Demas Nwoko Awarded Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement, and more: This Week in African Art and Culture (March 19 – 25, 2022)

Demas Nwoko Awarded Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement

Nigerian artist and architect Demas Nwoko has been awarded the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement at the 18th International Architecture Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia in Venice, Italy. The Biennale is titled The Laboratory of the Future and takes place at Giardini and Arsenale from May 20-Nov. 26, 2023.

Demas Nwoko

The decision was approved by La Biennale’s board of directors, chaired by Roberto Cicutto, upon recommendation of the curator of the 18th International Architecture Exhibition. 

Exhibition curator Lesley Lokko explained their decision: “One of the central themes of the 18th International Architecture Exhibition is an approach to architecture as an ‘expanded’ field of endeavors, encompassing both the material and immaterial worlds; a space in which ideas are as important as artifacts, particularly in the service of what is yet to come. With all of its emphasis on the future, however, it seems entirely fitting that the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement should be awarded to someone whose material works span the past 70 years, but whose immaterial legacy—approach, ideas, ethos—is still in the process of being evaluated, understood and celebrated.

Demas Nwoko is a Nigerian-born artist, protean designer, architect and master builder who was at the forefront of Nigeria’s Modern Art movement. As an artist, he strives to incorporate modern techniques in architecture and stage design to enunciate African subject matter in most of his works. 

He studied at the Nigerian College of Arts, Science and Technology in Zaria (1957-1961), where he was a prominent founding member of the Zaria Art Society. This influential group of artists, popularly known as the “Zaria Rebels,” promoted “natural synthesis,” a concept of art coined by the artist Uche Okeke, which bridged their Western training by colonial educators with a focus on African themes and narratives. The Zaria Rebels contributed to the postcolonial modernist vanguard in Nigeria in the early 1960s, along with their peers in literature, theater and music.

In 1961, Nwoko received a scholarship to study at the Centre Français du Théâtre in Paris, where he studied theater, architecture and scene design. After university, he returned to Nigeria to lecture at the newly formed School of Drama at the University of Ibadan. Reconnecting with his old colleagues from the Zaria Art Society, Nwoko went on to establish spaces such as the Mbari Writers and Artists Club, developing a new art that blended African and Western modernist aesthetics, forms and processes to reflect the spirit of political independence. 

Nwoko’s first commission took place in 1970 to build the complex for the Dominican Institute in Ibadan, although he already had begun his architectural work at the New Culture Studios in Ibadan in the late 1960s.

He founded the New Culture Studios in Ibadan, which is run today as a training center for the performing arts and a design center. Nwoko also founded (the now defunct) New Culture Magazine in the 1970s, a publication that documented contemporary art and culture.

The awards ceremony and inauguration of the 18th Exhibition will be held on Saturday, May 20, 2023 at Ca’ Giustinian, headquarters of La Biennale di Venezia.

The Republic of Benin Announces First Pavilion Presentation at the 60th Venice Biennale

The Republic of Benin has announced its first national pavilion participation at the 60th Venice Biennale, taking place from April to November next year. 

The president of the Republic of Benin, Patrice Talon, announced that the pavilion will be curated by the founder and director of the Lagos, Nigeria-based African Artists’ Foundation, Nigerian curator Azu Nwagbogu. Nwabogu will be assisted by Yassine Lassissi, artistic director of La Galerie Nationale du Bénin, and architect Franck Houndégla. Playwright José Pliya, the general director of La Galerie Nationale, will commission the pavilion.

The exhibition is in line with Talon’s efforts to have the relics that were looted throughout history from the Kingdom of Benin returned. Talon said, “We are delighted to have Azu Nwagbogu as the curator of the Benin National Pavilion. His unique background, vision and expertise in the field of art curation make him the perfect candidate to showcase Benin’s cultural heritage and contemporary art to the world.”

The number of African nations participating has increased over time. Ghana and Madagascar debuted in 2019, and Cameroon and Namibia debuted at the 59th Venice Biennale last year, with the first NFT art show and The Lone Stone Men of the Desert, respectively.

EWOMAA Appoints Chika Okeke-Agulu and Aindea Emelife as Senior Advisor and Curator

The EMOWAA (Edo Museum of West African Art) Trust has announced the appointment of Professor Chika Okeke-Agulu, Nigerian art historian, professor of African and African diaspora art and director of the program of African Studies at Princeton University and Slade Professor of Fine Arts at Oxford University, as senior advisor, modern and contemporary art. And Nigerian British curator Aindrea Emelife has been appointed the new curator of modern and contemporary art.

“One of the key challenges for museums and heritage institutions in Africa is relevancy to contemporary African society,” said EMOWAA Executive Director Phillip Ihenacho. “We need to build infrastructure and programming to celebrate the rich traditions of the past, but also connect to the present arts scene and invest in the skills and knowledge that enable opportunities for contemporary creatives and heritage professionals.”.

The appointments of Emelife and Okeke-Agulu support EMOWAA’s goal of creating a world-class museum, research and education complex connecting West Africa’s ancient heritage to its thriving contemporary culture.

As EMOWAA’s modern and contemporary art team, Okeke-Agulu and Emelife will focus on advancing the field of academic research in contemporary and modern West African arts, developing the collection strategy for EMOWAA, building the curatorial framework for the creative district EMOWAA is developing in the heart of Benin City and generating new, multi-faceted narratives and interpretations of West African art and history.

Professor Chika Okeke-Agulu is an artist, critic and art historian who specializes in indigenous, modern and contemporary African and African diaspora art history and theory. Professor Okeke-Agulu earned a Master of Fine Arts in painting from the University of Nigeria and a Ph.D. in art history from Emory University. 

He has spent much of his career working at several institutions around the world. He serves as the Robert Schirmer Professor of Art and Archaeology and African American Studies as well as the director of the program in African studies and director, Africa World Initiative at Princeton University. He is also the Slade Professor of Fine Arts at Oxford University for 2022-2023.

Chika Okeke-Agulu said, “A project like EMOWAA is long overdue. It has become imperative that we find a way to study, appreciate and celebrate contemporary and modern art from the African continent, on the African continent. It is exciting to join EMOWAA and play a part advising on how we can develop new institutional infrastructure to support advanced knowledge and appreciation of the role of art and artists in connecting our rich cultural histories to who and where we are today.”

Emelife, prior to joining EMOWAA, studied art history to the post-graduate level at The Courtauld Institute of Art, London. As a curator and art historian, she has led a number of high-profile projects with a focus on modern and contemporary art, dedicating her focus to questions around colonial and decolonial histories in Africa, transnationalism and the politics of representation. Recent exhibitions include Black Venus, a survey of the legacy of the Black woman in visual culture, which opened at Fotografiska New York in 2022 and will tour to MOAD (San Francisco) in early April and Somerset House (London) this July. 

Emelife’s first book, A Brief History of Protest Art, was published by Tate in March 2022, and she is working on her second book with Thames & Hudson, which debuts in 2024. She has contributed essays to several publications, most recently, Revisiting Modern British Art (Lund Humphries, 2022). In 2021, Emelife was appointed to the Mayor of London’s Commission for Diversity in the Public Realm. Emelife is a trustee of New Curators.

 “One of my principal goals as EMOWAA’s newly appointed Curator, Modern and Contemporary is to build on the efforts to tell our stories and the intricate connections and links that exist,” said Aindrea Emelife, “starting with Nigerian Modernism and boldly reaching to the many corners of West African Modern and Contemporary Art history, yet to be developed and yet to discover. I am honored to be part of building the legacy of modern and contemporary African and diaspora art.”

Alioune Diagne Wins Norval Sovereign African Art Prize 2023 by Public Vote

Norval Foundation and The Sovereign Art Foundation (SAF), together with supporters Sotheby’s and the Africa Centre has named Alioune Diagne (born 1985, Senegal), the winner of The Norval Sovereign African Art Prize (NSAAP) 2023 Public Vote and R25,000 (U.S. $1,375) for their work, XALÉ TEY – Enfants d’aujourd’hui (2021).

Alioune Diagne | XALÉ TEY – Enfants d’aujourd’hui | 2021 | courtesy of the artist and The Norval Sovereign African Art Prize

The artwork, which received the largest proportion of the 4,855 votes received from the public both online and at the Norval Foundation, translates into “Kids of Today” in English. In this work, Diagne depicts two children he met in the street in Dakar; posed as if caught by a camera, perhaps to circulate on social media, this image highlights the evolution of customs in Dakar as well as a sense of playfulness and comradery that can be detected between the two figures.

Diagne was nominated for the second edition of this annual prize by Sylvain Sankale and Massamba Mbaye, who form part of a board of 35 independent nominators. On learning of his win, Diagne said, “I am honored to have won the NSAAP’s Public Vote Prize, because for me, the greatest recognition is the one given by the visitors, by those who discover and contemplate my work.”

The Public Vote Winner announcement marks the conclusion of The NSAAP 2023, an annual award that celebrates the practices of leading contemporary artists from Africa and its diaspora. The 2023 edition saw 326 nominees, from which 30 artists were shortlisted by a judging panel of five global art specialists.

On Jan. 25, 2023, Famakan Magassa (born 1997, Mali) was announced as the Grand Prize Winner, taking home R500 000 (U.S. $27,517) and a future solo exhibition at the Norval Foundation. The remaining 29 works were entered into an online charity auction hosted by Sotheby’s and raised $193,900. 

The proceeds have been split equally between the artists and The Norval Foundation Learning Centre, where learners are educated through art to stimulate the development of critical thinking and interpretation skills, which empower them to problem solve and navigate through life. The Finalists Exhibition, featuring all 30 shortlisted artworks, was open to the public at the Norval Foundation from Jan. 26-March 19, 2023.

Mohamedou Ould Slahi Dropped as Curator of the African Books Festival Berlin

Mohamedou Ould Slahi | Photo by Elise Swain via InterKontinental

The German literary organization InterKontinental recently rescinded its invitation to Mauritanian author Mohamedou Ould Slahi Houbeini to curate the 2023 edition of the African Books Festival Berlin. This action resulted from the toxic outrage that broke in Germany upon the announcement of Slahi’s invitation.

After the announcement, Slahi and the festival were attacked by members of the German press who accused Slahi of being an Al Qaeda supporter and voicing antisemitic views. They questioned his qualifications as a writer and vilified his character. The way he has been treated in the press has been described as a clear case of bully by misplaced outrage.

The festival coordinators have insisted that these accusations are baseless and politically motivated. Still, the outrage forced the hands of the organizers eventually to withdraw their invitation to Slahi as curator for the festival, for fear of what might arise during the festival and concerns for safety.

The African Books Festival Berlin was established in 2018. Each year, it appoints a curator who provides the intellectual and artistic direction for the festival, deciding the festival’s themes and drawing up the invitation list. Past editions of the festival have featured the likes of Zimbabwe’s Tsitsi Dangarembga and South Africa’s Lidudumalingani as curators. The festival has hosted African writers from the continent and the world over and fostered timely and enriching debates around books, creating a space for exchange between African and German literary communities.

Slahi was born in Mauritania in 1970.  He was unjustly imprisoned in the U.S. prison camp Guantanamo Bay and wrote a memoir Guantánamo Diary detailing his experience. The memoir was published in 2015 and became an international bestseller. He is also the author of the novel The Actual True Story of Ahmed and Zarga, published in 2021 by Ohio University Press. Slahi’s curatorship was supposed to focus on writing as a space of freedom and transformation.

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