BY Azu Nwagbogu AND Angel Lambo in Interviews | 17 APR 24

Azu Nwagbogu Restores the Matriarch at the Benin Pavilion

The curator discusses the themes of the Venice exhibition and explains why ‘hardcore African feminism’ is vital for societal progress

BY Azu Nwagbogu AND Angel Lambo in Interviews | 17 APR 24

Artists Ishola Akpo, Moufouli Bello, Romuald Hazoumè and Chloé Quenum will represent Benin at the country’s first-ever presentation at the Venice Biennale. With practices spanning photography, painting, sculptural and installation works, the artists will explore themes of spirituality and colonial architecture with a focus on Black feminism and the representation of women. The choice of Azu Nwagbogu as curator, who is from bordering Nigeria, speaks to the committee’s pan-Africanist approach and the rejection of country lines drawn during colonial times. I spoke with him about the main inspirations behind the pavilion. 

Portrait of Azu Nwagbogu sitting in chair
Portrait of Azu Nwagbogu. Photograph: Anastasia Ermolenko

Angel Lambo The name of Benin’s first-ever pavilion at Venice is ‘Everything Precious Is Fragile’. Does this title have an origin story?

Azu Nwagbogu [In Benin], the cultural custodians – historians, chief priests, voodoo masters, pontiffs – are the bearers of information or knowledge. So, my mission was to visit them. I approached [the task of curating the pavilion] a little bit like an anthropologist. I wanted to know what they felt about the state of affairs in the world today. Why things are out of kilter. And each one of them said it is because women have been displaced from their traditional role of equality and power in society.

I also went to a town in Benin where Gẹlẹdẹ [a Yorùbá masquerade festival] was founded. The masks have come to represent a generalist philosophy of Gẹlẹdẹ, but its centre is hardcore African feminism. The custodians told me the etymology of the word: ‘the thing that is precious is fragile’. It’s such a beautiful [phrase]. If you think about that, it relates to love, marriage, family, ecology, the climate … All of the major issues that we are dealing with in today’s society relate to the fragility of our existence. We’re dealing with a very vicious, capitalist world, but it’s just about living right and being an honest broker for the planet.

AL Your curatorial practice has always been collaborative and non-extractive. In a way, working against that sort of very commercialized, capitalist system. That’s why, I’m assuming, the pavilion is a collaborative group show. Can you tell me more about the four artists representing Benin?

AN I’ll start by saying that it is customary to assume that if you want to win one of the ‘prizes’ at Venice, you should have one artist and invest all your resources in that one person. In a way that’s cool, but it’s also a bit of a cop out. I feel like what we are presenting is essentially a solo exhibition, but with four artists because they have all brought their own ingredients and contributed to baking this cake. We’ve had enough of heroes.

Ishola Akpo, Iyami, 2021, 80 × 120 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Sabrina Amrani

AL And how has your work in restitution manifested this year?

AN My work in restitution has never been about objects. I don’t want to give the colonialists more powers. ‘[People cry:] oh, give me back my stuff.’ They return it, they have a big ceremony, pat themselves on the back, or they’ll sometimes get promoted. For me, it’s about going back to the learnings we gleaned from the past to build our culture for the future. That’s why I decided to go back to traditional rulers – learn their ways and rules – not to stay [in the past] but to move with it.

AL The traditions that you speak of don’t just exist in Benin but in a cultural region that extends beyond country lines. How do you think this plays into the title for this year’s Biennale?

AN If I were to interpret it in relation to my own approach, it’s about being custodians on Earth. We are here to look after the planet. And, therefore, we’re all foreigners, it doesn’t matter whether you are Yorùbá or Indigenous Brazilian, we’re all foreigners on Earth. You’re here to look after it.

However, there are also a lot of LGBTQI narratives around the title, which is really important and very much within the consciousness of indigeneity. I’ve travelled a lot and in many places; where there is not so much displacement of Indigenous cultures, you observe a very high fluidity of gender and sexuality. It’s [global] monocultures that create these templates of [binary] people.

Pavilion of Benin (Republic of), 'Everything Precious Is Fragile', 2024, exhibition view, 60th International Art Exhibition, La Biennale di Venezia. Courtesy: La Biennale di Venezia; photograph: Andrea Avezzù

AL To change the subject, I’ve been thinking about your work, mostly in photography and as the founder and director of LagosPhoto Festival. The medium has historically been marginalized by the Biennale. Were you tempted to make amends in your pavilion?

AN I still believe that photography is the definitive medium of our age, but I’m not a purist. What is photography? It’s about using light to create and I think people will be shocked to see how we interpret that. Also, the materiality within the image and how photography can animate and reactivate the archive, that’s the sort of thing [the pavilion] is interested in. It’s not necessarily about how you make new images or how you create new iconography.

AL And how do you feel Venice will contribute to the art scene in Benin?

AN It’s already contributed a lot. Fundamentally, artists have always done things from the bottom up. So, Venice is just a platform to present those ideas. As a curator, I think of myself as an earthworm. The earthworm is the most thankless animal on Earth, just doing God’s work underneath the surface, digging and creating oxygen for others to thrive. In the long term, the idea is to bring back all those energies to the continent to lead a deeper African movement. One that begins with restitution. Restitution of African culture, values and knowledge systems that will allow us to hybridize it with things that we find to be culturally relevant from other cultures. To shape a new future for the continent.

Pavilion of Benin (Republic of), 'Everything Precious Is Fragile', 2024, exhibition view, 60th International Art Exhibition, La Biennale di Venezia. Courtesy: La Biennale di Venezia; photograph: Andrea Avezzù

AL I really do like this idea of restitution as being something that is not based on physical items. But I have one last question that is based in the tangible realm: how has it been working with scenographer Franck Houndégla on the design of the pavilion?

AN When you work collaboratively, the blessed thing is when people understand your idea. I’ve known Franck for many years now and he’s an expert, so it’s just him interpreting that idea and bringing it to life. We’ve had a wonderful collaboration and I think the result is quite strong. In Venice, there is a sort of shuffling of feet. Like when you’re in an airport trying to get from one spot to the next until you fly. But we intentionally want to encourage guests to our pavilion to decelerate their emotions. So, when you come into the pavilion you really take in what the artists are trying to say and you really experience the exhibition. You can even sit down and grab a book from our library of feminist histories [called ‘The Library of Resistance’, put together by contributing artist Moufouli Bello]. Every single book there is by a Black feminist writer, and from all over the world.

It’s just one way of addressing epistemic violence and injustice towards women. It’s not just an homage but we’re leaning into the ideas within it.

Main image: Pavilion of Benin (Republic of), 'Everything Precious Is Fragile', 2024, exhibition view, 60th International Art Exhibition, La Biennale di Venezia. Courtesy: La Biennale di Venezia; photograph: Andrea Avezzù

Azu Nwagbogu is a curator and the founder and Director of the African Artists' Foundation and LagosPhoto Festival

Angel Lambo is associate editor of frieze. She lives in Berlin.