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Issue 215

Olu Oguibe Creates Monuments to the Precarity of Survival

At Galerie Kandlhofer, Vienna, the artist reflects on the politics that dictate which lives matter

BY Eric Otieno Sumba in EU Reviews , Reviews | 17 SEP 20

Before it was moved to its current site on Kassel’s Treppenstraße, Olu Oguibe’s Monument for Strangers and Refugees (2017), commissioned for Documenta 14, was at the centre of the city and its political debates. Initially installed on Kassel Square, the work earned the artist the prestigious 2017 Arnold Bode Prize, but was also met with indignation for what some right-wing politicians read as a provocation in the midst of the raging debate on Germany’s asylum policy. The 16.3-metre-tall concrete obelisk bears the inscription: ‘I was a stranger and you took me in’ – a verse from the New Testament’s Gospel of Matthew – in gold letters in German, English, Arabic and Turkish. While Monument remains Oguibe’s best-known piece, his current solo exhibition at Vienna’s Galerie Kandlhofer demonstrates his sustained engagement with forms of memorialization.

Olu Oguibe
Olu Oguibe, New Monuments Series, 2020, acrylics on acid-free watercolour paper, 2 sheets, each 76 × 107 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Galerie Kandlhofer, Vienna; photograph: Manuel Carreon-Lopez / kunst-dokumentation.com

Curated by Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung for the city’s annual Curated By festival, the show includes works from 2000 to 2020. Many of these address the monument, dislodging deep-seated ideas about its commemorative and aesthetic functions, as well as questions of site and scale.

Several pieces reveal Oguibe’s fascination with typography. For New Monuments Series (2020), he painted by hand, in English and Italian, the same phrase from the Gospel of Matthew. Dedicated to Mimmo Lucano, mayor of the southern Italian town of Riace, and aid worker Scott Warren – both of whom stand out for their hospitality to migrants at the height of refugee arrivals to Europe’s borders in 2016 – the work plays into ongoing debates on monuments by honouring humanitarian (anti)heroes.


Olu Oguibe
Olu Oguibe, Many Thousand Gone (detail), 2000, ink on acid-free watercolour paper. Courtesy: the artist and Galerie Kandlhofer, Vienna; photograph: Manuel Carreon-Lopez / kunst-dokumentation.com

The archival installation Biafra Time Capsule (2017) comprises books, letters, magazines and transcriptions of speeches written during and after the 1967–70 war between Nigeria and the secessionist Republic of Biafra. The three vitrines of artefacts, arranged in triangular fashion, are painted in the green, red and yellow colours of the former Biafran flag. Since the conflict was one of the most publicized of the 20th century, the images of starving Biafran children included in the capsule have been ingrained in public consciousness, epitomizing a problematic ongoing visual economy based on suffering or dead African bodies.

Flanking the capsule, Many Thousand Gone (2000) memorializes African victims of AIDS in a series of 84 monochrome watercolour portraits that hang in three tightly packed rows. Unnamed and partially obscured by washes of paint, these individuals speak to a necropolitics that overlooks the suffering of those diagnosed with HIV/AIDS. As Achille Mbembe points out in his eponymous 2019 book, necropolitics refers to the social and political power that dictates which lives matter and which deaths are unmournable. More than a decade after antiretroviral therapies were available in the West, the only patented medication available in South Africa retailed at a price 50 times higher than a generic brand made in Thailand. In the 1990s, international patent laws prevented South Africa – the most affected country globally – from importing the cheaper drug.


Olu Oguibe
Olu Oguibe, New York, April, 2020, installation view, Galerie Kandlhofer, Vienna. Courtesy: the artist and Galerie Kandlhofer, Vienna; photograph: Manuel Carreon-Lopez / kunst-dokumentation.com

The COVID-19 pandemic might give a sense of the fear and anxiety that South Africans experienced in the 1990s. However, as the world races to develop a vaccine, there is legitimate concern about similar problems of global accessibility. In Vienna, Oguibe’s installation New York, April 2020 (2020) – consisting of three tiers of wooden shelves supporting mannequins wrapped in white cloth – calls to mind the high death toll of the pandemic in New York by re-creating a makeshift mortuary. Considering that more people have died from COVID-19 in the US than on the entire African continent, Oguibe’s direct juxtaposition of two health crises highlights both the historicity of pandemic politics and the cataclysm of the present.

‘Olu Oguibe’ runs at Galerie Kandlhofer, Vienna, until 26 September 2020.

Main Image: 'Olu Oguibe', 2020, exhibition view, Galerie Kandlhofer, Vienna. Courtesy: the artist and Galerie Kandlhofer, Vienna; photograph: Manuel Carreon-Lopez / kunst-dokumentation.com


Eric Otieno Sumba is a writer and editor at Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin, Germany. His work has been featured in publications including Camera Austria, Contemporary And, Griotmag, Lolwe and Texte zur Kunst.