LAGOS BIENNIAL 2017

Folakunle Oshun -Osh- is not an ordinary artist-curator. He has been working for some time on a truly ambitious project: organizing a city-wide art biennial in Lagos. Though, officially, he is just the Artistic Director, Osh is the soul and engine of the biennial. It is his idea and he is its main driver. He has Amira Paree as co-curator and Erin Rice is in charge of the Academic Conference that will be part of the biennial and will take place at the University of Lagos. The collective Perpetuum Mobile will provide curatorial support.

The Lagos Biennial 2017, comes as an exciting surprise soon after Tokini Peterside took another daring step and launched last year an art fair with an international character: ArtX Lagos. We have now in Lagos an art fair, an art biennial, an international Photo Festival, auctions houses, several new art galleries, an art museum under construction at Pan-Atlantic University, a couple of art foundations offering art residences, a well-funded art competition. Piece by piece, Lagos is developing the art infrastructure needed for a sustainable artworld.

Lagos Biennial 2017A couple of days ago, I had a long chat with Osh on the Biennial. I wanted to know about his plans, and his dreams…. There are already well over one hundred biennials spread all over the world. Why another one? What does he want to achieve? How is it going to be supported? What is its curatorial direction?. Where is it going to hold? Which artist will participate? He explained to me that the primary aim of this biennial is to open Lagos to the rest of the world as an art destination:  “As a Lagosian I feel a sense of responsibility and ownership of this space and I’ve always wondered why it took this long for Lagos to have its own Biennial”.

In recent years, Biennials and Art Fairs have sprung up all over the world. Though their scope and content increasingly overlap -and both of them aim at international representation and audiences- they tend to occupy different social, cultural and economic spaces. Art fairs focus mainly on the commercial side of art, while biennials tend to address issues and bring to the public a different kind of artistic concerns. Generally, art fairs work hand in hand with galleries and dealers, while biennials (Venice, Gwangju, Sao Paulo, Whitney (New York), Dak’art, Istanbul, La Habana…), are artist-led or have public institutions as their main partners. An important difference between art Fairs and biennials is the curatorial input they receive. Though both may have a general theme for the event, most art fairs will leave the selection of the artworks to each of the galleries or artists participating in the fair. On the contrary, the most important biennials have a heavy curatorial intervention at general level and at the pavilion or stand level. Every artist and artwork present at a biennial has, generally, been selected by a curator. For the Lagos Biennial 2017, Osh has taken the title of Mario Macilau’s project “Living on the edge” as the theme of the biennial. His goal is to catalogue the stories of artists all over the world living in and around crisis situations. With the Biennial, he wants to touch positively the lives of real people.

“We must accept that we are living in strange times. I hear a lot about the good old days, but I don’t know what I will tell my kids about these present times. The biennial serves as a sort of archive, like taking a portrait of the world: so I’m asking everyone to say cheese. Of course you don’t expect too many smiles, these are hard times. Nigeria itself is in a recession but as Fela noted “Suffering and smiling”. As a country we’ve learnt to shake of the dust and keep moving, gossip about the scandals and throw them under the rug. I think a lot of people will be shocked by the character of the biennial due to our curatorial approach. This is a biennial that could happen anywhere in the world, but in this peculiar case, Lagos is the canvas. You don’t even need to make art in Lagos, just go downtown of Idumota and breathe. It is the juxtapositions of these experiences brought by the invited artist (home and abroad) that really creates the magic.

The teamWhile art fairs tend to be market-driven and display “collectable” (read, “saleable”) art, biennales are ready to present to the public more experimental works (read, “not easily saleable”). Painting and sculpture predominate in the nice booths of art fairs. Installations, performances, conceptual and video art occupy most of the spaces in biennales. It is not a surprise that Jelili Atiku will present a performance at the Biennial. For it, he has asked Osh to look for a “not easily accessible” place in Lagos…  Osh intends to “work with the Local communities and investigate untold stories in the deepest crannies of the city. You can’t predict the outcome of that.” His target is to bring 40 artists from more than 20 countries. Over 30 of them have already confirmed their participation. Undoubtedly, the biennial is going to attract the attention of the global artworld to one of the most vibrant “peripheral hubs” in the global art map.

All the major global art fairs: Art Basel (Basel & Miami), Frieze (London & New York), ARCO (Madrid), FIAC (Paris), etc. take place in a large single venue. Biennials are different. Most frequently, they are organized around multiple venues spread through the city. Tyoically, they are city-wide events put together by local or regional authorities with the aim of giving international visibility to a city. Many of the most prominent biennials are just one more component of the “edutainment” or cultural tourism industry and quite a few of them have succeeded in putting cities into the global cultural maps. The case of Gwuangju, in South Korea, is a good example of it.

When Venice Biennale was launched in 1895, it was very similar in format to a typical 19th century phenomenon that has endured till our days: the world art fair organized around national pavilions. The Lagos Biennial will not follow this format. There will not be National pavilions, but Osh has managed to convince a few foreign-based artists to come to Lagos. “These artists will be bringing their own experiences and stories and I think it will be fascinating to trace the tangent points where our stories overlap. The human experience is one; it’s pretty much the same everywhere you go. People are trying to survive and get ahead in life, but you see, the Lagos hustle is incomparable to anything. Even I cannot predict how things will turn out at the biennial due to the unpredictable nature of the city.”

I asked Osh whether the fact that the art fair (ArtX Lagos) and the biennial will take place at the same time will be problematic. He is not worried: “I think Art X complements the Biennial and vice versa, It is important for the public to begin to understand that art is big money and that’s what Art X brings to the table. The Lagos Biennial on the other hand opens up more room for artistic expression and dialogue.”

With OshThe dates are already fixed (October 14 – December 22, 2017). Many aspects of the biennial are still undefined, but Osh is determined to succeed. Surely, we will not see the lavish extravaganza of Venice, the broad participation in Sao Paolo or the transformation of a city during the days of Dak’Art, but an art biennial, even if it has an ultra-low budget and not much of institutional support, can give a good push to the development of the Lagos artworld. I already look forward to the days in October when an art fair and a biennial run concurrently in Lagos. I missed ArtX last year. This time, I am going nowhere else during those days…

Jess Castellote

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WURA NATASHA OGUNJI & RAOUL DA SILVA

A couple of weeks ago, Wura Natasha Ogunji and Raoul da Silva opened a join exhibition, organized and curated by Sandra Obiago, at Temple Muse in Victoria Island.  The exhibition is still open till de end of April. The works that Wura and Raoul present to us in this exhibition couldn’t be farther from the shallow exoticism that still pervades large sectors of African contemporary art more than twenty five years since “The magiciens de la terre” (1989) and “Africa explores” (1991) exhibitions.

Untitled by Raoul Olawale Da Silva, 90cm x 127cm, Mixed Media paper, 2001
Raoul da SILVA, Untitled, mised media on paper, 90 x 127 cm, 2001

Definitely, neither Wura nor Raoul’s artistic practice is based on these tired clichés, on shifting artistic fashions or, much less, on the dictates and fads of the market. For Raoul, spontaneity, improvisation and the primacy of the gestural brushstrokes are central to his practice. In marked contrast, Wura’s approach is more analytical and rational. But, both are giving us something that comes from inside.

Shelter, 2017, Thread, Ink, Graphite on Trace Paper 61 x 61cm
Wura Natasha OGUNYI, Shelter, Thread, ink, graphite on Trace paper, 61 x 61 cm, 2017

Wura and Raoul’s works are intensely personal, albeit strongly different. Wura was born in the USA and lived there till just a few years ago. Raoul lived his early years in Lagos but left the country at a very young age and did not settle back in Nigeria till also a few years ago. The fact that both of them have spent most of their lives outside Nigeria and both of them are of mixed parentage has made their artworks to be inextricably linked to their existential journeys. Their artistic itineraries have significant differences and this fact is reflected in their works. In them, it would seem as if Wura is trying to understand herself, while Raoul tries to express himself.

6 Catch Your Breath by Wura-Natasha Ogunji, 61 x 61 cm, Thread, ink, graphite on trace paper, 2016

Wura’s works are not loud. They don’t shout at us, but they are works of unapologetic beauty and simplicity. Part of the reason why her small pieces on tracing paper work so well is the delicate, intimate, careful attention given to detail. She treats the fragile materials with respect and there is quality in each finished piece. The bright colour-rich inks on the translucent paper are subtle and restrained. The ordinary sowing thread becomes in her hands a metaphor of connections, of links, of relations, both physical and immaterial. The threadwork could have remained simply a craft, but it becomes much more.

In this exhibition, Wura presents a few works in which only geometric compositions can be seen. In their conceptualism, at first glance they appear as inexpressive, cold and detached, but it is the colour and, specially, the physical fragility of the medium that brings them to life. They stand out in way that the geometric constructions of Mondrian, for all their compositional perfection, are not able to achieve. The lines that delimit the coloured areas have always a focal point and, therefore, they indicate a direction. As a result, the surface of the pictorial plane on which they appear loses two-dimensionality and suggests tree-dimensional space. The fact that the flimsy paper is affected by the ink pigments makes the flat, weak surface become slightly uneven and adds a new suggestive layer of complexity. The hardness and precision of the lines is balanced by the lightness of the paper. She explains: I use tracing paper, the kind that architects use for preliminary drawings. I love the way the thread looks against it and the way the large sheets of paper move against the wall. It can appear fragile but it also has a weight to it. When I’m working on the drawings, especially when I’m sewing into the paper and because of its translucency, it feels quite filmic, as if I’m creating one cell of a filmstrip. We can talk about the meanings of the paper, but for me, it’s about a simple love of the material. This sentence offers perhaps a key to understand Wura’s works: “a simple love of the material”. But there is more than materiality and geometric composition. The frequent presence of the “Ife head” is an iconic figure that recurs in her works. It brings with it associations of the past, of tradition, of roots, of identities. But even if it is just a tenuous thread or a few lines and colour bands emanating from it as rays, the “Ife Head” is a metaphor for a link, a line of communication between different, but interrelated realities. And all this, said with softness, in an understated way. This fragility is one of the main strengths of Wura’s works on tracing paper.

Ife and Orchids Thread, Ink, Graphite on Trace Paper 61 x 61cm 2016
Wura Natasha OGUNYI, Ife and Orchids, Thread, ink, graphite on Trace paper, 61 x 61 cm, 2016

For years, there has been a recurrent concern in Wura’s works about connections, communications and associations, particularly, the transatlantic bond between Africa and the American diaspora. Her work “I brought you this”, in two pieces, with the Ife head on one, and a female figure in the other, both of them tied by a fragile bond of colour rays, exemplifies these concerns and successfully embodies these ideas into a physical form. Who brings what, to whom? In which direction is the communication? Does the “Ife head” –and all it represents- say something to the present, or is the direction of communication the other way, with the contemporary figure listening to what the past has to say?. Wura´s works are ambiguously open. Can we take Wura’s subtle references to history, memory, tradition and identity as an attempt to understand herself and help us understand ourselves in our specific cultural, temporal and geographic circumstances? There is no doubt, that her works question us.

90cm x 127cm Untitled Mixed Media, 2002 Paper
Raoul da SILVA, Untitled, mixed media, 90 x 127 cm, 2002

Though not directly influenced by them, Raoul’s works, with their forceful brushstrokes and the spontaneous approach to the painting process, have many features in common with the great German Neo-expressionist and gestural tradition of the second half of the 20th century: Gerhard Ritcher, Georg Baselitz, Anselm Kiefer, Jorg Immendorf. Markus Lupertz. Like most of these artists, Raoul looks inward for the sources of his works. Memories and instinct are important for him. The content, the subject matter, the communicative value of his works, generally matters less than the works themselves. The source of Raoul’s inspiration is intensely personal. He is an artist working within an expressionist tradition and method: spontaneity, expression, improvisation and gestural action are important in his works.

Raoul da SILVA, Untitled, oil on canvas, 140 x 138, 2014
Raoul da SILVA, Untitled, oil on canvas, 140 x 138cm, 2014

The process of interaction with the pigments and the canvas is central to his way of painting. Each painting, each drawing, is “revelatory” of inner forces, desires and memories. As he says: in my way of working, the intuitive and impulsive work together as well as against the rational, reflective and explorative side, which helps to bring that balance. In the moments of outbursts, pouring out, and coming from the feeling, it’s having that trust and faith that all these memories, which are very abstract and not specific, but even just in the color choice comes from memories which I choose not to pinpoint or overanalyze. Raoul’s works develop from inside out. Their formal strength comes from within. That’s why they are so unmistakably personal. To look at Raoul’s works the spectator does not need to be distracted by a search for meaning, contextualization or conceptual justifications. These are works to be “enjoyed”, rather than to be “comprehended”.

4 Wura-Natasha Ogunji_Field Theory, Green_2016
Wura Natasha OGUNYI, Field Theory, Green, Thread, ink, grahite on trace paper, 2016

His paintings oscillate from decidedly abstract compositions to those filled with expressive biomorphic references, but they seldom try to offer a window into the world as all the traditional western art did for centuries. They are self-referential. There is randomness in his “coffee” works, in which the unpredictability of the shapes is part of the process. For Raoul, the significance of the process is at the core of his works. His colours, lines, stains and forms cover the whole space. In contrast, Wura lets the delicate architectural drafting paper, of subdued yellow tint, take most of the pictorial space. Her figures, made of stitched lines and colour, float in space while Raoul’s works fill the canvas with an outpouring of gestures coming from within. Different as these two artists are, there is a shared sincerity and genuineness in them. Their works offer a rare opportunity for us to experience art that goes beyond the merely retinal and decorative. They engage our senses, but they also engage our minds. In the commercialized atmosphere of the Lagos artworld this is not a small achievement. We are grateful for that.

Jess Castellote

IMG_20170224_184331
With Wura and Raoul