Remember Saro-Wiwa, in ‘Land, Art – A Cultural Ecology Handbook’

Article 12 Dec 2006 jane

In Land, Art, A Cultural Ecology Handbook, Ed. Max Andrews, RSA, Arts Council England, 2006

The Nigerian writer and activist Ken Saro-Wiwa was executed together with eight Ogoni colleagues by the Nigerian military on 10th November 1995 for his effective campaigning against the consistent despoilation of the oil-rich lands of the Niger Delta by oil companies. Remember Saro-Wiwa, initiated by London-based group PLATFORM in 2004, is a public art project which brings together human rights, environmentalism, activism and the arts to create a ‘Living Memorial’ to Ken Saro-Wiwa and all who struggle for justice in the lands upon which the carbon-hungry depend.

In the 1990s, Saro-Wiwa’s eloquence, wit, and courage drew the eyes and ears of the world to the shocking plight of what was happening in Ogoni. Now, with the situation worsening daily in the Delta, we hope that Remember Saro-Wiwa has an equivalent eloquence and power to ensure that Ken and the 3000 others who have died in the Delta because of oil-related violence, have not died in vain.

A project of this kind is complex. It begs many questions about political and artistic effectiveness. Why public art? Why in London?  How will people in the Delta benefit?  The extracts that follow explore the territory.

Jane Trowell, Platform, Remember Saro-Wiwa Coordinator (2005/6)


Many of us remember the moment we heard news of the executions on 10th November 1995. James [Marriott] and I were in Glasgow, ironically at an event on the legacy of Joseph Beuys – how art plays a vital role in social change, a subject Ken Saro-Wiwa often talked about:

My art should be able to alter the lives of a large number of people, of a whole community, of an entire country… It’s not now an ego trip, it’s serious, it’s politics, it’s economics, it’s everything, and art in that instance becomes so meaningful.’

John Berger states that ‘the historic role of capitalism is to destroy history―to sever any link with the past and orientate all effort and imagination to that which is about to occur.’ The oil corporations would like nothing better than to have Ken Saro-Wiwa’s name erased from the collective memory, the debate to ‘move on’. But, through the Living Memorial, and numerous associated initiatives, the reverse is happening. The powerful message of the Ogoni Nine is now reaching a new generation.

Dan Gretton, Remember Saro-Wiwa Project Initiator. Extract from essay in Remember Saro-Wiwa’s “Refining Memory” booklet.


I suppose that my personal view of success would be different to one from an institutional point of view. From an institutional point of view success would mean firstly a lot of media coverage; secondly a memorial that informs people, that we realise that there is an effective communication going on, that people are actively being informed of a certain situation; and finally that we can prove that people are actually moved to action. Those are probably the three most important factors: media impact, visibility in the media; then information available; and then movement to action… As an artist I may have other considerations… but in this case they are not important.

Alfredo Jaar, artist and Remember Saro-Wiwa judging panellist, Extract from interview, March 2006.


What do I get out of being involved? Working in the area of human and environmental rights, which was very important for me and still is; and also meeting people like… Ken Wiwa, Maria Saro-Wiwa; and people from Greenpeace and Amnesty and having discussions with people like Mark Brown and Anita Roddick. You know, those constituencies which of course I’m aware of, being much more in dialogue. That’s been an important thing. Huge.

David A Bailey, Remember Saro-Wiwa curator and judging panellist, Extract from interview, March 2006


This is a unique commission: not only is its subject topical and activist, but it is also Britain’s first deliberately mobile memorial… The winning piece will:

– Summon up the spirit of Ken Saro-Wiwa’s work, as writer and activist

– Focus attention on the ongoing reality of the struggle for social and environmental justice in lands upon which Britain depends, specifically the Niger Delta

– Reflect the cultural diversity of 21st Century London, and the interculturalism of global society

– Include elements of interactivity, challenging the viewer to be active and engaged

– Be flexible, ingenious and durable enough to be mobile, and to be permanently located

– Not only remember the past, but help shape the future.

From Remember Saro-Wiwa, Living Memorial Brief, March 2005


Nature gave it free, the oil that flows,

But they extract it free to serve the masters,

They take it free to suppress the innocent,

Nature gave it free to sustain the living…

The Petals of Light centres on a strong hand; a writer’s hand which holds a pen poised for creation and new beginnings…The hand of the warrior rotates to seek for justice and to expose the hymns of truth. It rotates with hope, with the sound of bells echoing of distant lands, to those enjoying the fruits of birds that fail to sing, the animals that fail to roar, the fish that fail to splash, and the people that fail to sing…

Emmanuel Jegede, shortlisted artist. Extract from proposal.


The heart of this proposal is that Ken Saro-Wiwa was a writer, who used the printed word to change the world…For the initial mobile form of the memorial I have designed nine cenotaph-like structures surmounted by a simple printing press, each set up with the printing block for a campaigning poster which anyone can take a pull from. Each poster relates a different aspect of Ken Saro-Wiwa’s life story. Quoting from his own writings and incorporating images…each poster also leaves space for individual additions. For the activist, these are practical materials for grassroots campaigning, using Ken’s story to continue his struggle. Visitors may print as many posters as they wish…a resource to help shape our common future.

Emily Johns, shortlisted artist. Extract from proposal.


The central aim of this project takes an iconic symbol of the contemporary industrially developed landscape, the petrol station forecourt, and “covers” it with indigenous African plants. This will create a direct and pertinent statement, not only about the life and death of Ken Saro-Wiwa but also about the ongoing need of humanity to address the necessity for globally sustainable energy politics in the face of seemingly intransigent multi-national corporations. On one level the project will be easy to interpret (and have high visual impact) and on another it will create the basis for a complex, cross-cultural, ongoing multidisciplinary living memorial…The station building will allow for readings, displays, exhibitions and meetings and can crucially facilitate many diverse and engaging on-site educational projects…

Frances Newman, Jeff Jackson, Knott Architects, shortlisted artists’ collaboration. Extract from proposal.


There’s a parallel with the ‘Art Not Oil’ project that I’m involved in, in that we want to have a balance between the more grassroots activity, and focusing on the art world itself. So we want to have it on the ground as it were, reaching people, and we want there to be direct action taking place around it… With Remember Saro-Wiwa the danger is that it becomes just a tool that those in the art world talk to each other about… It’s a question of how seismic an effect the project can have in society, or is it just going to plant those seeds in the art world?… I’d like to be able to talk to a 17-year-old at a school talk, to say the name Ken Saro-Wiwa and they’d know who I was talking about, and what it meant.  And I would like Shell to be deeply embarrassed about this, and do everything in their power to put together a public relations package that is designed to minimise its impact.  Something basically that reminds us that there’s still a powerful story, and Shell is still deeply vulnerable on this issue.

Mark Brown, London Rising Tide and shortlisting panellist. Extract from interview, February 2006.


In our interconnected and economically globalised world there should be nothing unusual about putting up a memorial to an African in the streets of London. After all, the cultural landscape is a reflection of the economic terrain. But historically, memorials and statues don’t speak the language of cultural justice―they inscribe the narrative of colonialism on our visual world… In Africa many memorials still stand to the colonizers, the men (and it is usually men) who forcibly opened up the continent for the business of empire. The very names of many of our countries and cities, of Africa’s rivers and waterfalls ring with their memory… Another world is possible. One that cherishes the men and women who have dedicated their lives to building a just world order.

So a memorial to my father, Ken Saro-Wiwa, is this departure, an African honoured in the heart of London, a Living Memorial that champions a man who died for the hope of a just future. That he follows in the footsteps of Nelson Mandela as the second African to be officially honoured in this way is a tremendous source of pride for my family, my community and my country. We hope it will prise open a window of hope that we really can build a world based on mutual respect and the recognition of our shared destiny.

I think there’s a sense for us of reparations. We were surprised we haven’t had any criticism levelled at us yet for being a largely white organisation initiating a project like this. I think it’s partly because we’ve been thinking about these issues for so long, and we have a lot of alliances and networks and conversations that we’re part of.  Which gives the whole thing a lot of veracity. And the Remember Saro-Wiwa Coalition is a very strong grouping of organisations stretching from Diversity Art Forum to Minorities of Europe, Greenpeace to African Writers Abroad to Index on Censorship. And I think that’s been exactly the right way to work on this issue. It is a very difficult project, and rightly so.

Ken Wiwa jr,  journalist. Extract from essay in “Refining Memory” booklet.


I want to get to Ken Saro-Wiwa via another celebrated and recently departed activist, Rosa Parks, who died last Monday… I want to talk about the way she is remembered, or you could say mis-remembered. In Montgomery, Alabama at least, she is remembered through plaques on the street, the Museum―the Rosa Parks Museum―and finally there is Rosa Parks Avenue where she lived. Inevitably, of course, Jesse Jackson has now called for a statue to be erected to her in Washington… The plaques are at the place where she got on and where she was kicked off the bus. But now there is very little chance of African-Americans having to give up their seat to white people because white people don’t ride the bus, because they don’t have to. African-Americans, because they are poorer―just like the African-Americans in New Orleans [following Hurricane Katrina in August 2005] who couldn’t get out because they couldn’t get on―are the ones who ride the bus. Rosa Parks Avenue, where she lived, is one of the most deprived streets in Montgomery, a place where there are both crack houses and sex workers, where people are afraid to go out after dark, where there are random shootings… And finally there’s the museum which cost millions to build, much of it corporate money, all of it raised while Rosa Parks was penniless and couldn’t make her rent. One wonders whether this was the way to commemorate her… Doesn’t this tell us something about what’s still left to do of Rosa Parks’ work?

We want to remember Ken Saro-Wiwa, of course we do, but we want to remember him for a reason. We want to remember him for the values he embodied rather than his body itself. Anti-imperialism, community activism, environmentalism, political commitment―those are things that last beyond his body… I think what we are doing here is finding an appropriate artistic expression for those values.

Gary Younge, journalist. From speech at the Living Memorial Artists Talk, Museum of London, November 2005


I think the title of this project – Remember Saro-Wiwa – is inspired. It offers us the opportunity, to use Toni Morrison’s expression, to ‘re-memory’. It also offers us a challenge. Re-memory, or putting together fragments to make a whole is a necessary process for those deemed to have no history. And for centuries, Europeans have told us that there is no history except for that of Europeans. Memory is an essential part of history. If we do not remember Ken Saro-Wiwa, Baribor Bera, Saturday Dobee, Nordu Eawo, Daniel Gbokoo, Barinem Kiobel, John Kpuinen, Paul Levura, Felix Nuate, what happens to the history of their struggle?

It’s clear to me that one of the challenges in remembering is to try and understand what is happening environmentally around the world. Not so long ago… many black people in this country did not see any connection between racism and environmental issues – it wasn’t for them. Well, these things are not unconnected. Power and money are at the heart of the degradation of the environment as ever. Basically, manufacturing plants that emit foul-smelling toxic fumes do not get erected in wealthy white suburbs… The struggle that Ken Saro-Wiwa and his colleagues gave their lives for wasn’t something that happened ‘over there’. We are all implicated in the demand for squandering the earth’s finite resources.

Baroness Lola Young. From speech at the Artists Shortlist Exhibition, Museum of London, October 2005


Ken Saro-Wiwa showed me, through his choices and his activism, what it means to have a moral compass. He encouraged innumerable people to become the agents of change themselves. He gave heart and soul to a movement crying out for justice in a forgotten corner of Africa, to which Britain owes a lot. And for once the world listened. His example inspired a new generation of activists and it is absolutely right that we remember him.

Anita Roddick, business woman, activist and judging panellist. Press statement from project launch at City Hall, London, March 2005


The Living Memorial to Ken Saro-Wiwa is symbolically structured around the C60 carbon molecule. I have used the C60 structure to hold 3 spheres…and I have located the spheres in the sky which still evokes for us the boundless; awe and imagination beyond our control…Saro-Wiwa’s personal tragedy so challenges the greater conflict at large in the world; of whether the political and economic structures of the modern hydrocarbon age can allow us the autonomy, and emergent hybridity that ironically new technology promises; and of whether we can evolve a new vision of society and the uses of its collective resources. The Living Memorial for Ken Saro-Wiwa needs to be talismanic and free-spirited.

Siraj Izhar, artist and co-winner of commission. Extract from proposal.


There’s a political drive which is about promoting the man, there’s a political drive which is about promoting the issues in the Niger Delta and saying they’re still live; there’s the wider issues of damage to the environment and that can be taken on different levels: the damage that’s done by multinational corporations with profit as their main target; or there’s the implications of just general damage to the environment by the way that the western world lives… and I respect that for PLATFORM, this is a priority. It’s not a priority for me. For me a priority is to make sure that there’s a really good new commissioned artist’s work in London. Because I feel that without that other things are compromised, and certainly the message is also compromised at a certain level because you’re saying you’re not prepared to seek the best. You’re seeking something which is about communicating ideas, and then you could say, well, why are you choosing to communicate through art then?  Why not communicate through words, or campaigns, rather than commission a piece of art? If you decide to communicate through art, then it’s important to seek the best work of art

Jemima Montagu, Visual Arts Officer (Art in the Public Realm,) Arts Council England, and judging panellist. Extract from interview, March 2006. 


Since Ken Saro-Wiwa’s death, things have not got better in the Delta. The unrest over oil has spread through the oil-producing states and now threatens to divide the country… What a help it would be to people in the Delta to know that others in the world care… I constructed a bus because I wanted a mighty vehicle to tour the streets of London and be noticed, rather like a campaigning ‘Battle Bus’ in an election. I wanted something familiar but interpreted in a third world way. Can we have a lorry commemorating a campaigner against oil exploitation? Things are never black and white and intuitively I think Ken would like the irony of this because oil brought about his death but it also is playing a part in educating the world about the Ogoni people’s plight and other people’s of the Niger Delta.

Sokari Douglas Camp, artist and co-winner of commission. Extract from proposal.


How do we make art when the world is in such a state? How do we make art out of information that most of us would rather ignore? In 1996, I created a public project in honour of Ken Saro-Wiwa, Fela Anikulapo Kuti and Chinua Achebe―the last probably one of the greatest writers living today. This is what Chinua Achebe says: ‘Art is man’s constant effort to create for himself a different order of reality than that which is given to him.’ As artists I believe we cannot represent reality, we can only create new realities. I celebrate with great joy the new reality that this competition will make… I strongly believe that the spaces of art and culture are the last free spaces that exist today and we as artists and cultural producers must use every single inch of these available spaces. In these dark times we must create spaces of hope.

Alfredo Jaar, artist. From speech at the Living Memorial Artists Talk, Museum of London, November 2005.


Ken Saro-Wiwa is such an important figure, particularly in London, this city which is one of the most diverse in the world with this incredible history of connections with the parts of the world where Saro-Wiwa wrote so much of his work… My prayer for the Living Memorial is that, through both the communications campaign, but also the very strength of the work itself, that it becomes a memorial that lasts both in its physicality, but also in terms of the memories that it actually instils for people. Also the political reaction, and the way it will hopefully inspire people to get up and to change things, to disallow those things which Ken Saro-Wiwa wouldn’t have allowed just to happen without comment.

I think in this time of great cynicism… it is the perfect time to begin to think about the place of the sole writer and of the artist in the context of democracy or the lack of it, in the face of totalitarianism… I can’t think of a more potent time in which to be saying those sorts of things and asking those sorts of questions.

Augustus Casely-Hayford,  judging panellist. Extract from interview, February 2006.

For shortlisted artists’ proposals


The extracts are from interviews, speeches and texts. The interviews were conducted by independent artist-researcher Emma Byron. 












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