Damien Hirst accused of copying African art at Venice Biennale

Story highlights

  • Hirst's latest exhibition features a "golden head" reminiscent of ancient African art
  • Exhibition curator says the Ife kingdom is referenced and the show tells a story

(CNN)English artist Damien Hirst has been accused of cultural appropriation after his exhibition, "Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable," featured a "golden head" that appears to mirror sculpted heads created by African artists from Ile-Ife Nigeria.

"For the thousands of viewers seeing this for the first time, they won't think Ife, they won't think Nigeria," Nigerian visual artist Victor Ehikhamenor wrote on his Instagram page, along with a picture he took of Hirst's "golden head" behind glass.
"Their young ones will grow up to know this work as Damien Hirst's. The narrative will shift and the young Ife or Nigerian contemporary artist will someday be told by a long nose critic, 'Your work reminds me of Damien Hirst's Golden Head,'" wrote Ehikhamenor, who with Hirst is exhibiting this year at the Venice Biennale.
"It's about time these things get appropriately credited," Ehikhamenor told CNN.
A spokesperson for Damien Hirst said: "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.
"A reference to the Ife heads is in the text accompanying the work and in the guide to the exhibition and is integral to the concept of the work."
Hirst initially declined to talk with CNN, instead referring questions through a spokesperson to curator Elena Geuna.
"The exhibition features two types of captions: the label inside the cabinet, which is part of the artwork and the leaflet, describing the works in the show," Geuna told CNN. "Both captions contain a reference to the Ife heads."
The label inside the cabinet on Hirst's piece reads: "Golden heads (Female),'" and the Kingdom of Ife is referenced there and in the guide.
Geuna also shed light on the inspiration behind the pieces, which are part of an exhibition that took 10 years to create and aims to display the precious fictional cargo of an ancient ship wreck, according to the Palazzo Grassi, where the exhibition is taking place.
"One of the sources of inspiration for the exhibition is the collection of the British Museum, in London, where the Ife heads are displayed," Geuna said. "An Ife head from the British Museum collection has also been included in the famous book, 'A History of the World in 100 Objects' by the former museum director Neil MacGregor."
Similarities indeed exist between the Nigerian works and those of Hirst, the Department of Africa, Oceania and The Americas at London's School of Oriental and African Studies explained in a statement to CNN.
"The Damien Hirst work does mirror that of the Ife craftsmen of the early 14th-15th Century," the SOAS statement read. "The form of the Hirst head, with its striations, clearly echoes those Ife examples which emerged from the sacred shrine at Wunmonije Compound in the 1930s."
Still, some Twitter users were as outraged as Ehikhamenor and used images of ancient Nigerian art to show the similarities with Hirst's work.
Another labeled Hirst an "art thief."
This is a landmark year at the Venice Biennale for Nigeria, which for the first time has its own pavilion. Ehikhamenor is one of three artists exhibiting in that pavilion, alongside Peju Alatise and Qudus Onikeku.