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Zina Saro-Wiwa’s exhibition depicts performance and complexity in a story of oil

At the ongoing Kochi-Muziris Biennale, Zina Saro-Wiwa reflects on her ancestral land in Niger Delta and the loss of resources and identity within her community.

by Sukanya DebPublished on : Feb 16, 2023

British-Nigerian artist Zina Saro-Wiwa is presenting a project titled Holy Star Boyz at Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2022. The project features a series of images with the background of alienation of indigenous life and identity through rapid industrialisation and extractive practices. Much of Zina's practice revolves around her ancestral homeland Ogoniland, which lies in the Niger Delta, with an indigenous population of approximately two million. As one of the largest oil producing regions in the world, the Delta has been the centre of political turmoil with oil companies like Shell encroaching on the land, including its resources. In conversation with STIR, the Nigeria-born artist speaks about the military government supported exploitation in the Delta, the increasing pollution, lack of job creation and her own family’s connection to the Ogoni movement led by Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP).

Traditionally a farming and fishing community in a rural land, the Ogoni people faced violation of their land pre-Nigerian independence, when the British government and Shell, previously Royal Dutch Shell, began oil production in the Niger Delta in 1958. After over 50 years of oil production in the region, compounded with oil spills, oil flares and waste discharge, the soil is no longer viable for agriculture as assessed by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). In 1990, under the leadership of the artist's father, Ken Saro-Wiwa, MOSOP sought to present a bill of rights for the Ogoni people to the Nigerian government, where economic and political autonomy saw a connection to the protection of their ancestral land and therefore, resources. However, in 1995, Ken Saro-Wiwa along with other leaders was executed by the Nigerian government on “trumped up charges” and dubious conditions, as the artist recalls. Zina speaks fondly of her father having been a writer, besides being a man of the people who championed the community’s rights.

Exhibition view of ‘Holy Star Boyz’, showing figures in the masks, at Kochi-Muziris Biennale | Holy Star Boyz | Zina Saro-Wiwa | STIRworld
Exhibition view of Holy Star Boyz, showing figures in the masks at Kochi-Muziris Biennale Image: Courtesy of STIR

Zina describes herself as an environmental artist, where her practice emphasises storytelling through image, art performance and video, even experimenting with distilling of alcohols as a vehicle for cultural narratives. Speaking with STIR, the artist talks about how art was the language that saved her when she began processing her own pain. “That’s what it means to be an artist, for me, listening to the land and letting the land tell the stories,” she says. The visual artist emphasises the fact that her unique relationship with the category of environmental art comes from a very personal relationship to environmentalism and her own sense of loss.

Zina Saro-Wiwa speaks about her practice, approach towards making art and her current project at Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2022 Video: Courtesy of STIR

Holy Star Boyz at Kochi Biennale 2022 in Kerala, India, features staged photographs of performers wearing Karikpo masks from the Ogoni crop fertility dance that is performed by young men. Highly acrobatic in nature, the dance is performed to resemble the prancing movement of antelopes. The masks, in turn, are usually resembling antelopes, which is considered emblematic within the community, and indigenous to the region. In this regard, the artist mentions how the masks also archive the flora and fauna particular to Ogoniland. The bare torso-ed male figures that appear in the photographs are flanked by an urban industrial background, where they interact with each other in seemingly tender ways. The artist points out that this is not necessarily indicative of a romantic relationship as gestures like holding hands is much more common with men outside of a western context, which has a certain regimented sense of masculinity. Through the juxtaposition of gesture and contact with a highly industrial background, on streets where building material is made explicit, as the artist says.

Detail view of ‘Holy Star Boyz’, showing figures resembling the Pieta position against a backdrop of tyres | Holy Star Boyz | Zina Saro-Wiwa | STIRworld
Detail view of Holy Star Boyz with figures resembling the Pieta position against a backdrop of tyres Image: Courtesy of STIR

Speaking about the material significance of the petroleum-based resin masks used to stage the photographs, the artist says, "The fact that (the mask) was heavy was important — I saw information in that. This idea that, here is this material that’s petroleum-based, and I liked the poetry of how it has kind of prevented performance, but that they also look sugary. But the cost is so much more (than the traditional wooden masks). And they also make beautiful pictures quite frankly!”

Detail view of ‘Holy Star Boyz’, showing figures wearing Karikpo masks that resemble antelopes | Holy Star Boyz | Zina Saro-Wiwa | STIRworld
Holy Star Boyz depicting figures wearing Karikpo masks that resemble antelopes Image: Courtesy of STIR

Further, Zina—who lives and works between the United States and Nigeria—explores the tension through the image, where she rejects popularised images of tragedy and violence through the lens of journalists and NGOs. With the growing presence of militant and paramilitary groups in the Niger Delta through the 2000s, the popularised image of the region is that of militancy. Instead, Zina looks to stories of life rather than death. Exploring the tension between strength and vulnerability, and the bravado that comes with a masculine image, she reflects on the global system that works against these young men. The photographs feature some ex-militants, who were previously involved with bunkering, who are left with no choice but to insert themselves into the oil industry due to a lack of jobs in the region. The prevalent image of militants, the artist mentions, would be on speedboats, armed, with masked faces. The symbol of the mask repeats in this regard, pivoting back to the land and its people, in Zina’s depiction. The artist speaks about her extensive research into masquerade in Africa and how women are not allowed to be involved with the ritual or artform, which only pushed her to make her own way and commission masks of her own.

Exhibition view of ‘Holy Star Boyz’, showing arrangement of lightboxes | Holy Star Boyz | Zina Saro-Wiwa | STIRworld
Exhibition view of Holy Star Boyz, showing arrangement of lightboxes Image: Courtesy of STIR

Reflecting upon the complex image that she tries to depict through her work, Zina says, "It's beholden upon storytellers, whether they are in the media or museum world, to tell deeper stories and to provide a point of connection, and that kind of hasn't really been happening. That’s because you need contemporary artists to go there and (for the institution to) be comfortable with a certain level of subjectivity.”

Zina Saro-Wiwa | Holy Star Boyz | STIRworld
Artist Zina Saro-Wiwa Image: Courtesy of Zina Saro-Wiwa

Read more on Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2022, which is on view till April 10, 2023, in Kerala, India.

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