Love, Lagos

Ayodeji Rotinwa at Art X Lagos

Fair founder Tokini Peterside with Nigerian Vice President Yemi Osinbajo in front of paintings by Ablade Glover at the Gallery 1957 booth.

LAST WEEKEND, Ahmadu Bello Way was without chaos, which was surprising for a road routinely choked with bumper-to-bumper congestion. The facilitators of this calm were none other than the Nigerian army and the Lagos State Traffic Management Authority, deployed to ensure that everything remained smooth on the thoroughfare for the Fourth Art X Lagos, West Africa’s preeminent art fair, which has now doubled in size from previous editions. For a private art event, the muscle was surprising. Or maybe not. Past iterations of the event have aspired to and often achieved organizational excellence—in the scale of their presentation, their manic attention to detail—in spite of their circumstances. Because traffic slows productivity, and costs can balloon as a result of lost hours, Lagos is a hard place to put on a good show.

It also has no love for its people or its things. The site of the concurrently held Lagos Biennial, at the twenty-five-story Independence House, betrays this lack of care. The rotting, abandoned structure, commissioned by the British government in 1960 to commemorate Nigeria’s independence, has, until now, remained in disuse since 1993. Fittingly, the biennial’s exhibited artists are preoccupied with urgent questions of Lagosian urbanism, as the exhibition’s title, “How Do You Build a Lagoon with a Bottle of Wine?,” poetically indicates. With his images documenting razed historical buildings in the city, photographer Andréas Lang poses a related question: How do you honor the decaying and disappearing? His sobering photos suggest that the increasing number of demolitions in Lagos is a failure not only of urban planning but also of knowledge preservation. Multimedia artist Karl Ohiri’s video Rolling Footage, 2019, reveals the daily struggles of differently abled people in Lagos through GoPro footage captured by a young man with no legs as he navigates the city’s markets and streets, perpetually threatened by accidental bodily harm.

Péju Alatise’s installation at Art x Lagos.

At Art X Lagos, however, there was little evidence of such disquiet. The orchestrated calm of the streets and of the fair’s venue, the Federal Palace Hotel and Casino, translated directly onto booth walls. Though scenes of intimacy and romance bloomed across many gallery booths, one of the strongest works broke violently from such idylls. “This Is Lagos,” a photographic and augmented-reality project by young photographers Amanda Iheme (one to watch!), Nyancho NwaNri, and Ifebusola Shotunde, documents the steady, inevitable degeneration of city infrastructure as it sinks ever deeper below sea level. In a few years, we might be returning to these images with regret.

At the booth of Arthouse Contemporary’s the Space, the exhibition arm of Nigeria’s foremost auction house, nostalgia and hustle held the wall. Italian Nigerian artist Diana Ejaita was showing a drawing, Iya Ni Wura (Mother Is Gold), that had landed on the cover of The New Yorker earlier this year. The rendering, which went moderately viral in the Nigerian cybersphere, celebrates a mother tending to her daughter, both dressed up and headed somewhere with their ostensible means of transportation behind them: an auto rickshaw. The Berlin-based artist emblazoned the vehicle with a bold keke—the colloquial name for these tricycles—and a Nigerian flag tucked in the window. While you’d be hard-pressed to find a rickshaw labeled like this in the city, Arthouse Contemporary was shrewd to jump on the bandwagon of Ejaita’s idealized representation.

Curators Roli Afinotan and Jessica Byenyan Bitrus.

As I navigated the fair’s expanded layout, I spotted the well-known writer Keside Anosike and his sibling returning to look at a painting they’d contemplated earlier. They were not alone. Many fairgoers were stilled by Peter Uka’s portraits of black life at the Galerie Voss booth. In one, Serenity, 2019, we see a gracious, beautiful, gloriously black woman, clad in white, looking away but impeccably holding pose. A transistor radio, kerosene lamp, and half-ajar wardrobe abundant with rich fabrics also appear in the frame. “There’s something familiar about this painting . . . that aunty . . . her body’s reassurance, in pose, the neat pedicure,” Keside later enthused. Further on, more familiar sightings. In Emeka Ogboh’s installation Àlà, 2014, the sights of Lagos were beamed onto a wall. I first caught the installation months before in Marrakech, during the 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair. Ogboh was there by his booth, in a heated conversation with someone. I wanted to know what all the excitement was about, but alas, they were speaking entirely in Igbo.

Peter Uka, Serenity, 2019.

There was much more to see still—maybe too much. Eventually, the same feeling arose each time I saw a new work: Everything seemed too sanitized, too calm, too perfect. Admittedly, I had been looking at a lot of art that weekend. Concurrent with the fair was the citywide LagosPhoto festival, convened under the theme of passports. Many of the photographs were beautiful, but they also had an urgency that was missing from the offerings at Art X Lagos. Standouts included Aàdesokan’s collages tracking the global movement of humans and their plastic waste, and Maïmouna Guerresi’s otherworldly portraits in which tree branches become metaphors for passage.

Nelson Makamo's Purple Prose at Everard Read gallery.

But back to the fair. I was particularly keen on seeing what South African galleries would show. A few weeks prior, violence against Nigerians and people from other African nations broke out in South Africa. This was not the first time South Africans targeted black Africans from other countries. It’s been going on for years. Curiously, this particular rash of Afrophobic violence occurred during the country’s marquee art event: the Johannesburg Art Fair. Accordingly, some Nigerian galleries decided to pull out. I chose not to attend; I knew I wouldn’t feel safe. How would South African galleries respond in Nigeria? With a measure of grace, apparently—and an eye toward profit, of course. Goodman Gallery’s booth showed only Sam Nhlengethwa, one of South Africa’s most accomplished artists, commissioned here to produce a body of work in homage to the late Fela Kuti, Nigeria’s greatest musician, Afrobeat pioneer, human-rights activist, and political dissident. In intimate collages that leave the man’s larger-than-life persona undiminished, we see an onstage Fela gazing at his son, and also side by side with his South African contemporaries. That a South African artist would focus exclusively on one of their countrymen left Nigerian viewers pleasantly surprised.

Unsatiated, I continued my search for provocation, and found the heartwarming instead. Mydrim Gallery’s booth—located in the fair’s modern section, which showed the forbearers of Nigerian art—gave their presentation over to the memory of Bisi Silva, an exemplary curator and the fair’s first-ever artistic director, who passed away earlier this year. For more than a decade, Silva paved the way for Nigerian art abroad, nearly single-handedly putting Lagos on the global art map while promoting the work of African artists wherever she went.

I chided myself. Perhaps the rousing isn’t always in the provocative, the obviously political. The personal bears its own power.