Zina Saro-Wiwa’s “eating performances” expand to larger-than-life proportions across the screens of Times Square every midnight in November. Featuring individuals from the Niger Delta region, Table Manners (2014-2019) is an ongoing series in which the simple act of consuming a meal is staged as a celebration of community, tradition, and a collective act of memory. Each work begins with the name of the performer and the contents of their meal; the sitter then consumes their meal by hand while training their gaze directly at the artist’s camera. Candid and vulnerable yet undeniably confrontational, the works also raise consciousness around the socioeconomic and political troubles the oil-producing Nigerian region faces.
Saro-Wiwa’s documentation style forces the viewer to consume the names and realities of these individuals. Table Manners not only speaks to the cultures and traditions of the West African community, but as the artist notes, “a powerful exchange takes place when one not only eats a meal but watches a meal being consumed. One is filled up with an unexplainable and potent metaphysical energy that we normally pay no attention to. I am interested in the story that is fed inside the viewer of each performance.” While the works address coloniality, agency, and sexuality, the series is in many ways, for Saro-Wiwa, about place and power. The act of eating and consuming the food drawn from the land renders a quotidian action into a ceremony of import and ownership over cultural identity, firmly placing its subjects back into a landscape from which they have been displaced through global extractive forces.
“I’m really pleased to be showing this work in the month of November. Prior to the coronavirus pandemic it was to be August, but this month is auspicious. It is a momentous time in America’s history. A war for the country’s soul is taking place with this election, it seems. It is also the 25th anniversary of my father’s execution. A man who fought for the rights of our land and people not to be despoiled by Big Oil and an oppressive military regime. This work Table Manners is about coming together. About communing. About respect for one another and respect for the land. Table Manners appearing as the Midnight Moment is a special curatorial opportunity. It suggests the magic of the Midnight Feast. My hope is that people can come together — socially distanced of course — and commune with not only the people of Ogoniland and Port Harcourt in Nigeria who I have filmed, but also afterwards with each other. To look each other in the eye and just be. This is a time to see humanity in each other and to encourage civil discourse without resort to violence or ad hominem attacks. This Midnight Moment is an opportunity to come together and enjoy a simple meal or snack. To find wonder in simplicity. And also for New Yorkers to grieve loved ones that have departed whilst imagining better times ahead.”
Table Manners is presented in partnership with Medium Tings.
Learn more about Zina Saro-Wiwa’s practice
In this unique performance-lecture-film, Saro-Wiwa navigates the moral, philosophical and cultural conundrums that arise from the very existence of contemporary traditional African art.
Zina Saro-Wiwa (b. 1976, Port Harcourt, Nigeria) is an artist working primarily with video but also photography, sculpture, sound, film and food. She lives and works in Los Angeles as well as running a practice in the Niger Delta region of Nigeria where she founded the contemporary art gallery Boys’ Quarters Project Space for which she regularly curates. Saro-Wiwa is one of Foreign Policy Magazine’s Global Thinkers of 2016 recognized for her work in the Niger Delta. She was Artist-in-Residence at Pratt Institute, Brooklyn 2016-2017 and in April 2017 was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship for Fine Arts. She has shown regularly at biennales, museums and galleries around the world and has been named Artist-in-residence at UCLA where she is launching an experimental think tank and art project that renegotiates the relationship between knowledge and art production. Saro-Wiwa’s interest lies in expanding our understanding of environmentalism, deconstructing decoloniality and mapping emotional landscapes. She often explores highly personal experiences, carefully recording their choreography, making tangible the space between internal experience and outward performance as well as bringing cross-cultural and environmental/geographic considerations to bear on these articulations.
Medium Tings is a gallery and project space in Brooklyn founded and directed by Stephanie Baptist. Dedicated to contemporary artists of color, the gallery expands creative engagement through exhibitions, programming and collaborations.