see that black men didn't value me, didn't give me space and in general chose to have solid relationships with white women. I am light-skinned so I used to pass black men's colorist filters, but this privilege stopped as soon as commitment was mentioned. I looked around me and saw a pattern in the way black men treated black women, in the way people in general treated black women, how we were looked down upon. I wanted to create something about that topic.

Photo by SEKA Photography

Why did you choose that name?

I chose that name to criticize the movie 50 shades of Grey, which from a feminist point of view is a sexist and misogynist movie, that glamorizes violence against women. Moreover, black women, in the global conception related to sexuality and sentiments, are continually eroticized in a very specific way: animalization, exotification and fetishization. I chose to reclaim these stigmas, just as Audre Lorde writes about in the chapter of her book Sister Outsider named "the use of eroticism, and the use of anger: the response of women to racism."

How did the people around you react to this project?

At first, I wanted to do a piece about sexuality, love and the neocolonial aspects of interracial unions but I faced a backlash from people in the cultural institutions and people in the hip hop industry. Whenever I talked about my project I was completely shut down and called a racist.

After all that rejection and denigration, I went back to university and studied gender studies for two years, and around the same time I became an Afro-feminist activist. In the meantime, the project evolved. I used to work at festivals where there were many brass brands and I already wanted to create a marching band with hip hop dancers so I just mixed the two ideas: highlighting black women's issues and creating a marching band.

After equipping myself with the relevant intellectual tools, surrounding myself with other black women and realizing we were all going through the same things, I was capable of demonstrating the systemic nature of what I was talking about and the barriers fell. I was finally in the right place at the right time. I found the artists very easily, the first musicians I met brought other musicians, the first dancers brought other dancers, it all happened very organically.

Photo by SEKA Photography

What type of women were you looking for?

I was looking for women who were strong enough to embody and address those issues unapologetically. They had to be capable of dancing on the streets with an attitude that says "I am standing up straight, I am black, I am glowing, I am shining and you will look at me and ask yourself how you really see me because I am not all those stereotypes you believe I am." Naturally, it first attracted feminists, women who were already aware of those issues. The women who later joined us and weren't aware of those issues are now more conscious and politicized.

What are the musical and aesthetic inspirations behind the project?

I really wanted visuals inspired by the aesthetics of the 70s and 80s because the dances present in the parade—locking and waacking—emerged at that time. For the musical aspect, I looked for songs that talked about black women and their issues: sorority, colorism, equality and resilience.

Photo by SEKA Photography

How do you see the project evolving in the future?

I want to do a world tour, I want us to dance with Beyoncé and Solange, I want to take this message of empowerment everywhere there are black women who need to exist, shine, go outside and assert their presence in the public space. Because of harassment, sexism and prejudice, it's still pretty complicated for women to simply exist. I consider myself lucky because I can see that the band does what I wanted it to do: it really empowers black women and seeing that happening gives me a lot of strength to take it further.

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Seyi Shay. Image provided by the artist.

Seyi Shay's 'Electric Package' EP Is All About Love & Positive Vibes

We talk to Seyi Shay about her new EP, an intimate mix of different afrobeats blends topped off by Gqom.

Talented Nigerian singer and songwriter Seyi Shay recently dropped her brand new music project, the Electric Package EP Vol. 1.

It's her first project in three years, since the release of her debut album, Seyi or Shay, in 2015. The EP, an intimate mix of different blends of afrobeats, contains six tracks, topped off at the end by the Gqom brand of South African house music.

The project features artists from different corners of Africa, including rising singer King Promise from Ghana, Afropop songstress Vanessa Mdee from Tanzania, and rapper and producer Anatii from South Africa, giving it a pan-African outlook.

However, she didn't forget her fellow Nigerian acts, as seasoned highlife singer Flavour, young Afropop superstar Kiss Daniel, and fresh act Slimcase are also on the bill.

Several DJs were also involved in the project, hosting different songs in mixtape fashion; DJ Spinall, DJ Consequence, DJ Neptune, and DJ Cuppy from Nigeria, Vision DJ from Ghana, and DJ Tira from South Africa. The songs were produced by Killertunes, DJ Coublon, Krizz Beat, Lush Beat, Anatii, and Chopstix.

We caught up with the singer to discuss Electric Package. Read our conversation below.

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Photo courtesy of Nike.

OkayAfrica & Nike Present: Naija Worldwide

We're linking up with Nike to celebrate Nike's fire Nigeria kits and to send Team Nigeria off to the 2018 World Cup with style.

Partner content from Nike

We've teamed up with Nike to bring the Naija spirit to the world with "Naija Worldwide," an epic bash to celebrate Nike's triumphant Nigeria kits as we send Team Nigeria off to the 2018 World Cup with style!

Join us on Saturday, June 2, from 3:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. at The Well in Brooklyn as we mark the occasion with music by DJ Tunez, DJ Moma and DJ Moniki. The vibe also includes art by Laolu Senbanjo, Nigerian cuisine, and a surprise performance by one of Afrobeats' finest.

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