Saturday 20 July 2013

Policy somersault as ‘defective’ ARESUVA makes way for Abuja Biennale

By Tajudeen Sowole
With the announcement of a proposed Abuja Biennale, it appears that a similar event that had been existence, African Regional Summit on Visual Arts and Exhibition (ARESUVA) will finally be rested. This inconsistency would ostensibly send a wrong signal about Nigeria in international art circles. 
The Abuja Biennale, according to a recent statement by National Gallery of Art (NGA), will hold towards end of year. With its debut in 2008, ARESUVA had its second and last edition in 2009. In 2010, the current Director-General of NGA, Abdullahi Muku – then acting after the erstwhile boss, Chief Joe Musa was suspended – announced that it would no longer hold as a yearly event, but “as biennale”, to commence the following year, 2011. In fact the odd year outing, it was stated then, would be good for ARESUVA, as it does not clash with the popular Dak’Art Biennale in Senegal. But between 2011 and now, ARESUVA has not held as a biennale nor has it reverted to its yearly design.

The DG of NGA, Muku Abdulahi.

In Lagos, Muku, who was the Special Guest of Honour, at a recent Society of Nigerian Artists (SNA)-organised Distinguished Lecture Series disclosed that NGA plans “to organise a new event to be known as Abuja Biennale”. He confirmed an earlier statement by his Personal Assistant, Mufu Onifade, who, on his behalf, during the British Council-led Nigeria’s preparation for Venice 2015, in Lagos, informed the gathering about the planned biennale. At each pronouncement, there was silence on the fate of ARESUVA.

When NGA first presented ARESUVA in Lagos, the then D-G, Musa, had said the event was designed in line with New Partnership for Africa Development (NEPAD) programme. As the two editions held back-to-back, ARESUVA gained short-lived but impressive attention from across Africa, based on the strength of its alignment with NEPAD.   
However, what seemed a lack of solid foundation for ARESUVA started emerging soon after two editions, with another NGA event Art Expo Nigeria coming on stream. Inadequate preparations and lack of continuity, perhaps exposed the weak structure on which both events were conceptualised, and stunted befitting international art events for Nigeria. It should be recalled that with the emergence of the two events in 2008, hope was high that in the next few years, Nigeria would have taken its rightful place as a leading destination in international art gathering, particularly in Africa. 

Across the world, art fairs, art expos and biennales have become part of the branding strategy in promoting creativity and enhancing the tourism potential of host countries. In fact in Africa, the Dak’Art Biennale, in Dakar, Senegal, has in the last two decades become one of the most visited international art events in Africa, playing host to artists within the continent and the Diaspora. Also, the Jo’burg Art Fair in South Africa has made a mark as a market for art of the continent and beyond.

Five years after Art Expo Nigeria and ARESUVA came into being, it is glaring that there is no definite direction towards a sustained international art event for Nigeria.  While ARESUVA, from its format and contents was not sustainable, the Art Expo seemed to have shown greater prospect.

Successful international art events across the world are exhibitions-based with forum or conference as sub-events. For ARESUVA, it was in the opposite order, with emphasis on proffer academic solutions to the dearth of art as a factor in contributing to the development of Africa. As laudable as the concept of gathering Africans from across the continent to tinker the economics of art was, ARESUVA seemed like an extended or international version of the NGA’s yearly twin events: National Symposium on Nigerian Art as well as Distinguished Lecture Series, which holds at a chosen higher institution of learning. 
If the proposed Abuja Biennale must be taken seriously, it is important for NGA to clearly define the current state or future of ARESUVA. Silence over an event that had hosted international artists and art scholars just because there is a new concept appears untidy. A week after the announcement of Abuja Biennale in Lagos, Muku eventually disclosed during a chat that ARESUVA could no longer hold. “It’s replaced by the Abuja Biennale,” he stressed. Reminded that he was the one who pronounced that ARESUVA would continue as biennale from 2011, a promised that was never fulfilled, Muku admitted to the announcement he made in 2010 about making ARESUVA a biennale, but explained that the event was not sustainable the way it was conceptualised “because we found out that it was not presented at the AU” as perceived.

Muku’s allegation that ARESUVA had no AU backing – an apparent dismissal of the NEPAD perspective on which the event was said to have been built – raises both credibility and lack of continuity issues. While a section of the visual arts community keeps blaming the current administration of NGA for the death of ARESUVA and the drop of standards in the Lagos International Art Expo, the foundations for the two events do not seem strong enough for continuity.
Former DG of NGA, Joe Musa, presenting the Art Expo Nigeria and First African Regional Summit and Exhibition on the Visual Arts (ARESUVA) 2008 Publications to the then First Lady, Hajia (Dr) Turai Umaru Yar’Adua.
 For example, the Art Expo, despite having had five editions, is characterised by inconsistent in the crucial areas of identity and branding. In 2008, it made its debut in what NGA called “a franchise from U.S.-based ArtExpos”. A year after, it was changed from ArtExpo Nigeria to Art Expo Nigeria. The erratic identity continued in 2010, when it became International Art Expo Nigeria. Between 2010 and last year, the name had changed again; it’s currently International Art Expo Lagos.
What a journey! Reason: a source from NGA disclosed that “no franchise was ever gotten from the U.S.-based organisers of ArtExpo Las Vegas and ArtExpo New York”.   Clearly, there are several untidy international affiliations, in fact, too many in the NGA-organised ARESUVA and Art Expo events.
Are these events victims of inadequate funding or lack of proper articulation? Art scholar and studio artist, Dr. Kunle Adeyemi might have provided answers to this question in his article titled Lagos International Art Expo 2012: A Deceit of the Public, in response to the glaring lackluster performance of the fifth edition of the event in Lagos. Adeyemi advised that “If the vision of the Art Expo is not clear to the present executors – NGA and Art Galleries Association of Nigeria (AGAN) – they have a choice of either to pull it down completely or to re-invent it with professionals who have the knowledge and experience”.

While NGA’s pronouncement on repositioning of Art Expo is being awaited, Adeyemi’s call for a “re-invent” appears to have been heeded, so suggests the dismantling of ARESUVA to pave way for Abuja Biennale.
Indeed, biennales across the world are government-organised, but the proposed Abuja Biennale under NGA, given the government agency’s antecedence of tying its operations to perennial delays in yearly budgets of the Federal Government, it might just end up as ‘business as usual’. Such sole dependence on government’s funding has over the years led to the drastic drop in the quality of the yearly Lagos International Art Expo, despite the event’s Public Private Partnership (PPP) with AGAN.
Like the Art Expo, a biennale is also art galleries format exhibition. But for the proposed Abuja Biennale, NGA is not ready to experience another AGAN “failure” in the PPP venture. It has therefore chosen to partner with Society of Nigerian Artists (SNA), “As we partnered AGAN in Art Expo, we are collaborating with SNA for Abuja Biennale,” Muku stated.
It’s quite disturbing that despite the laudable participations and contributions of Nigerian artists and curators to events organised in other countries, such human resources are not being tapped to enhance the development of its international art events at home.

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