Smile Politely

Do you know Zina Saro-Wiwa?

In her first solo exhibition, artist Zina Saro-Wiwa uses video installation, sound installation, and photography to begin a global conversation with visitors. Zina Saro-Wiwa: Did You Know We Taught Them How to Dance? is the product of a two year examination of the Niger Delta, a region in southeastern Nigeria that is both fertile farmland and ravaged crude oil resource. The exhibition is also the product of a long conversation between Krannert Art Museum curator Amy L. Powell and Saro-Wiwa. In order to find out more about the exhibition and the artist, I interviewed Powell and did some research on the artist.

In a nutshell, Saro-Wiwa is a former BBC journalist and producer who has turned to the arts to explore the culture and history of Africa. A number of her early works are short documentaries on music (Bossa: The New Wave in 2002) and Nigeria (Hello Nigeria! in 2004). Her award-winning documentary film This Is My Africa (2008) about Africa and African culture through the eyes of Africans and Africaphiles aired on HBO in 2010. Several of her later short films exploring alt-Nollywood (as in, an alternative to the Nigerian film industry, which is called Nollywood) were shown at the Tate Gallery earlier this year. Saro-Wiwa continued to examine the Nollywood industry and its aesthetics in Sharon Stone in Abuja, which became her first curated show and her first video installation piece.

Over time Saro-Wiwa has added aspects of performance art like references to folklore, dance, and religious rituals along with her natural ability to capture humor to her visual lexicon. These additions have allowed her to expand and grow in order to tell a more complex story about the Niger Delta, Africa, and the global impact of oil production in the world.

Co-organized with the Blaffer Art Museum, Zina Saro-Wiwa: Did You Know is a landscape of sound and image. In the exhibition Saro-Wiwa immerses visitors in a discussion about oil production and its long-lasting effects on the environment along with the communities its effects. Visually, she uses traditional African rituals and folklore to retell origin stories for the modern era. There is also a layer of self-exploration as Saro-Wiwa refers back to her father Ken Saro-Wiwa, an environmentalist, poet, and human rights activist who was executed by Nigeria’s military regime in 1995. Zina Saro-Wiwa: Did You Know is a multi-layered exploration about energy, land, labor, history, culture, and people both conceptually and visually.

Curious about the exhibition, I interviewed Amy. L. Powell, one of the curators at KAM, to find out more about it (and what else she has planned for us).

Smile Politely: Zina Saro-Wiwa: Did You Know We Taught Them How to Dance? is Saro-Wiwa’s first solo exhibition. What should visitors anticipate when walking into the exhibition space for the first time?

Amy L. Powell: This is an exhibition of video, sound, and photography. Works in all three media are present, but video installation really takes center stage. Zina has been living in the Niger Delta region of southeastern Nigeria off and on since 2013—she was born there and visited regularly while growing up—but her new body of work represents her first substantial return in some time. The Niger Delta is known for oil extraction, corruption, and controversies over land use and labor. Zina wants to tell different origin stories of her home culture in Ogoniland, which is the name for villages where Ogoni people live (her native group); she looks to nature, folklore, religious expression, masquerades, and food. Zina thinks about video almost sculpturally. She has a very careful approach to how moving images should appear and unfold in the gallery space. Part of this is an obsession with analogue monitors, often in combination with projection and flatscreens, so visitors will see and hear video taking many different shapes. Zina also has an incredible sense of humor, which comes across in both her selection of subjects and in her editing techniques, and I think this is very clear in the work as well—colorful, meditative, active.

SP: What drew you to Zina Saro-Wiwa’s work in the first place? For example, how did you hear or learn about her work? Was it from her documentary This Is My Africa (2008) or an article about her work in a group exhibition?

Powell: I met Zina in 2012 in Houston, when her work was part of an exhibition at The Menil Collection called The Progress of Love, organized by Kristina Van Dyke and Bisi Silva. I had heard of or possibly seen excerpts from This Is My Africa, but I didn’t know about Zina’s video work as an artist, which then included her alt-Nollywood films and her commission for The New York Times called Transition. The Menil commissioned her to make Eaten by the Heart, a video installation showing people of African descent in the US making out on screen! It was outrageous and had stunning images and sound while being funny and uncomfortable, all at the same time. I was also drawn to the ways Zina approached the project through a particular problem or question, which at that time had been why one doesn’t see intimacy between Africans on screen. I loved how she dove into the project in such a direct way, interviewing people and putting them on display, so to speak. As we continued corresponding, Zina shared that she would move back to the Niger Delta to make new work. I knew then, in 2013, that this would be an exhibition about energy capital, challenging views in the US about Africa and about perceptions of oil-rich places. And that the new work should be seen in the US.

SP: This exhibition is another of your long term projects that started during your time at the Blaffer Art Museum. Do you have any more collaborative exhibition projects up your sleeve that the community can look forward to?

Powell: After Time / Image, this is the last project I brought with me from Houston. But I’m learning that most of my work is collaborative, in various ways! I’m working with performance artist Autumn Knight (whom I also know from Houston) on her first solo museum presentation, which opens in January (Autumn Knight: In Rehearsal). The exhibition will involve faculty, staff, and students—so in addition to working with the artist I’m enjoying the collaborative aspects of the ways she is integrating our campus into the show. I’m also teaching a graduate seminar this semester with Terri Weissman, faculty in art history, on curatorial methods. Our students will open an exhibition in January on themes of Land Grant, drawing from campus and city collections in conjunction with the university’s sesquicentennial. I really enjoy collaborating with Illinois faculty on exhibitions and public programs, and so some things are taking shape for 2017-2018 that are really exciting. Kristin Romberg, faculty in art history, is organizing an exhibition on themes of revolution (Propositions on Revolution (Slogans for a Future)) in fall 2017, and I’m talking with an artist collective I met through faculty colleagues in Asian American Studies and Gender and Women’s Studies; we’re thinking together about how a project might happen. And I would love for KAM to continue working with The Art Theater Co-Op, as we did last semester for Time / Image.

Continuing in its mission to display diverse and engaging global artists like Saro-Wiwa, Powell and the rest of KAM have brought an interesting exhibition for the Champaign-Urbana Community to explore.

Zina Saro-Wiwa: Did You Know We Taught Them How to Dance? opens on Thursday November 17th with a private opening reception from 5:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. and a public opening reception from 6:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m. KAM Director Kathleen Harlemann will give an opening welcome at the public reception’s start. There is also an exhibition catalogue with essays (including one by Powell) and recipes from Saro-Wiwa available. Upcoming events tied to Zina Saro-Wiwa: Did You Know include an Artist Talk on February 23rd at 5:30 p.m. in the KAM’s Auditorium (a.k.a. Room 62). The exhibition will be on view until March 25, 2017.

Visit the KAM’s website for more information about the exhibition (or see Boswell Hutson’s SPLog post with links to all of the upcoming exhibitions). If you would like to know more about Saro-Wiwa and her work, visit the artist’s website.

Image used with permission from Krannert Art Museum.

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