Nigerian Artists in Germany
Over the last two decades, an uncanny relationship between Nigerian artists and Germany has evolved, with an influx of Nigerian artists arriving in Germany to fulfil their dreams. Indeed, artists from Nigeria and all over the African continent have for a long time shared connections with European countries. However, the peculiar pattern of Nigerian artists finding their feet in Germany stands out, as Germany has generally never been a port of call for Nigerians owing to several factors. First on the list is the language barrier–German is one of the hardest languages to master, and after a torturous Nigerian educational system, anchored on mastering the English language, the prospect of learning Deutsch for the promise of immigration is not so enticing. Another factor to consider would be that there are few historical ties—either colonial or political—between both countries. A third factor is linked to the second; most Nigerians do not have family ties in Germany, and this makes immigration even more difficult.
Considering these factors, it is intriguing to find that several Nigerian artists have found their professional footings in Germany, with a few even making the country their new home. Most prominent on the list is sound artist, Emeka Ogboh, who in 2015 won the DAAD international artist award which brought him to the German capital for a year. He was subsequently selected for the 2015 edition of the Venice Biennale curated by Okwui Enwezor—earning the artist international acclaim. These initial steps made way for his inclusion in other mammoth international art events such as Documenta, Munster Sculpture, and Manifesta. Other Nigerian artists who ply their trade in Germany include Deola Olagunju, Emeka Okereke, Didi Cheeka, Ngozi Schomers, Emeka Udemba and Dilomprizulike Umezulike.
On a broader scale, Berlin, the German capital, has in recent times exerted itself as the art capital of the world, attracting artists from far and wide who make the city their home. This acquisition of cultural capital indeed has its good sides and an underbelly that is not usually in focus. Against the backdrop of the tenacious propagation of the German language, globally through language classes at the Goethe-Institut that dangle a promise of immigration and ‘free education’, we can view this cultural buy-in either as a stage to have much-needed conversations around and about post-coloniality and restitution or simply as a type of brain drain to further boost the German cultural networth and possibly her economy.
Without being too critical and giving the much-deserved credit to the German state, it is a delight to pursue one’s artistic practice in Germany, and more specifically in Berlin. Speaking from personal experience, the countless number of museums, galleries, events, curators, and artists from all over the world make the city an artist’s paradise. With a modest cost of living (compared to other European capitals) and access to grants and studio spaces, the city which has a peculiar artistic swing is an attractive destination for artists who are looking for a new home.
That said, it is also important to mention a couple of other institutions that have over the years facilitated this migration, which is slowly developing into a cross-pollination between Nigeria and Germany. Some of the major players in this exchange are IFA Gallery, DAAD, ZKU Berlin, SAVVY Contemporary, Goethe-Institut, and Arthouse Contemporary.
In an interview with Emeka Udemba, the prolific Nigerian painter and performance artist gave his insights on the peculiar phenomenon of Nigerian artists in Germany.
What was your first encounter with the German art scene?
As an art student in Lagos, my curiosity and quest for inspiration usually took me to visit exhibitions at various cultural institutions in Victoria Island and Ikoyi. It was during one of such visits to the German cultural centre, (Goethe-Institut) in 1991 that I discovered it had a library with a wide range of contemporary art journals from Germany. Those journals were my first close encounter with the contemporary art scene in Germany.
When did you first arrive in Germany?
I travelled to Germany for the first time in 1994. This was after a successful solo exhibition at the Goethe-Institut in Lagos.
When did you decide to live in Germany and why?
The decision to relocate to Germany was both professional and privately induced. Professionally, I found a challenging, dynamic and interesting local art scene in the city of Freiburg where I live. More importantly, I started a family in Germany, so Freiburg became my second home.
Why do you think foreign artists thrive in Germany?
Artists and other creatives will always thrive in societies with strong cultural values and structures. Germany prides itself as a country of poets and thinkers. Accordingly, the creative industry is an important part of the German society. There are lots of independently-run studio spaces as well as a rich concentration of commercial art galleries and other art institutions within the local art scene. Some state or independently funded institutions offer exhibition spaces, project grants and residencies to artists to realise specific projects.
For foreign artists, Germany is a fertile ground to push creative boundaries and question one’s assumptions. Nevertheless, as an artist from the ‘outside’, the reality is that these seemingly art-supporting structures are predominantly functional within the ‘White’ context. The good news is that irrespective of some discriminatory structural impediments, a lot of foreign artists are continually developing strategies to subvert existing structural biases through their work. This is with the goal of creating new visions that are more inclusive and a support system that goes beyond mere gestures or tokenism. Administrators of cultural institutions in Germany also need to be more diverse to reflect the modern, cosmopolitan, immigrant nation it has become.
Can you share some of your highlights as an artist practicing in Germany: awards, grants, exhibitions and residencies?
My first exhibition highlight was a group show Heimat Kunst in 2000, at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt, in Berlin. In the same year, I realised an installation in front of the Nigerian pavilion at the World Expo 2000, in Hannover. Through these exhibitions, I was able to meet some artists from other African countries who also live and work in Germany. Since then I have held several exhibitions, residences and received project grants. A few of these are; the Public art Prize, project Queich Landu (2000); Schleswig Holsteinisches Künstlerhaus art residency (2005); Über Schönheit, Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin (2005); Black Paris, Iwalewa-haus, Bayreuth (2006); Villa Merkel / Esslingerbahnwärterhaus, art residency (2008); Stiftungkunstfonds project grant (2010); Afropean Mimicry and Mockery, Künstlerhaus Mousonturm, Frankfurt (2014); and Seeing and Being Seen, Galerie Menzel, Kenzingen (2016).
Can you share any experience you may have with regard to prejudice in Germany on a personal level and towards your art?
Prejudices exist in every society and remain a fundamental problem. It is important to affirm that the German society is generally kind, inquisitive and accommodating. Maybe their history has made them more sensible in the way they relate and interact with themselves and others. However, as a Black person who lives and works in a ‘White’ society, being confronted sometimes with prejudice is not unexpected. What is important for me is to find ways to push back against some of the nonsense and stereotypes one is sometimes confronted with. This is one of the beauties of being an artist; art becomes a tool to stand my ground!
On a personal level, it is nice when someone inquires out of curiosity about your country of origin. But it can be irritating when you get the same question such as “Where are you from?”, multiple times a day and particularly from people you know do not pose the question out of curiosity or with an intent of engaging you in a conversation. Instead, they just want to let you know that irrespective of how good you speak the language or have assimilated into ‘their’ society, ‘you still don’t belong’ here.
My current solo exhibition, Another Day in Paradise, at the E-werk centre of contemporary art in Freiburg, alludes to the issues of identity and belonging. The exhibition features installations and large-scale portraits of Black people. The aim is to amplify the ‘Black gaze’ and question perceptions of ourselves and others. Another Day in Paradise also provides a space for pleasure, enlightenment and soul searching.
What would be your advice to younger Nigerian artists who plan to migrate to Germany or other parts of Europe to pursue their artistic dreams?
As the world becomes more mobile, more people are migrating to countries in search of opportunities. Migrating legally should be a priority for anyone with the intent of relocating to another country. For artists, there are lots of opportunities all over the world for residences. I will highly recommend young Nigerian artists apply for residencies in the various art institutions in Germany and other countries in Europe that are soliciting applications. Some of such art residencies come with stipends that cover travel, boarding, material or upkeep costs for successful applicants. Information about such institutions can be accessed easily on the Internet. An example is the TransArtists.org website.
What are the differences between working in Germany and back home in Nigeria?
There is a stark difference between working in Germany and Nigeria. Whatever advantage or disadvantage each location might have, they complement each other. Both locations offer ample time and resources for reflection, experimentation and developing an artistic practice. While I have a modest studio in Germany, my studio in Nigeria is quite spacious, so I produce large works in Nigeria. Connecting with the local art scene in Nigeria is also much easier. Access to quality art materials and special resources like archives is better in Germany. Opportunities to exhibit and access to funding is better in Germany when compared to Nigeria where institutional funding is almost zero. However, connecting with new collectors and new markets is much easier in Nigeria. This could be attributed to a new generation of well-informed art collectors in Africa.
Do you plan to return home at some point?
The idea of ‘returning home’, does not apply to me. I am always home in Nigeria and Germany.
December 20, 2021
December 13, 2021