Zina Saro-Wiwa Displays Powerful Performance Work in Renovated Krannert Art Museum Galleries


Zina Saro-Wiwa’s new exhibition, now on display at the Krannert Art Museum at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, offers a mesmerizing view of the culture of the Nigerian-born, British-raised artist. Installed across several galleries in the recently renovated university museum, Did You Know We Taught Them How to Dance? features analog televisions, large-scale projections, and multi-channel installations alongside photographs and sculpture. The show, which premiered at the Blaffer Art Museum at the University of Houston, is the first solo museum exhibition for Saro-Wiwa.

Amy Powell, curator of contemporary and modern art at the Krannert, notes that as an artist Saro-Wiwa has “long been invested in countering prominent Western media models of how Africa is framed.” For an exhibition in Houston titled Progress of Love, Saro-Wiwa felt that she never saw expressions of intimacy between Africans represented in the United States, so she traveled around the country to interview Africans about their experiences and to film couples kissing. The project, Eaten by the Heart, which was commissioned by The Menil Collection, allowed her subjects a platform to talk openly about the ways in love is performed, represented and viewed in society.

Powell has been working with Saro-Wiwa since 2012 when the two met in Houston at the Progress of Love exhibition. At the time, the filmmaker and video artist was based in the UK but the two women stayed in touch as Saro-Wiwa began visiting Nigeria for extended periods of time to develop a number of new projects. For Saro-Wiwa, who had visited Nigeria during her youth but had not lived there permanently, it was an opportunity to reconnect with the local community in Port Harcourt and the surrounding area.

Saro-Wiwa has a notably complex relationship with the region. Her father, Ken Saro-Wiwa, was a prominent environmental activist who was falsely accused of murder and subsequently executed in 1995 by the Nigerian government. In 2014, after returning to Port Harcourt, Saro-Wiwa opened a gallery called the Boys Quarters Project Space, located in her father’s former office. She remodeled to create a clean gallery with polished concrete floors and white walls that now serves as a rotating exhibition space for local artists. She decided, however, to leave her father’s office intact with every detail including his desk, papers, and pipes. Visitors are allowed to see the office but not enter it, and Saro-Wiwa now projects her own experimental videos into the room.  

In some ways, the Boys Quarters represents how Saro-Wiwa operates as an artist, at once bringing in her contemporary “Afropolitan” perspective while honoring and challenging her past.[1] For instance, in Karikpo Pipeline, a five-channel video installed on widescreen monitors hung side-by-side, Saro-Wiwa superimposes Karikpo dancers on abandoned oil infrastructures in Ogoniland, a region in the Niger Delta belonging to the Ogoni people. The dancers, who wear masks reassembling antelopes, fade in and out of the landscape like apparitions, at once highlighting the spirituality of their practice and the effects of oil production on the environment. Saro-Wiwa effectively edits drone footage of the area with the dancers to create a surreal and at times lush landscape.

In Western media reports, Ogoniland is often characterized as a corrupted region devastated by Shell oil spills. But in her work Saro-Wiwa seeks to move beyond these narratives by evoking the “internal landscape” of the people and the region. Prayer Warriors is a powerful study in the cathartic performance of evangelical Christian pastors from Ogoniland. Dressed in shades of purples and reds, these men and women prophesize directly into the artist’s camera. Saro-Wiwa removes them from their pulpits, filming them against a black backdrop to emphasize their facial expressions, gestures, and conviction. As their voices and images echo across the large room, the ministers engage in what Saro-Wiwa describes as “psychic survival,” a way of processing their earthly existence.

In the exhibition, Saro-Wiwa explores another type of performance: eating. In Table Manners, eight analog televisions are positioned in a circle on a bed of black periwinkle shells. A few small chairs are placed in front of the screens, inviting visitors to sit and watch. In one still shot, each video depicts an individual from the Niger Delta eating a meal by themselves from start to finish. The title of each video, for example Barisuka Eats Roasted Ice Fish and Mu, tells the viewer precisely what will happen. Saro-Wiwa’s films succeed in their subtlety; the noise of the diner chomping on their food is not shunned but quietly embraced, thereby elevating an everyday activity to the realm of performance.

The presentation of Saro-Wiwa’s work on the Urbana-Champaign campus also offers a unique opportunity to engage students and professors across disciplines in the role of performance in the Niger Delta. Powell, who joined the museum staff in 2014, said, “once I met colleagues here and saw the museum, the spaces and how people on campus, not just in Art and Art History, but in all kinds of disciplines really see the museum as a real interlocutor, I was really excited about coming here.” In conjunction with the exhibition, Powell has organized a panel of professors from diverse disciplines like gender studies, urban planning, law, and political science to convene to discuss their interpretations of Saro-Wiwa’s work. “There are so many ways into the work that do and don't line up with Zina's perspective,” Powell noted, “so I'm curious in terms of those interdisciplinary perspectives what I can learn from my colleagues and what they learn from it.”

Accompanying the exhibition is an impressive catalogue complete with essays by Powell and Taiye Selasi, along with a number of Saro-Wiwa’s own recipes. Did You Know We Taught Them How To Dance? is on display at the Krannert Art Museum through March 25, 2017. For more information visit kam.illinois.edu.

[1] See Taiye Selasi’s essay “Afropolitan in a State of Grace” published in the exhibition catalogue Zina Saro-Wiwa: Did You Know We Taught Them How to Dance?, University of Washington Press, 2016.

Top image: Zina Saro-Wiwa, Did You Know We Taught Them How to Dance?, Krannert Art Museum, November 17, 2016-March 25, 2017, installation view. Courtesy Krannert Art Museum, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.