Standing near her evocative exhibit at the University of Houston’s Blaffer Art Museum, British-Nigerian mixed-media artist Zina Saro-Wiwa is strong and proud. A blue shawl wraps around her shoulders, reminiscent of the veil that drapes over a girl in the trailer for Did You Know We Taught Them How to Dance?, her just-opened solo exhibition that highlights human rights in her native Niger Delta.
Rights activists may know her last name from her father, Ken Saro-Wiwa—a writer, activist, and Nobel nominee who was executed for his efforts to safeguard human rights and the environment in the region. “I wanted this show to explore the Niger Delta in a different way and to challenge the idea of what environmentalism is—and what the war against oil is. Because there are many battlefronts,” she explains. “It’s not just about oil slicks. It’s about the emotional, spiritual, psychological—these are all fronts where the environment or pollution might impact you.”
For decades, the Niger Delta has become synonymous with oil production, which has ravaged the region with corruption, violence, militancy, and environmental degradation. “If you were to Google Niger Delta right now, you would see a lot of imagery of militants or people who are bunkering oil. I’m not interested in just reading that aspect of it, because that doesn’t represent all of the Niger Delta,” she asserts. “When you continually represent a particular idea about the place, you grow it. And it actually doesn’t give us a way out of the situation. What you have to do is expand understanding by including more ideas—women, spirituality, food, the beautiful as well as the ugly—to form a discussion about how we are going to cope and get out of this situation.”
And Saro-Wiwa succeeds in doing just that. Did You Know features short films of Nigerians eating traditional dishes, fervently praying for their country and even dancing on top of old pipelines. She re-imagines the identity of the Niger Delta—not only by humanizing the effects resource exploitation has had on the region, but also by reminding us of the beautiful, rich culture that has continued to thrive there.
Photographs, audio recordings, film, masks and food all voice the unheard layers of the region. One photograph—in which the younger girl cradles a male figurine and presses the pad of her foot on top of a wooden tortoise—stops the artist, moving her to give some context. “In Ogoniland, where I’m from originally, there is a story about a tortoise, which we call ‘kuru.’ He’s like a trickster and he gets away with everything,” she explains. “I wanted this photograph to be about the dominance of innocence and femininity over these kinds of stories.”
Remarkably, after she named the photograph “Kuru’s Children,” she discovered that the girls live around a tortoise shrine and have an uncle who is a tortoise priest—they were, in reality, just as she saw them, artistically. “I didn’t know any of this at the time. The place told me. And that’s what it’s about—letting the land inform your ideas… And I just became a vessel. I let the land speak through me—and that’s what came out.”
Sep. 25–Dec. 19. Blaffer Art Museum, 4173 Elgin St. 713-743-9521. blafferartmuseum.org