Zina Saro-Wiwa: performing table manners in 21st century Nigeria   by Rizvana Bradley

Zina Saro-Wiwa: performing table manners in 21st century Nigeria

Rizvana Bradley
The artist celebrates eating in the Niger Delta with her radical videos series

Presented at Art Basel Miami Beach by London’s Tiwani Contemporary, the multichannel video series portrays Ogoni men and women from the Niger Delta region eating in front of the camera. As in much of the Nigeria-born, New York City-based artist’s repertoire, colonialism, racism, and militarism are here examined through the lens of food, race, power, and capital. Highlighting the consumption of food as a definitive act in the making of community, Table Manners operates as a critical commentary on the normalizing landscape of the globalized present. The series stages eating as a collective act of memory. It illuminates the centrality of Africanity and traditions to existing and emerging communal and diasporic imaginaries, pointing toward contemporary political and socioeconomic struggles.Foregrounding the cultural specificity of the precise acts of eating her work depicts, Saro-Wiwa’s practice places art and politics in productive tension.

Each of Saro-Wiwa’s vignetted encounters is set against a punchy, colorful backdrop that stands in contrast to the minimalist use of the gesture shared by all of these subjects – the repetitive movement of hand to plate, to mouth – to performatively emphasize the act of eating. Saro-Wiwa has spoken of this minimalist gesture as an ‘act of metaphorical suturing,’ where the scoop and rise of the hand to the mouth from the plate and back again is meditative but also reparative. The gesture works to restore the subject’s relationship to an economically exploited landscape, and ‘binds’ the viewer to eating as an affective interlude. 

But what happens when, as Diana Fuss put it in Identification Papers, ‘the subject refuses to incorporate and resists identifying with the other?’ Saro-Wiwa’s Table Manners is not limited to questions of identity but touches upon the everyday spirituality of West African cultures in ways that extend her interest in indigenous cosmologies. A recent iteration of Table Manners, Bush Tales #1, shows a man ingesting a turtle against a neon turquoise screen, which serves as a backdrop. This somewhat disturbing and alienating ritual of consuming bushmeat rebuffs more than it entices. Unlike the other episodes, we are not told where this performance takes place, but are directed to consider the mythology of the tortoise and what it means to ingest and metabolize folk tales across a shifting global landscape that would as soon erase such histories and forms of inherited knowledge. Perhaps here, at the site of introjection and transference, is where eating gives way to mourning, and finally to memorialization.