Nigeria Imagin- ary



Tunji Adeniyi-Jones, Ndidi Dike, Onyeka Igwe, Toyin Ojih Odutola, Abraham Oghobase, Precious Okoyomon, Yinka Shonibare CBE RA, and Fatimah Tuggar

Aindrea Emelife

Governor Godwin Obaseki on behalf of the Federal Ministry of Art, Culture and the Creative Economy under the leadership of Honorable Minister Barr. Hannatu Musa Musawa

The Museum of West African Art (MOWAA)

Palazzo Canal. 3121 Dorsoduro, 30123 Venice


The concept of Nigeria Imaginary comes from two points of departure. It explores the role of both great moments in Nigeria’s history—moments of optimism—as well as the Nigeria that lives in all of our minds: a Nigeria that could be and is yet to be. Nigeria Imaginary presents different perspectives and constructed ideas, memories, and nostalgias of the country, including an intergenerational and diasporic lens, to imagine a Nigeria for the future. Works range in many differing mediums, including painting, photography, drawing, installation, sculpture, AR, sound, and film.

Articulated through many fields of reference and artistic disciplines, Nigeria Imaginary is a restless investigation of the past. It looks back at some of Nigeria’s historic moments and artistic creations, explores the present, and defiantly imagines what is yet to come.

The exhibition also features curated common areas featuring historical artefacts, ephemera, and colloquial objects relating to Nigeria’s historical past and contemporary present. Elaborated upon in the cross-sectional themes, it seeks to provide an immersive viewer experience and provide a visual, intellectual scaffolding for the exhibition. In many ways, the exhibition itself evokes the sensibility of the Mbari Clubs of post- independence Nigeria, which sought to be a centre for cross-disciplinary cultural activity. Aligned in the present, the exhibition at once invites us to question similarity of what came before and revel in the optimism of the future unknown as Nigeria’s collective cultural excitement comes to the fore, once again.

The Nigeria Pavilion, curated by Aindrea Emelife, features new site-specific works by eight artists. Herein, the Palazzo Canal serves as a purposeful curatorial device and framework, to encase the ideas which come together as a manifesto, and “bind the pages.” Walls peel, an indistinct sense of ageing rhymes with the overall feeling of potential, and a feeling pervasive in the understanding of Nigeria settles. Aesthetically, it appears to be in-between history, coming undone to reveal the beautiful state of an architectural relic. In expressing a national identity with a theme so focused on a collaged sense of personal histories and imagined ideals, the site allows for varied artistic articulations to come together as one to hold and unify the Nigeria Imaginary.

In some ways, the Nigeria Pavilion acts as an Mbari Club-- a centre for cultural activity established by African writers, artists, and musicians that was founded in Ibadan, Nigeria (1961) by Ulli Beier, with the involvement of a group of young writers including Wole Soyinka and Chinua Achebe. This school of artists – often called The Art Society – sought after a “laboratory for ideas” – a sentiment and mission, too, for the Nigeria Pavilion. Mbari, as a place and a mission, was a testament to both collective and artistic imaginaries. It was a site for the paradoxical entanglements of myths, experiences of colonial modernity, moral education and utopian fantasy. The Art Society had a patriotic rhetoric. They believed art not to be a game but a duty to the nation, a public matter. It is in these sentiments-- where Mbari and the Nigeria Imaginary shake hands – that the latter takes on this duty, with a new school of artists, and re-imaginings.

The school of artists associated with Mbari were interested in how Nigeria sat within a global context. They conjectured if European Modernism looked to traditional African art, for subject matter but also to develop new formal solutions, then the contemporary artists of the time, too, should reference themselves: their history, their tradition.


Uche Okeke, “Natural Synthesis”, Art Society, Zaria, October 1960

Tunji Adeniyi-Jones’ installation directly reflects the architecture, referencing the Venetian ceiling painting tradition and Giovanni Batista Tiepolo. Adeniyi-Jones’ painting – which unravels on the ceiling to execute this reference -- embeds art historical references from Nigeria ranging from the effortless fluidity of Nigerian modernist Ben Enwonwu to traditional Yoruba sculpture. The vibrantly coloured fresco features almost life- size figures immersed in foliage. This greenery becomes a tool to allude to Nigerian literature, which often uses the backdrop of the jungle to evoke a sense of exploration, transition and potential-- three ideas intensely wrapped up in the state of things in Nigeria and tied closely to the spirit of the place. By staging the painting thus, and relating it to both architecture and geography, he boldly imagines an alternative and unfractured Nigerian history and an imagined reality where, perhaps, a Nigerian painter was patronized by the scuolas1* or confraternities of Venice. The Nigerian Modernist period has historically been overlooked despite the artists making work with a global modernist perspective in mind and travelling across Europe; Adeniyi-Jones drops himself in the middle of history and continues along a path less (if ever) taken. Canvasing the references to Venetian ornamentation and floral imagery embedded in the work are panel designs inspired by artist Odoardo Fialetti to align with the Italian sense of the mythological, the ancient, the historical and the spiritual. Adeniyi- Jones draws attention to these long legacies that exist and have flourished in Nigeria’s past before taking them on the alternate contemporary, diasporic tangent.

Through subtle hints, the exhibition draws parallels between the optimism and post-independence spirit of Nigeria in the Sixties. It looks to reason with or examine that self-same spirited nationalism – which then ushered in high-stakes regionalism-- and identify a path of divergence, as the shaping of post-colonial identity and the strides taken to develop ‘Project Nigeria’ started to be implemented at this time. These nods are present in the inclusion of periodicals from the time – Drum Magazine, Nigeria Magazine, Black Orpheus – which held these thoughts and debates, in addition to including artworks by key figures such as Demas Nwoko and Uche Okeke. Aside from their being key parts of the Mbari Clubs (Ibadan, Enugu), their works and writings highlighted the importance of the past and encouraged a ’natural synthesis’ between tradition and a unified global modernism whilst imagining a national artistic identity moving forward. The defining works of these artists importantly reflected the deteriorating political conditions of the nation. Indeed, Nigeria’s post-colonial predicament had wide-ranging effects on art, as the Art Society (of which Okeke and Nwoko were members) began to question the role of art and culture in the independent but increasingly distressed nation.

Entering the exhibition, in the areas – the Salone and Androne – of the Palazzo, visitors will interact with objects of historical or colloquial importance that resonate with the theme, pushing forth the evocation of Nigeria Imaginary. Shrapnel from the iconic Danfo bus, the iconic yellow mode of transportation local to Lagos, serves as a symbol of the industriousness of the Nigerian spirit. Lagos is often considered a microcosm of Nigeria, and so moments spent in the Lagos Danfo can be thought of as akin to Nigerian life: crazy and funny, breath- taking and intriguing, and of course, risky. Also displayed, are important – but lesser known – Nigerian artefacts, such as the Ikenga. The Ikenga is a carved wooden figure from Northern Igboland, symbolizing achievement, and power. Adorned with ram’s horns and intricate patterns, it is a sacred symbol of hard work and mastery. Two-faced Ikenga, such as the one featured in the Pavilion, are one of the oldest variations. Looking simultaneously back and forward, its deep symbolism as a two-faced god reconciles with the Nigeria Imaginary theme. Its association with beginnings signifies the many potentials Nigeria is afforded.

Displayed in plinths are the aforementioned issues of Nigeria Magazine, Drum Magazine, and Black Orpheus which serve as an introduction to the spaces where radical, post-independence thinking was centralized. Within these issues, poets such as Wole Soyinka and Chinua Achebe grappled with the emerging spirit of a new Nigeria and artists conversed on their musings of a new national artistic identity… These issues, writings, and pages introduce and set the stage for the audience; they step into the hope that permeated throughout the nation, and once positioned within that hope, the leaking sounds of Precious Okoyomon’s installation just ahead float in as a ready reminder that a sense of dreaming is birthed from a disquiet present.

Positioned in the courtyard of the Pavilion is a radio tower. Taken over by a fast-growing weed, the structure takes on the image of a forgotten monument that, though abandoned, is full of story. Pertaining to memory history, the work directly relates to a reality of Nigeria where the power of information has been undervalued and where an architectural legacy becomes a patchwork of varying missions; stops and starts, fuelled by optimism and left behind by complicated motives. Precious Okoyomon’s work transports us into a state of dreaming with daunting jolts of hot reality. The radio tower functions twofold. First, as a musical instrument as the bells and electronic synthesizers within the structure register subtle atmospheric changes transforming wind, rain, the presence of birds, or other external phenomena into sound. Secondly, it serves as a radio. The structure broadcasts the voices of the different Nigerian poets, artist and writers responding to lines of inquiry and philosophical question by Okoyomon. Voices are picked out of the air like wind and remixed with composed sound to whisk the audience into a sense of imagining, ushering in the personal viewpoints of these dreamers and setting up a lens of hope; both bitter and sweet. Anyone within range of the tower will also be able to tune into their own radio and listen to whatever sounds it is producing at any moment in real-time. In doing so, the Nigeria Imaginary leaks into the city and effects its mission with unabashed confidence and hope.

Political independence did not quite motivate artists to produce work in praise of the new nation. Rather, they were quick to anticipate and confront the sobering realities of the unravelling politics. In a similar vein, the artists in the Nigeria Pavilion approach and negotiate an optimistic alternative and embrace utopia, but in doing so, naturally lift the veil on reality. Fatimah Tuggar, for example, observes in her practice, and acutely in her work, that many Nigerian arts and crafts are at risk of disappearing as the current generation of artisans retire. And so, by presenting her utopic vision for a future Nigeria in her multimedia artwork, we explore the imaginative and innovative potential of our craft, reason with the colonial pressure which de-prioritises artisanal making, and look to a future of conceptual, cultural hybridity. Tuggar’s work will explore the multiple utilities of the calabash and its related crafts, utilities, and aesthetic values. Each artwork will be made of 4 different complementary elements: Physical Artefacts, Media in the form of sound, still & moving images mediated through Augmented Reality iterations, and Artificial Intelligence generated forms of the calabash2.

Each component creates an alibi for its counterparts, supporting their collective and individual perceived realities. In experiencing the work, you are cast as a collaborator for the temporal, nonlinear experiences. The employment of Artificial Intelligence uses the much-speculated technology to imagine the possible evolution of calabash-based objects in Nigeria had there been no outside influences on the current hegemony. Maybe this would have been achieved through botanical grafting or the ingenuity of craftspeople. We will never know, but we can imagine. Augmented Reality allows the audience to interact with the current, the historical, and the imagined. The designs on the calabashes serve as triggers for devices to access material that transports the viewer to Tuggar’s own mind palace. The piece uses augmented realities to engage human aspirations for different perceptual shifts, such as moving through time into parts of objects or small hidden spaces that the human eye cannot see. In some instances, the reverse will happen; items and space will be in motion, passing or passing through the viewer. With Tuggar’s work, the viewer does not just bear witness to an alternate possibility, but their very personhood becomes intertwined with this imagining. Free from the constraints of time and linear history, a new or future Nigeria is urged and called for by Tuggar.

Toyin Ojih Odutola weaves an intricate, poetic narrative springing from her research of Mbari Houses – as a site and a metaphor. Her moving and slightly mystic series of drawings are catalysed by introspective reflection as she explores the stories told by her recently late grandmother, and muses on the importance of ‘the house’ and gathering as it relates to Mbari’s innate symbolism of coming together. Mbari houses are large, open- sided, and square-shaped, containing several life-size, painted mud sculptures. These sculptures are primarily figures of Anị, alongside other deities. In typical Odutola fashion, the narrative spins into the realm of the ‘imagined’ and the ‘possible’ to create deeply personal work, to situate and emphasize necessary healing as well as voyeurism3 into the personal histories of communities in Nigeria. By aligning with the cultural histories of her Igbo grandmother4, Odutola explores an alternate existence and perception of Nigeria through the eyes of someone born in the colonial era, with differing approaches to spirituality, tradition, and history. Many of that generation self-censored to protect themselves from the pain, but in doing so, enabled and left behind a disrupted history for future generations to patch back together-- to create a Nigeria Imaginary from for themselves. In recreating an imagined story for her grandmother, Odutola negotiates with the idea of accessing a collective cultural history that is already in the process of being lost. History, in Odutola’s pictures, is seen – quite literally – through a paned, murky glass. Looking through the glass, the audience and the artist herself are rendered observers of a blurry, undecipherable history.

This speaks at once, to the diasporic understanding of interacting with a history one cannot access, but also involves the viewer in a purposefully imagined state of interaction with Nigerian history and collective amnesia.

With her two-part presentation, Ndidi Dike shines a light on the ENDSARS5 movement in Nigeria and its intersection with the international movement of Black Lives Matter, both of which handle police brutality through different fields of reference. Hundreds of black batons are placed into the slots of a large, black grid-like structure of imposing scale. The batons symbolize police violence as well as tools of resistance while the formal placement within the gridded armature alludes to the countless Black bodies slotted into the refrigerators of the morgues following police misconduct. Attached to each limb-like, body-like baton is a tag bearing the names of Nigerian and Black-American victims. Functioning in many ways as a memorial of victims of both -- as well as a call to arms for the future and for the reckoning and resistance of racist violence and inequities wrought upon Black bodies in Africa and diaspora—the work pushes back against the flattening of the Black experience. In the second part of the installation, large-format photographs from Dike’s personal archive, showcase sequences, impressions and fragmentary images of scenes from the ENDSARs protests. Predominantly taken by Dike herself, this series identifies the young generation who boldly are taking strides in a muted history of protest in Nigeria.

The thrust of the exhibition looks forward, but in doing so it looks back. A key unifying theme unpicks the shadows, wake, and after-taste of the colonial project. Soon after Nigeria became a parliamentary republic in 1963, it began to experience tremendous stress as the exit of the common enemy fanned the fire of previous tensions. It is interesting, then, to consider how these political crises incited heightened disillusionment and uncertainty about the national project, creating mutual distrust among major ethnic nationalities.

Yinka Shonibare’s work takes us back to the Benin Expedition of 1897: The looting of thousands of valuable spiritual and cultural artefacts from the kingdom of Benin (Nigeria), and one of the greatest thefts of heritage and cultural memory. Situated in the context of debates about restitution, the artwork finds pertinence in exploring and examining the sheer scale of the theft, its legacy, and its impact. In Shonibare’s installation, a small percentage of the stolen artefacts are remade in clay and displayed on a pyramid structure. Positioned within this, is a sculptural bust of Sir Harry Rawson6, painted with Batik style patterns, which has been ‘museumified’, encased in a vitrine much like those that hold the looted Benin artefacts in Western museums. Surrounding him are three key Benin objects that were removed during the Expedition7; here, Shonibare puts sentences to death the colonial ideology of the “Three C’s: Civilisation, Christianity, and Commerce”.

This work shines light on how the European ‘world’ museums became part of the colonial campaign’s artillery. Looted objects entered collections to feed the curios of these ‘far away lands’ but in doing so, reduced sophisticated living civilizations like Nigeria’s Benin Empire, to a sanitised collection of objects, crowded together in dimly lit cabinets. Shonibare imagines an alternative future; the objects are reclaimed, and boldly displayed, not as ancient relics of a long-lost primitive culture, but as examples of sophistication and artistic innovation. They are displayed on a pyramid to illustrate the pre-colonial achievements of African civilizations, and to call attention to the limited narratives the conventional displays of these artworks have reinforced; in exposing the complications of the present, we revel in the artists imaginary.

Shonibare takes this a step further, by remaking the objects from clay – emulating the red sand, in colour and texture, of the native Benin earth. In doing so, the simplistic perspective of the African artist’s relationship to nature as a primitivist reasoning falls apart. The material brings questions of the fragility of memory and heritage to the fore and muddles up the idea of material value that is often associated with African art.

Africans have often relied on what is remembered, not what is written. When things are made in non-permanent materials, an opportunity to revise presents itself. Bronze is a hardened material, memory is not. In articulating in clay, Shonibare opens the opportunity for many alternative imaginaries and potential histories to be applied to these objects.

Where does the hangover of coloniality end? This question is projected onto the three-work series by Onyeka Igwe who explores colonial legacies in both Nigeria and the UK through the ‘sonic shadows’ left behind in two connected archives. These are the old Nigerian Film Unit in Lagos, Nigeria and the old British Empire and Commonwealth Museum in Bristol, UK. These works imagine the content of films made in Nigeria by the British state-run Colonial Film Unit just before independence, that were not possible to view in Nigeria, and reinterpret the films sonically. Igwe, in parts, deftly highlights the monetisation of British or privately owned colonial film and photographic collections. All the films prompt the question: Should these spaces be decanted of their material to end the extraction and expropriation of material wealth?

Indeed, the old Nigerian Film Unit found itself empty, as the 16mm and 35 film cannisters were removed from the site for restoration and preservation. The work also questions, in lieu, what the space could be filled with? The sonic memorial Igwe creates is dedicated to the persistent, pernicious entwinement of Nigeria and Great Britain and the diasporic condition it creates. Reworking a personal archive of sounds collected over the last five years (Jos, Ibadan, Lagos, Badagry, Ndejezie, Arochukwu, Bristol, Cambridge, Oxford and London); taking inspiration from the utopian inaugural address of Nnamdi Azikiwe as well as the history of protest, conflict and rebellion in Nigeria from colonial times to present day independence; and experimenting with the sonic registers of a variety of collective singing practices, Igwe produces a cacophonous chorus of sound that offers a redress from the dominance of Western imaging of Nigeria.

Abraham Oghobase’s installation takes on a shadowy undulation on Igwe’s work, as he seeks to complicate the narrative of objectivity and authority in the written and photographic records from Nigeria’s colonial period. His new body of work is a series of digital collages that combine metallurgical diagrams with silhouettes (of humans, objects, and animals) taken from the 19th and early to mid-20th century archival images from/of Nigeria. The delicate, finely sketched schematic drawings of infrastructure and processes used to extract minerals from Nigeria and across the resource-rich land, belie the violence inherent in the exploitation of land and labour across the continent. Considering how Black bodies have historically (and deliberately) been represented in photography and in turn been perceived, the recomposed images attempt to tell different stories by playfully transforming their significance and purpose and giving agency to ordinarily powerless subjects within the frame, turning the tools of the oppressor into objects to instead elevate and honour the oppressed. These collages will be presented alongside a series of still life photographs of rocks from the mining landscapes of Jos, Plateau State in north-central Nigeria, portraits that serve as a testament to a long history of (often brutal) resource extraction, and a selection of archival images (of colonial landscapes and people). The selection is eroded through a process of repeated photocopying as a gesture of ‘protecting’ the respective subjects of these colonial-era photographs from the inevitable exploitation that continues into the present.

In general, Oghobase’s work considers history, memory, and legacies of colonialism, including resource extraction and its relationships to land, labour, and the body. At once, he meditates on the impact of human activities—mining in particular—on Jos, whilst offering a layered, renewed perspective of Nigeria’s colonial history and reconstructing the narrative of power by questioning and positioning the archive. In conjunction, he blurs and redacts photography, to question order and power as well as explore a possibility for Nigeria to embrace its natural landscape that very much still exists. The installation functions as a visual ‘score’ where the sum of the elements used express the mechanisms of European colonial exploitation whilst also dismantling them.

The exhibition will explore different perspectives and constructed ideas, memories, nostalgia, and utopia for Nigeria, with a reach that transcends generations, disciplines and borders. The artists were selected for their unique visions of Nigeria, with a mixture of artists brought up in Nigeria and within the Diaspora—curated to capture a sense of optimism imbued in inherited and collective cultural history. The inclusion of diaspora is purposely to resist and agitate how we consider nationhood and what the word ‘identity’ means.

As the curator, who also identifies as a diaspora, I have sought to embed the multifaceted ways and many differing relationships one has with a nation --and how that allows them to envision or imagine a future nation within the curatorial scaffolding and framework-- to articulate this Pavilion.

The Nigerian Pavilion hurls the viewer towards an optimistic future carried by the winds of history. It’s an essay on an optimistic past, a disquiet present and an imagining of a Nigeria that could have been all in the throes of the many Nigeria’s that live within us. In looking back and looking into the imaginary, the project becomes a manifesto for the future. After all, imagination is the most fertile and powerful tool of liberation that we possess.

— Aindrea Emelife, Nigeria Imaginary Curator

1. The scuole were lay confraternities that devoted themselves to good works and became very important patrons of Venetian art. In terms of patronage and the composition of their membership they were comparable to the Arti or guilds in Florence, though their aims were more charitable and religious.

2. The calabash starts as a green pod that grows on vines or trees. They come in different varieties and shapes—the most common being single or double conjoined spherical shaped gourds. Once dried, the pod becomes varying shades of yellow to brown with a cream interior. Depending on the shape or cutting and shaping, it can then be used as a storage container, an inkwell, a water bottle, kitchen utensils or even a musical instrument, among other things. Often artisans decorate the outside of the gourd with patterns using carving techniques, pigment colouring, and pyro and pressure engraving processes.

3. Only those who serve the goddess were allowed to enter the Mbari house; no one else was permitted to enter.

4. Toyin is from both the Yoruba and Igbo tribe, though, as tribe identification is a patriarchal system in Nigeria, she would be recognised primarily as Yoruba. Toyin seeks to explore this cultural hybridity and difference in upbringing.

5. ENDSARS is a decentralised social movement, and series of mass protests police brutality in Nigeria beginning in 2020.

6. Rawson was one of the military commanders who lead the punitive expedition of a British force of 1,200 men.

7. To the right of Rawson sits the Benin head of an oba, currently part of The Royal Collection Trust, was famously looted twice from Nigeria. Firstly, in the 1897 expedition loot when it was brought to London by an unknown individual. It reappears in 1957 when it comes onto the London art market and was bought by the colonial government for Nigeria’s planned national museum. It remains in the Nigerian National Museum until 1973 when then president of Nigeria, General Yakubu Gowon, chooses it as a gift to present to Queen Elizabeth II and it returns to Britain ending up in the Royal Collection, where it remains. Above Rawson sits an ivory mask of Idia, the first Queen Mother of the 16th century Benin kingdom. The mask currently resides in the British Museum’s collection but became a cultural emblem of modern Nigeria after it was used as the official emblem for the pan-African cultural festival held in Lagos, FESTAC 77. The organisers requested to borrow the original Benin mask from the British Museum and when refused made their own version. To the left of Rawson stands a cockerel known as “okukur”. The original was taken to Britain in 1897 and was part of George William Neville’s collection. It was gifted to Jesus College, Cambridge in 1905. In 2019, after a campaign by students the decision was made to return it to Nigeria. Making the university the first institution in the world to announce that it would return a Benin bronze.


studied Art History at The Courtauld Institute of Art in London. She is currently Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at MOWAA (Museum of West African Art), Benin City, Nigeria. As a curator and art historian, she has led several high-profile projects with a focus on modern and contemporary art, dedicated to investigating colonial and decolonial histories in Africa, transnationalism, and the politics of representation. Her 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, followed by a tour to MOAD (Museum of African Diaspora in San Francisco, California), and opened at Somerset House in London, England in July 2023. Emelife’s first book, A Brief History of Protest Art, was published by Tate Publishing in March 2022. Emelife is currently working on her second book, to be published by Thames & Hudson in 2024. She has contributed essays to publications including 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.