As a big fan of Nollywood, in the past, my friends have often looked at me bemused and screamed “Pej! How do you manage to watch so much Nollywood?!”
Not so much these days, but during my years at University, Nollywood was the soundtrack to my life. My days were spent watching Iroko TV (the equivalent of Netflix for Nigerian releases) and the VCD’s (if you know then you know) that my mum would pick up from the Market here in London and on her trips to Nigeria. I was wholly consumed by the genre of film which has steadily grown in popularity since the late 1990s. I vividly remember with excitement when Funke Akindele jumped on the scene and really got it popping with Jenifa (2008) exposing and reflecting the ‘reckless’ lives that some of the girls on campus live in order to be known as ‘big girls’. This came at an age that we were all finally ready to digest the realness, as well as serving as a warning for young women to stay safe. To further bolster this point, I must mention my rushing to get home and catch the 9pm film due to show on either ABN or Vox Africa. Nollywood was my world and more than often I'd rather be at home with a VCD than out partying.
Towards the end of last year it occurred to me, I hadn’t been to nearly enough events, even though I am now working in the context of the museum. In thinking about specific opportunities to engage with the arts, I think mostly about the 'in conversation'. I am often enamoured by the process an artist goes through to create work, as such, I see these events as a great opening to see the living artist in the context of the gallery or museum talking through their work.
As I sifted through Tate’s website my jaw dropped, there it was - Nollywood in bold letters. My heart fluttered a little and without really reading the synopsis, I booked a ticket immediately for what appeared to be quite an attractive event. The event was Zina Saro-Wiwa: From Nollywood to Niger Delta and to be held at Tate Britain. The synopsis read as
“Artist and filmmaker Zina Saro-Wiwa presents a selection of works which chart the complex terrain of emotional landscape and the performance of self. Whether sumptuously shot in Nigeria’s Niger Delta or captured in-studio, Saro-Wiwa studies and expands our relationship to daily reality, otherworldly belief and cathartic release.”
Having visited various museums and galleries I often feel that there is a lack of work produced by international artists or those from the diaspora that speaks to BAME audiences in the UK. Further to this, the interpretation accompanying the works in the absence of the physical presence of the artist changes the intended meaning of the work as well as critically failing to present nuanced themes that are likely present. This sadly often leads to a watering down of concepts and ideas to suit the comfortability of the masses audiences who are perhaps seen as being financially more lucrative. I have grown increasingly weary of the latter but hope to push forward change in the near future through developing my curatorial practice.
The in conversation with Zina Saro-Wiwa was hosted by curator Zoe Whitely. After a brief introduction, the evening started with a showing of her work Phyllis (2010). The 15-minute long video depicted a Lagosian (what we refer to those living in Lagos as) Phyllis who is obsessed with Nollywood dramas. Her room instantly recognisable as a Nigerian home, the pastel coloured walls plastered with Nollywood film posters and the room decorated with religious embolisms. The constant changing of wigs seen by Phyllis serves as an ode to the Nollywood divas we often see changing their hair an obscene amount of times, whilst also highlighting the plight of the women of Nollywood who are often mistreated tremendously. On reflection of mainstream Nollywood, we often journey through plot lines on the edge of our seats, desperately longing to see the conclusion of all the drama that has unfolded, only to see it end without resolve or promise of a sequel with 'To God be the Glory'. However, the piece went further to uncover the concept of mental illness and loneliness, something we as Nigerians struggle to speak about with openness.
As the conversation continued and we were shown more examples of Saro-Wiwa’s work I was most captured by The Deliverance of Comfort (2010).
The 7-minute video detailed the story of Comfort, an alleged ‘child witch’. The film is narrated by a “priest” who pinpoints who to identify a child witch and what to do once they’ve been found. The film was disturbing for obvious reason and drew parallels with the experience of children show in an episode of Channel 4's Dispatches Saving Africa's Witch Children (2008). It was a stark reminder of cultural differences and how very vital religion is in the everyday life of a Nigerian. Chinua Achebe's Things fall apart highlights similar points of discussion around religion and its potential for destruction.
Following this, we were shown the series Table Manners (2014-2016).
As the lights dimmed and we sat in darkness, I wasn't quite ready for what ensued. Ordinarily, there is nothing particularly unusual about people eating. Eating is what we do for survival, for pleasure and an act of sharing, but when confronted by the act on a large screen with the subject appearing to be looking you dead in the eyes, it makes for an uncomfortable experience. It was in the face of this discomfort that I considered a number of questions about how the dichotomy viewing the world through a western lens can create.
Watching Barisuka did not deviate from the experience of watching the other films shared from the Table Manners series. The same level of discomfort and intensity was experienced as we watched Barisuka eating her meal of roasted ice fish and beans. Drawing on themes of colonialism which Saro-Wiwa explores and the way ‘Africans eat’, as a woman, Barisuka will be subject to being judged by both aspects of her identity. History is littered with examples of the unfair standards women are held to. The latter is a core part of the complex relationships many women have with themselves. This often manifests in the way we present ourselves, trickling into our social encounters, particularly dating, providing a basis for fear in relation to food triggered by the notion of table manners and how their suitor may perceive them.
Further exploring the concept of food and gender, as I watched her eat, I began to think about the potential for a perceived ‘masculinity’. Returning to the concept of why we eat; survival, pleasure and sharing, there was an urgency in the way that she ate that I had only ever unconsciously noticed in male friends or in my brothers. As the film continued, I developed an appreciation for how she ate. Barisuka displayed a boldness and ownership that reminded me that however much freedom ‘we’ in the west have, the social constructs that prevail would hinder even the most nonchalant from dreaming talk less of displaying such without ‘doing it for the vine’ or some other social media platform devised to give one their ‘15 minutes of fame’.
The evening itself was insightful in getting to know more about Saro-Wiwa’s practice. It was great to talk Nollywood and the varying spaces it can occupy. The room was full of people who see the artistry and potential that can emerge from the genre as opposed to it being dismissed because of its ‘basic’ storylines and low production qualities. I'm looking forward to further exploring the arts scene in Nigeria and how it can and continues to influence artists who are part of the diaspora.
Find out more about the work of Zina Saro-Wiwa on her website here.