When Victoria Udondian’s career trajectory changed 10 years ago, it was more like a leap into uncertainties: Full-time studio artists in Nigeria largely shun avant-garde art, which she newly embraced. However, since then, it has been one artist-in-residence programme or another. From Europe to America and Africa, Udondian, over the years, has been able to build a strong career in the critical art space. For an artist practising outside the academics, Udondian’s work largely lean towards critical appreciation of African themes. In quite a number of her early works, the artist has questioned, and sometimes, deconstructed fabrics, interrogating their African originality.
The Board of Trustees of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation approved the award of Guggenheim Fellowships to her on April 8, 2020. The artist was named among the 100 recipients of the Guggenheim Fellowships award.
Based in Lagos and New York, Udondian started expanding her horizon in non-commercial art, after she set out for an MFA in Sculpture and New Genres at Columbia University, New York; and also attended Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in 2014.
From her earlier artist-in-residency programme in 2009, till date, Udondian, who had her first degree in Fine Art at the University of Uyo, Akwa Ibom State, has had textile dominating her thematic focus. She applies fabrics in diverse of repurposed medium to generate dialogue around identity.
The artist’s Guggenheim proposal was about textile as they relate to Africa, specifically, her Nigerian roots. Narration attached to the Guggenheim award, in explaining Udondian’s work, noted that she “questions notions of cultural identity and post-colonial positions in relation to her experiences growing up in Nigeria, a country flooded with cast-off from the West.”
Specifically of note, is what the statement described as “her interest in textiles and the potential for clothing to shape identity, informed by the histories and tacit meanings embedded in everyday material.”
Between 2011 and 2014, from Austria to Croatia, Italy and back to Africa, specifically, Kenya, Udondian was everywhere to lift Nigeria’s image. Shortly before embarking on her MFA in Columbia, the artist had an open studio in Lagos, where she shared some of her works and experience, from across the world.
In Austria, she worked with students, made presentation on her works and discussed African arts. In Venice it was a special purpose art entity of Fondazione di Venezia, with the aim of promoting works of young, emerging artists from Africa.
Out of 145 young African artists who applied for the Venice, Italy-based residency Art Enclosures 2011, Udondian and a South African, Tamilyn Young, according to the organisers, were the only two beneficiaries.
From Udondian’s work, presented under the themes, Second Hand Museum and Venetian Portraits 2011, some of the installations she re-presented on slide during her open studio in Lagos include, Nigerian female two-piece wear (buba and iro,) and that of male (buba and sokoto) from Nigeria.
Making another history this year, Udondian, according to Guggenheim, is among a diverse group of 175 writers, scholars, artists, and scientists drawn from 53 scholarly disciplines and artistic fields, 78 different academic institutions, 31 states and the District of Columbia, and two Canadian provinces.
According to her, “the first developed project continues to explore my interest in the transformation of space for shared community engagement.”
The space, she explained, is based on “where collective identities are forged and celebrated outside of a vociferous narrative of divisive nationalism that seems to be propagated by our society today.”
Thematically, Udondian brings the project into a specific cultural context Identity. “The project is titled Àdápé II.” Udondian explained that Àdápé, in Yoruba, translates as ‘Àdá’ (to create) and ‘pe’ (to complete or make it perfect.) The title Àdápé, she said, literally translates to creating a state of perfection.
“This title is considered when thinking about the notions of Utopia,” stated Udondian whose Lagos base seemed to have influenced the Yoruba contents in the project. “Àdápé is an attempt to create an ideal space of inclusiveness in collaboration with immigrant communities.”
She recalled how the first phase of Àdápé was concluded last year at the South London Gallery, UK. At the presentation, she worked with those described as “a community of multicultural locals.”
The work, she said, lasted six month as a “commission to transform the gallery with a large scale textile sculpture.” The concept, she said, “was then activated through performances.”
Udondian, whose art journey through European countries, over the past 10 years has afforded her some windows into the nationalism and identity crisis, brings the Àdápé concept into the issue. “With the cold wind of intolerance and nationalism blowing across America and Europe — and at a time when immigrants are vilified and nationalistic biases increasingly divide developed nations — Àdápé engages this community in ways that ask us to consider global migration and questions the state of society without the contributions of immigrant populations.”
For the second project, titled, After the Last Supper, the artist returns to Lagos next year, significantly, to have a debut solo art show. The theme, she said, tracks her previous works. “This project questions Africa’s colonial history, cultural identity and lately, Afro-Sino relationships that shape realities, identities, and psyche within this postcolonial condition,” she explained. “This is a sculpture/ installation project that takes The Last Supper by ‘Da Vinci as a starting point, using its biblical connotations as a metaphor for discussing Western, and lately, Chinese dependence on African resources for their development.”
Udondian’s last exhibition in Lagos coalesces installations, performance and photography of textile art content titled Arti-tude. The work was one of the 12 finalists at African Artists Foundation-organised national art competition themed ‘Identity: Who Do You Think You Are? She won the ‘Outstanding Production’ prize at the 2013 competition held in Lagos.
Included as part of her Guggenheim fellowship year is a trip to Buffalo University, New York state as a Visiting Scholar for the 2020/2021 school year. “I will be focusing on developing two major projects that are scheduled to debut in a solo show in Lagos and New York between 2021/ 2022. Guggenheim fellowship resource will be geared towards developing these projects.”
Guggenheim statement reads thus:
“Appointed on the basis of prior achievement and exceptional promise, the successful candidates were chosen through a rigorous peer-review process from almost 3,000 applicants in the Foundation’s ninety-sixth competition.
“Since its establishment in 1925, the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation has granted more than $375 million in Fellowships to over 18,000 individuals, among whom are scores of Nobel laureates, Fields Medalists, poets laureate, members of the national academies, winners of the Pulitzer Prize, Turing Award, Bancroft Prize, National Book Award, and many other internationally recognised honours.
Created by Senator Simon and Olga Guggenheim in memory of their son, the Guggenheim Fellowship programme remains a significant source of support for artists, scholars in the humanities and social sciences and scientific researchers. In addition to the generous support of Senator Simon and Mrs. Olga Guggenheim, new and continuing donations from friends, Trustees, former Fellows and other foundations have ensured that the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation will maintain its historic mission. An exceptionally generous bequest in 2019 from the estate of the great American novelist Philip Roth, a Fellow in 1959, is providing partial support for the wide variety of writers supported by the Foundation.”
Udondian’s works have been exhibited internationally in Lagos, Venice, New York, UK etc. Among such exhibitions listed on her biography is the Inaugural Nigerian Pavilion at the 56th Venice Biennial-An Excerpt, at Fisher Landau Centre for the Arts, New York. Also listed are shows held at The Children Museum of Manhattan, New York; National Museum, Lagos; Whitworth Gallery in Manchester, Spring Break, New York Fair, Art 14 London Art Fair, among others. Some of her Artist Residencies include Instituto Sacatar, Bahia, Brazil; Mass Moca, Massachusetts, USA; Fine Arts Work Centre (FAWC), Provincetown; USA; Fondazione di Venezia, Venice and Bag Factory Studios, Johannesburg.
Udondian received an MFA in Sculpture and New Genres from Columbia University, New York, attended Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture and a BA in painting from the University of Uyo, Nigeria.