Curated by Amy L. Powell
Blaffer Art Museum is proud to debut Did You Know We Taught Them How to Dance?, the first solo museum presentation of works by British-Nigerian video artist and filmmaker Zina Saro-Wiwa. Featuring video installations, photographs, and a sound installation produced in the Niger Delta region of southeastern Nigeria from 2013 to 2015, the exhibition uses folklore, masquerade traditions, religious practices, food and Nigerian popular aesthetics to test art’s capacity to transform and to envision new concepts of environment and environmentalism.
Engaging Niger Delta residents both as subjects and collaborators, Zina Saro-Wiwa cultivates strategies of psychic survival and performance, underscoring the complex and expressive ways in which people live in an area historically fraught with the politics of energy, labor and land. Known for decades for corruption and environmental degradation, the Niger Delta is also a verdant place, an abundant food producer as well as provider of crude oil and natural gas to the entire globe. The United States has until recent years been the largest importer of Nigeria’s oil, while Europe and India are now the top destinations. Saro-Wiwa returned to this contested region—the place of her birth—to tell new stories that reimagine and challenge Western concepts of environmentalism and of the Niger Delta.
“Environment for me is not just about oil pollution,” Saro-Wiwa says. “It is vital to consider emotional, social and spiritual ecosystems in order to transcend the status quo.” Insinuating herself in the Niger Delta as a transformative force, Saro-Wiwa ingests and disgorges the stuff of tradition and of psycho-social dynamics to produce new origin narratives, making visible the cultural, spiritual and emotional powers propelling the region.
Fully inscribed within the Niger Delta while addressing the global circulation of energy capital, Saro-Wiwa develops narrative devices that render environmental and emotional ecosystems inseparable. Her video and photographic works in the exhibition deal with charismatic Christian prayer warriors; folktales concerning Kuru, an intelligent yet treacherous tortoise; karikpo (antelope) masquerade figures asserting playful gymnastic parkour-like performances around decommissioned pipelines or areas where pipelines once existed; and the color red, which represents birth in the artist’s native Ogoniland and symbolizes her own rebirth there.
The exhibition’s title conjures dynamic movement and self-reliance. Referring to a private conversation between the artist and her father, the late writer and human rights activist Ken Saro-Wiwa, Did You Know We Taught Them How to Dance? emphasizes one’s own bodily and emotional resources when faced with seemingly insurmountable challenges to self-determination.
For more than twenty years, Saro-Wiwa’s family name has stood for environmentalism and protest due to Ken Saro-Wiwa’s outspoken activism. Recognizing these as contestable terms, the artist locates spirit, emotion and culture at the center of the conversation. Drawing upon social-sculpture practice where other strategies have failed, Saro-Wiwa advances different ways of knowing about the Niger Delta and its global implications while prompting a reconsideration of the parameters of contemporary “Afropolitan” identities—a term coined in 2005 by writer Taiye Selasi to describe the transnational experience of a new generation of globally mobile Africans. “To this conversation Saro-Wiwa adds new insight: first relocating ‘the rural’ from the discourse of NGOs and aid to the ambit of spiritual self-determination; and second relocating the identity development project from ‘the urban’ to the village—what she terms ‘the psycho-spiritual core’ of African life,” Selasi writes in the exhibition catalog.
A sound installation titled Hubris Room incorporates the artist’s own voice describing the forces that threatened the production of this body of work: “This is what happened to me one night. I felt that I had to kill the apprehension inside me and the spiritual dread… and that is the night I killed my ancestors in order to make anything happen at all. I had to go to the center of my idea of Ogoni, my idea of my people, my idea of myself to kill them all and reinvent.”
Additionally, Zina Saro-Wiwa will stage a feast performance called The Mangrove Banquet for Blaffer Art Museum. A love letter to the Niger Delta offering her guests an opportunity to ingest the region’s agricultural bounty, the artist has designed a five-course feast featuring ingredients from the Delta crafted into new entities: garden egg, hibiscus, periwinkle, sorgor leaf, pumpkin leaf, roasted fish, natural honey from Ogoniland and her own locally brewed gin flavored with medicinal tree bark. Amidst an elegant setting designed to heighten the potency of such foods and their effects on the participants’ bodies, The Mangrove Banquet is an experience designed to elicit the triumph of nature, imagination and the feminine over political despair. A magical, animistic and elemental performance, the banquet returns to the Delta its agency and seductive storytelling power.
Courtesy of the artist and Blaffer Art Museum, Houston