Over the past 20 years, the Nigerian film industry has become the third largest in the world, after Hollywood and Bollywood. Dubbed (no surprise) “Nollywood,” the industry’s Lagos studios have produced thousands of movies-something like soap operas that go directly to DVD and are avidly consumed all over Africa and the diaspora. Enchanted and inspired by these works, Zina Saro-Wiwa, a Nigerian-born, New York-and London-based documentary filmmaker (the force behind a production company called AfricaLab), recently shifted focus in co-curating, with James Lindon of Pace Gallery, the fascinating exhibition “Sharon Stone in Abuja,” its title actually taken from a Nollywood film.
Contributing several works herself–her first video installation as well as two fictional films, a genre likewise new to her-Saro-Wiwa commissioned a video by the Kenyan-born Wangechi Mutu and photographs by Andrew Esiebo (an artist living in Lagos), and included several 2008 prints by the South African photographer Pieter Hugo. She also collaborated with the New York-based artist Mickalene Thomas to re-create a typical Nollywood Living Room, complete with kitschy decorations and furnishings, Nollywood films screening on a TV and two large, wall-mounted photographic “portraits” (2010) by Thomas of the finely dressed wives of a multiple marriage, inventing residents who themselves seem snagged in a comedic plot.
Especially compelling was a pair of photographs by Esiebo (2010), in which two popular Nigerian actors who suffer from a common form of dwarfism recline suggestively on beds. You soon realize they are not children, but men; and there is something truly unnerving in their seductive poses and vulnerable facial expressions, wistful and dewy-eyed. Similarly, the video installation by Saro-Wiwa, in which she asks stars to cry on cue in stark close-up (her “Mourning Class” series, 2010), adumbrates the emo- tionalism of Nollywood films.
The most compelling works in the exhibition were the two longer films by Saro-Wiwa (both 2010). Phyllis is the spooky story of a “psychic vampire” (voodoo plots are a fixture of Nollywood flicks) who sells wigs, stealing the spirits of women who try them on. In The Deliverance of Comfort, a beguiling little girl masquerades as a harmless witch out trick-or-treating. Brutally exorcised by Christian priests, however, her spirit is “released” as a devil that mischievously dances through the city, stealing some tomatoes. Both films allude to bleak realities in present-day Nigeria- prostitution and the scapegoating of children. The pacing is spot-on, the acting superb and the settings alive with color and grit. Saro-Wiwa conveys her difficult themes with a light touch, breaking your heart with- out pummeling your spirit. It is a rare gift, and makes you long for more
Photo: Zina Saro-Wiwa: Phyllis, 2010, film, 15 minutes; in “Sharon Stone in Abuja” at Location One.