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Experience and Memory The Nigerian Civil War (1967–1970) and Nigerian Contemporary Art


After the secessionist state of Biafra declared its independence from Nigeria in May 1967, a thirty-month civil war began, during which millions of Nigerians and Biafrans died or became refugees. Artists within Biafra supported its independence, and they helped define the new nation and disseminated its principles at home and abroad. Since the conflict’s end in 1970, art has intersected with wartime violence and its aftermath in ways that Nigerians still feel. Yet, public discussion of the war remains repressed. My dissertation positions the civil war as a critical moment in Nigerian art history and one that has had a profound impact on Nigerian art. I focus on art produced during the war, and I also contend with the conflict’s aftermath through a consideration of work created into the 1970s. I examine posters, international exhibitions, painting, sculpture, drawing, and sketches to explore the relationship between art and propaganda, how Nigerian and Biafran artists registered wartime experiences through their work, and the war’s effect on subsequent art. Drawing from extensive artist interviews, archival research, and an interdisciplinary theoretical approach, I center my analysis on questions of how artists act as witnesses, and how trauma and memory shape artistic practices. I chart how artists respond to wartime atrocities and create post-war works that serve as visual recollections of a conflict with an unsettled and contentious history. Through a consideration of art surrounding the Nigerian Civil War, a more nuanced understanding of how Nigerian artists engage with the postcolonial state and the conditions of postcoloniality can begin to emerge.

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