Zina Saro-Wiwa: Exploring my father's legacy

Artist Zina Saro-Wiwa’s activist father Ken was hanged by Nigeria’s military government in 1995. Now, after many years in the UK and the US, she tells Charlotte Cripps, she is returning to the Niger Delta

The artist and former presenter of the BBC’s The Culture Show, Zina Saro-Wiwa, 38, daughter of the hanged human-rights activist Ken Saro-Wiwa, has opened a brand-new pop-up contemporary art gallery in the most unlikely spot. Her gallery, the Boys’ Quarters Project Space, is housed in a white-fronted building in Port Harcourt, in the Niger Delta region. It occupies the second floor of 24 Aggrey Road, the old office building of her late father, who was executed by the military regime in Nigeria in 1995, when Zina was 19 years old.

Ken Saro-Wiwa led the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP), a nonviolent campaign against the environmental degradation of Ogoniland by the operations of the multinational petroleum industry – notoriously Shell. In 1994 he was charged, along with eight others, with the murder of four Ogoni elders in a suspected rigged trial – in 2009 Shell agreed a $15.5m out-of-court settlement with the families of the hanged murder suspects without admitting liability.

Now Saro-Wiwa hopes that her gallery will be a small step in “re-imagining” the Niger Delta through art and beauty. She has put a fresh lick of paint on the walls and refurbished the space. Her father’s old office now serves as a museum dedicated to him, and in addition there are two small soundproofed galleries, a reading room, and a bathroom. Situated on a busy commercial road close to the port, it’s in an area which is considered dangerous and is notorious for its local gangsters.

“There is not much to feed the soul in Port Harcourt,” says Saro-Wiwa. “It has hardly any public art spaces – it’s all done behind closed doors.” So placing the gallery in her father’s office is, she says, “a powerful, restorative and symbolic act”.

Saro-Wiwa grew up in the UK, after moving there at the age of one with her mother and siblings. She attended Roedean school in Sussex, but visited Port Harcourt during her school holidays. When she was 14, mounting tensions in the Niger Delta made it unsafe and she did not return there until she was 24, five years after her father’s death, to bury his remains, which had finally been released to his family. But it was only last year that she left New York, where she had been living since 2009, and went to live and work in the Niger Delta.

“As soon as I arrived in Port Harcourt I had the idea of an art gallery – within 24 hours the building was emptied and we began the process of transformation,” says Saro-Wiwa. “I get ideas and I want to follow them through without thinking too much. Actually it turned out to be quite profound because I was able to turn my father’s office into more of a museum site. We are injecting a whole new energy back into that space.”

The art exhibitions will all be curated by Saro-Wiwa to address the inner life of the Niger Delta, and will involve local, Nigerian and international artists. Her current show, The Restless Grove, includes mixed-media sculptural works and found pieces by the Niger Delta artist Perrin Oglafa. One piece is a boat from Oglafa’s village, painted red and black; another sculpture is a raw canvas that has been painstakingly taken apart, one thread at a time, and so seems to resemble and refer to the fishing nets used by his fisherman forefathers.

'An Odoni Heart' is Saro-Wiwa’s own six-minute video installation 'An Odoni Heart' is Saro-Wiwa’s own six-minute video installation Saro-Wiwa’s own six-minute video installation in the second gallery, entitled An Odoni Heart, features Oglafa being possessed by art as he makes it. Even the local caretaker who has worked for the Saro-Wiwa family for years, ended up making colourful art out of bottle tops while helping set up the exhibition space.

In her father’s office, along with the swivel chair and desk left by him, there are 50 books from his personal library and photographs from the family collection. She will also show photographic and video installation works relating to her father’s life and legacy.

“I am exploring his legacy in his office in strange ways, by making some films that will be projected in there,” she says. “I’m filming people eating food that my father loved. It’s about the fact that I never really cried about my father. I found it very difficult to access my emotions because the legacy was taken over immediately by activists – I felt like I couldn’t access him – he wasn’t my father any more. The only time I would cry was when I thought about the breakfast I would make him.” She has also commissioned a Dutch photographer to snap a street in Amsterdam named after her father for a photo story to be exhibited in August.

“I’m really enjoying the opportunity to think about and expand my father’s legacy in a more imaginative way. I think his legacy is much bigger than his execution and the fight against Shell oil. He was someone who wanted to use creativity to have more of a connection to land and environment. These are all things we are exploring in the exhibition; the way people relate to environment – not just oil pollution but emotional and spiritual pollution – and giving it an international voice.”

Saro-Wiwa is also making new work for two museum shows in the US by engaging with local artists in Ogoniland. “I guess I’m like my father – I’m wanting to empower people but I’m doing it through art not politics,” says Saro-Wiwa, who hopes to create deep change in a region that has been blighted by the oil industry.

Since Saro-Wiwa gave up journalism for art, she has been committed to changing the way the world sees Africa, but it is only now that she has shifted to focus specifically on the Niger Delta. In 2008, she directed This is My Africa, which was snapped up by HBO, and explores African culture through the anecdotes of London-based Africans and Africaphiles, including Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jon Snow and Colin Firth.

In 2010, Saro-Wiwa went to Lagos, Nigeria, to make films. Subverting the conventions of the traditional Nigerian film industry (“Nollywood”) she was the founder of the alt-Nollywood movement and made genre-busting films including Phyllis, about a crazy wig-wearing woman, and The Deliverance of Comfort about a child witch.  

“What I did not expect however, was how focusing in on Africa has often resulted in work that transcended the idea of Africa and became deeply personal. And really it is the relationship between the personal and the political that interests me.

“From my father as political statue who symbolises only pain and victimisation, I want a expose his legacy as one that is, in fact, generative, reflexive, cultural and full of vitality. I don’t want people to be depressed when faced with the issues confronting the Niger Delta. I want people to see possibility. It is through art that I hope to begin that journey.”

‘The Restless Grove’ , Boys’ Quarters Project Space, Port Harcourt, Niger Delta (boysquartersprojectspace.com) to 31 July

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Feeling all at sea: Barbara's 18-year-old son came under the influence of a Canadian libertarian preacher – and she had to fight to win him back
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Living the high life: Anne Robinson enjoys some skip-surfed soup
TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
Doctor Who and Missy in the Doctor Who series 8 finale

TV
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

    Why are we addicted to theme parks?

    Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
    Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

    Iran is opening up again to tourists

    After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
    10 best PS4 games

    10 best PS4 games

    Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
    Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

    Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

    Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
    Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

    ‘Can we really just turn away?’

    Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

    ... and not just because of Isis vandalism
    Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

    Girl on a Plane

    An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent
    Markus Persson: If being that rich is so bad, why not just give it all away?

    That's a bit rich

    The billionaire inventor of computer game Minecraft says he is bored, lonely and isolated by his vast wealth. If it’s that bad, says Simon Kelner, why not just give it all away?
    Euro 2016: Chris Coleman on course to end half a century of hurt for Wales

    Coleman on course to end half a century of hurt for Wales

    Wales last qualified for major tournament in 1958 but after several near misses the current crop can book place at Euro 2016 and end all the indifference