Aindrea Emelife on bringing the Nigerian Pavilion to life at the Venice Biennale 2024

Curator Aindrea Emelife has spearheaded a new wave of contemporary artists at the Venice Biennale’s second-ever Nigerian Pavilion. Here, she talks about what the world needs to learn about African art

Artworks by Yinka Shonibare, among artists featured in the Nigerian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale 2024
Yinka Shonibare CBE RA is among eight artists featured in the Nigerian Pavilion, curated by Aindrea Emelife
(Image credit: Courtesy of the artist)

Aindrea Emelife is the British-Nigerian curator spearheading a new wave of contemporary artists, and presently also the curator behind the second-ever Nigerian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale 2024. When we get on a call ahead of the event’s opening (on 20 April), she’s in Venice, working with a team on the installation. As she speaks, I can sense the excitement in her voice: ‘We are working towards the installation’s completion and it's been going really well. I'm looking forward to the reveal.’

Emelife’s career has been prolific. From her early days as an art writer to becoming a Financial Times columnist at only 20, while studying for an art history degree at The Courtauld Institute of Art, and later becoming one of London's interesting art curators. Among a pool of her curated works, ‘Black Venus’, her 2022 exhibition featuring 19 artists who analysed the legacy of Black women in visual art, set the pace. And now, she is the curator of modern and contemporary art at the Museum of West African Art (MOWAA) a position that is instrumental to her vision of Nigeria and African art.

Here, Wallpaper* chats with the curator about getting started in her career, curating the Nigerian Pavilion, and African arts.

Aindrea Emelife on the Nigeria Pavillion at the Venice Biennale 2024


Yinka Shonibare CBE RA, Birdcage Man, 2023

(Image credit: Courtesy of the artist)

Wallpaper: How do you feel about curating the Nigerian Pavilion at the 2024 Venice Biennale?

Aindrea Emelife: It's an honour, but [also] a real undertaking because it's [only] the second time that Nigeria has participated in Venice, which is obviously a great shame. [We] need the representation of African pavilions in Venice. I think the idea of ‘Nigeria Imaginary’, [the pavilion exhibition’s theme], is [centred on the] potential of Nigeria, and it fits in with current topics and debate. It […] allows for the wider audience to dream with us. It almost becomes a manifesto for a new nation, a nation that could have been, but a nation that still can be. I wanted to create an exhibition that can be inspiring, not just for the world, but for the country it's about, so that it can inspire new artists, [and] they can inspire all of us to imagine a new Nigeria and then try to put that into actuality. So it's very much thinking about what could be, which is an interesting way to articulate and talk about a country.

W: Did you have specific criteria while selecting the artists for the pavilion?

AE: I was thinking about artists that would work well with the theme. But also I wanted to create a little bit of a balance, thinking about representation from different parts of Nigeria. I wanted to make sure that it wasn't just one point of view. And then I also wanted it to be intergenerational, so different ages. I wanted to think about artists that have lived in Nigeria their entire lives or some that have left and come back. So they have different points of entry and different ways of viewing the nation. And I wanted artists that work in different mediums, because I think a lot of people still consider African art to be very reliant on [the] figurative and painting. But artists are working in different mediums, from film to sound to installation. It's really pushing the idea that Nigerian art or African art is more than two-dimensional figuration.

Curator Aindrea Emelife

Aindrea Emelife

(Image credit: Courtesy of the artist)

W: Where did your career as a curator, writer and historian begin?

AE: It's an interesting story. A lot of people in the art world come from parents that are into art or a family that are really embedded in that. But I didn't have that start. My parents weren't dragging me to museums. I just, for whatever reason, fell in love with art, with museums, with exhibitions from a really early age. And so it became a strong passion of mine. Originally, I was more interested purely in writing [about art]. As a teenager and a young adult, I would write about different exhibitions for magazines and newspapers, because I was fascinated about what art has to say about the world. And then as things developed, I was interested in how to tell stories visually. And I started to think about an exhibition as almost like a visual essay. How do you tell a story or an idea through artworks, through the minds of the artists? I became very interested in how art can be relevant to people in a different way.

When I started to think about what I'd like to introduce into the world through my love of art, I felt that making exhibitions and tackling stories that have not been told often enough or at all was a rewarding mission point because there's so much art and art history that hasn't been focused on. As a Nigerian, as an African, [I think] about how narrow or how shallow the storytelling of our great, great legacies has been globally. And so I'm now focused predominantly on uplifting African art stories, and in general, trying to create exhibitions that expand the way that we see the world and see ourselves.

W: How did your parents respond to your career path initially?

AE: I have Nigerian parents. They were like, ‘What is this?’ A lot of people I know in the art space that have African parents will say a similar thing, that you're destined to be a teacher or a doctor. I knew very early on that the things I wanted to do were creative and maybe not the most obvious vocational [paths], but I was passionate about them. I applied for university. I went to The Courtauld Institute in London, which is dedicated to art history. I will be honest and say that it took a lot of arm-twisting to convince my parents. I told them that I would eventually transition into art law, but that didn't happen, and nor did I have the intention of that happening. But it was a good way to soft-launch the concept [of my career]. Luckily, all of these stories come from a good place. My parents grew up in Nigeria. They came here, they made a life here. I think that it comes from a sentiment of [their wanting] security, and the art world cannot always provide that.

Many creative professions don't. But I've always been committed, and I'm committed to doing things that can help people in interesting ways. [Art] is such a valuable profession to think about how you can inspire people, provide hope, or provide new ways of understanding themselves and the world. So it's better now. My parents are really proud. It was not a simple conversation. But what's also lucky is that with more and more Africans being in the art space, future generations will benefit, because you can see that this is viable. With greater diversity in different ways, not just in race, but in terms of gender and different perspectives, [art] seems like a much more agreeable and viable choice and not so much of trying to enter a space that doesn't want you to be there.

W: What do you think the world needs to learn and unlearn about African art?

AE: I think the world needs to understand that Africa is so varied. And then even when you take the individual nations, they're so varied. If you think about Nigeria, there are so many different tribes, so many different languages, so many different legacies. [For example], the architectural history is so vast and so long. And then it's completely different in other areas of Nigeria. And then it's diverse from other parts of Africa. Understanding how expansive Nigeria and Africa are is really important, but also, trying to think about [them] not as a monolith.

The Venice Art Biennale 2024 is open to the public from 20 April to 24 November

Ugonna-Ora Owoh is a journalist and editor based in Lagos, Nigeria. He writes on arts, fashion, design, politics and contributes to Vogue, New York Times, Wallpaper, Wepresent, Interior Design, Foreign Policy and others.