Friday 29 March 2013

Art from West Africa... loud in Dubai

By Tajudeen Sowole (just back from Dubai, UAE)

As art gets stronger, contributing to economic and cultural development across the world, Africa has presented its case of prospective dynamics to a global audience at the just concluded Art Dubai Fair, in United Arab Emirates (UAE).

The rare opportunity came via two platforms of the fair: a curated section tagged Marker and the yearly seven-day discussion part, Global Art Forum, held at Madinat Jumeirah, Dubai. While Marker showed that the fast rising contemporaneity of art has not left the continent behind, the various segments of the art forum focused art education in the Middle East, art appreciation and documentation in Africa, scoring music as art content, among other areas discussed.

  Writer, Tolu Ogunlesi and sound artist Ogboh joined the curator of Marker, Bisi Silva at the Day 6 of the Global Art Forum, which focused Lagos as a mega city that is re-shaping art contents of artists in the city. At the non-African audience-dominated forum, Silva gave an overview of Lagos as a city of paradox, despite its chaotic and fast pace characteristics, people across the country come to search for fortune. She however noted that the city is being misrepresented in the international media.


 Ade Adekola's  photographi composiye..

On the role of art in Lagos’ race towards one of the biggest economic capitals of the world, Ogunlesi described “the 1980s through 1990s as the dark periods,” and post-military era, from 1999 till date as “the renaissance of Nigerian art”. Ogunlesi supported his assertion by recalling how “some Nigerian artists went into self-exile during the military eras.” However, it’s not exactly true that the 1980s and 1990s were the dark periods for Nigerian art. In fact, these periods – aside the fact that some Nigerian artists exodus into self-exiles during the June 12 crisis from 1993 – were the most significants in the history of full time studio practice and art appreciation in the country. Generation of artists such as Olu Ajayi, Sam Ovraiti, Abiodun Olaku, Bunmi Babatunde, Osazuwa Osagie, Gbenga Offo, Abraham Oyovbisere, Edosa Ogiugo, Ini Brown, Lekan Onobanjo and others lifted art as a full time profession from the mid 1980s through the early and mid-1990s. More importantly, art appreciation, particularly in Lagos rose sharply during these periods. It could also be argued that 1980s/1990s laid the foundation for the current unprecedented rise in value of Nigerian art.     

For Ogboh, who disclosed that he came to Lagos “six years ago”, the noisy bus parks and bus stops has been attracting his artistic curiosity. He has presented quite some works on Lagos noise at exhibitions home and the Diaspora, sometimes working with foreign artists.

 At another segment of the Global Art Forum, the growing art appreciation in Africa was the focus of one of the guest speakers and popular art collector in Africa, Prince Yemisi Shyllon. It was the second day of the Global Art Forum when Shyllon, addressing an audience of largely non-Africans, gave a panoramic view of the dynamics of Nigerian art and Africa in general.

In his response to a question from the audience about the future of African art, perhaps the prospect of becoming the next stop after the current boon of Chinese art market. Shyllon stated that it is not impossible “for African art to achieve what the Chinese art is enjoying in the west”. He argued that with the value of contemporary African art rising, both at home and the Diaspora, courtesy of art auctions in Lagos, it may not take long for the art of the continent to reach the global art market. “With the art auctions organized by ArtHouse Conmtenporary and Terra Kulture, in Lagos it is possible for the global art market to notice us”, Shyllon stated. Indeed, the gains of starting at home have started emerging: in London, U.K; Bonhams, a London-based auction house has since 2009 - a year after two successful auctions raised the value of Nigerian art in Lagos - dedicated an auction tagged Africa Now to art of the continent. Works of masters and young artists from across Africa are featured at the Bonhams’ auctions.

And given the fact that the home market has been setting the pace, Shyllon used the Global Art Forum to advise African artists in the Diaspora to ensure that their works are known at home. “Our artists abroad must be careful; they should be known here first for foreigners outside the continent to accept them.” He cited the example of El Anatsui, noting that he is based in Nigeria “and mastered his art in the country before he was known abroad”. 

Shyllon also recalled how he advised the Late Lamidi Fakeye (1928-2009) to concentrate more at home. Fakeye must have taken the advice of Shyllon; the carver’s only solo art exhibition ever in a gallery, titled Timber’s Titan, was held at Mydrim Gallery, Lagos, a year before his death. And as an extension of his love for Fakeye’s work, Shyllon disclosed to the audience that, “a book on Fakeye will be formally presented in Lagos before the end of this month.”

When exactly has government come into the up lifting of African art? The moderator of the segment of the forum, U.K-based art advisor, Bomi Odotunde advised that artists and promoters should look towards the private sector. “Even in England, it’s the private sector that promotes art” Odotunde argued.

As prospective as African art appears to be heading towards the global art market, scholarly input, it has been observed, is still not complementary. This much was again raised at the Global Art Forum by a veteran commentator on African art, Rasheed Araeen of U.K-based art journal, Third Text. Araeen cited the example of late artist, Uzo Egonu. He noted that the late artist’s work has little or no scholarly work done on it. Araeen lamented that as much as Nigeria has quite a pool of scholars, home and abroad, publications on African art is still inadequate.

Speaking from the audience, another prominent Nigerian collector, Sammy Olagbaju urged artists to concentrate more on producing art and leave documentation worries to the historians and others. Olagbaju argued that if saddled with writing about their works, artists could be distracted from studio.

 Curator of Marker, Bisi Silva speaking at a press preview shortly before Art Dubai Fair 2013 opened

But curator of Marker, Silva agreed with Areen on inadequate scholarly input. “Apart from Olu Oguibe’s piece on Egonu, no one has written about the artist’s work,” Silva stressed. She however added that things are really changing currently, “we are now documenting our artists”.

 Silva was right about the changing attitude of art historians. Indeed with recent developments in Lagos, for example, where four or more books on art were published in the last two years, the documentation landscape is appearing greener. In the last three years and in quick succession, a U.S.-based art historian, Sylvester Ogbechi has authored Ben Enwonwu: the Making of an African Modernist, published in 2009 and edited Making History: The Femi Akinsanya African Art Collection.

Also, last year, a book Contemporary Nigerian Art in Lagos Private Collections, edited by a Spaniard expatriate based in Lagos Jess Castellote, and sponsored by Olagbaju was presented to the public.

The UAE, and perhaps the entire Arab world seemed to have realised the huge prospects in art, so suggests the first section of the Day 6 of the Global Art Forum tagged New Directions: Art Education in the Middle East. Speakers included Alia Al Senusi, a London-based art patron, who is on the board of Tate Gallery; Mrna Avad, editor of Canvas Daily and Art Dubai publications; Stephen Bedge, director of student Enterprise and Hospitability at the University of the Art, London; Dana Farouk, independent curator and a trustee of MoMA; and Soheila Sokwhanvari, a London-based artist of Iranian origin. One of the several areas of challenges addressed was the rising cost of art education. Government’s continued funding of art education across the gulf may not be sustained for long, some of the participants feared. One of them warned that if quality art education should be sustained, perhaps, the people would have to pay a little. He cited example of some parts of the U.K., where “fees are now introduced into art schools; it’s not for commercial purpose for the schools, but to sustain the art education system”.

Centre for Contemporary Art Lagos, Nigeria; Espace doual'art, Douala, Cameroon; Maison Carpe Diem, Ségou, Mali; Nubuke Foundation, Accra, Ghana; and Raw Material Company, Dakar, Senegal were the five spaces that represented what could be described as face of West Africa, perhaps by extension the entire region at Art Dubai 2013. Artists whose works were exhibited include Ablade Glover, Ndidi Dike, Soly Cisse, Taye Idahor, Emeka Ogboh, Ade Adekola, Charles Okereke, Karo Akpokien, Abubakar Fofana Abdoulaye Konate and Boris Nzebo. But the distinct line of identity, which African art is known for appears to be blurring, so suggest some of the works on display across the five representatives.

A tour of the five stands showed that as much as some of the artists attempt to create works that represent the central theme, City in Transition, the African flavor struggles against the dominance of western textures. The artists, sub-consciously, have imbibed the western influence. For examples, from Soly Cisse’s variety of impressionistic depiction of rat characters in metaphoric context, to Boris Nzebo’s drawings, African identity was faintly noticed. And rescuing the near loss of African aesthetic identity, were CCA, Lagos, Idahor’s Head Series, Dike’s collage, Lagos Market, Glover’s rooftop of slums courtesy of Nubuke Foundation, Accra as well as Fofana’s textile piece from .

And quite innovative was Ogboh’s sound installation of archival origin, which brings into memory the voices of two of Nigeria’s former Head of States, Nnamidi Azikiwe and Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, the African identity was strengthened at Marker.

From the Raw Material Company's stand, Henri Sagna’s sculptural relief about faith exudes simplicity of aesthetics.

Ade Adekola’s photographic assemblage of animated effect captures recycling of waste engine fuel by youths in Lagos.

With Marker, Africa, indeed, has announced its presence on the contemporary global art stage. The gathering of these diverse artists from West Africa, working on such a theme as City in Transition, stressed the importance of changes across some of the countries’ big cities. And that some of the artists’ works are infected with the changes – not necessarily because the theme confines their visual narratives – showed the cultural or identity-loss as the prize to pay for changes in the city.

Silva noted the significance of the theme, drawing similarity between the host city, Dubai “as a city in transition”. He however argued that “Africa can learn from Dubai” in the transitory context.

While the Marker section of Art Dubai 2013 may have presented the diversity of the artists, it could also be seen as another kind of art from West Africa; a shift from the regular. Over the last decade, artists from West Africa, particularly in Nigeria, Ghana and Republic of Benin have made impressive impacts, even across the continent. For example, in Lagos and the U.K, to a little extent in the U.S., art auctions have projected African art. Also, Beninoise such as Romuald Hazoume, Julien Sinzogan, and Europe-based Ghanaian artist Owusu Ankomah have shown consistently across Europe. The active roles, which some of these artists, particularly in Lagos and the U.K. play in lifting the status and values of the continent’s art cannot be removed from whatever led to the interest of Art Dubai Fair in the West Africa sub-region.

 Described by the organisers as “over $40 million dollar worth Art Dubai 2013,” an opportunity for Africa could not have come at a better time. However, did West Africa present artists who were among top rated in the mainstream art market home and the Diaspora? The real vibrancy of African art or art from West Africa, recorded in the past few years was not completely felt at Art Dubai Fair 2013, Prof Awam Akpam of New York University noted. Akpam though agreed that it was a commendable effort to gather African artists at such a global stage, future representation of the continent could be better. “I commend Silva’s effort, but in future the mainstream art galleries in Lagos should be included. This is art fair, not a biennale; it’s commercial a gathering.”, Akpam insisted during a chat inside the Arena Gallery Hall section of the expansive venue that housed Marker alongside about 30 other galleries from across the world.

Few metres away from Akpam, one of the few art galleries in the U.K., known to have been showing African art consistently, October Gallery also had a stand. Three artists were featured: El Anatsui, Romuald Hazoume and Algerian, Rachid  Koraichi. Enthused by the prospect of the gathering and what African artists have achieved in the past few years abroad, one of the delegates of October Gallery, Gerard Houghton noted that “new artists are emerging from Africa”. Dragged into the contemporaneity issue and a possible loss of the African identity in the works of the new generation of artists, Houghton who is of the Special Projects department of October Gallery also expressed fear about loss of identity. “Some artists are already losing their African identity. This is my personal opinion, not that of the October Gallery”. He however insisted that “we need to promote new artists; and there are quite a number of them from Africa”.

Spicing the art landscape with new thingd, perhaps led to the texture of Marker. The selection of galleries for the Marker gathering, Silva explained was deliberate. “Most of the spaces here are non-commercial”, she said.

Koyo Kouoh, director at Raw Material Company said the artists whose works represented the face of Senegal at the event “are the artists that I know and have worked with”.

A section of the audience during one of the several events of Art Dubai 2013

However, sign of a more diverse Nigerian presence at Art Dubai Fair in the future was noticed. Observers from Lagos who showed support for the West African representatives, during the fair included gallery owners Biodun Omolayo, Sandra Obiago, Azu Nwagbogu of African Artists Foundation and new entrant-in-waiting, Caline Chagoury.

Some of the participated galleries from other regions across the world included Athr Gallery (Jeddah), Galerie Chantal Crousel (Paris), D Gallerie (Jakarta), Experimenter (Kolkata), Alexander Gray Associates (New York), Grey Noise (Dubai), Galerie Rodolphe Janssen (Brussels), Galerie Krinzinger (Vienna), Platform China (Beijing/Hong Kong), The Third Line (Dubai), The Pace Gallery (London/Beijing/New York) and Sfeir-Semler (Hamburg/Beirut) will all be once again engaging with visitors at Art Dubai. New international entrants, including Greenaway (Adelaide/Berlin), Yvon Lambert (Paris), Victoria Miro (London), Almine Rech Gallery (Paris/Brussels), Schleicher/Lange (Berlin/Paris) and Tanja Wagner (Berlin) will be making their debut at Art Dubai. From Istanbul, Turkey alone, there were five galleries. 

  On breeding new artists, the major sponsor of Art Dubai Fair, The Abraaj Group – a multinationals capital investment organization – showed how to invest in the future when it awarded some new artists who emerged winners in an art competition named after the financier of the fair. The winners of the Abraaj Group Prize included Vartan Avakian and Rayyane Tabet (Lebanon), Iman Issa from Egypt, Huma Mulji (Pakistan) and Hrair Sarkissian, Syria. Guest curator, Murtaza Vali explained at a press conference that the works from the 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012 editions of the Abraaj Group Art Prize “have been exhibited at several venues in Africa, Asia, Europe, the Gulf and the US including: The National Museum of Carthage, Tunis, Tunisia (2012), the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, India”.

  The Abraaj Group is a leading investor operating in the global growth markets of Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Middle East. Frederic Sicre, Managing Director at The Abraaj Group said: “To nurture and cultivate the cultural climate across the regions we operate by empowering exceptional artistic talent is important to us. The Abraaj Group Art Prize is the flagship of our arts patronage program and is at the heart of our stakeholder engagement strategies. As the prize turns five, we are delighted to be able to engage with five more innovative art installations in the exhibition this year and bring five more artists into our network of winners, who become ambassadors and act as role models for younger artists.”

  Elsewhere, a Nigerian artist, Otobong Nkanga had a performance at another of the Emirates’ gathering of artists, the Sharjah Biennale. Titled Tastes of A Stone, Nkanga’s work which also included installation “continues her exploration of landscape, disappointment and the notion of home”. It included poetry and performance in what she described as “means of  narrative story telling”..

Inside Espace Douala Art Gallery, Cameroon's stand during the Marker section of Art Dubai 2013. 

Launched at the debut of Art Dubai in 2007, the Global Art Forumfeatured over 40 contributors during its 2013 edition, which included new and old participants from across the world.  New participants included Dubai-based political scientist Dr. Abdulkhaleq Abdulla; artist and former REM lead singer Michael Stipe; writer-editors Charles Arsene-Henry, Brian Kuan Wood (Editor, eflux journal) and Guy Mannes-Abbott (author, In Ramallah, Running); artists Tarek Atoui,Tristan Bera, Manal Al Dowayan, Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster,Shuruq Harb, Hassan Khan.

  Others were Ogboh, Slavs and Tatars, Ala Younis; author and poet Mourid Barghouti; writers Elif Batuman (contributor, New Yorker), Maryam Monalisa Gharavi (Editor-at-Large, The New Inquiry), Oscar Guardiola-Rivera (author of What if Latin America Ruled the World?); Lagos-based writer-editor Ogunlesi; writer/urbanist Keller Easterling (Professor, Yale University); curator-translator, and Dar Al-Ma’mun co-director, Omar Berrada; curators Reem Fadda(Associate Curator, Middle Eastern Art, Guggenheim Abu Dhabi Project, and curator, National Pavilion for the UAE at the Venice Biennial), Koyo Kouoh (director, Raw Material Company, Dakar), Silva (director, CCA Lagos) and Tirdad Zolghadr (writer, based at Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard College NY); New York-based anthropologist Uzma Z. Rizvi (Assistant Professor, Pratt Institute); composer and musician Andre Vida; and Doha-based analyst and commentator Tarik Yousef.

Speakers returning from previous years include writer and artist Douglas Coupland; curator Lara Khaldi (Director, Khalil SakakiniCultural Centre, Ramallah); geostrategist and Director of Hybrid Reality Institute Parag Khanna; Turi Munthe, founder of ‘citizen journalist’ newswire Demotix; Co-Director of Exhibitions and Programmes and Director of International Projects, Serpentine Gallery, London, Hans-Ulrich Obrist; and art patron and commentator Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi.

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