Legacies of Biafra was held over two floors of the Brunei gallery, which is housed by the School of Oriental and African Studies of the University of London. The stimulus was the need to mark and commemorate the fifty years that have elapsed since the establishment of the Republic of Biafra and the subsequent turbulence of the Nigerian civil war. The genesis of the exhibition was in a conference, Legacies of Biafra, hosted by the Igbo Conference (Igbo Studies Initiative) at the School of Oriental and African Studies in April 2017. This exhibition was developed in collaboration with the Nigeria Art Society UK (NASUK) and was a visual illustration of the complex legacies of Biafra, the sense of mourning and loss and the belief in hope of renewal. As the curator, Louisa Egbunike, notes in her introduction to the catalogue, the conversation about Biafra and its legacies is not an easy one to have. Indeed, a number of the member artists of NASUK felt that the ambivalent legacy of Biafra was too much and withdrew from participation.
The exhibition therefore had to carry a weight. The legacy of Biafra is one of loss and migration, of brutality and the desperation of hope. The shock of Biafra, the first major post-colonial conflict in Africa, was magnified as the international press sent images around the world of desperate starvation. If the continent of Africa is so unfortunately identified with the image of the starving child, then that trope can perhaps be traced back to reporting of the widespread kwashiorkor, the image of the child with distended belly that became the image of Biafra.
This exhibition sets out to avoid repeating this imagery. It is there and not ignored, but the exhibition was curated to work beyond the mere documentary retelling of the Biafran story. It carried the legacy of Biafra through to the modern era—through the moment of the declaration of secession into the way the legacy persists into the contemporary. While the exhibition dealt with the depiction of bitter loss, it was also an examination of endurance and the “presentation of future possibility.” It was an examination of the way a future for the Igbo nation persists in the struggles for and the hope of “One Nigeria.”
The exhibition was developed through the display of both historic and contemporary material. It made thorough and good use of mixed media, historical documentation, and the presentation of the literature, particularly the archive of Chris Okigbo. However, the core of the works here came from artist members of NASUK. In all, sixteen contemporary artists were represented, but their work was complemented by works by artists of an earlier generation. In doing so, a conversation between past and present was established. The artists included demonstrated a keen awareness of the social and historical legacy that they were working with—the representation of war and its consequent horror. There was, in a number of the works presented, a double to their heritage as artists; worked through the close awareness, running through a number of works, of the legacy of movement that became known as “natural synthesis” and which formed the nucleus of the nationalist art movement in Nigeria through its proponents in the Zaria school of art.
Natural synthesis relied for its impetus on Uche Okeke's adoption of the uli designs of his Igbo community. Here, in Okeke's adoption of the Igbo legacy for his modernist experiments, there is an entangling of past and present, modern nationhood and age-old culture. It is a notion that resonates with precisely those difficulties of dealing with Biafra in any simple, historical, or linear sense. It is instructive also to see how contemporary makers are reinterpreting (remaking) the ideas of natural synthesis. Classic forms of natural synthesis are included, particularly in the work of Uzo Egunu, whose War and Peace is directly of that legacy (Fig. 1),1 The exhibition provides a really good introduction to some of the best of Igbo contemporary art, bringing to light a fresh rethinking of the synthesis project.
Thus Anthony Ndikanwu, in Legacies, presents a set of ceramic tiles captured in a large frame; onto each small tile is inscribed figures recognizable as nsibidi, the ideographic (and secret) script of southeastern Nigeria. It is a technique he reprises (this time on canvas) with the work HAAWW_HAAWW (hunger as a weapon of war), where the nsibdi designs are a backdrop to the figures of three starving children Or as in Promise of Tomorrow by Chinwe Uwatse: An uli design, one that could have been directly lifted from Okeke, floats across a landscape and in front of a blood red sky and half a yellow sun (drawn from the Biafran flag) (Fig. 2). Works such as Ngozi Schommers' Thatch and Window take the update of natural synthesis further, into installation. This work consists of wood, grass, and jute, but beneath the evocation of an Igbo house sits the red cap, isi agu cloth, and walking stick of an Igbo elder. While radically different in design it still carries the trace of that original movement (Fig. 3).
Bold political commentary is found in the works of Hassan Aliyu, Titus Agbara, and Ade Ogundimu. In Ogundimu's work By a Thread, the lines of the Nigerian state are reconceptualized and the State of Biafra hangs off the map, but it still hangs there, by a thread (Fig. 4). It is a reminder that the war and its legacy remain present in Nigeria. Hassan Aliyu's work Flare makes a more contemporary point about the exploitation of the southeast region by oil companies and an Nigerian state hungry for the wealth under the earth, whatever the environmental cost. Even more pointedly, Titus Agbara's Ogoni Memories, a work of mixed media with a central motif of noose-like tentacles of rope, invokes the state murder of the Ogoni rebels led by Ken Saro-Wiwa.
Other works take a more representational and figurative approach. Chike Azuonye's Ozoemena and Migration, No More Bloody Wars 11 by Chinwe Chukwugo-Roy MBE, and Edosa Oguigo's Aftermath are all within a Nigerian figurative tradition, and while the message is clear, the impact that these works have is not as striking as some of the other pieces in the exhibition.
A persistent theme in the exhibition was that of the family, running lines back to Biafra and forward into a newly imagined Nigeria. Within the catalogue is a letter from Onyekachi Wambu, the former editor of The Voice (the leading black newspaper of the 1980s) to his son, Chika, which talks of the pain and sorrow of a “bad war” but also of the lessons learned: that in keeping Nigeria together a better future could be imagined. It is a dialogue that is played out between the visual and verbal in the work of Obi Okigbo in her monumental Mmanwu and the poems of her father, Christopher Okigbo, a celebrated poet and writer who had been committed to the Biafran cause and whose untimely death in battle marked the disruption of a shared modernist impetus and its creative, critical vice (Fig. 5).
The exhibition managed to also bring forward The Voices of Biafra, replayed fifty years after the event. It was one of the key moments in the exhibition: a video instillation, a documentary film of Biafran survivors allowed oral testament and agency, bringing forward the memories and stories of the displaced, the migrant and the forgotten. Beyond all the stunning works of art on display, it was this vignette that was perhaps the most profound insight into the legacies of that war.
The exhibition makes a serious and committed attempt to bring the historical reality of the war into focus. Historical documentation and media from the period are marshalled to good effect. However, if there is a lacuna in the presentation it is that the work makes commentary on one side only. I do not mean by this that the focus is only on those artists of Biafra or of the southeastern region of Nigeria. What is missing is a wider context and more particularly the absence of an artistic response to the role that Britain played in its refusal to intervene, allowing the horror of starvation to persist in pursuit of a colonial orthodoxy.
This exhibition, in its movement backward and forward across time and between despair and hope, shows the way in which an intergenerational dialogue has developed that rethinking. Louisa Egbunike and the curatorial team should be very proud of this exhibition and the accompanying catalogue (Louisa Egbunike (ed.), An Exhibition of Artists Responses to the Legacies of Biafra, London: Nigeria Art Society, 2017)—it stands not only as legacy, but also as testament.
African Arts always includes the specific dates of works mentioned or captioned in reviews; however, nowhere in the catalogue or in the exhibition were the dates of works given and they have proved impossible to track down.