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.


You Need to Listen to Luvvie Ajayi's New Podcast 'Rants and Randomness'

Listen to the first episode "Real G's Move in Silence Like Wakanda" now.

Honestly, who better to host a podcast, than our favorite Nigerian social critic Luvvie Ajayi?

The blogger and media personality's new podcast Rants and Randomness, is already garnering pretty stellar reactions from listeners—It currently boasts a 5 star customer rating on iTunes. All of this is unsurprising given her knack for humor and sharp wit that we've enjoyed over the years through her popular blog Awesomely Luvvie.

In her very first episode, titled Real G's Move in Silence Like Wakanda, Luvvie rants about Valentine's Day extraness—which is a very real thing, interviews Eunique Jones Gibson, the photographer behind campaigns like "Because of them We can" and "I AM Trayvon Martin," and shares her thoughts on Black Panther—and yes, she was just as blown away as the rest of us.

She gives a full 15 minute review on the podcast, but you can read part of her review via this snippet from her blog:

My heart is full by the fact that this film feels like life-affirming in the way that cannot be taken back and it's long overdue. And the success of Black Panther should mean that more of these stories will be written and produced and distributed on a grand scale. I say SHOULD, because, well. Shit happens and whiteness loves to do dumb shit like ignore logic, all in the name of racism. More of these stories of Blackness, in all its forms, need to be shared to the world and the possibilities are endless. If nothing else Black Panther should show that our stories are profitable, amazing and necessary. We need more of them all the time in all forms. They won't all look like Black Panther, which is good. They need to be different but they need to exist.

So shoutout to Ryan Coogler and the cast who KILLED IT. And allowed us to come together in joy. I'm officially claiming citizenship of Wakanda.

We feel you, girl. Wakanda forever.

Read the full review via her blog. For more, listen and subscribe to Rants and Randomness via iTunes.

Video: OkayAfrica's 'Black Panther' Celebration at the Brooklyn Academy of Music

OkayAfrica partnered with Brooklyn Academy of Music and D'ussé for an advanced screening, followed by an exclusive Q&A with Ryan Coogler and an epic afterparty.

Ahead of Black Panther's epic release last week, OkayAfrica and Okayplayer hosted an advanced screening and Q+A between director Ryan Coogler and CEO Abiola Oke, followed by our #OkayWakanda afterparty at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

It was a jam-packed event filled with beautiful black folks, coming together to celebrate the film of the year. The Wakandan pride was strong and what's even better is that we caught all the action on camera.

We got a chance to speak with our incredibly dressed attendees live from the red carpet and after party about what the film means to them and why they came out to support it.

Check out all the action from the event and after party in the video below.


We Did It: Three Years of #FeesMustFall Finally Bears Fruit

This year's South African budget shows that struggle can make things better.

Yesterday, South African Minister of Finance, Malusi Gigaba, presented the long-awaited 2018 budget speech. While he was heavily criticised for increasing VAT and the fuel levy, which will heavily impact the poor, students celebrated the R57 billion that will finally be set aside to fund their studies in their entirety.

It was 2015 and I was at the Union Buildings in Pretoria, along with thousands of students from all over the country, waiting to be addressed by former President Jacob Zuma about our demands for a 0% increase in fees for the following year. We were capable students, worthy of being at universities but we were also black and lacking the money to access institutions which were fast becoming financially exclusive. While our core demand was eventually met, we knew it wasn't a complete victory—what about the fees for the following year and the year after that? I still remember how days after that epic march, my ears were still ringing with the phantom sounds of struggle songs and the whizzing of rubber bullets. I don't know if South Africa or the world will ever truly know how that fight scarred so many of us.

In the years that followed, we watched as the government (which claimed it had no money to allocate to tertiary education) squander state resources time and time again. We protested relentlessly; fiercely. We were shot at by police, our campuses looked like war-zones and we wondered whether we would attain the degrees upon which our families hopes rested so heavily.

After Jacob Zuma's resignation a few days ago, I wrote about how the ANC would embark on a journey of some serious ass-kissing in the run-up to the general elections in 2019. I warned Fees Must Fall activists that if ever there were a more opportune time to act, that it was most certainly now. R57 billion rand has been allocated for the funding of tertiary education for students whose household incomes are less than or equal to R350 000 per annum. This will assist not only the poor black working class but the black "missing middle" as well. The entire duration of their degrees will be funded with the added promise of supporting students in terms of food, transport and accommodation costs, all key to making this announcement a full victory and not just a partial one.

Now does this magically solve all our problems as black students? Does it do away with the rampant inequality prevalent on all our university campuses? No, it does not. But what it is, is a step in a very hopeful direction. Of course, it remains to be seen whether this R57 billion will actually serve its purpose and not be misappropriated like so many of our state funds in the past. However, our acting President Cyril Ramaphosa, is looking to make a big splash. He's looking to garner not only our support but our lasting support, so it would stand him in good stead if he ensures his government keeps their word. He has seen (or at least read about) the destruction, the chaos, the physical and psychological damage to our young members of society following numerous Fees Must Fall protests and clashes with the police.

I will never forget that day at the Union Buildings when the police started throwing stun grenades at us and unleashing a barrage of bullets. I will never forget how a young male student stumbled towards my friend and I, his face completely drenched in blood. I will never forget how my friend and I ran out of sheer, naked fear, blindly into the busy streets of the Pretoria CBD and eventually hid ourselves behind a nearby bus stop. I was not as active on the frontlines as so many other students were, not in the least, so I can only begin to imagine the kind of trauma they still have to wrestle with till this day.

The #NationalShutDown in Cape Town on Wednesday, October 21 2015. Photo by Imraan Christian

That is why this announcement, as much as it was a string of words on a piece of paper for a lot of people, meant so much more to the rest of us. It's a sigh of relief for many black students. It means a glimmer of hope for so many black families. It's a chance to dream and to do so without inhibition. This is all we've been fighting for and it feels so damn good to allow ourselves, even for just a moment, to bask in the light that seemed so elusive back then.

Our fallen comrade Solomon Mahlangu, the young man we sang about in our struggle songs, once said that his blood would nourish the tree that would bear the fruits of freedom. He told us to continue the fight. And so to all my comrades, amandla!

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