Curator Azu Nwagbogu on Restitution, Collaboration and African Feminism

His curation of Benin's Venice Biennale pavilion will draw on the ancient Gelede philosophy of Yoruba Feminism.

Azu Nwagbogu was surprised when Patrice Talon, president of the Republic of Benin, asked if he’d like to curate the nation’s first-ever Venice Biennale pavilion. “I was invited to do this without ever knowing that they had an interest in me or applying for it,” Nwagbogu told Observer. “Obviously, they had done their own research.”

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Curator Azu Nwagbogu is also the founder of the African Artists’ Foundation. Courtesy Azu Nwagbogu

Born and raised in Lagos, Nigeria, Nwagbogu is the founder and director of the African Artists’ Foundation (AAF), a sixteen-year-old nonprofit arts organization, and the LagosPhoto Festival, an annual international photography event in Nigeria. The festival is entering its 14th year this fall and will capture “the evolution of the world post-Covid, post-Me Too, post-George Floyd, post-Black Lives Matter,” according to Nwagbogu, while next year’s edition will focus on the theme of incarceration.

But for now, the curator is overseeing Everything Precious is Fragile, Benin’s inaugural pavilion for the Venice Biennale, scheduled to open in April of 2024. While the cultural exhibition has long underrepresented African nations, countries from the region have become more visible in Venice in recent years, with Ghana and Madagascar debuting their first pavilions in 2019, while Uganda held its inaugural showing at the biennale in 2022.

One of the more problematic issues of the Venice Biennale is its focus on national cultural diplomacy, according to Nwagbogu. However, Benin’s choice to select a Nigerian curator for its pavilion can help spark conversations in the art world “about a common humanity, which is what it’s really all about, rather than advocating what can be problematic nationalism,” he said. This is an especially important conversation in Africa, added Nwagbogu, “because we have so many artificial borders—all of these African nations are colonial inventions.”

The restitution of African heritage and feminism

Beninois artists will produce site-specific works for Benin’s debut pavilion, which will be co-curated by Madame Yassine Lassissi and Franck Houndegla. One of the pavilion’s central themes is African feminism, according to Nwagbogu. The works will all draw from the Gelede, an ancient philosophy of Yoruba Feminism that honors the iyami, or mother. The four presenting artists are Chloe Quenum, who typically works with graphics, language and furniture from various cultures; Romauld Hazoume, well-known for his long-running series of masks made from recycled materials; Moufouli Bello, a former lawyer whose work often focuses on the visibility of Black female bodies; and Ishoka Akpo, a photographer who explores digital mediums. “As I like to say, the four artists are singing the same tune but in different ways,” said Nwagbogu.

The upcoming pavilion will focus heavily on the concepts of restitution and restoration, which have been key priorities for Benin in recent years. Last year, the nation held The Art of Benin of Yesterday and Today: from Restitution to Revelation, a traveling show that presented twenty-six Beninois objects looted by French troops in 1892 but eventually returned to the country by France’s Quai Branly Museum.

There are two positions to consider with restitution, according to Nwagbogu. When it comes to the morality of returning looted items, “there is no debate,” he said. “You have stolen, you need to return. That is simple.” But Benin’s 2022 exhibition engaged with a philosophical question through its inclusion of contemporary artwork alongside returned objects, playing with the “intellectual aspects of trying to restitute knowledge,” said Nwagbogu. “The artists were able to really genetically imbue some of the learning from the ancestors and the work that they made, even 200 years later.”

Nwagbogu has long engaged with the topic in his curation, discussing global restitution movements through panels, the LagosPhoto festivals and most recently, AAF’s traveling exhibition Dig Where You Stand. Despite his busy schedule of disparate projects, Nwagbogu believes all his initiatives are linked by the same ethos of African collaboration. “I don’t want us to compete against each other; I want us to share contacts and networks,” he said. “I don’t want to be the top curator from the African diaspora—I’d rather be helping younger generations of curators think about how to be vigilant in this space, what to watch out for and how to develop their own practice.”

Curator Azu Nwagbogu on Restitution, Collaboration and African Feminism