‘The (Nigeria) Lagos Art Sin’ / Text Ayo Akinwande

“My influences come from around the world. The very notion of African spirituality is what helped me. The artist is the guardian of the cosmos. This is what my great-uncle told me at the age of 10 and I avidly soaked up every word without really understanding. The idea became my guiding creative mantra.”

Duke Asidere / courtesy the artist & Retro Africa, Abuja

#arts #lagos #criticalthinking #akiwande

Dear Art Historian, forgive me for I know not what I am writing.

It has been one hundred and twelve years since the pioneering Nigerian modern artist Aina Onabolu executed “Portrait of Mrs. Spencer Salvage” a 1906 watercolour painting of Augusta Salvage, a Lagos socialite, which is considered a masterpiece of early modern African art by scholars. This is credited to be where the history of Nigerian modern art begins. And its entire trajectory from the colonial, through the quest for independence, and the post-independence, have been extensively covered in “Postcolonial Modernism: Art and Decolonization in Twentieth-Century Nigeria” by Prof. Chika Okeke-Agulu. And it seems the only visible trace of Aina Onabolu’s existence in the absence of major retrospectives of his work, is the building named after him inside the complex of the National Theatre, Lagos.

In writing a critique about the Nigerian contemporary arts and culture ecosystem, it is imperative to provide the readers with more information about the country in fully enriching their understanding. Lagos is the undisputed art mecca of Nigeria, with a resounding majority of the activities in the art sector taking place in the city. While the art scene in the capital city of Abuja is almost entirely catered to meet the diplomatic gaze as the conversations and patronage is driven by the embassies.
The Eko, Carter and Third mainland bridges become a metaphor for the divide that exists in the city of Lagos, with the upper class on the island and the lower class on the mainland. Lagos is made up of series of gated communities whose rise in the past few decades are contributing to the fragmentation of the urban fabric and a deterioration of the public realm as more spaces get privatized. The proponents of this system point to the need to mitigate crime and ensure security of the inhabitants while the antagonists have always pointed out that the concept of gated communities re-enforces the notion of social stratification and making the injustices in the contrasting realities between the haves and have-nots more painful.

As private security outfits are being recruited to safeguard these gated communities across the city, the Lagos art community also has its gatekeepers. The dearth of functional cultural institutions in Nigeria helped propel the rise of these gate keepers who have turned themselves into institutions who see themselves not only as custodians but also designers of the curriculum of inclusion and exclusion in the art sector.

There are about 43 museums across Nigeria and they are owned, controlled and managed by the National Commission for Museums and Monuments. The programs and activities of most of these museums are not in the public domain and a visit to most of them reveals how disconnected these spaces are to the discourse in the arts sector.

The National Museum Lagos celebrated its 60th anniversary in November 2017, you would naturally expect such a milestone to be activated by a major exhibition looking at the institution’s history from its founding in 1957 till date or a retrospective of any of the modern masters, but unsurprisingly none of this happened, except for a repainting of the museum’s exterior walls for the events ceremony which was attended by the Director General of the National Commission for Museum and Monuments with no notable arts organization/society, artists, curators and cultural practitioners in attendance. Meanwhile in September 2017, the Tate Modern organized a conference in celebration of the centenary of pioneering Nigerian artist Ben Enwonwu, whose masterpiece, “Anyanwu” a bronze sculpture, is on permanent display at the entrance of the National Museum Lagos. The irony is not lost on us.

While Museums outside of the country are addressing issues of biases, historical omissions, accuracy in their collections with programming, acquisitions and exhibitions, the National Museum Lagos is rather focused on generating revenues. This revenue flows from renting the outdoor space for weddings, birthday parties, amongst other means, while the gallery space inside the museum is available to artist for hire. Artists have to pay a fee then hire a generator to power the space, amongst other responsibilities. This becomes even more interesting considering that the said gallery space was renovated by an artist, Kainebi Osahenye.

The National Gallery of Art, Abuja has no gallery space. The absurdity of the situation itself is not worth laughing at. I had attempted processing the magnitude of this reality but my mind quakes whenever I ponder on this. The only evidence that such an institution exists is the office spaces of the staff, while exhibitions are held at locations like the Hilton and/or the Sheraton hotels in Abuja. The National Gallery of Modern Art, Lagos on the other hand seems like a relic that is enveloped inside another relic, the National Arts Theatre. The Gallery does not have its own building, but occupies a section of the National Theatre which was built in commemoration of the 1977 Festival for Arts and Culture (FESTAC). In the Gallery, portraits of past leaders and other prominent Nigerians adorn the portrait section while there’s another section displaying works of master artists with sections for sculpture, ceramics and textile also on display. To enter inside the Gallery space when there’s power outage as it’s often the case, is to veer into the unknown, a performative experience as darkness engulfs the visitor. Unlike the National Museum, Lagos whose annual visitors consist mostly of secondary school students on excursions, the Gallery is often deserted.

One of the fundamental problems in the country’s cultural institutions is there are too many square pegs in round holes who think they are sculptors. This unfortunate reality extends beyond the arts into all other sectors of the Nigerian Civil Service. The system promotes mediocrity, as political, ethnic, religious affiliations become the norm for evaluations and promotions while a service of 35 years becomes the yardstick for measuring experience. The 43 museums in the country have curators whose only role is to embrace the title “Chief Curator” and have no clue as to what makes a curator, they don’t initiate any curated show, no essays published by these museum heads and they become antiques, objects whose offices should be converted into exhibition spaces. This trend is also visible in the affairs of the Centre for Black and African Arts and Civilization (CBAAC) whose founding after the conclusion of the Second World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture (FESTAC, 1977) in Lagos was important as it houses all the materials, collections, artefacts and rare cultural items that were used during FESTAC so as to reinforce and build upon the gains of the historic festival.

So what happens when the institutions saddled with the responsibility of curating and contextualizing our past, present and the future seems to be lost in time? Do we even have cultural policies in Nigeria, to scrutinize, educate, protect, and drive the narratives about the arts sector? In defense of the museum, they have been citing issues of non-funding or allocation of funds from the government for them to effectively run the space but what steps have these institutions made towards collaborating with cultural practitioners or how receptive are they to proposals from artists and curators. The ineptitude of our cultural institutions is a result of a combination of bureaucracy and mediocrity.

And this lack of investment in the development of the arts and culture by these national institutions gave the mantle of leadership to the foreign cultural institutions, most notably the Goethe Institut, British Council and the Institut Francais who over the past five decades have been involved in funding, supporting and collaborating with cultural practitioners. They have helped developed careers of established artists, while providing visibility to younger artist through funding, workshops, residencies, exchange programs and exhibitions. But while it’s interesting that these platforms are even the ones championing the “decolonization” narrative, it’s even a greater irony that our local institutions aren’t even aware of what the term means.

A cultural shift in the conversation around contemporary art practice in Nigeria can be attributed to two platforms established by Nigerian curators. The Centre for Contemporary Arts (CCA Lagos) and the African Arts Foundation (AAF) both founded in 2007 by Bisi Silva and Azu Nwagbogu respectively. They were responsible for hosting exhibitions, workshops, residencies which culminated into the creation of the Asiko Art School by the CCA and the LagosPhoto Festival by the AAF, all in the year 2010. While Asiko was “an initiative designed to redress the outdated or non-existent artistic and curatorial curricula in Africa’s art institutions”, Lagos Photo’s aim on the other hand was “to establish a community for contemporary photography which will unite local and international artists through the photographic medium”. If any of these statements reflect the realities of these private institutions is a discussion for another day.

So what is the role of the collector in all of these conversations? I find the view of the South African writer, Sean O’Toole, were he said that “art collecting in Africa, as elsewhere, is often marked by entrenched nationalism”. So if Rich Nigerians are collecting Nigerians, why is it that not a single Nigerian collector has its collection accessible to the public? Neither do they have foundations that give grants to artists, curators, art institutions, or collaborate with the cultural institutions. Most of the collectors have no visual education and collecting repertoire. So what and/or who are they collecting? How do we get to learn from these collections? There are so many questions that beg for answers but a critique of this subject needs to be done in the framework of the Lagos context.

The collector – artist relationship is hierarchical, this is largely so because the environment is stratified. So it becomes important to note that most Nigerian collectors got their riches from being pedestrians at the corridor of power. Their riches are largely tied to the government, and their mindset is often formed by this privilege and reality. So as the collectors live in gated communities, they curate their gaze and invest in avoiding eye-contact with reality. The collections on the other hand are also dwelling in these gated spaces. The wealthy folks in Nigeria do not have the culture of giving back to the society, and as this is not enriched in their consciousness, they do not deem it fit to bequeath some of their collections to the nation’s cultural institutions. Oh! I forgot these institutions are technically dead. So why not set up foundations, initiatives, private museums to house these collections? Of what use are collections that aren’t being written about, not open to scholarly views, critical writings, and research? And then the arrogance of some of these collectors, who boast and are quick to use superlative adjectives to qualify their collections while the artist is left to massage their ego – a durational performance that might engulf the entire lifetime of these artists.

There are no art galleries in Lagos. What we have are spaces where works of art, mostly paintings and sculptures are being sold. The traditional role of the gallery in representation, creating visibilities for the artists either via publications, exhibitions, biennials, getting grants, awards, residencies, and cultivating dedicated collector base for the artist is virtually non-existent. Instead the thousands of artists in the city are forced to wait for group shows anywhere, hotel, restaurant, just to have their works being shown. So if the artistic conversation is driven by commerce, then the chances of staging critically acclaimed shows are not profitable. And this makes the entrance of ArtX Lagos – International Art Fair, which has been holding since its founding in 2016 every first week in November, as the most important program in the Lagos art industry. This becomes the space for the congregating of the numerous egos in the city; there is a mutual ground – business. While the secondary market created by Art House Contemporary – International Auction House, ironically becomes the primary source of survival for artists.

When you take a panoramic view across the Eko Atlantic, you will realize that the Lagos art scene was built on hype with a fine aggregate of noise. It is a toxic environment where the radiation of hate makes the ground infertile for sowing seeds of intellectualism and the artist or curator needs a European voyage in order to be launched into the art stratosphere and become celebrated in the city. While the arts created is largely commodified with critical discourse often relegated and only reflected in the practice of a select few. Art criticism on the other hand is virtually non-existent as there aren’t platforms dedicated to that while occasional reviews of exhibitions have to be laced with showers of praises as any iota of criticality gets the author in a lagoon of hot waters. The local newspaper reviews of exhibitions are mostly filled with the contents from press releases as most of the journalists neither speak nor understand the language of art, both modern and contemporary.

In preparation for the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the creation of Lagos as a state in the federation, the government launched the initiative to use public artworks as part of the aesthetics in celebrating the city. The process began in June 2016 when the state governor, Akinwunmi Ambode, was invited as special guest at the Centre for Fine Arts in Brussels, Belgium (Bozar) exhibition where he pledged his administration’s support to the arts sector. A number of artists were selected to create pieces in different parts of the city and by June 2017, most of the works were in full view for all to see. While this initiative by the government to dialogue with the creative industry was an important step towards developing the creative economy but the process for the commissioning of these artists was shrouded in secrecy and betrays the democratic process which birthed the government.

An opportunity was missed by the city to create a template for the commissioning of public artworks which would have involved putting out a call for proposals from artists working across different media to respond with site-specific works for the chosen installation sites. It’s been a year since the end of the Lagos at 50 celebrations, most of the works are now standing in stark isolation from their environment, and ironically, a large number of these works are also gated. Without any proper documentation and publication on the project, no symposiums held, these works have now been reduced to decorative emblems. The inauguration of the Lagos Art Council on 19 April 2017, by the state government, with seasoned professionals in the creative industry selected as members was seen as the right move in the right direction in formulating cultural policies, creating endowment funds, and democratizing opportunities. But over a year after this inaugurated, there’s yet to be a single initiative or project by this council, the hopes of the people, cancelled.

So how do we solve an equation that takes us back to square one? Do we use the almighty formula?  Or we simply continue moving in circles? The artists have started taking ownership of the narrative in the city, setting up project and exhibition spaces, residencies, festivals, workshops. They have grabbed the bull by the horn and now their hands are on the steering wheels.

Artist founded spaces seems to be the solution. From Peju Alatise’s – ANAI Foundation, which runs a residency and exhibition program, to Qudus Onikeku’s – QDance centre with its Dance Gathering Festival, Jumoke Sanwo’s – Revolving Art Incubator Alternative Art Space holding exhibitions, workshops and talks, to Victor Ehikhamenor’s – Angels & Muse platform which aside from its residency space, also has a dedicated area for exhibitions, to the Aderemi Adegbite’s Vernacular Art Space which hosts the Iwaya Community Arts Festival, to Wura Natasha-Ogunji’s Tree House which has been hosting experimental presentations and exhibitions. Uche James Iroha – Photo Garage, and Uche Okpa-Iroha – Nlele Institute, both have spaces dedicated almost exclusively to the photographic medium, and the trio of Jude Anogwih, Oyinda Fakeye and Emeka Ogboh founded Video Arts Network (VAN Lagos) which has been hosting workshops and exhibitions, in further enriching the understanding and the knowledge of video art. While these spaces have helped in diversifying the opportunities available to artists across the country for dialogues and monologues, they are not without their challenges as these artists while working on their individual careers are saddled with the extra responsibility of running these platforms, a role necessitated by the unique art ecosystem in the city.

In no situation is this role more complicated but in the recent opening of the Museum of Contemporary Arts Lagos (MocaLagos) by the artist, Uchay Joel Chima. The use of the word “Museum” in describing his project raises more questions than answers. What are the laws in the use of this word? Are there policies enacted? If yes, who is responsible for enforcing them? But the danger, which exists in most initiatives run by individuals in Lagos, is that these spaces take the form of the visionaries and notions of exclusion and inclusion is reinforced. In the case of the newly established MocaLagos, the ultimate question is how does an individual become a Museum? This wouldn’t have been possible in another country, but Nigeria is a unique place and Lagos is the land of possibilities. The museum was declared open by a clergy, Pastor Taiwo Odukoya, while that act in itself is unprecedented anywhere in the world as Museums are spaces for liberality, maybe this was needed to dedicate the arts unto God or prayer is what we truly need in revolutionizing the arts sector. This analogy makes more sense as the Nigerian President, Muhammadu Buhari, the Commander-In-Chief of the armed forces and chief security officer of the country, in the wake of recent killings, urged the citizens to pray fervently to God to help bring the nation out of the current prevailing security challenges.

At a press conference on 28th March 2017, Nigeria was announced to be making her debut at the Venice Biennale, the world’s most prestigious contemporary visual art exhibition. Adenrele Sonariwo, of Rele Gallery, was the lead curator while the works of Victor Ehikhamenor, Peju Alatise and Qudus Onikeku were presented under the theme “How About Now” which according to the curator “is to reflect on the question of now, and of narratives firmly rooted in the present”. Later that year, precisely on the 14th October 2017, the first ever Lagos Biennial of Contemporary launched. The initiative was conceived by the artist, Folakunle Oshun who doubled as the Artistic Director and had a team made up mostly of local artists and curators. About 43 artists were invited for the biennial by the curatorial team to present works across various media from performance, video, photography, installation, and sound art, under the theme “Living on the Edge”. While these two events were important interventions which were made mostly possible by their various curatorial and managerial teams, the next couple of years will reveal if they are here to stay for the long haul as a lack of long-term governmental support towards the arts might be a hindrance in the funding of these initiatives.

The saying “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear” attributed to the Buddha, can be used to describe the reality of Art education in Nigeria. In this case, it can be said that both the students and the teachers are not ready. This isn’t in any way to discredit the work of the few art historians and scholars in our various Nigerian art institutions, who are constantly pushing the envelope but the dearth of intellectualism, research and critical thinking in the Nigerian educational system has also affected the art schools. It is impossible to use the syllabus of the past to solve the problems of today. The universities keep churning out millions of certificated illiterates on a yearly basis, who become victims to a neo-colonial system while the teachers are all waiting for their expiration of their 35-years in civil service to retire as gods.

There’s an urgent need to invest in the infrastructure of the mind, to activate critical thinking amongst artists. Every artist is an island while works are being created in vacuums. How many of these institutions running under graduate, masters and doctoral degrees in the arts are organizing curated exhibitions for these graduates? How informed and equipped are these students on the contemporary issues in the arts communities? How knowledgeable are they about the art history, exhibition histories? How can they be modeled to incorporate technology and contemporary materials into their creative process? How do they transition from just mere craftsmanship to critical thinking? How do they get into the consciousness of their roles as artists in writing the autobiography of the nation and or the African continent? I have got so many questions and the more I try to pain the answer, it keeps pixelating.

The government is virtually non-existent, there are no audiences for the arts as a bulk of the citizens are still in the bondage of colonialism and are not interested in Knowledge. The artists have now become mere conductors while the politicians hold the wheel as the people are all cramped in a bandwagon of mediocrity. So what the hell are we all doing? Who is producing catalogue raisonne for our array of “Masters” whose works are becoming subjects of litigations, forgery, and theft? We need to invest in the past for the future to have meaning. Exhibitions with no catalog, no publications, no critiques, we have become withdrawn from the reality we exist, every cultural practitioner reduced to a hustler, bitten by the survival bug – the Lagos Syndrome.

I’m not proposing for us to “play catch-up” with the west, but to explore the sense of affinity that existed amongst our ancestors – the great carvers, the pioneering performance artists – the masquerades who remained anonymous but maneuvered and used their bodies in interventions and intersessions, the sculptors – whose bronze works were believed to have originated from a mythical space, and plundered by the colonialists. We need to fast forward to the past and hopefully sculpt the rest button that will take us to the future.

And until that day, when we start creating masterpieces that speak to the soul of the nation, I will not be able to write a proper critique of the arts. But for now, we hope a green environment can be built, so we can all “go-slow”.

                                                                   In something we Africans got issue 5
Ayo Akiwande
August 2018