Oil, State, and Violence in Visual Art
Published on November 15, 2021
In this episode, Trish Kahle speaks with Victor Ehikhamenor, a Nigerian artist, photographer, and writer, about his installation The Wealth of Nations, and the practice and politics of representing oil and nation in Nigeria.
Speaker: Victor Ehikhamenor is a Nigerian artist, photographer, and writer. Ehikhamenor has been prolific in producing abstract, symbolic, and politically/historically motivated works. A 2020 National Artist in Residence at the Neon Museum in Las Vegas, Nevada, Ehikhamenor is a 2016 Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Fellow and has held several solo exhibitions and his work has been included in numerous group exhibitions and biennales, ranging from the 57th Venice Biennale as part of the Nigerian Pavilion (2017), to the 5th Mediations Biennale in Poznan, Poland (2016), the 12th Dak’art Biennale in Dakar, Senegal (2016), and the Biennale Jogja XIII, Indonesia (2015). As a writer, he has published fiction and critical essays in global academic journals, magazines, and newspapers, such as the New York Times, the BBC, CNN Online, and the Washington Post, among others. His works are housed in private and public collections around the world, including the Museum of World Art, Netherlands; the Modern Forms Collection, London; The Peggy Cooper Cafritz Collection, Washington, D.C., and Access Bank Plc, Nigeria. Ehikhamenor is the founder of Angels and Muse in Lagos, Nigeria, a thought laboratory dedicated to the promotion and development of contemporary African art and literature.
Moderator: Trish Kahle, Assistant Professor at Georgetown University- Qatar.
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CIRS INTRODUCTION [00:00:04]: Welcome to the Center for International and Regional Studies at Georgetown University in Qatar. This podcast series is part of the Energy Humanities Research Initiative. The project aims to generate new scholarly conversations on everyday lived experiences of energy. [DRUMMING ENDS]
TRISH KAHLE [00:0024]: Thanks for joining us for another episode of Everyday Energy. I’m Trish Kahle, a historian at Georgetown University in Qatar. This episode is part of our second cluster of podcasts examining artistic and literary representations of oil. In this episode, I’m joined by Victor Ehikhamenor, a Nigerian artist, writer and photographer. We’ve split up our conversation into two episodes. In this episode Part I, we discuss the Ehikhamenor’s, The Wealth of Nations, an installation that offers a complex and multilayered exploration of oil and politics in Nigeria. Part II continues the conversation, thinking about the wider implications of his work and what scholars, artists and other practitioners in other national contexts should learn from the Nigerian experience. All right, so I thought we would just begin by briefly discussing your installation, The Wealth of Nations, to help give our listeners a sense of what it’s like to experience your work. And so I was wondering if you would maybe walk us through how you would like visitors to sort of interact or see the installation? I haven’t myself had the chance to see it in person. I’ve only encountered it through the Internet.
VICTOR EHIKHAMENOR [00:01:38]: Yeah. Um, thank you Trish. The Wealth of Nation was first installed, I mean, it has it has traveled with different iterations, you know, sort of to other locations, but that this particular one where the first one was installed was in Indonesia, Jogja. During the Biennale, Jogja Biennalein of 2015, I believe. You know, so it’s you know, it was it was there were like 11 artists from Nigeria, and I was one of them to have a conversation with Indonesian artist. And a lot of it was based on natural resources and the use of natural resources on both on both countries, you know, so I think they were speaking from that side, looking at their own natural resources in regards to like maybe coal and stuff like that. And my country as well, because we we’ve been kind of, for lack of a better word, mono-economy, which is based on oil. I I wanted to react to that, you know. So from perspective of consumerism and what help build nations and things like that, you know, so I decided to do Wealth of Nations, which is coming from the economics. You know, so there is a book, Wealth of Nations, of consumerism, so I was kind of like referencing that in a way. But in a visual, in a visual stance. The particular one, I decided to have drums. There were three drums, which I, I sourced from them and decide to paint the entire room with what you call black gold. So the background of it is yellow. Then I used the I used black to paint on the iconography, paint my iconography on the walls and on the floors. As well, kind of like an immersive installation. Then the icy water trough that is that is built to sit at the base of the of the three drums that are suspended from the ceiling inside the installation room, which is all enclosed. So what is that? What most people don’t see is, or what most people didn’t experience with that installation was that there are three drums. You have to red drums on each side, which are also painted with red and black, which shows the violent nature of what oil has been and the destructive nature of it. Then the middle one has the whites, which which reference the British and the people that first discovered oil in commercial quantities in my country. In 1956, February 1956 was when oil was first discovered in a place called Oloibiri, which, which, which has completely being really destroyed ecologically as we speak right now. So the water trough was specifically created and made whereby is lite, it has a light on it. And as a spelling of Oloibiri, which is the first place, the first location where oil was discovered in my place in Nigeria. What happened is that I drilled a little bit of hole on the middle, white drum, and the remainder of the oil, they are all they are all empty barrels. But, you know, like if it’s not cleaned, you still have a little bit of oil, leftover oil. And the whole point of doing that was for people to see how long when an oil drop would be dripping in the water. Where you write Oloibiri, how long will it take before you can no longer see the writing of the Oloibiri and you can no longer see the light at all. So that experiment took about 48 hours with the oil drops dripping consistently on that water trough before the clean water completely became all muddled and all all that polluted. And you couldn’t see anything except like really this blood red really ugly looking floatation on top of the water. So that was the most important part of it for me, just to even see how long. So you can imagine oil spillage has been going on in the Niger Delta in Nigeria. Oil spillage has been going on, particularly in Oloibiri, that really don’t even have anything to show for having the repository of where the wealth of nations, where do wealth of my country as a country, Nigeria, comes from, they don’t have anything to show for it. The famine, the land and everything has almost been wiped out. The people are as poor as you can as you can think. Where by other, other individuals have gotten really fat and rich on these resources. So that was the point of that installation for me. And since then, it has been reinstalled in Dresden, in Germany. But a different, I took a different stance on that one to commemorate people that have been environmental activists to speak up about the degradation of environment in that area, specifically with Ken Saro-Wiwa, who was killed by the administration, by the Sani Abacha administration for speaking up against, their land being destroyed the Ogoni land. So I had to use 8 drums for that in Dresden, the 8 drums,no actually 9 drums. 9 drums representing the 9 Ogoni men that were hung by the administration. So as you can see, it has kind of taken a different shape. When I installed it in in in when I installed it in Dresden, then that moved to Poland to be re-installed as well in that sense, you know, so that is why you would have probably two installations or two iterations of Wealth of Nation, Ogoni 9 for the second one that happend. So that’s that’s pretty much it you know. Thank you so much.
KAHLE [00:07:54]: It’s really evocative. What I’m really struck by is also just about when you were saying it takes 48 for the water to become obscured. So when people were coming to visit it, did they tend to sort of see it in a moment and only catch a moment of how the water looked or were people revisiting it and seeing how it changed over time.
EHIKHAMENOR [00:08:13]: Some people visited and watched how the water changed over time. There are people that come later on that came later on, that they didn’t know what it was before, which is what exactly I wanted. Because, I mean, if you go there, you are you are you are not going to be able to know what happened to Olioberi. All you are going to see is the is the destruction. You are never going to be able to, like, know or see how the water looked when it was clean for fishermen up until 1956. So except for the people that were involved, except for those that are still alive, that have seen this is how all the farmers, the fishermen who will know that, oh, our water used to be clean. We used to be able to swim in this water. We used to be able to fish. It was our livelihood, source of our livelihood. But something else was discovered that completely destroyed it. But for external visitors, for younger generations that are seeing only that, that is exactly what the installation spoke to. You understand, and that is my intention to realize that if you are present, you can see the the evolution of, environmental evolution that occurred in that area. But if you are not present, you are going to meet something that is constantly and and and definitely repugnant to the sight, you know.
KAHLE [00:09:34]: Yeah, I mean, this is actually another question I had was about the barrels south side I think I had mentioned. I have a friend who works with coal ash. Right. Which is toxic. And I know oil also, right, is a very toxic material to work with. Certainly people in the Delta have had to deal with that in their lived experience. But I was wondering if there were any challenges with that specifically about creating the installation or actually getting the barrels themselves.
EHIKHAMENOR [00:09:57]: In Indonesia? No, actually, I just requested because there’s actually another one outside which, so there were two installations right. So there were another installation where I stuck barrels up to about I would say about 8 meters high, like about about a 100 different barrels. That was the outside the installation. In the inside installation it was 3 big oil barriers that it wasn’t it wasn’t hard. I requested it from the biennale people and they were easy to get for me. So that wasn’t that wasn’t a problem. Even if you go to Nigeria to get oil barrels of that nature is not a problem. I mean, they they are all over the place in different, you know, and so but yeah. With the oil company names clearly stamped on them, you know.
KAHLE [00:10:48]: Yeah, which is a really interesting way in the sense where it’s it’s very much rooted in place. Right. And I think particularly the script is really evocative of that. And yet it’s also a really planetary experience, because it’s not just Nigeria that has this experience. The oil, it’s spreads in different ways, but those barrels go everywhere.
EHIKHAMENOR [00:11:06]: Exactly. So it can relate to them, people can relate to them. People know what it is, is very emblematic and symbolic of what it carries. So you said that oil itself is the byproduct of oil. Yeah. You know.
KAHLE [00:11:23]: So another thing I had come across was sort of your initial introduction to the installation and here you had talked about mirroring the discovery of oil with the discovery of a coup d’état. And I was really struck by that because, again, we’re used to the narrative of discovering oil. Right. That’s sort of it’s a set of words that conjures a particular visual narrative, I think, for people with the gushing oil spurt and all sorts of things. But I think the idea of discovery of a coup is a little bit more unsettling when you first encounter it is really it’s a really thought provoking way of sort of getting people to think about the relationship between oil and the state. And so I was wondering if you could say more about just that phrasing or how you arrived at it.
EHIKHAMENOR [00:12:06]: There, there is more to it in my in my visual correlation of of coup and oil barrels as well. So if you are familiar with the history of my country, you realize that when when I started growing up, there were kind of like successive coup instead of having your four year elections in the U.S. we pretty much were waiting for coup to change, you know, so there was so much in the 80s and I think it pretty much petered out a little bit in the 90s. But throughout the 80s when I was a young person and I tried. It was a coup for us, you know, so the ones that did not succeed, the coup plotters that did not succeed, we are tied to stakes and the oil barons, we are filled with sand behind them. O.k., so now you have to look at the relationship between using that oil barrels to catch the bullets when they are openly and publicly executed. Right. So when we see barrels being stuck together, that is the visual image that comes to a child’s mind, because they are all of our TV, they are in newspapers and stuff like that. But if we can roll that back a little bit as well to realize that why were people so interested in power? Because when they tasted power, the oil was what was bringing that amount of money. What they were actually fighting for was that resources to be able to have a control over their resources, to be able to have access to the resources whereby most of the oil wells in my country are owned by army generals. So it’s really it’s really correlated. There is no difference between that coup. I mean, like, you don’t fight for nothing, right? You know, you don’t you wouldn’t want to, like, go into that kind of really do or die affair, which is a very coup, is a very dangerous endeavor to to take power is not like or your company, your district or you didn’t get voted for that you can go home and have dinner with your children. If you if you fail, if your coup fails, you ain’t going nowhere. You don’t have dinner. That’s your last meal, you know. But if you succeed, you realize that you have an enormous amount of power in your hands. You have access to the entire country’s resources, and you can do whatever you want to do with it, you know. So if you look at oil trading and the oil, you know, situation in my country, you know, like the oil wells belong to a lot of the military guys, even if not directly, but indirectly, you know, so there is no difference. I mean, I make that relationship between the oil barrels of my, that my installation of The Wealth of Nations and and and coups. I a lot of my upbringing was on that military regimes. You understand. I have this weird fascination with coup speeches. I analyze them, I listen to them and stuff like that, you know. So I know definitely they are correlated.
KAHLE [00:15:00]: And so it’s a really just sort of even more than just that metaphorical connection, it’s just a really material connection, that connection. And so, I mean, I think the like I was saying that the barrel is sort of this obvious encounter with oil that’s legible to a global audience, though I think certainly right more historical knowledge of Nigerian history is necessary to fully grasp the meaning of it. But, you know, in particular, as you phrased it, right. The black bold on the walls is a little bit, is not the kind of direct representation we often think of when we think about oil looks when we encounter it in everyday life. And I think even your transformation of the barrels really forces us to reconsider what they are as material objects. So can you speak a little bit more about you know, we talked a little bit about the barrels. You’ve described the room for us, but sort of how you arrived at this particular form for representing oil in Nigeria and particularly maybe about how it really because I know some of the same script also appears in your other work as well. So how is it translating that into the into this particular installation?
EHIKHAMENOR [00:16:10]: I think, you know, you use what you have right to to to to express what you need to express. You as a historian there are certain words, there are certain pedagogical background that you have that you’re going to bring into analyzing. You can decide if you want to look at world history, you want to look at regional history, to look at your country’s history and how they relate to the other. You’re not going to go in there as an ethnographer, are you’re going to go in there as a historian. So when I needed to approach this, you know, when I know that I’m not writing about it, I have to make a visual representation of it. You know, you have to bring what you have. And my iconography is is what I have is what has been given to me over time. We have to realize also it was a form of communication, was a form of writing that has gone extinct. So how do you now take what was once text, try to make it a visual communication so that language is still there for me to use. How do you use that language in a more robust way to draw people’s attention to what you want to say? And what are those two terms that you have to bring to play with it? So it’s a it’s a it’s a it was a very conscious decision for me to make it a bit overwhelming. So like as if you are in the sea , you know, as if you are in deep water. What do you see? Can you really describe what you see if you are not an oceanographer when you go deep down in the sea, are you able to know what you see or you are just going to enjoy it as as a form of nature? So all those things go through my head when I’m deciding what I would use for setting installations or what I want to do with certain installations. But the fact that we call black gold. And how do you represent gold? Yellow is the closest you can get to gold. And of course, black is there, you call it black gold. So I brought in all these visual elements to to create the work and I chose what we also tied to me, what people we see and say oh. I mean, I could have just put drums there and call it a day, you know, but I needed to also bring in my own self into it. I needed to bring my DNA to the work to make sure that people are attracted to it and people come close to it and be able to question what is going on there. So it’s almost like lighting a lamp so that the moth can get around it.
KAHLE [00:18:38]: So what do you need to be able to actually see the thing that’s in front of your face right, so if you just put the barrels there you won’t see it. But now can you actually see. Yeah. So I guess I’ll just sort of jump ahead a little bit and I mean, I love to hear more about, particularly as you saw people encountering the installation or just the questions that you want people to leave with after encountering the installation.
EHIKHAMENOR [00:19:02]: Oftentimes when you when you expose certain things like that, you know, I said to you, I really like documenting or the doing what what I probably call qualitative quantitative analysis of the of the process, you know. So as an artist, I, I do what I do and I move on and I have said what I’ve said. I mean, 15, 2015 is what that is, seven years ago or thereabouts now. Right. So here we are revisiting revisiting it right now and and having to reflect on it seven years later to see certain things that I put in those places that I didn’t kind of process as it is at time, you know. So it’s very hard for me to say, o.k., this is what I expect people to look at. But I know that the response was quite immense and people were able to like kind of stare at it and look at it and read the text that came with it to realize, o.k. you know, people that are about Nigerian oil or didn’t know about Nigerian artist or something. So when people go into museums, or go into installations or go to biennales or see a piece of work, they they leave with different ideas, you understand, so the political scientist can come see something political about it. The social scientists can come, the environmentalists can come out like, oh, my goodness, this is crazy, you know. And the curator be like that is nice. So, yes, you probably could have moved this over. You know, people are going to come with different sensibilities to to to to a form of artwork, you know.
KAHLE [00:20:38]: So I’m just thinking about the United States, whether it likes to think of itself this way or not, is there is an oil country, it’s a fossil fuel country. And the second you begin to question the basis of those fuels, right. You call into question all of the myths the country tells itself about itself. But I can imagine that that operates really differently with the United States is an ongoing settler colony, right. It’s ongoing. It has ongoing colonization, particularly in the indigenous west. But, you know, oil in Nigeria, from my understanding, it was also part of the promise of the post-colonial moment. And so how does the incredible personal, environmental, emotional costs of oil production in the delta, how is that, I guess, does Nigeria have a different kind of national mythology about oil?
EHIKHAMENOR [00:21:30]: So it’s interesting how that conversation always create a great divide, right, because you have the you have the oil on the southern part of the country, then of course my country’s big. You understand what I’m saying? And the oil is coming from a certain part of the country, which is the Niger Delta, you know, so the conversation the Niger Delta, Niger Delta person is having would be different from what the other part of the country are having. Right. So it can be unsettling no matter how you want to look at it. It’s like, hey, look. We want schools, we want environmental cleanup and all of that, right, is always seen as if they are asking for something out of the ordinary, right. Or there’s always, the conversations are never really very straightforward. It’s always like we spoke about violence earlier. But to the extent that it would be words that I use, like, o.k., please, you guys are polluting my my area. O.k., so, you know, we’ll clean it up. But we need we need to we need to budget because that’s where the money is coming from. So you sit somewhere first to figured it out and all of that, you understand. So it’s no longer having a conversation that one is having with, say, colonial masters or things like that. It is an internal conversation that is very unsettling whenever those questions come up and people tend to avoid it because it becomes a bit dangerous, because it’s where the money that runs the country is coming from. So when you are saying that, look, come and clean up the environment, we no longer have water to drink, we no longer have fish and all of those things. What voice are you using to say, because the people are local, the places where you have this oil and all of those things are quite local. They are not developed. It’s almost like it’s almost like, you know, I mean, it’s being treated like a toilet. You will clean your toilet, right, because that’s where you go and do stuff. So but people also clean up their toilet so that they can reuse. A situation where you don’t you just keep taking and taking and taking then whenever the conversation of, o.k., can we revisit this issue of what you are taking and how you are taking it and what is being left behind? They become very tempestuous. You understand. You know, so that’s why the conversations, I would say, have really have very minimal results in the past or even in the present.
KAHLE [00:23:59]: And so you had mentioned the one point that you haven’t yet been able to install this in Nigeria. How do you think the response or the engagement with the installation might be different than it has in a place like in Germany or Poland?
EHIKHAMENOR [00:24:16]: The sad thing about my country when it comes to. Uh. Using art or writing to create an awareness or even push governments to do something is that over the years they have they have developed a very thick skin for these things. They have they have seared their conscience to art as a form of protest. Right. So it’s a matter of I don’t think they will even pay attention to it. You know what I am saying. I mean, there are countries where cartoons are still being respected, right? There are countries where if if, for instance, maybe Washington Post were to like have an exposé or a New York Times were to have an exposé you understand. There would be actions and reactions. But my country is I mean, like it’s not like that. You know, if I were to create that same installation, it’s not going to make. It’s not going to make my country think twice. All right. So there is. Instead, you now go and create that installation whereby it disturbs the pipelines, you go and created it whereby the oil is not flowing, then you are ready for war. Right. Then somebody is going to listen and it’s not going to be a beautiful dance. Right, o.k. So that is that. I mean, there’s an artist in Ogoniland, there is an artist from the Niger Delta, Sokari Douglas Camp, who is based in the U.K., created a work to speak to the the plight of the Ogoni people and also reference Ken Saro-Wiwa and all of that. He created this, he also used barrel and created like a big truck or something like that, which had a good, created a great awareness in the U.K. when it was shown. But when it was being shipped to Nigeria, it got stuck in the, they ceased it or it never has been able to be cleared, in the in the ports. So in that sense, it’s like, o.k., this one has an international attraction. So guys, we are not going to play this because we don’t know what kind of a problem this is going to cost the country. So in that sense, even if I install it, which eventually means to do one day, is just to also create awareness for the people and everything. It is probably not going to ruffle any feather or create anything that will make them change their policies or even create awareness. If anything it will create awareness for the private sectors, for the NGOs that are helping with the cleaning and all of that. It is not going to create a national outcry and stuff like that. So yeah.
KAHLE [00:27:11]: Yeah, I mean, it seems like people in the Delta have had to make the outcry for themselves to the extent that issue gets attention. I don’t think I could offer any better ending than that. That was a really fantastic reflection. So thank you so much again.
EHIKHAMENOR [00:27:26]: Thank you Trish. Thank you so much.
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CIRS INTRODUCTION [00:00:04]: Welcome to the Center for International and Regional Studies at Georgetown University in Qatar. This podcast series is part of the Energy Humanities Research Initiative. The project aims to generate new scholarly conversations on everyday lived experiences of energy. [DRUMMING ENDS]
TRISH KAHLE [00:00:24]: Welcome to Part II of every day energy’s conversation with Victor Ehikhamenor. I’m Trish Kahle, a historian at Georgetown University in Qatar. Today, in this episode, we are extending our conversation from Part I where we discussed his work, The Wealth of Nations. Part II puts this work into a larger global context, particularly thinking about the politics of violence embedded in representing oil.
KAHLE [00:00:49]: I mean, I think, you know, I’m about to sort of expose my own predilections. So initially, one of the first things I had, I encountered a review of the installation and sort of the broader exhibition, and I was immediately drawn to the title of ‘The Wealth of Nations,’ because I had just taught it in a class. Oh, yeah. And so but, you know, one of the things that I loved about the installation was that the more I looked at it, the more that titled actually felt like. OK, I just taught the text and know what this is supposed to signify. And the longer I sat with it, the more unsure I felt, which was that really it doesn’t sound satisfying when I say it like that, but it was really satisfying. And one of the things that had really provoked me to think about was particularly I mean, we’re very, I think, primed to think about how oil wealth moves around the world and sort of how resources and wealth are extracted from oil rich nations and multinationals in particular profit from it. But I also think that there was also an element about complicity in state violence and sort of how the violence that both ecological state violence, violence against people has traveled out from the Niger Delta to the rest of the world. And so I was wondering if you wanted to say more about that, about violence in your work and sort of how the toll of violence moves with the oil or gets left behind.
VICTOR EHIKHAMENOR [00:02:12]: In that particular work, I mean, you cannot suppress the violence that comes with extraction of natural resources, especially in my continent, right? I mean, we can write to tome on that. You understand what I’m saying? And the most the most devastating aspect of it is that sometimes it’s nice to get there by the people is the ones that are coming to extract it because I mean, I’ve always asked these questions, what African country? Probably South Africa, which are African country make guns? Which are African country and minds? you understand what I’m saying, you know, so we don’t make these things. We don’t have arm manufacturing that I’m aware of. So how do we get these things right? So there’s a lot of that that can be said even outside my work. Right. Because, I mean, you can’t sit down and say, o.k., I want to make this violent work or something like that. But I think the violence of it in that sense is the water that got polluted because that shocked me. Yes, of course, it was my idea, but I didn’t know it was just going to take 48 hours. I wanted to find out how long will it take before this entire thing is wiped out? What I’ve constructed, what is so beautiful in the beginning has completely become something that is ugly, which is which is what oil was. Oil was supposed to be beautiful. I mean, some countries have been able to use it wisely to develop their country, whereas others, it has been it has been a curse. Right. You know it is because of the black gold. You know, there’s a lot of violence. We can say that on state level, on an environmental level or the psyche of the people. That the oil is even being extracted from you understand what I’m saying, because that is power to it also there is power play I mean, we are just getting a breather from the Niger Delta because in the 2000s, late 2000s, mid 2002, late 2000s. It was it was crazy, the militancy, you know, people rising up to say, o.k., we want we don’t want anybody coming to our land anymore. You guys have done enough. So there was that armed struggle, right. There was a lot of violence. There were different militants coming up in the Niger Delta area. So that was when I moved back to Nigeria, actually. And when one of the people, one of the presidents that eventually came to power on, that democratic institution came to power. Goodluck, President Goodluck Jonathan, a truce was being called. So I worked for a newspaper there and I was creative director of a major newspaper in Nigeria then. And the amount of images that was coming from coming from Niger Delta was just mind blowing for me of of guns that have been surrendered, gun bullets that are being surrendered, the militants that are coming to the capital to say, o.k., we have put down our guns, we are now ready for peace. You could see the amount of violence, the amount of people that died, you understand, and even the state bombing of of a lot of these places, because, I mean, during one of the administration, I think it’s Obasanjo’s administration in Nigeria, there was the bombing of of an entire town that was completely annihilated. Right. So I also had the chance of visiting a place called Oporoza, which is the Gbaramatu Kingdom. And a section of it, you can still see where there was aerial bombing of the whole place, art works, public sculptures were destroyed. And when I was photographing the area, when I was looking at what I was doing in the area. I realize that we are dropping bombs in the air right on this place, they are surrounded by water. So where do they run to? People literally jump into the water. How long can you stay in the water for the bombing to be over? What about those that can’t swim? So we can we can talk about the violence in this in these situations from from Nigeria to the Congos, to anywhere you can find natural resources for some weird reason. I trust some some some crazy amount of violence. Look at South Africa. I mean, what what what what what led to apartheid? What led to the wars that were fought, even among the earlier colonizers, you understand it was about the gold. It was about the mines. It was about it was about natural resources. So we can’t shy away from the violence that comes with natural resources at all. You understand. Congo is still not settled right now. You understand DRC, you look at it. And all of this is because that is the main place where some of the things that we use for our cell phones come from and stuff, you know? So it’s something that sometimes when I put my mind around, it is it’s really sad. It’s really painful. And I don’t think there’s enough art work to kind of elucidate the way I feel about this this kind of violence.
KAHLE [00:07:22]: I mean, it was also it’s really evocative for me as well. The indigenous peoples of western United States, right. Who live in the oil fields there and have been resisting pipelines and new drilling on their lands. But same thing about violence against the indigenous people as well as the pollution of the water. And so, I mean, in that sense, right, like there’s. Really, there’s obviously a distinctive Nigerian experience of oil, but it also has a lot of international connections and things that the international community could learn from that experience. And when I say international community, I think that sort of maybe some people listening will hear that and think like you. And I’m thinking of ordinary people. And so I was going to ask particularly about with the wealth of not just your work, but just a wealth of Nigerian art, literature about oil. What do you think that artists, writers, scholars around the world, what should they learn from that experience of sort of having to interpret, represent this violence, the decimation of communities, that wealth. What could other people learn from from that experience?
EHIKHAMENOR [00:08:30]: I think one of the primary objective of of of one of the primary assignment for an artist, a poet, a writer, and all of that is to mirror society, to talk about societies, to write about societies, to paint about society. And kind of interpret certain things that are normal or paranormal to the to the to the regular people for them to understand, you know, so a lot of the a lot of things have been written about my country. A lot of works have been made about my country and all of that. But I think that there is a lot to be taken away by whoever encounters all those things. Whether in the written form or in the in the actual form of visual representation. So, I mean, for the artist, they can also probably find a voice or a way to look at their own, you know, extraction of natural resources or if there is violence in their society, how they can also, like, kind of elucidate that clearly for the people. I think since oil was discovered in my country, a lot of literature has been written around it. You know other artists have spoken about it? It is history. It became a part of our tradition. Unfortunately for the artist or the writers, it’s not a beautiful tradition that one can say, oh, yeah, this is one particular thing we can look into and say, this is why it is. I mean, look at even the Nigerian civil war. If you look at it deeply and if you realize that was a war of resources, not necessarily a tribal war, you know, so and when you look at the writing around the Nigerian civil war, the Biafran war, you realize that there’s a lot to be learned from that. I think one of the big thing is to for people to learn is to see what they can avoid. How can how can we bring a certain conversations to the table? How can you avoid some of the demise my country has have to endure due to the discovery of oil or due to the extraction of natural resources. As we are speaking right now, that is even more going on in places like Zamfara, which is which is which they have gold and other natural resources because people focus on oil in Nigeria. We have all forms of natural resources, but it’s just that we’ve developed the oil industry more than the other resources, you know. So how do you begin to spread this out that other people can benefit from it and have control over it? How can people have control of the resources that is being dug out from that they are behind? You understand what I’m saying? You know, so I think that is where I would say lessons can be learned, like how do we avoid that mental and physical violence that come with natural resources.
KAHLE [00:11:20]: And so I guess just sort of as by way of a final question, is that how like you said this is seven years ago now? And so how did the experience of putting together this installation? How is that informed your work since then or anything you might be working on now?
EHIKHAMENOR [00:11:37]: Oh, I haven’t actually revisited the whole thing because, I mean, you know, it’s very easy for for one to be pigeonholed into like, oh, he’s an environmental artist or he is a culture artist, he is a political artist, I have not I’ve not had the opportunity to revisit it. I think it’s about time I tried it for even a reinstallation of that piece, at even in a more, in a larger perspective. But I’ve not had that opportunity or an institution to look at it from that perspective. So I would welcome that to to revisit it again and see what has happened since 2015, because I have not been in that mind space to look at it in the past five years. I would say that I’ve been looking at a different kind of violence. I’ve been looking at a different kind of cultural annihilation that happened in my own in my own kingdom, which is the Benin Kingdom, which is when the British attacked it in 1897 and took all our bronzes and all our art and artifacts, you know, so I have actually kind of created an awareness in regards to that particular kind of violence. You understand of of a certain people coming and killing women and children and destroying the palaces. Destroying the people’s culture and all of that, all in the name of taking the you know, taking their creation and again, their wealth of nations, because I wasn’t aware of, you know, so so you can see that I kind of skipped I went back to classical history. So my work kind of dance between that past present and how does it relate to the future, you know. So in that sense, I would say that that 2015 probably started informing me, looking at history and looking at the past and seeing how it’s affecting our current living. So after that, I think in 2016, I decided to even go back a little bit more to look at slave trade. And in my installation, in in my installation in in Dakart, which is called the ‘Prayer Room.’ So which was very close to if you sit where if you stand where I created, the artwork, you can see the Goree Island where it was a point of no return for the slaves, you know. So the whole the whole ideation or the whole origin of me creating a Prayer Room there is that if you were a slave, are you hiding in that particular place where I had that installation, you will be praying not to be caught or to be transported to a land that you don’t know. And how do you avoid that kind of violence, you understand. So over the time, now that we are speaking I realize I have been consecutive looking at history, you understand. So up until 2017, when I went to Venice Biennale, as one of the artists I represented, Nigeria, to also look at how have we forgotten those that came before us, you understand, how has history marginalized those that came before us. That violence of being forgotten or being canceled out of history. You know you know, we look at violence from different perspective because we also often tend to mistake the fact that violence is solely about physical violence. But there is mental and psychological violence, there is the violence of being wiped out of history, you understand. You know, so so that’s something that can be said on top of what was there. So you can say that over time, since that installation, I have referenced history, I have referenced things that are that that needs to be readdressed and revisited, you know.
KAHLE [00:15:26]: I mean, I think that both in terms of sort of thinking about histories of slavery as well as histories of oil and extraction, right that question of readdress is really, I think, one of the central ones and hopefully something that in particular, people listening to this, either from the United States or from Europe, sort of are able to take from your work. I guess then do you have any sort of last thoughts you want to leave us with or anything else you want to add before we wrap up for the interview?
EHIKHAMENOR [00:15:55]: I think we probably covered everything, except you have a last question as well. But I think I think I really don’t have anything else to add to it other than to say really thank you for inviting me to have this conversation. Oftentimes I’m being taken out of my comfort zone and certain topic come up that I that I have to like, think alot about and see how they relate to my work. So, yeah, you know.
KAHLE [00:16:24]: No, I mean, it’s really it’s been a pleasure to get to talk to you and I again, I really appreciate it getting to sort of sit with your work for more substantively, even though it’s not my primary area of expertise.
EHIKHAMENOR [00:16:35]: Thank you so much. I really appreciate it. Thank you.
[DRUMMING AND BIRDS CHIRPING]
- Adam Smith. The wealth of nations . Vol. 11937. na, 1937.
- Victor Ehikhamenor. Sordid Rituals. Oracle Books Limited, 2002.
- Victor Ehikhamenor. Of Friends, Money & Gossip: 3 Stories & a Play. Hodder Education, 2009.
- Victor Ehikhamenor. Excuse Me!. Parresia Books, 2012.
- Cajetan Iheka “The media turn in African environmentalism: the Niger Delta and oil’s network forms.” Journal of Visual Culture 20, no. 1 (2021): 60-84.
- Wealth of Nations – Art Exhibition by Victor Ehikhamenor
- Rosary Works – Art Exhibition by Victor Ehikhamenor