PRINT December 2008

Bisi Silva

THE POLITICAL SLOGAN Eko O ni Baje” (Lagos won’t spoil), a rallying cry of Nigeria’s Action Congress Party, aptly expresses the vision of a place that has experienced numerous assaults over the past two decades. Lagos, a megacity of approximately fifteen million people, is one of the fastest-growing “urban agglomerations” in the world. The influx of migrants has, in the absence of corresponding infrastructural development or urban planning, created a deficit in the provision of amenities such as housing, water, and transportation. But the 2007 election of Babatunde Fashola to the governorship of Lagos State, and his dynamic implementation of policies in health, education, and road-network upgrades, offers some cause for optimism. The repercussions of his efforts to turn Lagos, both physically and conceptually, from anarchic disorder toward a new social order are already being felt. Lagos won’t spoil.

Lagos is a melting pot for the myriad ethnicities that make up the population not only of Nigeria but of the entire West African region. In his 2005 publication project, Lagos: A City at Work, Olakunle Tejuoso, founder of the cultural magazine Glendora Review, concisely articulated the “frenzied energies of survival, intense anxieties and recalcitrant resilience that pervade the subcultures of this modern metropolis.” Lagos is a bustling twenty-four-hour city where lowlife meets highlife, where rich and poor collide, and where modern neighborhoods with palatial buildings dissipate into slums—a kaleidoscopic city within whose bowels resides a rich, multifaceted cultural scene that includes fashion, music, literature, and a booming film sector that turns out more than two hundred films annually. Commonly called Nollywood, it is the third largest film industry in the world. Within this cornucopia, the visual arts sector is beginning to stir. Some landmark events signal a revival.

The first case in point was the April reintroduction of auctions of modern and contemporary art, the first in Nigeria since 1999, at Arthouse Contemporary Limited, an auction house founded last year. Amid the flurry of anticipation were rumors of a collaboration with an art consultant who had worked with Sotheby’s on emerging markets, and of an auctioneer from the United Kingdom who was to be flown in for the event. About two hundred people turned out, many from the expatriate and diplomatic communities; there were also artists, gallerists, members of the press, and, of course, local collectors, including two particularly active ones, Rasheed Gbadamosi and Samuel Olagbaju. The auction featured nearly one hundred artworks from the primary and secondary markets. Some, such as Terracotta Kindred Spirits, 2005, by sculptor Ndidi Dike, and mixed-media work by Nkechi Nwosu-Igbo, were offered directly by the artists, preempting Damien Hirst’s straight-to-the-block sale at Sotheby’s London in September. The auction netted approximately $650,000. Predictably, the highest prices were paid for works by the older generation, such as painter Yusuf Grillo, sculptor Okpu Eze, and multidisciplinary artist Erhabor Emokpae.

At one point, a bidding war broke out for a large three-panel bronze foil, Greater Nigeria, 2007, by renowned seventy-six-year-old artist Bruce Onobrakpeya. Onobrakpeya has straddled the artistic landscape as an artist, a teacher, and a mentor, but came to public consciousness in the 1960s as a prominent member of the group of young artists, popularly known as the Zaria Rebels, who were studying at the National College of Arts, Science and Technology in Zaria. Forming a collective officially called the Zaria Art Society, the Zaria Rebels reacted against the imported British art-education system. They sought to develop an art form born of local aesthetics but merged with appropriate Western techniques. Working within many regional traditions, they created a modern Nigerian identity for the visual arts, a combination of Nigerian and Western elements that became known as Natural Synthesis. The price of Greater Nigeria edged from $23,500 to $80,000. As the hammer came down for the third time, there was loud applause. This was a historic moment for the Lagos art scene, and it was gratifying to witness Onobrakpeya’s disbelief and joy.

The auction also raised a multitude of issues that have been generating debate in the nascent art sector: the extent to which the market is undervalued; the inordinate dominance of male artists; the Lagos-centric focus that excludes the prolific and sometimes more experimental artistic production of cities such as Nsukka, Zaria, and Auchi. Two of the most successful artists in Nigeria today, painter Kolade Oshinowo and internationally renowned sculptor El Anatsui (Ghanaian, but a professor of sculpture at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, since the ’70s), were absent, while only three women were represented: Nike Davies-Okundaye, Ndidi Dike, and Nkechi Nwosu-Igbo, who all work in diverse media including textiles, painting, installation, and sculpture. Their work mostly went unsold. Also unable to find a buyer was an early oil painting, Echi Eteka Akwa Ndeli, 1965, by Uche Okeke, a classmate of Onobrakpeya’s, the art-historical significance of one of the most important figures in Nigerian postindependence history seemingly lost on the buyers. And, with zero value within the Nigerian art market, photography’s role within the visual arts continued to be ignored.

But perhaps the most fundamental problem is that Nigeria’s cultural sector has been neglected by successive governments that offer empty promises to the arts, forced as they are to channel their resources into housing, education, and public health. Consequently—and this seems to be increasingly the case across the continent—the dedication and commitment of individuals and corporate entities are the main source of consistent support. There have been some small steps toward government implementation of programs in support of the arts—the first African Regional Summit and Exhibition on the Visual Arts, held in September in the Nigerian capital, Abuja, was funded partly by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, with a sum of $175,000 contributed by one of the country’s leading financial institutions, Oceanic Bank. The summit (spearheaded by Joe Musa, director of the National Gallery of Art, Nigeria, with Nsikak Essien curating the accompanying show) brought to Abuja approximately ninety artists and academics from fifteen African countries and the diaspora, including artists Sokari Douglas Camp, William Miko, and Ibrahim Niang; cultural theorist and film historian Manthia Diawara; and curator and photography historian Deborah Willis.

But African artists are primarily supported by philanthropists and collectors. Some of the complexities of this situation were borne out by the exhibition of the Sindika Dokolo African Collection of Contemporary Art at the Fifty-second Venice Biennale. (I was a member of the jury that oversaw the selection of the exhibition for the African pavilion.) Unfortunately, the opportunity to engage with the works, and to explore possible alternative strategies that might be employed in the absence of public funding, was lost in the debates surrounding the show. Around the continent, private efforts that are driving the development of visual art do include initiatives by artists, such as Barthélémy Toguo’s venue, Bandjoun Station, in Bafoussam, Western Cameroon, or Ablade Glover’s Artists Alliance Gallery in Accra, Ghana, but just as often it is philanthropists such as investment banker Lionel Zinsou, with his Zinsou Foundation in the Republic of Benin, who fill the niche.

In Nigeria, meanwhile, a group of collectors led by a lawyer and businessman, the aforementioned Samuel Olagbaju, decided in 2006 to come together to build an arts institution under the aegis of the Visual Arts Society of Nigeria (VASON). A statement on the society’s website notes that the consensus among the founders “was that something positive needed to be done to ameliorate the present situation whereby visual arts developments seemed to be inconsistent and uncoordinated, especially in the area of awareness building, appreciation, and contributions to Nigeria’s cultural heritage. The vacuum created by the slow pace of activities of government agencies has been a rallying point for constituents.” In May 2008, VASON held its first official exhibition, featuring a selection of forty works from Olagbaju’s collection by artists from Ghana and Uganda as well as Nigeria. The show had many flaws, including an apparent lack of curatorial methodology, inadequate documentation, and an absence of any kind of public program or forum for critical interaction. Nonetheless, there was a large turnout at the opening, and attendance throughout the run of the show was good—suggesting a thirst for exhibitions of this kind among both art enthusiasts and the public at large.

These initiatives motivated another prominent collector, Yemisi Shyllon, to launch the Omooba Yemisi Adedoyin Shyllon Art Foundation to serve as the custodian of his substantial collection of classical and modern art as well as works by emerging artists. The inaugural exhibition in September, which also lacked a curatorial premise, was a random selection of modern and contemporary works, which nevertheless revealed a strong and deep collection spanning modern Nigerian art history. There were landscapes and everyday scenes from the 1940s and ’50s by pioneer modern painters Aina Onabolu and Akinola Lasekan, ’80s and ’90s canvases filled with social commentary by painter and art historian dele jegede, and early wooden sculptures by Anatsui, among many other works. Shyllon expressly cites his desire to “curb the flight” of such works from Africa as one of his reasons for starting the foundation, which is rapidly becoming a valuable resource for artists and scholars.

With the primary support for art in Nigeria coming from such initiatives as these collector-supported foundations, focused as they are on traditional media, any visitor to Lagos would be forgiven for thinking that painting and sculpture are the only kinds of work that exist here, and that artists are interested only in selling their work. Certainly one of the criticisms continually leveled at artists and the art scene, especially in Lagos, is that there is a propensity for the commodification of art at the expense of experimentation or of contextual depth. There is no denying that with no public funding or subvention, the art scene in Lagos is predominantly commercial, and as such, hierarchical and hegemonic artistic boundaries, enforcing the status of painting and sculpture, remain largely intact. There have been some inroads by photography and installation and recently by video art, but no breakthrough by film, performance, or other experimental media. The sector could benefit from an injection of fresh ideas and self-reflexivity, in order to get beyond what jegede calls a state of affairs wherein “many of us visual artists engage mainly in a display of technical proficiency and finesse which are oftentimes as shallow as they are devoid of any heuristic values.”

All that said, there is a small but growing alternative scene in Lagos. It has been galvanized, in particular, by the city’s Goethe-Institut, whose outgoing director, Arne Schneider, has encouraged the development and presentation of photographic practices outside the documentary genre, such as that of Uche James Iroha, a founding member of the photographic collective, Depth of Field. More generally, the institute has presented a range of artistic practices that take everyday realities and existential angst as points of departure. Earlier this year, the institute mounted “Deadline,” an exhibition by Ayo Aina. One of Nigeria’s most talented and prolific artists, Aina is known for his installations and conceptual paintings incorporating abject materials such as rat traps, petrol, dolls, and food to comment on political, social, and environmental issues. Jolly Ride, 2008, for example, comprises a two-seat bicycle completely covered in newspaper, except for the rear seat, which is stuck with nails, while the front seat is covered with soft, luxurious fabric. This is the dichotomy: the difficult realities faced by the majority of the populace contrasted with the lavish existence of the ruling class. The institute, moreover, has spearheaded presentations of performance art, collaborative and interactive practices, and, especially, art in public space, inviting artists from the diaspora to develop projects in Lagos. One of these projects, Emeka Udemba’s In God We Trust, 2008, was a collaboration with fellow artists and local art students that used the uncontrollable proliferation of churches, mosques, and other prayer houses as a lens through which to examine the religious fervor transforming the country’s sociopolitical landscape. Another, the nomadic artist Dilomprizulike’s performance Hu Wan Visa, 2008, was a satirical piece exploring the power games visa applicants experience at the hands of the security personnel who guard foreign embassies. With their “acquired” power, the guards have positioned themselves to determine who can and cannot get a visa.

The Goethe-Institut is no longer alone in trying to open up artistic and discursive fields in Lagos. The Centre for Contemporary Art, Lagos (CCA, Lagos), joined it in December 2007 as another organization aiming to encourage artistic diversity and experimentation, to provide a platform for critical debate, and to present often-difficult work on themes such as gender, sexuality, politics, and religion. The inaugural project, “Democrazy,” consisted of three consecutive solo exhibitions of Nigerian artists, all exploring democracy within an African context. First was a presentation of cover art by Ghariokwu Lemi from albums by Afrobeat musician Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, then an installation, Waka-into-Bondage: The Last 3⁄4 Mile, by Ndidi Dike. Using “loaded” symbols, Dike showed two large carved wooden boats, one filled with sugar, the other with bloodred liquid. The evocative potential of her materials coalesces and attraction turns to repulsion as Dike triggers trace memories: our forebears, walking the last mile across Gberefu Island in Badagry, Lagos, past the point of no return, toward the shores of the Atlantic Ocean. The third part of “Democrazy” was a documentary photography exhibition, “Paradise Lost: Revisiting the Niger Delta” by George Osodi, that highlighted the persistence, in spite of the civil unrest and environmental degradation, of the humanity and dignity of a people whose dreams and hopes have been abrogated. The exhibitions are complemented by a public program featuring local and international curators, artists, and art historians that actively encourages debate and critical discourse on topical issues such as cultural patrimony and curatorial practice. CCA, Lagos also opened the only specialized visual art and culture library in the West African region, in an effort to fill a major vacuum.

Interest continues to grow, especially among young artists. Here I should disclose that I am the director of CCA, Lagos, my attention to my own institution’s program perhaps understandable in light of the dearth of venues of this kind in Lagos. Certainly, being the only local “alternative” space, with the exception of one German institution, brings a sensation of precariousness that will remain for some time to come. Still, it is evident that the art scene in Lagos, while embryonic, is also entering a period of great potential. What it now needs to do is find strategies for growing and engaging locally, while remaining mindful of how it positions itself globally. The events of the past twelve months reflect a growing optimism. Auctions and collectors, increasingly visible and powerful here, are a vital part of the ecology of any art world, but they must be viewed with caution, especially in the absence of counterbalancing forces. So it is also essential to create and sustain indigenous institutions that can maintain space for the diversity of contemporary artistic practice and discourse. When these efforts reach a critical mass, maybe, finally, cultural workers can begin to think that, where successive economic and political policies have been wanting, cultural empowerment can provide some respite.

Bisi Silva is an independent curator and the director of the Centre for Contemporary Art, Lagos, Nigeria.