Pin It
Phyllis film
Zina Saro-Wiwa

The radical black artist bringing Nigerian cinema to the UK

We meet filmmaker Zina Saro-Wiwa to discuss femininity, sensuality and her exhibition ‘From Nollywood to the Niger Delta’

While art in America takes steps towards diversity in its institutions, revolutionising the canon to make space for previously ignored black artists, the spotlight is on the UK after last years unsettling Warwick Commission report affirmed that yes, the arts were becoming more whitewashed and elitist. Women and black people are barely visible in art institutional spaces and seeing exhibited works by Black British artists is like finding gold dust

This makes the alluring work of British-Nigerian artist Zina Saro-Wiwa so challenging and significant. Based between Brooklyn and the Niger Delta, she turned to art after a career as a BBC culture reporter and documentarian, her filmmaking, video installations and photographic works draw connections between Nollywood filmmaking tropes, food, faith, the blurred lines of identity politics and emotional landscapes." Raised in the UK, she is also from Ogoniland, where her father Ken Saro-Wiwa led a human rights campaign against destructive foreign oil giants until he was tragically executed by the military government.

Zina’s upcoming screening and discussion at the Tate Britain, From Nollywood to the Niger Delta, is curated by Zoe Whitley, co-curator of the Studio Museum in Harlem’s ground-breaking Shadows Took Shape exhibit and accompanying Tumblr that examined Afrofuturist aesthetics in contemporary art. Zoe is currently one of the few black curators at the Tate holding dual roles of Curator of International Art at Tate Modern and Tate Britain Curator of Contemporary British Art where she oversees the Artist Film and Video programme.

She says of Saro-Wiwa, “Artists are the most inquisitive, critically engaged people. I was drawn to Zina’s sense of place making, and how the landscape becomes a character in her work. I’m interested in how people approach their history and inject their subjectivity into it, Zina is able to look at generative, complex possibilities that might deal with grief, loss and isolation but present it in a way that is sumptuous and beguiling. It’s about those opposites co-existing.”

We caught up with Zina Saro-Wiwa to discuss what makes art engaging, the complexity of national identities and demystifying the artistic process.

Zina, can you tell me more about the formation of your filmmaking practice?

Zina Saro-Wiwa: In 2010 I curated a show called Sharon Stone in Abuja at a gallery in Soho, New York for which I made two “alt-Nollywood" films and my first ever video installation. Before this I had only ever been involved in radio and video documentary and so this work was a radical departure. It literally just erupted through me. Despite bursting into the art scene in such a decisive fashion, I did not, in 2010, consider myself an artist.

I did not expect to make more work and it was not my intention to become a gallery artist. But contemporary art practises proved too seductive a tool to explore the world. When I look back at this work from 2010, I do find myself laughing a little and wondering where it came from. Especially Phyllis. But I love that all sorts of people are still connecting with this piece. I often come across the film on a lot of trans and queer tumblrs for example. It’s wonderful.

The synopsis of your film describes Phyllis as “a meditation on loneliness and mental health”. How did Phyllis come about?

Zina Saro-Wiwa: Phyllis is real. Real in some sort of earthly or spiritual realm and I just tapped into her. Sounds weird but it was she that told me her name. it was only once I got to Nigeria that she began to tell me who she was, what she liked. Lagos, in a sense, directed this work and helped Phyllis become real. Once I was inside this blue room, I just started messing around and shooting a lot of photography with my actress – the story just sort of organised itself and emerged from there. That was when I began to understand that it was about drilling down into a feeling, not covering narrative terrain. By going deeper and drilling into the aesthetic, somehow the other ideas and emotional concerns that pulsate through the film naturally emerged without the need for a script.

is there a particular Nollywood film that inspired you to subvert these conventions?

Zina Saro-Wiwa: Phyllis began life as a reaction to an old Nollywood film called Beyonce vs Rihanna. I was appalled, delighted and fascinated. Especially the way the women’s hair and wigs changed so willfully and recklessly, it became the vessel that allowed me to work through some other things I was interested in like the idea of psychic vampires, people that suck other people’s energy. And, indeed, loneliness.

What can we learn from Nollywood?

Zina Saro-Wiwa: Nollywood teaches people about trusting themselves, trusting that you have something important to say. It is about giving it a go and not waiting for huge amounts of funding from some outside source. This sense of not having to wait for perfect conditions but just getting out there and expressing yourself one way or another.

How do you negotiate femininity and sensuality into the politics of landscapes like Lagos, often painted as hypermasculine?

Zina Saro-Wiwa: I use food as  a way to insert ideas about femininity, sensuality, agency and transformation  especially within the context of somewhere like the Niger Delta which, if you google image it, is all about the war of extraction of oil, men with guns and male bodies smeared with petroleum. Nothing is more immediate than food, than the act of nourishing the self. I have found working with food the most strangely powerful and useful way to subvert and renew the conversation about the Niger Delta which defaults to this very circular, bleak hand-wringing which has led to very little change or insights into who we really are as a people and how to transcend our predicament. Food has been my portal to accessing something elemental and mysterious but generative and powerful. And the way art reframes an idea or a place is often the embryo for change.

“Phyllis became the vessel that allowed me to work through some other things I was interested in like the idea of psychic vampires, people that suck other people’s energy. And, indeed, loneliness”

How far removed is the Niger Delta from the west, from colonialism, if at all? 

Zina Saro-Wiwa: There is a great distance between the Niger Delta and the West that should not be there. A quarter of the US’s oil came from the Niger Delta up until 2010. Shell is a company with headquarters in the UK. We all make use of the oil industry one way or another. So the Niger Delta is deeply implicated in the lives of anyone that makes use of petroleum products. That’s pretty much everyone in the world.

There is no meaningful conversation. But the connection is there. My father, Ken Saro-Wiwa was educated within the British system in Nigeria and sent all his children to be educated in the UK itself creating, for all intents and purposes, hybrid British children. Many of whom have something to say and spend their time writing and making art. The personal impact of this colonial connection may not be recognized but it is hugely important.

My father’s death really propelled the story of what was going on in the Niger Delta into the global consciousness. His death was an explosion but people only focused on the political bang . But what caused this explosion  is more than just the politics of pollution and petroleum extraction. There is an interconnectedness of issues that has not been seen or understood and this is a result of the narrow way the UK has historically engaged Nigeria and the ahistorical tendencies within Nigeria. There is a lack of will when it comes to the teaching and sharing of our histories and stories in Nigeria.

My father’s tragic death was, in fact, the culmination of many unspoken forces: historic, futuristic, political, economic, racial, personal and spiritual. There is a universal lesson in the very nature of interconnectedness here that we need to learn. Part of my work is unpacking all these forces, experimenting with them, giving them a platform and getting people to connect with it. I see contemporary art, experimental film-making and, yes, even Nollywood as ways to fill this story-telling void in surprising ways.

Zina Saro-Wiwa: From Nollywood to the Niger Delta is being screened at Tate Britain on Monday January 18