Damien Hirst’s latest exhibition in Venice is making headlines for all the wrong reasons.
The British artist’s exhibition “Treasures From the Wreck of the Unbelievable” opened last month in Venice showcasing a range of artwork imagined as debris from a fictional shipwreck discovered off the coast of East Africa in 2008. One of Hirst’s artworks, a golden sculpted head named “Golden heads (Female)” has caused a stir for its striking resemblance to Ori Olokun, a 14th century bronzehead from Ife, an ancient Yoruba kingdom.
In his notes, Hirst, 51, says the artwork is “stylistically similar to the celebrated works from the Kingdom of Ife,” but Laolu Senbanjo, a New York-based Nigerian artist disagrees with Hirst’s referencing. “There was nothing stylistically similar to Hirst’s “Golden Heads,” they are carbon copies of the original,” said the 2016 Quartz Africa Innovator. “This is not his narrative, not his art and yet he’s profiting off this.” Hirst’s pieces at the exhibition are expected to fetch as much as $5 million.”
Being based in New York, Senbanjo is in a unique position to speak on appropriation of African art outside its borders. Afromysterics, art which he describes as based on “the mystery of the African thought pattern,” has grown popular, leading to collaborations with sportswear giants Nike and global stars including Beyonce.
Beyond the lack of proper attribution, Senbanjo says there’s a larger significance to the inclusion of the Ife bronzehead in Hirst’s sea-themed exhibition. “Ori Olokun is about the Goddess of Wealth and keeper of the Ocean floor. As this entire exhibition is titled, “Treasures of the Unbelievable” where they literally sunk each piece and then resurrected it off the ocean floor, the lack of acknowledging the significance of the meaning of her name, “Keeper of the Ocean Floor” is interesting to me,” Senbanjo tells Quartz. The “extremely watered down version” of the bronzehead’s significance and meaning, he says, is “beyond infuriating.”
Hirst’s timing to use Nigerian art influences in his work for his work might have seemed fortuitous because this is the first Biennale where Nigerian artists have a dedicated exhibition. It means there are more Nigerians around to see his work close-up and question Hirst’s intentions.
Hirst’s bronzehead replica has kicked off conversations around cultural appropriation but, more importantly, for Nigerians, it’s an eerie reminder of 19th century colonial violence which saw British forces plunder some of Nigeria’s most iconic artworks from the ancient Benin kingdom. Those works, now on display across Britain, have steadily been subject of controversy and decades-old campaigns for repatriation. In one instance, “Okukor,” a Benin bronze cockerel, was removed from a Cambridge University dining hall following protests by students that the sculpture’s display was a reminder of a colonial past.