Hirst controversy at Venice Biennale
There’s controversy in Venice for Damien Hirst, a British artist who has occasionally drawn accusations that his pieces are not always wholly original but inspired by others’ work.
At the Venice Biennale this week, Nigerian artist Victor Ehikhamenor accused Hirst of copying a well-known ancient Nigerian brass artwork, Head Of Ife, found in 1938 in Ife, Nigeria, without giving it the proper historical recognition it deserves.
Hirst’s work, a sculpted head called Golden Heads (Female) is part of his “Treasures From the Wreck Of The Unbelievable” show that fills the Palazzo Grassi and the Punta della Dogana museums at the Biennale.
Regarded in art circles as a comeback for Hirst, the Biennale exhibition is his first major show of new work in 10 years. It is a kind of underwater fantasy featuring art and artefacts, including a bronze statue of Mickey Mouse, that, so Hirst’s tongue-in-cheek narrative goes, were part of a fictional shipwreck.
The written description alongside Golden Heads (Female) mentions Ife amid a broader fictional story about the Hirst sculpture’s origins. But there is no mention of Ife on postcards for sale at the show, Ehikhamenor said in a telephone interview from Venice. His own Biennale exhibition, “A Biography Of The Forgotten”’ he said, looks “at our history and classical artists that tend to be forgotten and written out of history”.
After visiting the Hirst show over the weekend, he took to Instagram to make his criticism.
“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.”
In the interview, Ehikhamenor said the Ife head “is very, very famous”.
“It’s one of the most intricate and most beautiful works of art that were created by classical African artists,” he continued.
Ehikhamenor said he thought the Hirst work was a close rendering of the original and yet Hirst celebrated it as contemporary art. “He just made an imitation of this art,” he said.
“I really found that it was dishonest that something like that is going on,” Ehikhamenor added. “He wove that fictional narrative around it.”
In a statement, Hirst’s office said that Ife was referenced in the work’s accompanying text and in the exhibition guide.
“The Treasures are a collection of works influenced by a wide range of cultures and stories from across the globe and throughout history — indeed many of the works celebrate original and important artworks from the past,” the statement said.