Ogoni traditional art is singular and finds its way into prominent museum collections around the world. But the potent masks and figurines are a dying art and little is being done to document, protect or promote the practice. Since 2013, Mangrove Arts Foundation founder Zina Saro-Wiwa has been conducting research and documenting Ogoni traditional art and making art work in response to it. She has also been acquiring and commissioning works from standout Ogoni artists:

“In 2013 I returned to the Niger Delta to make art and through art get to grips with my birthplace and personal history. One of the great revelations of my time there was the traditional art making in the villages of Ogoniland. I travelled around the 1000 sq km of my ancestral homeland to find out who all the carvers were and understand masquerade traditions. It was through this journey that I met carvers whose works I loved including Promise Lagiri and Lenu Naabigwa. But also this journey opened my eyes to the ways in which we could be using our cultural power. Now my organisation wants to train and empower other local researchers to make the same journey, documenting who our carvers are and recording our remaining traditions in other areas of the Niger Delta. We are better known for oil and its despoilment. Our art is an under-utilised cultural and economic resource and a dying practise in many parts of the Niger Delta. It needs to be protected.

This research drive is an integral part of the current call for the restitution of African art objects according to Saro-Wiwa:

“When we talk about the restitution of African art objects from European museums, we shouldn’t just be talking about returning works from the West to their respective nations. Our focus should equally be about the restitution of objects and cultures within the continent. Restitution also means documenting, honouring and developing the contemporary tradtional arts practises that persist in Africa and certainly in the Niger Delta. This is an art practise that is suffering from philosophically and economically dubious international art world practises, as well as local prejudices and corruption.”

The Mangrove Arts Foundation will be partnering with Oxford University’s Dr David Pratten, Professor in the Social Anthropology of Africa a social anthropologist whose research is based on a long-term engagement with Annang villagers in south-eastern Nigeria and focuses on themes of history, violence and the state. More recently his research has examined issues of youth, democracy and disorder in post-colonial Nigeria with a particular focus on vigilantism and new masquerade performances. The research drive will consolidate the work that has taken place in Ogoniland and Dr Pratten’s area of study and will spread the research to other states and ethnic groups in the Niger Delta. We seek to discover and document who the remaining carvers and artists are that are working and to photograph and research the works that are made and used. This new living archive will form the basis of new books and exhibits providing local and international educational resources, preserving the region’s cultural capital.

Please reach out to us via our contact page to learn more about this project and find out how you can support us. You can also make a donation directly on the Support page.