Saturday 7 September 2013

How focus on creative art process breeds new generation of contemporary artists

The 12 finalists of 2013 African Artists Foundation/Nigerian Breweries Plc-organised National Art Competition during a Retreat in Lagos…recently. PHOTO: C/O AAF.

By Tajudenn Sowolea
With the introduction of art making process, as a format in the yearly African Artists’ Foundation {AAF}-organised National Art Competition, Nigerian art space may soon be populated with artists engaging in ‘contemporary’ practice. 

Currently in its sixth edition, the process of creating art was brought into the competition from 2011. The format compels each participant to prepare a proposal on the concept of the art the individual is presenting, hence offering the artists opportunity to strengthen the creation of their work via intensive research. Critics keep noting that lack of depth in the trajectory of most Nigerian artists’ concepts has become a recurring and contentious issues. 

And because the Nigerian art scene is largely patronised by conservative art connoisseurs, artists who have established their names on traditional foundation would hardly fit into the format of AAF’s new approach. The conservative characteristics of Nigerian art space perhaps made the first three editions of the AAF’s art competition attractive to the large spectrum of artists from the regular painting or mixed media on canvas/board as well as sculptures forms. In fact, established artists such as Tola Wewe, Segun Aiyesan, Gbolahan Ayoola, Emeka Ogboh, Gerald Chukwuma, among others, participated in the early edition, Unbeatable Nigerian Spirits {2008], for example.

It was quite curious that big names in art thinned out from the completion, even when the prizes got higher, from the previous zero-prize situations. The first edition had no prize money attached; but second year started monetary award with N750, 000 for each winner in four categories. At the grand finale of the 2010, edition, there was a drastic change in the contents of finalists: a shift from the traditional form of art. Between then and the last two editions of the national art comeptition, lovers of the much-envisaged ‘contemporary’ art seemed to have found additional relief to the efforts of Bisi Silva-led Centre for Contemporary Art {CCA}, Yaba, Lagos –a centre that has been filing the gap of non-traditional contents since 2008.

The theme of the 2013 edition IDENTITY: Who Do You Think You Are?, the orgaisers state examines the status of the individual in both local and global contexts. “At this time in Nigeria, there is an ongoing debate about the value and functionality of our national identity”. Participating artists are therefore asked: “Do we persist with identifying with our state or tribe of origin or have we truly embraced the community where we have made our residence?”
  To answer this question, the 12 finalists had gathered at Nimbus Gallery for a five-day “Retreat”, which involved presentation of individual participant’s proposals. The works are to be juried during the grand finale scheduled for November this year at Art21, Victoria Island, Lagos.

About three months ahead of the grand finale – as the finalists are now in their different studios across the country creating the works from the proposals presented at the Lagos retreat – a virtual extension of the Nimbus gathering continues. “Finalists are sending in their sketches as each artist progresses in the studio”, the creative director at AAF, Alafuro Sikoki-Coleman enthuses during a chat with her guest inside the organization’s art gallery few days ago. The images representing the progression of each artist towards the final art piece, she explains are posted online as a medium of getting the general public involved in tracking the process of creating art. “It’s a kind of reality thing, but in this case done online”. She notes that art has “evolved” beyond” the personality of those who create the works, but “now as a conversation”.

  1. Last year’s First Prize winning-work, an installation by Chinenye Miriam Emelogu titled Human Hive 
Since the competition started with the process of creating art, entries, she discloses, has been on the increase. While it may be true that more entries have been recorded, the category or status of participants suggests that established artists are no longer interested in the competition.  Is the introduction of process of art making like a deliberate way of excluding the big artists? The emphasis on process of creating art, she argues, is to give everybody opportunity. “It gives everybody, even a ‘Mr Nobody’ to apply, perhaps wins a prize too”, Sikoki-Coleman, who was the second place winner of the 2012 edition argues.

Having got the finalists bonded together during the retreat, and now posting their thumb-nails or sketches online, it s not unlikely to have identical works presented at the grand finale. She disagrees, explaining that as the artists have bonded together, they also realise “what is at stake”.

The 2013 finalists, largely made up of young artists just stepping into the challenges of professionalism include Karimah Ashadu, Alayande, Ayanwale, Chidinma Nnorom Chinke, Mary Edoga Chioma, Brigitte Sésu Tilley-Gyado, Taiye Idahor, Erasmus Onyishi, Olanrewaju Tejuoso, Felicia Okpara Tochukwu and Victoria Udondian. Others working as duo are Chuka Ejorh and Olamide Udo-Udoma;  Halima Abubakar and Zemaye Okediji.

First Prize is worth N2 million Naira, a solo art exhibition at AAF Gallery, Ikoyi, and a 3-night stay at Hilton Hotel Dubai, UAE. The next two prizes simply described as “Winners”, to be adjudged based on  “Outstanding Concept” and “Outstanding Production” gets N1 million naira each.

Indeed, the contents of the grand finale, every year, keep pushing contemporary practice further within the Avant-garde context. But like some works in the non-regular or traditional genre, preservation has always been a challenge. Either in installation, mixed media or wall-mounted, some of the works in the so-called ‘contemporary’ space are, to say the least, vulnerable to easy extinction. Such works are even more fragile, particularly in climes such as Nigeria where galleries hardly accept to show them, and museums of contemporary art does not exist to come to their rescue.

For example, the overall winning work at last year’s competition Chinenye Miriam Emelogu’s Human Hive comes to mind. A sprawling installation, on display inside the multipurpose hall of Civic Centre, Victoria Island, Lagos, it actually took nearly a quartre of the entire exhibition space just as the fragility of its aesthetic was even more pronounced In fact spreading it on the floor appeared like a compromised option given the massive size.

Apparently a museum piece, but appreciating Emelogu’s work actually ended with the grand finale. Similarly, another museum piece was the winner of the grand prize of the 2011 edition – under the theme Documenting Changes In Our Nation -Though not a sprawling kind, the installation, which was jointly produced by Uche Uzorka and Chike Obeago had components that did not appear like what could be precisely re-assembled over and over again. Not even a site-specific installation, but subsequent presentations could shift from the original look.

And if art competition goes beyond the primordial or just winning prizes, how are the organisers, AAF and its sole sponsors of seven years, Nigeria Breweries {NB} Plc planning to preserve the prize-winning works, more so that such works are hardly collectors’ tastes? 
Creative Director at AAF, Alafuro Sikoki-Coleman

Appreciation and documentation, Sikoki-Coleman argues, goes beyond the physical mounting of such works. “They are documented and displayed online” or in soft copies.
For a project sponsored by one of Nigeria’s leading corporate groups, NB Plc, a gallery or contemporary museum for the products of the national competition should not be so difficult to be structured into the entire package as the art competition appears to have come to stay as a major event the art calendar of Nigerian art.

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