Damien Hirst’s popular show at this year’s Venice Biennale, “Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable,” is an underwater fantasy about objects found after a fictional shipwreck. It’s his first exhibition of new work in 10 years. Some critics had begun to wonder if he’d run out of ideas. The answer might depend on your worldview.
One of the sculptures in the show, Golden Heads (Female), is essentially a copy of a well-known brass artwork in the British Museum, a striking sculpture of a woman’s head made in the 1300s or 1400s in Nigeria. The Yoruba people, in what was then the powerful Ife Kingdom, made many such heads as memorials for shrines—Mia has a terra-cotta version that is among the most popular pieces in the museum. Hirst mentions Ife in the label, but only as part of an invented origin for the sculpture.
Hirst has long been considered a bad boy of the Young British Artist set (though, at 51, he’s no no longer so young). He became famous for his sensational sculptures featuring dead sharks in formaldehyde tanks. But he was apparently not going for controversy in this case.
Nigerian artist Victor Ehikhamenor, who also is showing at the Biennale, called attention to the work on Instagram. “For the thousands of viewers seeing this for the first time, they won’t think Ife, they won’t think Nigeria,” he wrote. “Their young ones will grow up to know this work as Damien Hirst’s.” Britain’s colonial involvement in Nigeria, which included the theft of art, further complicates the issue.
Is imitation the sincerest form of flattery, or is Hirst recreating the British colonial power dynamic of the late 1800s?
Top photo illustration: Mia’s Ife shrine head (left) and Damien Hirst’s Golden Head (Female).