Friday 22 February 2013

For West African artists, a new leap beckons in Dubai

By Tajudeen Sowole

After a recent resurgence at home and gradual inroad into the art market of the west, contemporary art from West Africa tests the waters of the Middle East.

Interestingly, the next testing ground for West African artists is the new blue-eyed boy of the 21st century’s business and leisure travel hub, Dubai. Under Marker, a sub-event of Art Dubai Fair, five artists via art advocacy organizations across West Africa will from March 20 to 23, 2013 at Madinat Jumeirah, Dubai be the focus of visitors. Art Dubai Fair has been rated as a major yearly international art gathering in the Middle East, with as much as 500 artists and 75 galleries from 32 countries participating every year, it attracts an estimated 22, 000 visitors. 
The 2013 edition of Marker, according to the organizers, is making its third appearance in the seven-year old Art Dubai Fair, and has been dedicated to art from West African. It’s Africa’s debut appearance at the fair. Although Marker appears more like an exposition and cultural contents exchanges, it could, indirectly boost the increasing value and appreciation of art West African art. In recent years, Europe, particularly the U.K has hosted several art shows, which focused African art. In fact, there is a yearly art auction, Africa Now by Bonhams, dedicated to African art.
Taiye Idahor’s Head Series (Newspaper, film cartridge and acrylic paint on wood, 61x61cm, 2012), courtesy of CCA, Lagos.
Young, up-and-coming Nigerian artist, Taiye Idahor joins Ghanaian master, Ablade Glover and others such as Soly Cisse (Senegal) Abdoulaye Konate (Mali) and Boris Nzebo (Cameroun) in what the orgnisers of Art Dubai described as exploring “the nature of evolving cities in West Africa and the way in which this change impacts society.” Designed as five artspaces, works of the artists have been selected from Centre for Contemporary Art (CCA, Lagos, Nigeria); Espace doual'art (Douala, Cameroon); Maison Carpe Diem (Segou, Mali); Nubuke Foundation (Accra, Ghana); and Raw Material Company (Dakar, Senegal). 

Instructively, Glover and Idahor, indeed, represent the dynamics of art across West Africa; each comes from the two extreme ends of generations of artists whose works are currently uplifting the status of African art. Glover is among the masters who have been celebrated over the decades and Idahor is of the new generation artists, impatiently eager to rub shoulders with the established signatures.

For example, in a Lagos art scene characterised with diverse and competitive art spaces, it could be tasking for a young artist to create an identity. For Idahor, she had twice made a statement during two group exhibitions Water E No Get Enemy and Colours and Creativity. In the African Artists Foundation (AAF)-organised Water E No Get Enemy, Idahor’s analogical view, from a life-size sculpture of a lady, indicts the mass media, particularly advertising industry for increasing exploitation of women’s fragility. For Marker 2013, Idahor’s work titled Head Series, viewed via soft copy stresses her creative incendiary in a collage form that plays around Nigerian women’s gele (head dress) identity.

Long before Lagos started its recent gradual steps towards becoming the art hub of Africa, Glover’s art was well known in Nigeria. In fact, he joined a selected group of Nigerian masters such as surrealist, Abayomi Barber; printmaker, Dr Bruce Onobrakpeya; and realist, Kolade Oshinowo, for the exhibition An Evening with the Masters organized by Terra Kulture Gallery, Victoria Island, Lagos to mark Nigeria’s 50th Independence Anniversary in 2010. During a chat, shortly after the show, Glover exuded the prospect in having young and old masters work together as he noted that there existed “a very good relationship between the masters and the younger artists”. 

Three years after, the prospect is becoming a reality, and in far away Dubai where Marker appears like a stronger forum for African artists of all generations to start a new journey. Few days ago, the Director at Art Dubai Fair, Antonia Carver, during a chat via e-mail recalled that Marker was launched in 2011, as a medium to connect arts of other places – not properly represented in international art events – with that of the UAE and the Gulf. In three years, Matker, she explained, has beamed light on “general selection of spaces from the Middle East and Asia, and then in 2012, focused on Indonesia.” However, Africa, she acknowledged, has been within that radar of the organisers. “We knew from the beginning that in 2013 we wanted to focus on an aspect of the African arts scene. And when we got into the research period, a couple of years ago, we realised that there were such incredible artspaces and artists in the West of the continent”.

Saddled with the curatorial responsibility of Marker is Bisi Silva, who works in collaboration with the five art organisations that promote the selected artists.
And typically the Nigerians’ style of celebrating their own wherever, quite some art enthusiasts and connoisseurs from Lagos have expressed interest in attending the Art Dubai Fair 2013, sources said. 

Speaking on the curatorial content, Silva noted that the flexibility of the theme has inspired the arts organisations and artists involved to a theme-friendly space. “The theme allows each contributor to approach it from a local context. At the same time, visitors to the fair will discover several common threads that link the works - the vibrant dynamics of the cities as well as the tensions that arise when the modern collides with the traditional, the urban displaces the rural and the boundaries between the public and private become blurred.”

Silva assured that Marker opens up possibilities and opportunities for artists and art organisations from West Africa to engage with their contemporaries in the Middle East and Asia. “Making their work and artists known in other regions, and creating new audiences is a strategic move for any organisation, which will hopefully result in new collaborations and partnerships.” She listed varieties of genres such as painting, photography, sound art and other experimental media as some of the works to expect at the event.

Supporting the visual contents to maximize the prospect of the fair is an interactive session, Carver disclosed. She said the session Global Art Forum “features a panel discussion on Lagos and the influence the city has had on writers and artists.” Listed among the discussants with Silva are writer Tolu Ogunlesi, sound artist Emeka Ogboh and director of Raw Material Company, Koyo Kouoh.
  Still on the visual contents, Carver said a Nigerian-born, and London-based artist, Mary Evans “has been commissioned to create a site-specific work at the fair, as part of our non-commercial Art Dubai Projects programme.”
 Untitled by Soly Cissé (pencil and acrylic on paper, 72 x 102, 2012), courtesy of Raw Material Company, Dakar, Senegal.
Really, connecting the mainstream art markets and the intellectual exchanges in art of West Africa and the Gulf appears like the ultimate goal. However, the five arts-paces seem like a starting point in bringing the rich art and culture of West Africa to the Middle East. And as artists are the focus this year, where exactly do the mainstream art galleries of West Africa – as crucial as they are – come into this exchange?  “Of course, there is a long relationship of trade and business between the Gulf and different parts of Africa. We now see increased exchange between the UAE and West Africa – and wherever there is a relationship of trade, then there is also an exchange of ideas and traditions – and so it’s an ideal time to kick-start a long-term exchange through contemporary art,” Carver explained.

Art Dubai is organized in partnership with Abraaj Capital and sponsored by Cartier.

The International Press Consultant of Art Dubai
Katrina Weber Ashour recalled that over the last six years, the fair has proven to be “the leading international contemporary art fair in the Middle East and South Asia, becoming a cornerstone of the region’s booming art community. In 2012, it welcomed 22,500 visitors and hosted 75 galleries from 32 countries.”

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