Last month’s Late Item (AM 145), “Three little words’, is reproduced here in full since it succinctly sets out a serious incident which we will explore, in more detail:

‘On March 22, an exhibition of work by the exiled Nigerian artist and writer Olu Oguibe opened at the Commonwealth Institute, London. Missing from the show was an eight-panel piece painted on matting. The work is a political statement, and two panels had been ‘censored’ by the Institute on the score that it contained ‘obscene words’ which might offend children.

In Igbo, the numeral 4 signifies completeness, 8 duality.

Excluding the panels defeated the purpose of the work, so the artist withdrew the work. He wrote a statement for AM: ‘I wish to make known my disappointment at the decision of the administration to censor sections of a work which I consider the centrepiece of the exhibition of my works, ‘Works and Words’, on the grounds that they contain words which they find morally disagreeable and unsuitable for a children’s audience.’ Specifically, the Gallery and the Institute object to the occurrence of two statements: ‘Fuck the President’ and ‘Fuck Maicontri’ in two sections of the 45ft, eight-piece painting, National Graffiti, and have proceeded to prohibit the display of these sections. This not only makes it impossible to exhibit the entire work since it tampers with its structural and symbolic message, but also contravenes the terms of agreement which empower the Institute only to ‘advise on final selection’ and not to bar the display of any work. ‘My works, as the Institute acknowledges in its announcement, are essentially centred on the political landscape of my country, Nigeria, from which I am exiled presently. They axe particularly bitter political statements on the leadership and the conduct of the political process, and are works of extreme anger and frustration. This much the Institute is aware of and acknowledges. The said “offensive” expressions have been used only in this particularly personal and political context and to interfere with it is to replicate the very oppressive conditions my works address and which have forced me into exile.’ It is refreshing to compare the Institute’s action with the Lord Chamberlain’s censorship in 1957 of John Osborne’s play The Entertainer: ‘Act I, alter “ass-upwards”; alter “pouf” (twice), alter “shagged”; omit “rogered” (twice); Act III, alter “wet your pants”.’

Whatever the reasons behind the Commonwealth Institute’s action – petty bureaucracy, political censorship or simple prudery – wherever the word censorship is uttered it is worth taking a closer look. Oguibe, in common with other artists, went through the usual selection procedure for a showing at the Institute and presented them with the required number of slides of his work – between 10 and 15. As is usual, and as was made explicit in the conditions which Oguibe signed, the slides he sent to the Institute were intended to be representative of his work and not slides of the actual works which would be shown. Both the artist and Institute agree that the works which eventually became a subject for dispute were not in any way out of character with the slides which he presented. It was clear to both sides at the time that this was the case, indeed it had to be; many of the works which Oguibe wanted to hang were still in Nigeria and he had no photographs of them. However, the Institute has reacted to the artist’s complaint by falling back on the strange notion that the slides shown were the only works that the Institute had agreed to hang. Godfrey Brandt, Director of Education at the Institute, has said, ‘No work was censored as such. None of the works submitted to the panel as part of the original portfolio were excluded from the exhibition’. A curious response.

Oguibe was clear that the Institute had the right to ‘advise on the final selection of his works’. What he did not realise nor read in the written conditions (it was not written) nor hear from the administrators (it was not said), was that his work would be judged by standards of taste and decency unusual to most works in art galleries.

So how did the artist discover that those four little letters were not to be allowed? Oguibe says, ‘I arrived in the gallery and the panels which they objected to were stacked separately from the rest. It was only when I went to hang the work that Indira Nadha (the Gallery administrator), apologised to me and said that those panels couldn’t go up because of those (Fuck the President and Fuck Maicontri) words’. Unfortunately, what had seemed to the Institute to be an elegant solution to their problem was more than that to the artist.

Firstly, the work was an eight-panel piece because the artist had designed it that way – not just because he felt like it. As described in Late Items (AM 145) the missing panels meant that the significance of the artist’s arrangement was destroyed. Oguibe asked for the decision to be reconsidered in the light of this, but the Institute was adamant. The Gallery’s insistence on removing the panels could only be answered by the artist removing the work as a whole from the exhibition – no minor alteration when the piece in question is 45ft long. The gallery was engaged on a paradoxical course of action. On the one hand, it was engaging the artist because of his sensitivity to such significant arrangements whilst, on the other hand, denying him the means to present them. If an art gallery does not have equal sensitivity, it defeats its raison d’etre. Secondly, the action of the gallery seems to be outside the terms of its agreement with the artist. The gallery had the right to ‘advise on the final selection’, but this hardly constitutes the right effectively to censor the work in question – the largest and most prominent work in the show. The claim that the Institute was only editing the work does not carry any weight at all – artists do not agree to exhibit work in the same way as a journalist submits an article for publication.

What the Institute was suggesting amounts to derogatory treatment of the work: an abuse of the artist’s statutory moral rights. It might have been argued that the gallery was perfectly within its rights in preventing a breach of the criminal law; by the use of the word ‘fuck’ in letters 2-3 inches high, in a work 45ft long on public display, it might have been a breach of the Indecent Displays (Control) Act 1981.

The work in question would have undoubtedly been on public display, and what is indecent is always up for discussion. The act explicitly excludes anything ‘included in the display of an art gallery or museum and visible only from within the gallery or museum’. Now, the gallery at the Commonwealth Institute is a corridor and therefore the Institute may indeed have had grounds to be wary, as it leads to the café and therefore might be argued to be outside the definition of an art gallery described in the Act. But, even if this is the case, the artist should at least have been warned that special conditions applied so that he could make his own selection based on the full facts.

Ultimately, the artist had three days from Mar 18 to Mar 20 to reselect and order his exhibition. The gallery took no compensating action to assist the artist in exposing this work, with care not to transgress the law, but at the same time respecting his integrity; their insistence was outside the conditions originally agreed with the artist. Oguibe asked for some such action in the form of a statement either displayed with the work or distributed by the Institute. No such action was taken.

One of the most disturbing features of this incident is that the Institute had at least two weeks to inform and discuss the problem with the artist. We understand it did nothing. The Institute had two weeks, and the resources, to take legal advice; but at no time has it suggested to the artist that this is a legal problem -it is a matter that in their opinion the words used in the works are offensive – and that, as far as they are concerned, is that. Moreover, the Commonwealth institute’s charter claims that it stands for respect for individual liberty and the rights of the individual Oguibe does not believe that what happened was necessarily political censorship – other works in the show have graffiti against the President. But the incident provokes in him and in others the suspicion that it was not the four little letters as much as the three little words that the Institute was objecting to.

No-one will know for sure the motives behind the Institute’s actions. An artist should be able to expect that a gallery will respect his or her work; otherwise, why invite the exhibition in the first place? They should be able to expect that the gallery will not censor their work as part of a bureaucratic process, but will defend their freedom of expression through the care with which they treat their work and the vigour and application they put into deflecting other such threats.

Perhaps the answer is that the Commonwealth Institute does not see itself as having an art gallery that espouses such standards of best gallery practice. Rather, that it wants to display artists’ works as part of some ill-defined, well-intentioned, peace-amongst-nations symbol. If that’s the case then it should tell the artist that is what it is about, be free but be nice. If it wants to have artists from Commonwealth countries actually displaying their works as free artists, then it should treat them as such; not as programme fodder. If Nigeria is the place seen through the work of Olu Oguibe, it is a beautiful, poetic, and also vicious and snarling place – if you want post-card snaps, you go to the Nigerian Tourist Board; if you want reportage, you can read the occasional newspaper article – if you want art, go to a fucking art gallery.

© Henry Lydiate & James Odling-Smee 1991

Still need help? Contact us

Similar Artlaw articles

Related articles / resources

Featured project

© Helena Hunter, Falling Birds, 2021

Reaching audiences online

Pablo Colella of Disconnected Bodies and artist Helena Hunter in conversation with Nick Kaplony of Artquest https://vimeo.com/539662926 • Date: Thursday 15 April, 7–8 pm • Venue: online via Zoom With… Continue Reading Reaching audiences online

Read more


This article is from the Artlaw Archive of Henry Lydiate's columns published in Art Monthly since 1976, and may contain out of date material. The article is for information only, and not for the purpose of providing legal advice. Readers should consult a solicitor for legal advice on specific matters. Artists can get free online legal information from Artquest.