In a newly commissioned series by Active Cultures, British-Nigerian artist Zina Saro-Wiwa will present the inaugural public Illicit Gin Institute Assemblies, three special evenings in Fall 2021, produced in partnership with the MAK Center for Art and Architecture and hosted at the Schindler House in West Hollywood. The Illicit Gin Institute is a radical creative think tank founded by the artist that is dedicated to the exploration of a Nigerian spirit historically known as “illicit gin.” The project is an extension of the artist’s practice, which centers the environment, land use, and indigenous African botanicals, and serves as both a reclamation and celebration of the Niger Delta. Bridging the two oil towns of Port Harcourt and Los Angeles, Saro-Wiwa invests in the radical potential of storytelling and the shared experience of taste and ritual to improve the fate of each, while rooting our collective experience in Los Angeles to these spirits. The Assemblies will feature tastings from the artist’s craft distillery in Port Harcourt, where botanical Sarogua Palm Wine Spirits are produced by her team; a performance lecture given by Saro-Wiwa; a conversation with special guests (the first with Professor of Geography and Food Historian Judith Carney); a cocktail and chocolate hour; and a storytelling session featuring invited guests and members of the public. Each of the three Assemblies will close with a joyful dance circle DJ’d by the artist.
The Illicit Gin Institute offers a framework for exploring the ways in which spirits and botanicals interact and how they illuminate histories. Through this practice, Saro-Wiwa contemplates how gin, as a spirit, can be used to explore spirituality in our conceptions of environmentalism. Through the Institute, she pays particular reverence to African botanicals and the bush nurses who cultivate and nurture the land. This regard and acknowledgement of indigenous epistemologies is not only central to these Assemblies, but is indicative of the greater mindfulness with which Saro-Wiwa imbues her spirits. Her practice is invested in not only honoring the product but the knowledge and rituals of land practices in Ogoniland. The Institute acts as a vehicle to highlight the colonial and environmental histories, poetic implications, and spiritual cartographies of West African spirits and native African botanicals, and to make personal, bodily and spiritual connections through tastings of the specially made gins.
As Saro-Wiwa remarks: “For me these Assemblies are portals where we encounter the subcutaneous layers of life. Where this liquor and botanicals interact, create, instruct. Where flora is alive. This is about bringing a mindful, contemplative energy into drinking culture. These Assemblies will be a wonderful opportunity to explore the very idea of ‘spirit.’ The history of distilled spirits is alchemical and to me occupies a very powerful nexus at which poetry and mystery meet science. In many ways I feel gin is the perfect vehicle to explore the notion of spirituality in our conception of environmentalism.”
For Saro-Wiwa each bottle of gin is the landscape distilled; they contain the spirit of the land.
The Illicit Gin Institute Assemblies are organized by Curator of Public Programs Bianca Morán and produced in partnership with the MAK Center for Art and Architecture.
Zina Saro-Wiwa: The Illicit Gin Institute Assemblies are made possible through the generous support of the Active Cultures Board of Directors; the Gatherers Annual Fund; the California Arts Council; and California Humanities.
Zina Saro-Wiwa lives and works between Los Angeles and Port Harcourt, Nigeria. Born in 1976 in Nigeria and raised since infancy in the United Kingdom, she studied Economic and Social History at Bristol University and worked freelance as a BBC producer, presenter, and reporter for over twelve years. Always rooted in storytelling, her practice began to incorporate art making to navigate her complex and tragic family history, as well as her understanding of the environment around us and our place within it. Saro-Wiwa has been working with local “illicit” gin since 2013 when she moved back to the Niger Delta to develop her art practise. Her gins are always present at studio visits, performance banquets, and at exhibition openings she curates. But more than just being a celebratory offering, it is through this gin and the Illicit Gin Institute that Saro-Wiwa hopes to instill a deeper appreciation for the natural world and the ways in which it is intertwined with human emotion and fate. Saro-Wiwa is one of Foreign Policy Magazine’s Global Thinkers of 2016, recognized for her work in the Niger Delta. She was Artist-in-Residence at Pratt Institute, Brooklyn 2016-2017 and in April 2017 was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship for Fine Art. She has given talks and shown work regularly at biennales and museums around the world including Sao Paolo Biennale, Kochi Biennale, and the Tate in London. Her work can be found in the collections of MoMA, the Smithsonian, and the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, among others.