Legacies of Biafra

This blog is one in a series looking at our collections and our shared histories as part of Black History Month.

Our plan was that from September this year we would be showing Legacies of Biafra, an exhibition of artists’ responses to the 1976-1970 Nigeria-Biafra War. This has had to be postponed due to the current pandemic. We will announce new dates once they are confirmed, but in the meantime, Gallery Oldham art curator Rebecca Hill talks to independent curator Louisa Egbunike and Nigerian Art Society UK president Hassan Aliyu about the exhibition…

Independent curator Louisa Egbunike
Independent curator Louisa Egbunike

Rebecca Hill (RH): Hi Louisa and Hassan. Thank you for agreeing to talk to us for the blog. I’m sorry that we’re not chatting together in the gallery, but I look forward to the day when we can do that….

  • Firstly, please can you give our readers a brief introduction to the exhibition. How many artists are in the show? What sort of work can people expect to see?

In 2014 in the UK, commemoration for the centenary of World War I was embedded in various aspects of our lives. From commemorative coins, to TV programmes, exhibitions and installations, there was a concerted effort to remember this important historical event. It made me think of the importance of creating site of remembering, both to reflect and learn from the past and to make plans for the future. This sparked a series of conversations between myself and members of NASUK, thinking about how we could work together to produce an exhibition that did exactly this. The Legacies of Biafra exhibition is wide ranging, including installations, paintings, documentary films, music, oral histories, photography, books and memorabilia from the war. The works from NASUK engage with the war itself, as well as the ongoing impact of the war.

Louisa Egbunike
  • This exhibition has been arranged in collaboration with the Nigeria Art Society UK. Please can you tell us a little bit about the society.

The idea of a collective of Nigeria artists working in the UK originated in 1992. Then named Society of Contemporary Nigerian Artists (SCNA), our objectives were ratified by the academic committee of the Federation of British Artists (FBA) who also approved our exhibition proposal at the Mall Gallery, London in 1993. We reconstituted as the Nigeria Art Society UK in 2013. The Society’s core objective is to continue to raise the profile of established Nigerian artists’ work as well as support the new generation of emerging Nigerian diaspora artists. 

Hassan Aliyu
  • Louisa Egbunike is an independent researcher and curator, and has curated this exhibition. Have you all worked together on previous projects, and if not can you tell me how this partnership between NASUK and Louisa came about?

Hassan and Chike Azuonye (vice president of NASUK) attended a memorial lecture I had organised for the Nigerian author Chinua Achebe who passed away in 2013. We began a discussion around collaborating on an exhibition, which would engage with Achebe’s body of works. As I am an academic whose research is in African literature, I was excited about this collaboration. As my research moved into Nigeria-Biafra war literature, I asked Hassan and Chike if NASUK would be interested in collaborating on an exhibition focussing on the Nigeria-Biafra war and they were. Some NASUK members, such as Chike, had lived through the war and so this exhibition was deeply personal for many.

Louisa Egbunike
  • Some of our audiences will have been living in Nigeria/Biafra between 1967-1970. Others will remember seeing the horrifying images on television in the late 1960s. Some may not know much or anything about the war. Presumably it’s a bit much to ask to give even a basic outline of the war in one paragraph, but are you able to direct us to any good resources for learning about it?

Several books have been written about the Nigeria / Biafra war – however it remains a taboo subject for discussion. It is therefore our aspiration that through the Legacies of Biafra touring exhibition, we can influence the mindset by creating a space where such a conversation can be had peacefully. A number of these titles are included in the Legacies of Biafra exhibition which also includes other resources for learning about the war.

Hassan Aliyu
Book cover of Half of a Yellow Sun

In terms of literature, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel Half of a Yellow Sun, is probably one of the most celebrated recent works on the war. During the war, the celebrated poet Christopher Okigbo, put down his pen and picked up a gun, sadly losing his life. In his collection of poems Path of Thunder there are a series of poems written in the mid-1960s prophesising the war, as tensions were rising in in the country. Christopher Okigbo’s daughter Obi Okigbo is an artist and a member of NASUK, and her work in this exhibition engages with her father’s poetry to open a conversation about conflict and the need for healing.

Louisa Egbunike
  • There’s a really wide range of artists in the exhibition, some of whom experienced the war directly, and some who were born long after it ended.  Your show has been praised for including artists from different ethnic groups who fought on opposite sides in the war. I assume this was a conscious decision – was it difficult to put together an exhibition which feels “balanced” about such an emotive subject?

Emotions were at a fever pitch among some NASUK members, about doing the Legacies of Biafra exhibition. Several members chose to not participate in this exhibition that would showcase the most significant event in the history of our nation – yet they participated in the NASUK Nigeria@100 centenary exhibition in London.  As we deliberated over Legacies of Biafra, the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) and Movement for the Actualisation of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB) were at their most active – their uncompromising stance on the secession of Biafra was perhaps the reason that a number of our artists opted out of the show. There were also cases of people being persecuted in Nigeria for identifying with or engaging in discussions on Biafra. The diversity of artists in the exhibition is a reflection of the membership of our group as well as work by guest artists whose extensive engagement with the theme of the war is long acknowledged.

Hassan Aliyu
  • Hassan – is this the first time that you have engaged with this subject via your art, or is it something which you have felt you wanted to explore previously?

My art has delved on the themes of tribalism and racism for several decades and it is my ardent belief that the Nigeria Civil War was caused by both factors that lead all the way back to the European trade in African captives, imperialism and policy of divide and rule.

Hassan Aliyu

Thank you both very much for sharing your thoughts. We haven’t got much time/space to go into lots of detail here but we will be sharing more information via our social media channels during October and once the show opens next year. Thank you very much for giving us your time to talk about this exhibition, Louisa and Hassan.