Art, in its many forms, has always been part of both our individual and communal lives. It is a thread that shapes our community and gives us a sense of identity and belonging! A reason for which international bodies should and sometimes do relate with us.
In Nigeria, we have seen art in varied forms. One of the first proponents of bringing tradition to the front was the renowned artist and professor – Uche Okeke. He took particular interest in the “Uli” Art form that originated from the Igbo region, transforming it in the 1970s into a modern expression that he called “Natural Synthesis”.
Over the years, more contemporary artists have expressed themselves by referencing tradition. This expression of tradition has begun to evolve in different formats; retaining its relevance and cultural essence.
A multi-dimensional artist like Victor Ehikhamenor, is today known for the signs and symbols in his work – motifs that correlate with those in ancestral shrines in his village.
Victor Ekpuk’s paintings and drawings reflect the traditional African philosophies obvious in the Nsibidi forms.
Conceptual photographer Asiko, in his most recent exhibition “The Adorned Series”, echoes the tradition of women dressing gorgeously when going to Owambes.
Many of the performance artists we see today infuse strong references to the masquerades and dance performances that happen during traditional festivals and special events.
Video and Sound artists like Jude Anogwih and Emeka Ogboh are creating and exhibiting works that draw inspiration from their environments.
The art world in Nigeria is going through a revolution, real engagement is going on within the space and people that have never before engaged with art are now beginning to show interest. This transformation is due to a combination of factors, primary among which is Nigeria’s contemporary artists are very much authentic; they express their true nature. Other factors are below:
People are paying more attention now, both locally and internationally. Artists are being discovered and they are able to use various platforms to gain visibility, exhibit on a global level, broker sales and form connections. For instance, the works of hyperrealism artist – Olumide Oresegun went viral and was featured on CNN, he went on to mount exhibitions with reputable art houses.
Media platforms dedicated to the arts, such as TheSoleAdventurer.com now exist and many other international platforms carry stories on Nigerian art.
Artists are now using the internet on their own terms to chase opportunities both home and abroad. Several artists recently participated in Biennales abroad, for example, 7 Nigerian artists exhibited at the prestigious 2015 Venice Biennale, which was curated by by a Nigerian, Okwi Enwenzor. 7 Nigerian artists were officially invited to this year’s Dakar Biennale, the biggest in the African continent. In 2015, 11 Nigerian artists participated in the Jogja Biennale in Indonesia titled “Indonesia Meets Nigeria”.
New art spaces are springing up within Nigeria in addition to the already established galleries like Nike Art, Signature, Mydrim, Omenka, Terra Kulture, and Red Door Gallery. The year 2015 welcomed new players in the industry like Rele Gallery and in November of the same year, Art Clip Africa opened its doors as well at the Radisson Blu. In 2016, we are seeing other alternative spaces join the pioneers- Wheatbaker Hotel and Temple Muse. They include the Gallery at Sterling Bank, Revolving Art Incubator, and the Lagos Arbitration Court. Alara, the concepts store, also has a strong foothold in promoting visual artists and has thus far mounted five exhibitions.
There are many other interesting places around the country, like the Boy’s Quarter in Port Harcourt. Abuja has also woken up to art with places like the Thought Pyramid and IICDA, where foreign artists come for residency in the capital city.
We can only imagine that there will be more to come.
There are other new initiatives happening in the art space and giving opportunities to Artists to develop. There is the AAF’s Lagos Photo Festival (now in its 7th year). Rele introduced the Young Contemporaries Initiative, giving young promising artists the opportunity to exhibit their work and awarding them grants. The Art House Foundation also completed one year of its residency program for artists. Art X Lagos – the first art fair in West Africa held its first edition this November and attracted 5,000 people.
The Art House Auction continues to do very well despite the “recession”. In its most recent auction held this November, the highest work sold for N18.4million. Past auctions have been better, but this still shows investors are confident in the Nigerian art market. Bonhams in the U.K still finds its way to Nigeria to select works for its AFRICA NOW auction and actually hosts a post-auction reception in Lagos.
Nigerians in the Diaspora are doing extremely well and are indirectly elevating Nigerian art both in perception and in prices. Guaranty Trust Bank, Lagos in collaboration with the British Council brought a Yinka Shonibare, MBE sculpture exhibition to Nigeria for the very first time recently. It is on display at the Ndubuisi Kanu Park, Ikeja, Lagos until January of 2017.
The artworks of a Nigerian artist based in the US, Njideka Akinyuli-Crosby, are highly sought after and have been acquired by many museums, with even more waiting in line. In the just concluded Sotheby auction, her 2012 painting “Drown” sold for $1.1m, which is a record for any living Nigerian artist both home and abroad.
With all these in place, it is accurate to conclude that there is a rise in the level of interest in Nigerian Art. The factors stated above are indicators of a growing industry. It is translating to more employment opportunities and serious earning power for artists.
The Nigerian art space however, is losing leaders and patrons. Earlier in the year, we lost Uche Okeke, a renowned artist and teacher. Also very recently, Mr. Sammy Olagbaju and Chief Rasheed Gbadamosi passed away. They were major Nigerian collectors with large collections. They would be very proud though, as more young people are now very enthusiastic about appreciating and collecting Nigeria artists. This reassures us that art from Nigeria will continue to thrive and pass on from generation to generation.
It is not hard to conclude that art has a lot to do with it. Art, artists, and the eco-system that allows them to function cannot be ignored. The industry is fast becoming the in-thing, but it is still not at the level it needs to be. There is still a whole lot that can be done to elevate the industry, especially from the government’s side.
In September this year, I had the opportunity to be part of “The Conversations” with the Nigerian president. I curated the exhibition “Does the man make the time, or does the time make the man”. During the opening of the exhibition in Abuja, I spoke on a panel about the challenges in the industry and what the government can do to ameliorate. My recommendation remains the same; we need more visionary art leaders in positions of power. Leaders who understand the potentials inherent within the visual art space and have clear vision for the creative industry. Leaders with bold ideas that can transform the industry and are willing to implement despite the challenges. Garnering support from the private sector to transform our infrastructure deficits and to create an enabling environment for the arts to thrive needs hard work and will power.
In the words of Brene Brown “When we deny our history, it defines us. When we own our history, we have the power to change the present and the future”. The arts are a major part of our history as a people and a nation. There is no better time than now to pay attention to the arts.
Leaders of No-Morrow: The Hopes, Possibilities and Realities of Nigeria is a special series brought to you by The Naked Convos in partnership with The Guardian. To read articles in the series, go to: www.thenakedconvos.com