BY Ayodeji Rotinwa in Opinion | 05 OCT 18

Nigeria’s Artists Fight Back Against the Oil Industry

Complicating the ‘disaster narratives’ associated with the Niger Delta by attending to the local ecology, and those responsible for defiling it

BY Ayodeji Rotinwa in Opinion | 05 OCT 18

In March 2018, Boys Quarters, a contemporary art gallery in Port-Harcourt, South South Nigeria, opened its exhibition ‘Black Box’, featuring video works by Kader Attia, John Akomfrah and Allora & Calzadilla which meditated on environmental degradation. At the same time Royal Dutch Shell Petroleum, the multinational oil company accused of polluting, was in the news for trying to renew its licence to restart oil exploration in the region.

Since 1993, Shell’s operations had been forcibly suspended by aggrieved locals, particularly residents of Ogoniland, who had decided that armed force was the only way to get the company to take responsibility for its chronic oil spillages and waste dumping. Oil exploration efforts were interrupted by a sustained campaign of kidnappings and the bombing of wells and pipelines. In 1995, agitations would come to a head when writer, author and leading environmental activist Ken Saro-Wiwa was executed alongside eight comrades on dubious charges of incitement to murder. The case, in which the Ogoni 9 were tried and executed, remains highly contested.

Reports since released by Greenpeace and Amnesty International have revealed that Shell bribed people to bear false witness against the defendants.

George Osodi, Oil Slick, 2013, photograph from the series 'New Niger Delta (2013–16)'. Courtesy: the artist and TAFETA, London 

All this has resulted in a skewed media focus on what Zina Saro-Wiwa, the founder of Boys Quarters, calls ‘disaster narratives’ – the imbalanced reportage on pollution and violent conflict, rather than on the lives reliant upon local ecology, and the people responsible for defiling it. Now a number of Nigerian artists are working to complicate these narratives.

Between 2003 and 2007, Nigeria was still only in its first decade as a newly democratic nation, and conflict in the Niger Delta (as South South Nigeria is also known) was at its peak. Photographer George Osodi trained his lens on the invisible casualties caught in the crossfire: his stark photographs record the daily perseverance of the Niger Delta people. Some images show fishermen lifting their catches from polluted water. In another photograph, tapioca, a starch extracted from cassava, can be seen drying in the sun while a gas flare burns in the background. The woman tending to her crop hardly seems to notice.

In the 2014 exhibition ‘Oil Man’ at Boys Quarters’, painter Segun Aiyesan considered the weight of this charged environment on the body. Oil extraction has lead to a growing awareness, across the Niger Delta, that locals are literally sitting on incredible wealth – yet a wealth that only lines the pockets of politicians or multinational corporations like Shell, Chevron and ExxonMobil, headquartered in Europe and the United States. Aiyesan, who was a former Chevron employee before becoming a full-time artist, paints burdened men: rendered in a heavy bas relief technique, their bodies are lacerated, literally bearing the effects of their environment’s vicious paradoxical of deprivation amidst plenty. Aiyesan has said he is not a ‘political artist’, despite the highly charged imagery of his work; this seems largely symptomatic of the self-censoring environment in which Aiyesan operates, in which a small but growing pool of art collectors are connected to the oil industry or the political class who oversee it.

Victor Ehikhamenor, Wealth of Nations, 2015, installation view,  13th Biennale Jogja, Jogja National Museum, Yogyakarta. Courtesy: the artist and Tyburn Gallery, London

In 2015, Victor Ehikhamenor’s installation Wealth of Nations (2015), mounted at the Jogja National Museum in Yogyakarta, Indonesia as part of 13th Biennale Jogja, sought to remind the world that the effects of trauma were still very raw. With red acrylic, Ehikhamenor had painted stylized abstract forms – which have since become his signature mark – on 150 oil drums. The artist’s process harks to ancient, nearly extinct writing systems native to his Edo State, also in the contested South South region. That Ehikhamenor used a nearly lost language to address the loss of collective memory and the Niger Delta ecology was especially apt. The installation was a monument to the continued struggle for the Delta and a demand for its people to share in its natural resources.

As Gani Topba, National Coordinator for the advocacy organization Ken Saro Wiwa Associates, said to Nigeria’s Guardian Newspaper, ‘Ogoni people have never said you cannot take oil; that has never been the correct position. Ogoni people have always said, ‘Can we talk? Can we get a stake in what is going on in our land?’

Zina Saro-Wiwa, Karikpo Pipeline, 2015, film still. Courtesy: the artist and Tiwani Contemporary, London

Zina Saro-Wiwa is concerning herself with other kinds of environmentalism. In a particularly striking video, Karikpo Pipeline (2015), she foregrounds a traditional dance of the Ogoni people before a decommissioned flow station – the architecture of exploration and exploitation. The juxtaposition seems to acknowledge that there has been loss and abuse in the Niger Delta, but also that Ogoni people still own this land and will see to its reclamation.

It is not an exercise the Nigerian government will allow easily.

In 2015, British-Nigerian artist Sokari Douglas-Camp’s The Bus (2006), a non-motorized sculpture of a bus that commemorates the Ogoni 9, arrived at the port of Lagos, the country’s commercial nerve centre. The sculpture was to serve as a public memorial in Ogoniland. It was detained by federal authorities and never left the port. The government, meanwhile, has renewed Shell’s license to drill.

Main image: George Osodi, Fish Pond Pollution (detail), 2013, photo from the series 'New Niger Delta (2013–16)'. Courtesy: the artist and TAFETA, London 

[Zina Saro-Wiwa supplied the following statement after publication of this article: ‘The organization Ken Saro-Wiwa Associates does not officially represent the views of the late Ken Saro-Wiwa’s family’.]

Ayodeji Rotinwa is a Nigerian writer and critic who covers the intersection of visual art, culture, politics and social justice across West Africa. He has been published by the New York Times, National Geographic, The Art NewspaperFinancial TimesArtforum, amongst others.