The curve of time

Olu Oguibe

Olu Oguibe has practiced for four decades as an artist and thinker dealing with a wide range of issues. His work has been exhibited in museums and galleries around the world, as well as in biennials and triennials at Venice, Havana, Busan, Johannesburg, and elsewhere. His permanent public works are in many countries. Oguibe has also curated or co-curated significant exhibitions for venues such as the Tate Modern and the Aperto of the Venice Biennale, and has taught in several universities and colleges in Africa, Europe, and the US. His writings on art, literature, and theory are widely published. In 2013 Oguibe was honored with the Connecticut State Governor’s Award for Excellence and Lifetime Achievement. He won the 2017 Arnold Bode Prize for documenta 14.

Ugochukwu-Smooth C. Nzewi

Ugochukwu-Smooth C. Nzewi is an artist, art historian, and curator of African art at the Cleveland Museum of Art. He has curated internationally at major venues, including the Dak’Art Biennale (2014) and the Shanghai Biennale (2016-17). His writing has appeared in important academic journals and art magazines, including African Arts, World Art, Critical Interventions, Nka, and Kunstforum, as well as in edited volumes. He co-edited New Spaces for Negotiating Art (and) Histories in Africa (2015), a book on independent art spaces in Africa. As an artist, Nzewi has exhibited internationally and is represented in public and private collections, including those of the National Museum of African Art, Washington, DC and the Newark Museum, Newark, New Jersey.

An interview with Olu Oguibe by Ugochukwu-Smooth C. Nzewi

Olu Oguibe y Adam Szymczyk
Olu Oguibe and Adam Szymczyk

Olu Oguibe’s career spans nearly 30 years. An artist with a penetrative vision and a scholar of superlative merit, Oguibe has been an important figure in the field of contemporary African art. Since the 1990s, together with colleagues such as Okwui Enwezor, Salah Hassan, and Chika Okeke-Agulu, he has helped shape its outline and reception. Having emerged under the shadow of military dictatorship and the neoliberal structural adjustment in Nigeria in the mid-1980s, Oguibe has retained a life-long commitment to art that speaks boldly and eloquently in times of distress, uncertainty, and social turmoil without compromising, as he puts it, “the pleasure of form and the challenges of craft.” On the heels of winning the Documenta 14 Arnold Bode Prize, Oguibe talked to Ugochukwu-Smooth C. Nzewi about the curve of his artistic career.

U-SN: Germany is a country that evokes great memories for you. Some of your early milestones as an artist was recorded in that country and not in the United Kingdom, where you began your international career, nor in the United States, where you became firmly established as an artist, art historian, curator, theorist, and musician, among the many hats that you wear. Some of your unseen works, mostly prints in the Iwalewahaus collection at the University of Bayreuth, provide rare insight into your artistic practice in the early days. Interestingly, your participation in documenta seems to have revitalized your artistic career after what seems to have been a lull in the last few years.

OO: I went to Germany for the first time in 1989 or 1990 at the invitation of Ulli and Georgina Beier at Iwalewahaus. The Beiers eventually asked me to display some of my work or I might have returned at the invitation of Norbert Aas, who took over temporarily from Ulli Beier; it’s all very vague to me now for some reason. For readers who may not know who these individuals are, the Beiers had helped shape the reception of contemporary art from what some may now refer to as the global south, having founded a number or promoted a number of art movements in Nigeria in the mid-sixties, and then later in Papua New Guinea and Aboriginal Australia. Beier initiated the study of African literature in what was still colonial Nigeria in the mid-fifties, and helped produce and promote the first crop of great postcolonial writers and artists, such as Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Christopher Okigbo, Dennis Brutus, Ibrahim El Salahi, and so on. He also wrote or edited some of the earliest books on African contemporary art and global postcolonial literature, and later founded Iwalewahaus in Bayreuth as a research center for the study of the contemporary cultures of Africa and the so-called Third World. At any rate, as a young scholar I was a bit of an outlier, in that I was openly critical and less reverential toward Beier’s work. Still, in 1987 or ‘88, he hired me as a field research assistant while he was studying and documenting mural traditions in the Igbo country. When I moved to Europe, he invited me to Bayreuth. Also, thanks to his influence and the support of the German state cultural program, a great many artists came through Nsukka as visiting artists while I was studying there. They conducted summer workshops, especially in printmaking, and though I ostensibly did a minor in printmaking, it was in fact during those summer workshops that I learnt anything meaningful in printmaking and made some of my earliest significant prints, including those now in the Iwalewahaus collection. Through those workshops, I also sold my earliest works in Europe while still an art student in Nsukka. Then, in the early and mid-nineties, Dr. Aas, who at some point had been Beier’s assistant at Iwalewahaus, began a private initiative in Bayreuth to further promote the work of artists, specifically from the Nsukka School. He arranged for me to do a number of residencies, small exhibitions, and projects across Bavaria that were very important in my early professional career, including my first permanent outdoor sculpture in Germany. I also made a great many paintings during those trips. The last one might have been to Friedberg, Hessen in 1994 during which period I was preoccupied with two almost exclusively divergent interests; responding to military totalitarianism in Africa on one hand, and investigating totem traditions on the other. In a sense, the later would inform all of my permanent outdoor public sculpture since then, in Japan, Korea, the obelisk for documenta. These were all efforts to apply totemic forms to historical or social investigations or vice versa. So, yes, you could say that Germany has played a far greater role in my career as an artist than possibly any other place, though I never lived there.

Bull circa, 1987. Acrylic on canvas
Bull circa, 1987 Acrylic on canvas

U-SN: At the University of Nigeria Nsukka where you trained in the 1980s, you had a reputation as a bit of an enfant terrible thanks to your political activism as a student leader who had a national presence but also because of your radical approach to art in what was a conservative art setting. Here I am thinking about your two-man exhibition with Greg Odo in 1988 entitled Art on the Street. Some of the works you produced at that time, such as The Present is a Dangerous Place to Live (1987), a watercolor piece that addresses our existential anxiety, were epochal not so much in terms of any formal or aesthetic considerations but in tracking your enduring commitment to art that recognizes its role in time of crisis in the social contract. Today we see an escalation of primitive nationalism in the United States and Europe, in addition to the unending cycle of politically-motivated violence in many of the world’s trouble spots, all of which informs the all-important Monument for Strangers and Refugees, otherwise known as the Documenta Obelisk.

OO: Although it’s been several decades now since I was in the program in Nsukka, the background there was foundational in many respects. For instance, the devotion to research and scholarship in what is essentially a studio program was quite unique, and explains why many of the graduates went on to become artist-scholars of distinction who now practice around the world. It’s safe to argue that a good deal of the profound changes that have taken place in global contemporary art over the past twenty-five years might not have happened but for that very small art program in Nsukka. It prepared me, I think, for the cultural activism that I devoted myself to while in the UK, which would then inspire people like Okwui Enwezor and others to step in and step up a different kind of institutional critique within contemporary art theory and practice, and take it beyond the pioneering work of individuals like Rasheed Araeen in England or Howardena Pindell in the US. At the same time, the broad focus among Nsukka artists on both formal investigation and social advocacy—artists like Obiora Udechukwu, Tayo Adenaike, and El Anatsui— perfectly suited my own political inclinations and interests. Of course, those were very difficult years for me as well. I was suspended from the undergraduate program and eventually expelled from the graduate program also, but over all it was a very good foundation. Interestingly enough, I did my very first public art project in my freshman year there in the form of a pair of concrete architectural screens. Over the years, I’ve returned to the same material for monumental public works, in Nakasato, for instance, and now in Kassel. Concrete is really not a material that lends itself easily to public sculpture without either aging badly under the elements or evoking totalitarian or brutalist art and architecture. Yet, I think I learnt enough in that freshman experience to avoid all that.

U-SN: The image of the raging bull, represented either in a schematic or fuller form, was a recurring motif in your work in the 1980s and early 1990s. I suspect that it encapsulated the political in your work at that time.

OO: The bull is one of quite a few recurring animal motifs in my work, especially the paintings. I return to it again and again. Like several other elements, it draws on Igbo lore and traditions. When I was little, growing up in rural Igbo country, there were errant bulls that would wander up and down the villages trampling farms and food crops in their wake. No one dared touch them or put them down in spite of the great damage they caused, because they were sacred bulls. In the late ‘80s and early ’90s, when I studied totem cultures and began to incorporate totem animals in my work, the rampaging bull reminded me of the wanton destruction that African rulers were wreaking on their societies and people with apparent license, just like sacred bulls.

U-SN: You were equally drawn to graffiti in your early period, the most expansive piece being National Graffiti, the centerpiece of your landmark solo exhibition in 1989, aptly entitled Statements. This exhibition was your last exhibition in Nigeria and marked your passage into exile. National Graffiti mirrors the state of things in Nigeria at that time, a country with so much promise unraveling under the weight of military dictatorship. It is also emblematic of your search for a formal language early on, drawing from your Igbo roots and other African aesthetic traditions. Your language would become more conceptual as you became established in exile.

OO: Graffiti I’d been drawn to from very early on, again, not through the contemporary graffiti that was concurrently going on in New York and other places, of which I was, in fact, almost completely unaware, but through Igbo mural art. It’s almost beyond belief now, but in my time we had really very little exposure to what was happening elsewhere in the world, unless you were one of those middle-class kids who jetted off to England during holidays to go pick apples in Essex and make plenty of pocket money. If you were an indigent country bumpkin like me who couldn’t afford to go anywhere, your only access to global contemporary art was through books and journals, and by the ‘80s those had stopped coming in regularly. So, I wasn’t aware of Basquiat, Haring and others till later. But I found what you might call the strong writerly element in Igbo murals very attractive, and you’d notice that the graffiti in my work occurred alongside other elements drawn from Igbo mural painting.

It was significant because language or text allowed me to break free of the barriers of mere representation, and attempt in my work what Fela Kuti was doing in his music. I met Fela around that same time, at his niece’s in Ikoyi, Lagos, and of course he too was an important influence because he’d done in music exactly what I wanted to do in my art, which was to more effectively bring my purely formal interests together with the social message. So, you could see how a work from almost thirty years ago like National Graffiti prefigured the Kassel obelisk. Recently, I’ve brought up that matter of uniting message and pure form in ways such that one does not reference the other, so for me it’s been a constant preoccupation for several decades. I’d add that that breakthrough in the ‘80s also extended the formal vocabulary of the Nsukka School and, dare I say, brought the work of the group into the present. A number of other young artists around the country soon picked it up.

Untitled, 1987. Woodcut
Untitled, 1987

U-SN: A Song from Exile, the poetry volume you published in 1990 following your exit from Nigeria, details lonely days in the United Kingdom but also established you as a poet. Other volumes which followed subsequently, such as the widely-acclaimed A Gathering Fear (1992), made you an award-winning poet. This was at a time you were simultaneously engaged with your PhD and art making. Was poetry complementary or detracting?

OO: My career as a poet probably deserves a whole different conversation, but, of course, poetry for me was simply another medium. Interestingly enough, I found it far more demanding because I had no formal training in it, yet I wanted—I felt a need—to do it at the level of the greatest poets. I guess that’s something that I bring to everything that I do, which is aspire to do it exceptionally well, which I did. Folks probably don’t know it, but I also did performance poetry in London in the early ‘90s, performing around high schools and festivals. It wasn’t only the written and published poetry. At the time, I didn’t think of any of it as a distraction; it all came naturally, even compulsively. I didn’t even sit to think how one practice fed into another. I just went out and did stuff. However, in time you realize that you can do only so much without wearing yourself thin or wearing yourself out. Writing, curating, making art, conducting scholarly research and engaging full time in political organizing must have taken a toll. It just had to. I also couldn’t make time to properly map out how to survive or make a successful, lasting career of any of those preoccupations. I’d say that’s quite evident now because I never really had the career success with my art that several contemporaries have had, and that’s not because they were better talented, but rather because I hardly thought about it.

Biafra Time Capsule, 2017. Books, archival projects, mixed media
Biafra Time Capsule, 2017
Books, archival projects, mixed media

U-SN: Perhaps we could talk about Biafra Time Capsule, an installation of books and ancillary publications on the Nigeria-Biafra War of 1968-1970, displayed at the National Museum of Contemporary Art, Athens, at documenta’s Athens platform. The tragedy of the Biafran War and its lasting trauma has been a central leitmotif in your work. It is my understanding that you made a push for its installation at that venue. Any particular reason? Can you equally speak about the inspiration for the piece, the process of its making, and the challenges you faced, as well as its reception by the public? Also, I would like you to speak about the impetus for “Biafra’s Children: A Survivors’ Gathering,” a conference from June 30 – July 1, 2017, which you put together to accompany the Athens installation.

OO: I did, in fact, request for the Biafra Time Capsule to be sited within a museum space. This only came up for discussion due to the often extremely challenging conditions the documenta team were working under. Obviously, this was a work that, other than in my specifications and rather minimal layout drawings, did not exist until it was installed. Even I didn’t know the final shape it would take, though I knew exactly what I wanted from it. So, in the absence of elaborate details or images, and because it’s archival and consists mostly of books, some of the team in Athens understood it to be a research piece and felt that a library setting might be the appropriate place for it. I hadn’t thought of it in those terms, though. I envisioned it instead as a memorial, as a recuperation of traces and residues that remind us that once upon a time, not so long ago, there was a country, to use Achebe’s words. To that end, I consciously designed it as architecture, as a commemorative and meditative space that you could only enter or navigate or exit in a particular manner. It wasn’t a piece you could access or experience as research, especially since a great deal of the material is fragile and everything is held in vitrines under glass. Mind you, these items all come from my library, so, they’re quite personal, also, and they weren’t collected as archival or conceptual art. So, I designed it as a memorial space within a space, with its own walls within walls, and I wanted the space to reflect the very critical fact that for almost its entire period of existence, Biafra was a blockaded enclave that you could only enter or exit under guard. I also painted the walls in the colors of the Biafran flag, including the golden sun, so that when you entered the space you symbolically entered Biafra under siege and you not only saw the material in the vitrines, but you also heard the national anthem and listened to the Biafran leader make the case for his people and the Republic. In the end we all agreed that the museum was the right space for it, and that was very effective.

The Biafran child survivors event was conceived separately and long before the Time Capsule. In fact, the Time Capsule was a last minute idea. My initial goal had been to produce and present a documentary film on Biafran child survivors, that is, survivors of the Biafra war who lived through it as children. Being one of those survivors, I’d long dreamt of doing something on the subject but wasn’t quite sure what form it should take; a book, perhaps, or a film. Because documenta 14 coincided with the 50th anniversary of the outbreak of the war, it felt like a great opportunity to finally do something, and I thought of film. Unfortunately, I had only just over a year to produce the rather ambitious and elaborate set of new projects that I proposed for documenta. In fact, because of my teaching commitments, it wasn’t until September 2016 before I could do the site visits. Even then, I couldn’t get permission from University of Connecticut to go to Athens, so when I got back I was sent before a disciplinary hearing for going without permission. With lack of institutional support, threats from the university that I might be fired if I prioritized participating in documenta, and only just months to go before the opening in Athens, it was finally impossible even to fundraise, let alone produce a documentary. That’s how the Time Capsule came about, literally four months before the exhibition. However, I long proposed to bring the child survivors together in a public gathering for the first time, so we could share our individual stories and collectively reflect on the experience. What does it mean to be born into a war or to live the most formative years of your childhood in the midst of a bitter war? What does it mean to have been a child in Biafra? What does it mean to be a child growing up in Syria today, or in Palestine, or in Mosul? What does it mean to be a child refugee, or watch your home destroyed, or be a war orphan? Trauma is the usual catchword, but if you’ve lived that experience, then, you wonder sometimes if that word is even adequate and not too generic. At any rate, that was the idea. Eventually, we had a small but terrific gathering in Athens, with lots of particularly poignant moments. A particularly touching moment for me, and I think, one of the highlights of the event was when Philip Effiong Jr, a college professor in the US whose father, General Philip Effiong was the last leader of Biafra, tried to recall the extreme hardships and indignations that his family, especially his father, endured long after the war because they were ostracized and punished for his father’s service. In the middle of his recollection, Philip broke down, and there wasn’t a single dry eye in that hall. He’d been carrying that and holding it in for over forty years. And that’s what I intended, which was to have people exhale perhaps for the first time in decades, and if need be, mourn their lost childhood, because when you live through war as a child, you live your entire lifetime with war. Nigeria never allowed us to mourn the childhood that it took away from us. With the current crises in Syria and other places driving the refugee problem in Europe, I thought it was appropriate to revisit our own experiences after nearly a half century.

Das Fremdlinge und Flüchtlinge Monument (Monument for strangers and refugees), 2017
Das Fremdlinge und Flüchtlinge Monument (Monument for strangers and refugees), 2017
3 x 3 x 16.3 m

US-N: The award-winning obelisk in Kassel has generated immense admiration. There was a discussion about making it a permanent installation where it currently stands at Königsplatz. It has equally generated controversy, the most intriguing perhaps being that some well-placed individuals in Kassel kicked against making it a public monument. It is strange that a work that addresses the human capacity for compassion and generosity would be challenged in such a manner.

OO: I am more interested in the positive response, how lots of different people, especially Kasselers, have interacted with the work and in many instances, deeply identify with it. There’s already a sense of ownership among the locals, and that’s precisely what you wish for when you make a public work, that people do not consider it an egregious intrusion in their space. Though we had exactly five months from finally deciding to make the obelisk and unveiling it on opening day, a great deal of thought obviously went into it. I wanted to make something that speaks to not only the present, but to the history of Kassel itself, and the site.

Almost all my public works are site-specific, and the obelisk is no exception. To make it specific to the site required that I research not just the layout but also the history of the site and the history of Kassel, and it’s impossible to do so without converging on the matter of refugees and strangers. A very important part of that history is the role that Kassel played in what is often referred to in France as the Refuge, that is, the asylum and protection of thousands of French Huguenots during their exodus after Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes in 1685. In fact, months before Louis revoked the Edict of Nantes in October of that year, Landgraffe Carl I of Hessen-Kassel had already issued his own Kassel Edict, first drafted in April and finally published in August, offering the Huguenots asylum or special protection in his domain. This was well before the better-known Edict of Potsdam and other similar offers of asylum. Following Karl’s generosity, a sizable community of Huguenots found refuge in Kassel and became an important part of the town. Their cathedral is still visible from the Königsplatz. Interestingly enough, as Adam Szymczyk likes to recall, Goethe was denied lodging in an inn on the square when he visited Kassel in 1792 because the proprietor thought he was French. Of course, today, several other refugee communities call Kassel home, not just the Huguenots. So, it was Kassel’s history that led me to the subject of flight and refuge, but also the appropriateness of gratitude.

The text that is now on the obelisk—”I was a stranger and you took me in”—I’d already worked with for many years going back to 2001, when the Australian government refused berth to a Norwegian boat called the Tampa. The boat was carrying several hundred Afghan refugees who’d been rescued on the high seas. The scandal became known as the Tampa Affair. I made a work back then in which I rewrote that scripture passage to reflect the crisis in the Pacific. Regarding flight and refuge, I’ve been making work about that since my student days in Nsukka in the ‘80s, based on my own experiences as a child refugee. So, it isn’t just topical for me. It’s a subject that I’ve repeatedly returned to over the years because it is an enduring subject. It was there when the Pilgrims left for America. It was there when the Irish fled the famine. As long as humans are around on the planet, there’ll always be refugees and strangers. That’s why there’s a universal understanding that we care for strangers because somewhere, at one point or another, each one of us is bound to the stranger. What I found particularly poignant about that quoted passage is that it’s also a parable about gratitude. Not only must we extend hospitality to strangers, as a universal principle that is unconditional, we should also acknowledge hospitality. I consider that both essential and powerful.

Beside its message, I wanted the sculpture to be a meeting point in a square that otherwise has no obvious distinguishing features. The square is perfectly designed in terms of access and, in fact, aesthetically if you’re looking at it from above. But there isn’t a distinguishing spot or feature except, perhaps, the newsstand. If you were to describe to a visitor how to find it, the best you could say is; walk down this or that street, and you’ll eventually arrive at a round plaza. At best you might add that there’s a Starbucks there, or an adjoining shopping mall, but those belong on the edge. They’re not part of the square. So, that could be anywhere. With the sculpture, however, it’s perfect to say to a visitor, when you arrive at this square you’ll find an obelisk there with such and such an inscription in gold letters. There’s no mistaking it now. Now, you could also say to someone; how about we meet near the obelisk? In my thinking that’s a major contribution to its perfection.

Will the sculpture remain after documenta? We certainly hope so. We also hope that it’ll be left on the site for which it was designed. In two separate surveys, the majority of Kasselers have expressed their clear choice, which is that it be left in the square. They believe, as we do, that the obelisk enriches the square.

U-SN: In considering the role of art or that of the artist, you have argued quite recently that art holds no intrinsic duty unto itself or to society. Instead, as you put it, it could serve many purposes. This is a shift from a previous position you once held, articulated in a manifesto you published early on in your career. It would be interesting to hear what prompted this shift in perspective and how that view sits alongside your more recent oeuvre.

OO: The manifesto of sorts that accompanied “Art on the Street,” the outdoor exhibition of paintings that a colleague and I did in 1988, came out of the environment of political and social engagement, especially in Nsukka in the 1980s. I was still actively involved in political organizing, and my foray into cultural activism as a critic writing in newspapers and magazines was also just taking off. The entire group of artists, playwrights, and poets in Nsukka at the time were training their art on the ills of society and in particular on the tragedies of the postcolonial state. So, obviously, coming up within all that helped shape my views regarding what artists must do. Additionally, I had just begun to study Igbo art more deeply. Naturally, I found Achebe’s postulations about the role of the artist in Igbo society rather poignant for what I wanted to do with not just my art, but my life as well. According to Achebe, in the old Igbo society artists lived and moved and had their being in society, and their work was made for their society, to use his exact words. That was a powerful summation of what I understood the artist to be there for. What was the artist’s role, what was the artist’s duty? Why was art relevant? Was it imperative for art to aspire to a greater goal in the community, or was it all right for the artist simply to produce what Achebe called “just another piece of deodorized dog shit”? If you were a young activist, that line of thinking inspired and drove your ideas and your work. Again, mind you, at the time friends and I had planned to motorbike across the West African region to Burkina Faso to get involve in Thomas Sankara’s revolutionary work, just before he was assassinated. So, I basically argued in the text in question that as young artists we had a duty to pledge our endeavors to revolutionary change; to exhibit in the streets and outside galleries, to shun the art market, and to confront the ruling classes and expose their moral bankruptcy. I did hold on to those views for very long.

In time, though, I began to question the very idea of art having a duty or prescribed role or purpose, for the closer I looked at it the clearer it became to me that the idea was not exactly rooted in Igbo aesthetic values any more than it was in European romanticism. The artist in the old Igbo society did not consider or frame art-making as a duty, which is why all forms of art were made and were just as valid. Perhaps some art forms had a certain gravitas because they were used in rituals, but they were no more needed than the delightful murals that decorated both home and public meeting-house, or body painting for that matter. I concluded that the artist’s only duty is to make art, and that artists have no duty to make any particular form or kind of art, as long as they make art. Exercising the creative impulse or making a living should be as important to the artist as making a statement, and artists who feel no desire to make social statements with their art are naturally free not to. Of course, especially in times like we’re in right now, you come across a great deal of grandstanding about what art must or mustn’t do, and about how artists are the conscience of society, and so on. But in reality, artists are nobody’s conscience. Individual artists may take on such roles, but collectively artists have no obligations other than to create.

How does this sit with the social and moral engagement that has been at the center in my work throughout my career? I’d say that’s a personal inclination. I’m drawn to make such work. I’ve also made a vast amount of work, especially paintings, that only delights in the pleasures of form or the challenges of craft. I guess most people haven’t noticed that. I feel drawn to social engagement because that’s who I am. If I were an astronaut and not an artist, I would be just as strongly drawn to social engagement. But society cannot prescribe for artists what they must do.

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