These Were the Highlights of the 4th Lagos Biennial

Thrust into uncertainty, artists and collectives lead the charge in re-inspiring hope.

Installation view of Miracle Centre by Victor Ehikhamenor during the Lagos Biennial. Image courtesy of the Lagos Biennial.

Last month, the Lagos Biennial assembled the works of over 80 artists for its fourth edition, on a site named in honor of the first Prime Minister of an “independent” Nigeria. Prior to being renamed Tafawa Balewa Square in 1960, the 14.5-hectare plaza had been known as “Lagos Racecourse,” having been “given” to British colonial authorities by the Oba of Lagos in 1859. In less than two centuries, this particular piece of land was transferred through the hands of the Lagos Royal Family, the British Royal Family, the Government of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, and—since Abuja became Nigeria’s capital city—the Lagos State Government. The square is a high-potential and largely underserved space, and the co-artistic directors of this year’s Lagos Biennial, Folakunle Oshun and Kathryn Weir, invited audiences to use the historically charged site to reflect on the idea of the nation-state.

A Curatorial Critique

Given the title and theme of “Refuge,” the 2024 Lagos Biennial was undeniably ambitious, in a way that has prompted a flurry of urgent conversations on the ontology of art biennials in post-colonial African urban centers. Unfortunately, public audiences and engagement during the show’s short run were lower than expected. That fact, coupled with a flurry of tech issues, caused considerations around functionality, utility, and accessibility to rise to the fore.

La Biennale di Venezia, the first art biennale, was founded in 1895, at the height of European imperialism. It is challenging to disassociate its offspring, even in their contemporary and supposedly revolutionary forms, from that origin. So long as art-making practices from Africa and the Global South continue to write themselves into a Eurocentric canon, they will find themselves subjected to the gross power imbalances of Eurocentric hegemonies. The alternative models proposed by the major players in the current restitution wave—of which Nigeria is definitely one—in the coming years are likely to have defining consequences.

A woman walks in front of a circular pavilion made of cinderblocks

Installation view of the Traces of Ecstasy Pavilion. Image courtesy of the Lagos Biennial.

Yet the agility of Lagosians and indeed Nigerians remains unmatched, as demonstrated by this event’s extremely dedicated team. Amid global difficulties that are felt exponentially more keenly in Lagos, the mere completion of the event’s fourth edition deserves applause. Indeed, the caliber of works presented was impressive, albeit with a notable number of comments about the lack of (younger) local and regional artists. If imperialism ruled the 19th through to the first half of the 20th century, and the proceeding period of nationalism is being eroded by multinational tech companies, the ways in which African philosophical, artistic, and cultural production choose to assert themselves at this moment feel increasingly critical.

The philosophies of Ubuntu and universal consciousness are intrinsic to African epistemologies, expressing connection both across space with other humans, the planet, and the cosmos, and across time through the prevalence of ancestral veneration and divination. In African belief systems which understand existence beyond the linearity of time, the importance of process is perhaps already a given for an art event like this. Yet at the same time, the curatorial theme of this Lagos Biennale, “Refuge,” also appeared to semantically echo much of the thinking from documenta 15 (whose theme was collectivity), and the wider global cultural shift that has become popular in non-commercial praxis. And considering the sheer, possibly daunting scale of Tafawa Balewa Square, which requires a certain level of scenography due to its vast open spaces, the curatorial decision to show prototypes rather than final works and to allow for aesthetically ambiguous outputs was bold, if also possibly symptomatic of funding constraints.

A pavilion with a wall made of egg cartons

Em’kal Eyongakpa, Betok babhi, Babhi betandat, bassem (2022-2024). Image courtesy of the Lagos Biennial.

There can be no question about the power and pertinence of the content presented at the fourth Lagos Biennial. Nevertheless, the modes of presentation make for a little bit of head scratching. The jury is still out on how well its theme translated and resonated, within the unique context of Lagos.

Works of Interest

Upon entering the main arena at Tafawa Balewa Square, guests were invited to step into a portal of new possibilities by revisiting the wisdom of the past, through the display of a set of doors by legendary artist Demas Nwoko. The artist and architect was awarded the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement at the Venice Architectural Biennale in 2023, an apt recognition for his decades of contributions to the discourse on modernity.

A series of seven monolith sculptures in a plaza, made from car parts

Bruce Onobrakpeya’s sculptures. Image courtesy of the Lagos Biennial.

The doors prefaced the towering sculptures of one of Nwoko’s Zaria Art Society contemporary, Bruce Onobrakpeya. Masks and Onabrakpeya’s metal works were caged in by used car parts, motherboards, and other waste materials, which formed the outer structure of the sculptures. The artist invites us to remember that energy never dies and that even the most discarded materials may find new purpose and meaning—an important omen in the context of a global state of affairs which seems to be leading to increased violence, both against one another and against the planet itself.

A packed performance program was kicked off with an emphatic group spectacle by Native Maqari. On a long stretch of fabric, a dancer dressed in a custom piece from the Lagos-based “wearable art brand” IAMISIGO and sporting an extended ponytail covered in black paint contorted her way across its length, marking both the canvas and the surrounding audiences. In a spine-tingling performance underscored by the piercing sounds of the lira (a Moroccan Berber flute), Maqari floated through the crowd, reading out the descriptions of skin bleaching products, and handing out samples to guests. Skin bleaching is a topic that is still under-discussed yet has a booming industry regionally—a blatant hangover from the deep internalization of Eurocentric beauty standards.

A woman curled into a ball on a large painting covered with black paint as a man watches playing a musical instrument

Native Maqari’s performance at the Lagos Biennial. Image courtesy of Ugochukwu Emebiriodo.

In a film and performance by Jermay Michael Gabriel and Justin Randolph Thompson titled Members Don’t Git Weary, the artists remembered Tafawa Balewa Square as the site of FESTAC ’77, the Second World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture. A guitar solo by Thompson coupled with Amharic prayers and incantations by Michael Gabriel brought to life a moving-image work that revisited pan-African memories through texts from W.E.B. Du Bois and Marcus Garvey.

Cameroonian artist Em’kal Eyongakpa’s interpretation of the theme of “refuge” connected deeply with a variety of guests (notably the on-site and construction staff). Incorporating a bass speaker set beneath a wooden palette, the piece’s sound vibrations seemed to invigorate the audiences, who took to sitting, standing, and lying on the installation. In a fast-paced city whose citizens are subjected to all the ills of capitalism, where the acquisition and accumulation of capital supersedes most other ambitions, this opportunity to connect with embodied feelings was particularly well received.

“Traces of Ecstasy,” a cohesive and collaborative pavilion curated by K.J. Abudu and designed by Nolan Oswald Dennis, most efficiently demonstrated and presented the positive intent of the fourth edition. There, Evan Ifakoya ring-fenced a space for processing healing and trauma, via a sound work that reflected on the migration of spiritual practices across the Black Atlantic.

At the center of the structure, Temitayo Shonibare’s noteworthy three-channel video installation invited audiences to revisit the recent traumas from Nigeria’s End SARS protests from 2020. Combining animation, raw footage recorded on mobile phones, and found visuals and audio, the piece is underscored by a delectable sound mix, charged with the revolutionary spirit of the fatal protests.

An overhead view of a circular pavilion in a plaza

Overhead view of the Traces of Ecstasy pavilion. Image courtesy of the Lagos Biennial.

Overhead in the pavilion, a revived interest in Yoruba spirituality—particularly amongst younger generations of continental west Africans, and a diaspora in South, Central, and North America, as well as in Europe—manifested through the flowing adire fabrics of Adeju Thompson’s design practice, Lagos Space Programme. Drawing on the importance of indigo in many west African spiritual practices, the artist prompted the audience to look beyond themselves and take solace in the knowledge of divine protection.

And truly, the Lagos Biennial was most deeply rooted in the power of faith, which Victor Ehikhamenor deftly presented through the latest evolution of his chapel series, titled Miracle Central. From the center of a physical imitation of a chapel, the voices of bellowing Pentecostal pastors projected to an audience of hanging chairs, instruments, microphones, and a pulpit, with one of the artist’s well-known large-scale rosary works suspended as the backdrop of the chapel.

Ehikhamenor continues to meditate on the omnipresence of religion in Nigeria, creating space for the urgently needed reflections and conversations on one of the country’s—and the continent’s—most contentious subjects. Through an installation that resonated powerfully with local audiences, the artist demonstrated the possibilities of how multidisciplinary and installation practices can critically engage communities beyond the art industry itself, both locally in Nigeria and in the wider West African region.

Where Next?

Even as a host of new galleries cropping up in Lagos in recent years, the city’s biennial is establishing itself as a noteworthy case study for non-commercial exhibitions, locally and in the Global South at large. There was a certain warmth felt as local and international art communities gathered to realize this 4th edition of the Lagos Biennial. Collaboration and community were the most consistent feeling permeating the event, though it must be admitted that these seemed contingent on a certain degree of exclusivity. Simply put, there was also a slight feeling that the art world had descended upon Lagos to talk to itself for a week.

A movie being projected onto a sheet

CBN outdoor cinema at Plan B. Image courtesy of Plan B.

But finally, some encouragement can be drawn from the fact that the biennial’s conceptual fingerprints are left lingering throughout the city—perhaps most excitingly around the corner from Tafawa Balewa Square, where the multinational collective of artists, curators, and organizers known as CBN (a Fela Kuti-esque parody of the Central Bank of Nigeria), created a 10-day street-cinema. Hosted on the facade of Plan B, an artist residency space, the outdoor screenings programmed an imaginative selection of short and feature films, among other moving-image work by artists. During the run of the biennial, it quickly established itself as the after-hours highlight. The ten-day program was frequented by Lagos Island locals, who were joined by the city’s young creative community and some of the spillover crowd from the biennial.

Lagos needs no invitation to innovate, and there is a united appreciation for the biennial’s fourth edition as a physical exhibition, especially after the 3rd edition responded to the constraints of COVID by converting itself into a publication. Therefore, despite the challenges faced, one must hope that this exhibition will have inspired new ways of approaching, thinking, and making in Nigeria and beyond. The impact of these, even if slow, may generate positive lasting effects.

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