Sunday, February 12, 2017

Plagiarism: Not Again!

Many years ago (mid 1990s), I was invited by the National Gallery of Art in Nigeria, along with a dear friend and colleague to organize an exhibition of the Art Society--the group of young artists at the Nigerian College of Art, Science and Technology, Zaria who, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, played an important role in the development of modernism in Nigeria. We began this project with all the enthusiasm it deserved. But it got stalled. And by the time it was eventually realized in 1998, I had moved to the US. To my horror, when the book published for this exhibition by the National Gallery of Art, Abuja came out, I found that a long chapter on Uche Okeke, the leader of the Art Society, supposedly written by a well-known Lagos-based Nigerian artist contained vast sections lifted directly from my text in a catalogue I edited for Uche Okeke's retrospective exhibition in 1993 (my very first curatorial project!). I felt utterly violated, especially because this person was held in high esteem in the Nigerian art world. In that messy terrain, it was impossible to figure how pressing charges for copyright infringement against the NGA and the perpetrator might have ended. So, to keep the peace of the graveyard, I let it go. It still maddens me.

So, you should pardon my calling out the fellow involved in a recent Nigerian exhibition project who has done something similar, though on a much smaller scale. I was just reading the interview with curator of the Nigeria architecture pavilion of the 2016 Venice Biennale, published in an online art magazine called JULIET: Contemporary Art Magazine Since 1980. Then I came across a statement by the curator that sounded so strangely familiar. Not again, I sighed.

Here is the offending material:

Alessia Cervelli: The presence of Nigeria has certainly an historical value. What does for this country mean to have a representation in an exhibition of international level like that of Venice? 

Camilla Boemio: We have truly made history with Diminished Capacity. Nigeria has long been, from the beginning of both independence from the British Empire in 1960 and the outbreak of civil war in 1967, in a continuous phase of socio-cultural development. It is the most populous nation of the continent and it is the so-called “pulsating heart of Africa”. At this stage the government’s priorities were not immediately expected the participation at the Venice Biennale although many young Nigerian artists inaugurated the postcolonial modernism, inspired by the rhetoric and ideologies of decolonization and nationalism in the mid-twentieth century, and, later, by supporters of negritude and pan-Africanism, translating the experience of decolonization in a typical “post-colonial modernity” which has continued to be the work of great Nigerian artist. According to the Nigerian High Commissioner of the Pavilion, George Nkanta Ufot (The Director of the International Cultural Affairs) of the Ministry of Information and Culture, the development of international cultural exchange is one of the main priorities of the new government. I am sure that the ambition of the Ministry of Information and Culture is to establish a solid foundation for the continued participation of Nigeria at the Biennale.

Here is the book description on the back cover of my Postcolonial Modernism book:

"Written by one of the foremost scholars of African art and featuring 129 color images, Postcolonial Modernism chronicles the emergence of artistic modernism in Nigeria in the heady years surrounding political independence in 1960, before the outbreak of civil war in 1967. Chika Okeke-Agulu traces the artistic, intellectual, and critical networks in several Nigerian cities during the decade. Zaria is particularly important, because it was there, at the Nigerian College of Arts, Science and Technology, that a group of students formed the Art Society and inaugurated postcolonial modernism in Nigeria. As Okeke-Agulu explains, their works show both a deep connection with local artistic traditions and the stylistic sophistication that we have come to associate with twentieth-century modernist practices. He explores how these young Nigerian artists were inspired by the rhetoric and ideologies of decolonization and nationalism, and by advocates of negritude and pan-Africanism in the early and mid-twentieth century. They translated the experiences of political decolonization into a distinctive "postcolonial modernism" that had a far-reaching impact on subsequent Nigerian art."

Could you please, Ms. Camilla Boemio, Curator of the First Nigerian Pavilion in the 2016 Venice Biennale of Architecture please send a note of apology for this act of plagiarism. I am waiting to hear from you, Ms. Boemio.

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