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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50 books for learning about Nigerian modern art

Regularly, we hear complaints about the lack of documentation of Nigerian Modern and Contemporay Art. There is some truth in this perception, but the reality is richer than we sometimes we may think. I attach a list of FIFTY books than can help get a fair undeerstanding of the rich and complex history of Nigerian modern art. The list does not aim at being comprehensive (my research list includes over 75 books!!!!). Except for a couple of books of particualr interest for Nigeria, I have not included books on a general history of modern and contemporary African art. Obviously, some of them also have useful chapters or sections for those wnating to know more about Nigerian art. The books are ordained by date of publication.

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OKEKE-AGULU C. (2017): Obiora Udechukwu: Line, Image, Text. Skira Editore

BOSAH B. (2017):The Art of the Nigerian Women: Ben Bosah Books

BARLEY N. (2016): Nigerian Arts Revisited: Somogy Editions d’Art

CASTELLOTE J. & FISHER O. (eds.) (2016): Kolade Oshinowo: Bookcraft Publishers. Ibadan

IGWEZE D. (2015): The storyteller of Agbarha-Otor. Bruce Onobrakpeya’s Visual Tales. Hourglass. Lagos

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OKEKE-AGULU O. (2015): Postcolonial Modernism: Art and Decolonization in Twentieth-Century Nigeria; Duke University Press

BOSSAN E., BENETTON L. & ADEWUNMI A. (2015): Nigeria / roots: Contemporary artists from Nigeria: Imago Mundi.

SILVA B. (2014): D ‘Okhai Ojeikere. Centre for Contemporary Art, Lagos

CASTELLOTE J. & ADETUNJI A. (2014): Visual Chronicles of a Society in Flux; Bookcraft Publishers. Ibadan

JEGEDE d. (2014): Onobrakpeya: Masks of Flaming Arrows. 5 Continents

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ADESANYA, A. A., & FALOLA, T. (2014): Art, parody and politics: dele jegede’s creative activism, Nigeria and the transnational space. Africa World Press. Trenton

LAOYE D. & AFOLAYAN-FAMOUS A. (2014): Contemporary Art of Nigeria. South Shore Country Club. Chicago

EZENWA MAJA-PEARCE J. (2013): Issues in contemporary Nigerian art 2000-2010. The New Gong. Lagos

CASTELLOTE J. (ed.) (2012): Contemporary Nigerian art in Lagos private collections. Bookcraft Publishers. Ibadan

OFFOEDU-OKEKE O. (2012): Artists of Nigeria. Five Continents.

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VOGEL S. M. (2012): El Anatsui: Art and Life: Prestel

ODIBOH F. (2012): Creative Reformation of Existing African Tradition:The Abayomi Barber Art School and Modern Nigerian Art. Lap Lambert Academic Publishing

PROBST P. (2011): Osogbo and the Art of Heritage: Monuments, Deities, and Money. Indiana University Press

ENWEZOR O. & OKEKE-AGULU C. (2010): Contemporary African Art since 1980. Damiani

GLASSIE H. (2010): Prince Twins Seven-Seven: His art, his life in Nigeria, his exile in America. Indiana University Press. Bloomington

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BOSAH C. & EDOZIE G. (2010): A celebration of modern Nigerian Art: 101 Nigerian Artists. Ben Bosah Books

OYELOLA P. (2010): Nigerian Artistry. Mosuro Publishers. Ibadan

OGBECHIE S.O. (2008): Ben Enwonwu, The making of an African modernist. University of Rochester Press. New York

AREMU P.S.O. (2006): Contemporary issues in Nigerian art: its history and education. Portion Consult Publications. Lagos

IKWUEMESI C.K. & AGABAYI E. (eds.) (2005): The rediscovery of tradition: Uli and the politics of culture. Pendulum Centre for Culture and Development. Lagos

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FILANI K. (2005): Patterns of culture in Contemporary Yoruba Art. Symphony Books

ADEYEMI E. (2005): Contemporary art in Nigeria & Ghana 1995-2005. Friedrich Reinhardt Verlag.

IKWUEMESI C.K. (Ed.) (2003): The triumph of a vision: an anthology on Uche Okeke and modern Art in Nigeria. Pendulum Art Gallery. Lagos

DIKE P.C. & OYELOLA P. (2003): Uche Okeke and Modern Nigerian Art. National Gallery of Art, Nigeria.

ADEMULEYA B., ONIPEDE A. & OMOIGHE M. (eds.) (2003): Creative traditions in Nigerian arts, Culture and Creative Art forum. Lagos

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FILANI K., AZEEZ A. & EMIFONIYE A. (eds.) (2003): Perspectives on Culture and Creativity in Nigerian Art. Culture and Creative Art Forum. Lagos

OTTENBERG S. (Ed.) (2002): The Nsukka Artists and Nigerian Contemporary Art. Smithsonian Institution Press. Washington DC

IKWUEMESI C.K. & ADEWUNMI A. (eds.) (2001): A discoursive bazaar. Pan-African Circle of Artists. Enugu

ANIAKOR C.C. & IKWUEMESI C.K. (2000): Africa in the twilight. National Gallery of Art. Abuja

BURAIMOH J. (2000): My life and Arts. Spectrum Books. Ibadan

OGUIBE O. & ENWEZOR O. (eds.) (1999): Reading the Contemporary: African Art from Theory to the Marketplace. MIT Press. Cambridge

NZEGWU N. (1999): Contemporary Textures: Multidimensionality in Nigerian Art The International Society for the Study of Africa (ISSA). Binghamton.

KASFIR S.L. (1999): Contemporary African Art. Thames and Hudson. London

DIKE P.C. & OYELOLA P. (1998): The Zaria Art Society: a new consciousness National Gallery of Art, Nigeria.

CHUKUEGGU C.C. (1998): Contemporary Nigerian Art and its classifications. Delsu Consult Publishing House. Abraka

OTTENBERG S. (1997): New Traditions from Nigeria: seven artists of the Nsukka group. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington

DELISS C. (Ed.) (1995): Seven stories about modern art in Africa. Flammarion.

ADEPEGBA C. O. (1995): Nigerian Art. Its traditions and modern tendencies. JODAD Publishers. Ibadan

OGUIBE O. (1995): Uzo Egonu, an African Artist in the West. Kala Press. London

EGONWA O. (1994): African Art: a contemporary source book. Osazu Publishers. Benin City

KELLY B.M. & STANLEY J.L. (1993): Nigerian Artists. A who’s who and Bibliography. Hans Zell

FOSU K. (1993): 20th Century Art of Africa. Gaskiya Corporation, Zaria

DARAH G.G. & QUEL S. (eds.) (1992): Bruce Onobrakpeya. The spirit in ascent. Ovuomaroro Gallery. Lagos.

TIMOTHY-ASOBELE S.J. (1992): Contemporary Nigerian arts and Artists: A modern guide. Upper Standard Publications. Lagos

BEIER U. (1991): Thirty years of Oshogbo art. Iwalewa-Haus, Bayreuth

 

EIGHTEEN WOMEN SHAPING THE NIGERIAN VISUAL ARTS

The ratio of male to female artists in Nigeria is strongly imbalanced in favour of men. In art schools, men are a majority of faculty members. Among art collectors, the inequality is even stronger. These are incontrovertible facts. But, the overall picture is more nuanced than that. Using economic terms, it is reasonable to say that art production and consumption are dominated by men. But this is not wholly the case in what refers to the interpretation and dissemination of art in Nigeria. More often than not, the person between the artist and the collector is a woman. I list below some of the most active and influential ones.

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A caveat: this list is NOT a ranking –they are mentioned alphabetically-; it does not aim at being comprehensive and it does not include artists and collectors (I intend to prepare a post exclusively on female artists and later on, one on Nigerian collectors). I am aware of the risk of listing together persons with such diverse levels of experience and influence on the visual arts, but I think doing it can be of use to those not very well acquainted with the Nigerian art scene. The “insiders” already know well who is who and who does what. For the rest, I hope this list helps them get a glimpse of the breadth and depth of the Nigerian artworld and the important role women play in it.

adenrele

aino

bisi

bolanle

bukola

bunmi

caline

jumoke

kavita

nana

nike

patty

peju

ronke

sandra

sinmi

tokini

ugoma

Ben Osaghae (1962-2017)

It is less than four months since we mourned the death of Sammy Olagbaju, less than two since Rasheed Gbadamosi passed away and now, we are confronted with the death of Ben Osaghae.  Rasheed, I knew him well, but Sammy and Ben were personal friends. In 2012, with the help of Sammy, I published a book: “Nigerian Contemporary Art in Lagos Private Collections”. Just a couple of years ago, Akinyemi Adetunji and I wrote “Ben Osaghae. Visual Chronicles of a society in flux”, a book monograph on Ben.

jess-osaghaeWorking on these books, I spent countless hours with both of them. I enjoyed their company, I learnt from them and they offered me access to their artworks. It was a privilege to have Sammy telling me stories about when, how and where he acquired some artworks. It was also a great fortune to let Ben talk at length, as he usually did when he was at ease, about the why and how on his works. He was a witty person and his conversations were always sprinkled with proverbs, words in pidgin and ordinary expressions. Though, frequently, he tended to be ponderous and philosophical, he could also be poetic and light. Chatting with him was never dull.

osaghae-the-food-leagueOsaghae was probably the most gifted draughtsman Nigeria has had in recent times, but, above all, he was a storyteller. He was the artist-seer and the artist-prophet of his society. Usually, there was a “narrative” in his works, but one that is not at all linear, unequivocal or direct. In his works, there is always an ambiguity of meaning that challenges the viewer to interpret metaphors and discover subtle references. He was not one to belabour his paintings with precise or accurate details in an attempt to get his message across; he merely suggested. Some could read his works as lazy, or even incomplete, but it is this quality that lends itself to multiple interpretations.

img_4991-1Ben Osaghae was, without doubt, one of the most prominent figures of a generation of Nigerian artists born in the years around the country’s independence in 1960. For three intense decades, Osaghae chronicled the adventures and misadventures of his land and people; he, like few of his colleagues and contemporaries, remained attentive to social and cultural developments in his environment. For the abstract expressionists of the middle part of last century, there was the art work and the viewer. Mark Rothko refers to “the consummated experience between picture and onlooker. Nothing should stand between my painting and the viewer.” For Osaghae there was another element: social reality; and the painting was a medium between the onlooker and that reality. Through his works, he communicated; he commented on what was happening around him. He straddled the thin divide between the artist as a creator of self-referential objects and the artist as a communicator.

img_4346He was always on the lookout for societal or personal miseries and joys, with a full awareness of the limitations and weakness of human nature. Osaghae captured them sometimes with the cool detachment of a historian and other times with the fire of a social reformer. I remember well how, when showing me in his studio a painting on NEPA, he exclaimed in his usual forceful manner: “how can somebody continue painting landscapes when we do not have electricity for days?” Osaghae’s works are inextricably linked to the society in which they were produced. They are “political”, not because they propose specific, partisan, solutions to the organization and government of society but because they always refer to the “polis”.

prison-choir-oil-on-canvasben-osaghae2003-aw-0543-aSammy and Ben were a special collector and a special artist. Sammy, genuinely, cared about art and artists. He did not put together a wonderful collection as an investment or as vehicle to proclaim his status and feed his ego. Ben cared about art and he cared about his fellow citizens. Few Nigerian contemporary artists have been so independent from the dictates of the art market as he was. Trying to please the market was not a motivation for him. At times, he was a chronicler, telling us a story; at other times, he was a voyeur. His paintings were, most frequently, an instrument of social critique. He painted with a “photographic perspective.” He did not describe in detail; he merely suggested. There is great empathy in the way he looked at the people represented in his works. He documented their struggles, and offered a social commentary. In his animal series, for example, he satirizes corrupt politicians that use their positions for personal enrichment. His figures are always close to the viewer, like snapshots at close range. He gives great attention to expressions, feelings and dramatic gestures, drawing inspiration from the events of daily life. Frequently, his figures are in movement, and he repeatedly looks at children at play.

img_5803As he matured artistically -especially in his best period, 2000-2010-, his human figures became more and more emotionally charged. In trying to make meaning of the cluster of forms, lines and splashes of colours on the canvas, I was tempted to tilt the painting, flip it on its sides, rotate it or, at the least, cock the head and angle of vision. A recurrent preoccupation with the human condition pervades his works. For years, there were always groups in his paintings. Only later, does the solitary human figure appear.

100_0929In Ben Osaghae’s works, the “psychological distance” between the viewer and the scene is collapsed. The viewer finds himself immersed inside the scene. Osaghae told me many times how he painted from memory. He was able to do this because he was an excellent draughtsman with an uncanny gift for portraying the human figure even in the most contorted positions or from the most unusual angles. After his first, formative years, Ben never painted a landscape, a self-portrait. He did not paint out-doors. He preferred to work in his studio, to sketch some ideas from memory and develop them on the canvas. His works sometimes are humorous, playful and light-hearted, but they are never trivial. Osaghae’s passionate and intense personality does not leave much room for shallow artworks reduced to mere decoration. With every painting he wanted to say something. He wanted to compel the viewer to confront a situation and take a position. There was no room for neutrality. That is why a formal analysis of his paintings is never enough to understand and fully appreciate them.

Ben OSAGHAEIn his works there is no horror vacui ‒ the fear of emptiness ‒ that seems to grip many contemporary Nigerian artists of more “decorative” inclinations. He is not afraid to leave large areas of the canvas covered with a single background colour. For this reason his human figures frequently seem to be “floating” in an indeterminate context, detached from their surroundings. Colour plays a central part in all his works, but drawing is the anchor that keeps them in place. His lines become outline, sign, sketch, contour, text, graffiti or boundary. In his best works, the line remains clear underneath the ragged edges of the colour masses. Because of the flat backgrounds the characters of his paintings are brought to the foreground. He painted with sweeping brushstrokes and great gestural intensity. Undoubtedly, this way of painting helped him transmit the emotional intensity of the subjects.

sam_6243Art historians will need some time to write about Osaghae’s legacy, his place in contemporary Nigerian art, his influence on other artists and his contribution to the Nigeria art discourse. But, undoubtedly, in his three decades of artistic production, he left a mark. No other Nigerian artist was able to portray so vividly the liveliness, complexity and vibrancy of Lagos life. Sometimes this was done just through a small “vignette” with one of two characters; other times it is a whole tableau of the city’s inhabitants. But it was always done with the confidence and self-assurance of a visual chronicler that happened to be an extraordinary draughtsman.

tricycleI visited him with a couple of friends just a few days before Christmas. Though, clearly, he was not perfectly well, he remained the cantankerous and argumentative person I have known since 2004, when I organized in LBS an exhibition titled “Without Borders” with four artists not so well-known as they are today: Ben Osaghae, Kainebi Osahenye, Rom Isichei and Wole Lagunju.

hpim1138Nigeria has lost a good man and an excellent artist. We will miss him. I have lost a friend. I will miss him.

This is the link to the post I wrote in 2010 on Ben. Ben OSAGHAE. The untiring chronicler

Omenka interview

I transcribe the recent interview at Omenka, the arts magazine. It is now available online at http://www.omenkaonline.com/jess-castelotte-on-collecting-nigerian-art/.

JESS CASTELLOTE ON

COLLECTING NIGERIAN ART

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Lagos-based Spanish architect Jess Castellote started out in Nigeria as a project manager as early as 1984. He has since then combined his professional work with an intense involvement in the Nigerian art scene, also organizing significant exhibitions including Without Borders, a group show featuring leading contemporary artists Kainebi Osahenye, Wole Lagunju, Ben Osaghae and Rom Isichei (2004).

Castellote has also maintained a widely accessed blog on contemporary art in Nigeria since 2008, “A View from My Corner”, written two books; Contemporary Nigerian Art in Lagos Private Collection: New Trees in an Old Forest and Oshinowo, as well as published several papers focused on developing the Nigerian art scene. He has also acted as an independent art advisor to several private and corporate bodies. He is presently the Director of the Virtual Museum of Modern Nigerian Art, an online educational resource he initiated at the Pan-African University, Lagos. In this interview with Omenka magazine, he provides more insight on his role as an art collector and critic. 

You are a Spanish-born architect who relocated to Lagos in 1994. Was your coming to Lagos and getting involved in the growing art scene in Lagos by chance or an accident?

In my school and university years in Spain, I was very fortunate to grow in an environment where the humanities were given great attention. My interest in the arts started early and my architectural studies reinforced this interest. Naturally, when I came to Nigeria, I tried to learn about the artistic expressions of the country. Initially, my attention was directed to traditional art forms, but soon I focused on contemporary art. For the past twenty years I have been in regular contact with Nigerian artists, collectors, gallerists and scholars. More recently, I have tried to expand my attention to other areas of the continent.

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Accra. Ghana. August 2016. In the background, artwork by the Ghanaian artist Elolo Bosoka

What prompted your interest in collecting art, and how would you describe the typical Nigerian collector

For years, scholars have been pointing out that art is a social product, a collective enterprise. Artists and their works, are not enough to create and sustain an art world. There is need for a great variety of mediators, interpreters and consumers. Without historians, dealers, curators, collectors and cultural agents, artists would be left in a vacuum and their works would remain in their studios. My interest in the visual arts goes beyond the works of artI try to follow the artists, but also the institutions that introduce them into the art world: the galleries, dealers, auction houses and art fairs that make them visible to the rest of us; whether as spectators or as collectors, in the art world, we are all consumers and beneficiaries of their works. I think it is possible to enjoy thoroughly what the visual arts have to offer, without owning the artworks. I have known collectors who enjoyed the fact of owning art, while I have also come in contact with person who enjoyed artworks regularly without actually owning them. That is one of the reasons why, for years, I have devoted a great deal of time to visiting studios, exhibitions, galleries, art events and collectors. The experience is worthwhile. In any active art world there are many interesting persons from whom to learn. This interaction with people has been in many cases even more rewarding than the experience of the artworks themselves.

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With El Anatsui at AKAA art fair, Paris. November 2016

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Lagos, 2013. With Bruce Onobrakpeya

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 With Sammy Olagbaju and artist Gary Stephens at his studio in Johannesburg, 2014

Your blog, A View From My Corner is a reference point on contemporary art in Nigeria. You have also written several scholarly articles and books on Nigerian artists. How important have these interventions been

Following Howard Becker and other sociologists of art, I see the production and distribution of art as an activity not totally different from other forms of work. Artists can render a service to society through their work. The idea of the artist as a “creative genius”, only responsible to his or her own inspiration, perhaps needs to be balanced by a vision of the artist as a “worker” who, though his or her artistic production, contributes to make a better and more humane society. Art as service is an idea that deserves more attention. I also hope my contribution is a small service to the society. William Blake said He who would do good to another must do it in Minute Particulars: general Good is the plea of the scoundrel, hypocrite, and flatterer, for Art and Science cannot exist but in minutely organized Particulars.” I like this expression: “minute particulars.” I am not in a position and I do not have the capacity or the ambition to have a big influence on Nigerian art, but I hope my small contribution, my “minute particulars” become useful. A couple of books or a few articles in academic journals are not going to change the course of Nigerian art, but the accumulation of efforts from diverse perspectives can do that.

Alongside Tayo Fagbule, you wrote an incisive report on the Nigerian art market. What major trends can you infer, and how can you compare these to other parts of Africa, and indeed the international market for African art

Working with Tayo on the research and publication of the 2014 and 2015 Nigerian Art Market Report allowed us to learn a lot about the art market, an indispensable component of the art world. Unfortunately, the academic and institutional elements of the Nigerian art world are not as strong as they should ideally be and this situation has created, in my opinion an imbalance that is not healthy for the Nigerian art ecosystemThe “market” (art buyers and art sellers) has a tremendous power in the Nigerian art world. The situation is not the same across Africa. For instance, in Senegal, institutional support for the arts clearly surpasses the influence of the market and collectors. In other African countries, contemporary art production is so closely linked to the production of crafts and decorative objects that local artworlds are barely existent. Fortunately, there is great vitality on the continent and numerous focuses of relevant artistic activity have sprung up in recent years. Early in the year, I was fortunate to see first-hand the Kenyan artworld growing far beyond the production of trite and corny products for the tourist market. My meetings with artists, gallerists and cultural agents helped me experience what was for me, an unexpected dynamic art environment. A couple of months ago, I had a similar experience in Accra. Just a few days ago, I visited the AKAA art fair for contemporary African art in Paris and I could see the rising number of artists from the continent and the diaspora who are already part of global art discourses. Lagos Photo Festival and ArtX are two good examples of the growing internationalization of the Nigerian art scene. Their influence goes beyond Nigeria.

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Please tell us more about your forthcoming projects on developing art in Nigeria. 

Almost thirty years after I finished my studies; I am embarking now on a major project to strengthen my understanding and my competence in this field. Last year, I completed a Masters degree in Art History and I am working already towards a doctorate. Now, when somebody asks me about what I do, I tell them that I used to be an architect and project manager, but I have become a student. And a happy student, for that matter… Having to read, study and articulate ideas in a clear and coherent way, is forcing me to rethink some of my preconceptions and beliefs. As it happens in all fields, the effort of going deeper brings to me the reward of the discovery of new things, new perspectives, practices and theories necessary. I am thoroughly enjoying being a student. I believe documentation and basic information necessary are crucial at this stage in the development of the visual arts in the country. For this reason, a couple of years ago, Yinka Fisher and I started a foundation whose primary focus is the documentation of Nigerian art: the Foundation for Contemporary and Modern Visual Arts (FCMVA). In addition to video documentaries, recently, we have published a large book on the works of Kolade Oshinowo. It is already in the bookshops. I am working now on two other book projects: a Manual for Collectors and a monograph on a well-known, though younger artist. It is clear to me that Nigerian art needs many more people looking at it and promoting, documenting and curating it from different perspectives and for different audiences. Art is a tremendously rich and complex reality that has great things to offer for everybody. I am a very fortunate person, to be part of this growing Nigerian art world. 

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Ben Osaghae

OMENKA Art Magazine

    The Nigerian art world continues gathering strength and growing in depth.

A vibrant art scene needs many actors: artists, private and institutional collectors, scholars, galleries, art schools, art critics, art historians, curators, auction houses, dealers, Museums and art institutions, publishers, art educators, sponsors, tourists, interior designers, investors… One more piece in this complex structure has just been put in place. A new art magazine, called Omenka, is already available on the stands.

SAM_5410Published by Revilo in association with The Ben Enwonwu Foundation, it is described by its editor as a magazine with “focus on contemporary African art, business and lifestyle… Written for the serious collector, Omenka will provide the latest news and insider intelligence on the African art market including auction reports and art transactions. It will investigate key trends and showcase the artists who drive the industry”. The scope of the project is ambitious –perhaps, over ambitious- for a new publication: it aims at covering not only the Nigerian art scene but to look as well at continental art markets and developments. That’s a tall task. On the other hand, making it initially a quarterly publication will facilitate its sustainability.

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Looking at the magazine, the first thing that calls attention is its material quality and great visual appeal. The design, layout and printing are surprisingly good. But the worth of a publication of this type is measured not simply by the glossiness of the paper, the readability of the text, or the sharpness of the images. What differentiates the best from the others is the quality and relevance of the content and the competence and prestige of the contributors. Here, this first issue, also scores high.

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The 75 pages of the magazine are organized around seven sections: Editor’s letter, Antennae (art trends and events), Focus (interviews and profiles), Lifestyle, Feature, Market file (art business: auctions, galleries, art as investment), and Reports (reviews, studio visits). The scope is ambitious. Despite the unmistakable focus on the business side of art, the magazine tries to cover a broad ground. Definitely, this is not an academic art journal with heavy historic-critical articles, but this not a shallow publication with news and gossip about art celebrities either.

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There is an aspect of Omenka that might worry some readers. By including a section on “lifestyle” and giving it prominence throughout the magazine, there is always a risk of presenting art as one more piece in a “luxury lifestyle”. The generous inclusion of luxury brand adverts does not help in assailing this danger. Perhaps, this is the price a financially viable art magazine for the general public has to pay to remain in business, but the peril of the “commoditisation of art” remains there: portraying art as the ultimate “commodity” to posses in an affluent lifestyle.

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Generally, art magazines have one of two main possible focuses: either they are centred on art or they look primarily at the business of art (the art “industry”). Depending on what side readers are, they will be interested on a type of art related magazine or another. A university professor in a department of fine arts will be interested primarily on academic journals and learned peer-review publications. A collector/investor will be more interested on publications that provide in depth information on the art market trends and results. In this respect, Omenka succeeds in having something of interest for a broad spectrum of readers. It is significant that the first issue of the magazine includes, on the one hand, interviews with two serious players in the Nigeria art market, Robert Mbonu, founder of The Art Exchange, a venture set-up to promote art as an alternative asset class and with Giles Peppiat, director of sales for African Contemporary Art at Bonhams. On the other, the magazine includes articles on three artists: Nnenna Okore, Yusuf Grillo and Kelani Abass. In the middle, there are a good number of titbits of useful information.

All in all, Omenka is a valuable and promising contribution to the development and deepening of the Nigerian art world. The challenge is now for the publishers to sustain the initial high level achieved in presentation and content. Taking into account the calibre of those involved in the project, it is not difficult to guess that the next issue, devoted to photography, will maintain the quality of this first one. This, will undoubtedly, benefit the whole art sector in the country and beyond.