Saturday 31 August 2013

At a foundation lecture, Jari broadens debate on art pricing

By Tajudeen Sowole

Pricing and evaluating art, which traditionally, is based on the reputation or status of an artist, has been very contentious, particularly in this era of emerging secondary art market in Nigeria. But artist and scholar, Prof Jacob Jari’s presentation titled The Price of Art and Its Implication on Art Practice in Nigeria challenges professionals to rescue creativity from the jaws of short-cut syndrome. 

Presented to a full house of participants inside the conference room of the organisers, Omooba Yemisi Adedoyin Shyllon Foundation {OYASAF}, Maryland, Lagos, Jari’s paper was the third edition of the host’s lecture series, which started in 2012. The debut of the OYASAF lecture series, organized in collaboration with Wotaside Studio was delivered by Prof Frank Ugiomoh of the University of Port Harcourt and the second by Dr Kunle Filani from  Federal College of Education, Osiele, Ogun State.

Jari, a professor of Art History, Ahmadu Bello University {ABU}, Zaria, Kaduna State noted imbalance, perhaps unfairness too, in evaluating art in Nigeria. He argued that such pricing of art, is erroneously based on who creates the work rather than its quality as art piece. He cited quite a number of examples, including personal experiences.

Jari’s argument is not new; a section of the art’s community not well-favoured and left out completely in the recent emergence of big sales in Nigerian art market have always expressed strong sentiments on the criteria used in pricing art. 

Having created an impression of Nigeria’s academia that is art blind, Jari, who holds a PhD in Art History distilled the worth of an artist’s labour as core of his lecture. From a 1991 personal experience of what he considered unfair treatment by a gallery in Lagos, to subsequent similar situations in selling his art, Jari’s search for a balance in pricing art kept expanding without an answer. In fact, he admitted that in one of such situations when he demanded for certain price for his work from a gallery, someone seemed to have asked him: ‘who do you think you are?’ And sometimes, it could be as direct as ‘Who knows you?’

Since then, he has been pondering over such question, “but the more I read about art and its practice, the more I realized that the last question was based on a certain naivety”.

 Although his further experimentation, he disclosed, confirmed that an artist’s reputation may make or mar the chance of being rated high in the art market. Jari however brought an example of two masters whose works have been sold, each at the extreme end of market value difference. 

“To put this issue in context, let us consider two artists, Jimoh Akolo and Demas Nwoko and their performance at a recent auction”. He noted that the two artists were classmates in the 1950s era of Nigerian College of Arts, Science and Technology {NCAST, now ABU}, Zaria.
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But during the 8th auction of Arthouse Contemporary in Lagos, May 2012 – referred to by Jari - Akolo’s painting, Untitled, {oil on canvas, 48 x 36 in},  was sold for N700,000 naira, an amount at a distant low to Nwoko’s Praise Singer {oil on board, 96 x 48} sold for N7 million  naira, Jari recalled. He stressed that “both artists are alive”, and asked: in selling the works, “what parameters were used? 

Indeed, Jari has brought a classic example in the Akolo {b.1934} and Nwoko {b.1935} comparison, confirming the dynamics of art pricing. Although not mentioned in Jari’s presentation is another interesting factor: Nwoko’s Praise Singer was a final year work of the artist at NCAST in 1961; Akolo’s Untitled, a 1998 painting. 

Nwoko’s work estimated for N8 to N10 million naira, it should be recalled, ended as the highest sold at the said auction. On display during the sales, Praise Singer looks like a piece just rescued from improper preservation; the tone was like a third generation of badly reproduced copy from an original painting. And that the auction house, Arthouse was wise enough not to bother restoring the faded colours before presenting it for sale, indeed, added to the hype and rarity that sold the work at such a high price.

And that Nwoko, a renowned architect was also coming from the feat of having recorded the highest sale for his wood sculpture, The Wise Man sold for N9 million naira, three auctions before the 2012 sales, could not be removed from the hype or build-up that sold Praise Singer. 
A stylized impressionism, Praise Singer is thematically semi-satirical, but stresses the artist’s consistence in native contents – as pronounced in his architecture works. It depicts the traditional entertainers’ intrusion into the privacy of highly placed personalities, mostly in Yoruba culture of old. For Nwoko’s depiction, it’s a solo effort in drumming and singing of a character in danshiki {short robe}, completes with kembe {baggy trousers} and gobi {cap}. With just a trousers and cap, the unwillingness of the host is obvious, even though he seems to be enjoying the moment - given the his attention captured by the artist’s rendition of a man sitting at the edge of the bench.

However, as comparative aesthetics of works of two masters is very complex in pricing, Akolo’s Untitled – a capture of horsebacks scene of ceremonial setting – could not be exactly said to be a lesser piece of art. So, what exactly went wrong such that Akolo’s painting sold for a distant N700, 000 to Nwoko’s N7m?

Prolific painter, Kolade Oshinowo who contributed to the debate from the audience seemed to have an answer. Presentation, Oshinowo argued, “is important when artists are selling their work”. He warned that whoever is presenting a work of art must properly represent the artist who created the work. He cited a personal experience how he insisted on a higher price against what London, U.K-based auctioneers, Bonhams, placed on his work sold recently. But he was vindicated when “later I got calls that the work even sold higher than what we eventually agreed on”.
A section of the audience during the lecture in Maryland, Lagos.

From the context of proper representation of artists, Jari’s question of artist’s right value for his or her labour is more salient as the lecturer has brought the two important examples. His choice of Nwoko and Akolo comparison appeared even more crucial in the debate: texts in the Arthouse catalogue of the said auction explain that each of the works was consigned from “collection of the artist”. This suggest that the artists represented themselves. 

Whatever myth that had been restraining artists in Nigeria from attaining their height, Arthouse auctions, since 2008 appeared to have shattered by creating new collectors. In fact, the Arthouse’s revolution of the secondary art market in Nigeria has been resonating across the entire art scene, home and the Diaspora.

On the “implication” of art pricing over the future of practice, Jari argued that the race to sell at higher prices, appeared to have reduced Nigerian artists’ ability to compete in actual contents on the international gathering such as biennales and other exhibitions.

 He stressed that “absence of any obvious change in the works of modern Nigerian artists is encouraged primarily by the price of art which is not founded on any logical basis”. 

Born in 1960, Jari attended St Murumba College, Jos and ABU. A few selected milestones Jacob has achieved include, coordinating the Aftershave Workshop from 1998 to 2008; curating the Accident and Design exhibition at the Brunei Gallery, University of London, London in 2000; heading the Department of Fine Arts, ABU, Zaria from 2005 to 2007; external examiner to Makerere University, Kampala from 2006 to 2008; external examiner to Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, Kumasi from 2011 to 2013; and the Dean, Faculty of Environmental Design, ABU from 2013. 

His scholarship revolves around topical issues in art practice in Nigeria while his practice elevates rejects to prominence.

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