Monday 9 December 2013

‘How to keep Lagos art scene vibrant’

By Tajudeen Sowole
In reviewing the growth of the visual arts scene in Lagos, this year’s edition of Lagos Book and Art Festival (LABAF) assembled professionals under the theme, Lagos: A City Of Art, using a recent rise in documentation as a guide.

Held inside Kongi’s Harvest Gallery, Freedom Park, Lagos Island, the books used as references included Contemporary Nigerian art in Lagos private Collections, (edited by Jess Castellote), Artists of Nigeria by Onyema Offoedu-Okeke and Ben Enwonwu: The Making of an African Modernist, by Sylvester Ogbechie.

Moderated by video artist and curator, Jude Anogwih, the discussants, which included Castellote, Offoedu-Okeke, Olu Ajayi and Prof. Peju Layiwola reviewed the Lagos art scene and outlined the current challenges that could affect the future growth of the Lagos art scene.

Also, the organisers, Committee for Relevant Arts (CORA) continued its art exhibition segment of the yearly LABAF with a show titled No Fly List. 
Indeed, the increase in the number of books published on Nigerian art, in the last few years questions the readiness of practitioners to face challenges, which artists, managers and promoters are most likely to encounter in the years ahead. This area of concern he moderator, Anogwih echoed in his introduction shortly before the first speaker, Jess Castellote’s presentation.

An architect and art critic, Castelotte noted standard or quality as a key factor that could shape the future of Nigerian art. Galleries, auction houses and documentation, he argued, must have “the quality” to project the artists and their work. And perhaps speaking from experience of having edited one of the books used as background of the gathering, Castellote however warned that documentation, for example, cannot happen in a vacuum if artists are not measuring up to expectation.

An installation titled Pain on Board by Nkechi Nwosu-Igbo

With  Castellote’s submission on quality, it appeared that the gathering found a higher pedestal on which to place the central focus of the theme as Anogwih broadened the scope and dragged painter, Ajayi. Being a full time studio artist of over three decades and former chairman Society of Nigerian Artists (SNA), Lagos State chapter, Ajayi shared his thoughts about the complexity of achieving “quality” across the facets of Nigerian art. The creative professionals generally, including visual artists, Ajayi argued cannot be insulated from the state of the country. In fact, he specifically mentioned the various schools of art in the higher institutions of learning as the fountains to be held responsible for the declining quality of the creative industry. “The state of the nation in every facets of our life affects the output of the artists as well”, Ajayi insisted.

    Defending art teachers of higher institutions, Prof Layiwola of Creative Arts Department, University of Lagos (UNILAG) traced the drop in quality to the non-flexibility of most schools’ curriculum. She noted that, “in this age, schools are still using old curricular of 1960s.”

   She also used the occasion to stress that the issue of general decay in the country’s higher education system, of which artists are not left out was the main issue in the ongoing face-off between Academic Staffs Union of University (ASUU) and the Federal Government  

    If artists would have to wait for an improved state of the nation to be spurred into adding value to the system, the purpose of creativity would have been defeated. Artists, in the pasts – renaissance and modernism periods – were known to have made impact on their environment and contributed to innovations, even during national and continental darkness. Why are Nigerian artists not taking cue from history, by being the change agent, rather than waiting for others to make the change?

   Ajayi defended artists by arguing that non-availability of resources makes the creative professionals, particularly in Africa, stranded and mired in confusion.
Also of note was that over the years, art spaces in Lagos were shrinking in numbers. And more worrisome, the existing art galleries are not catching up with the aggressive expression, particularly in large format, of artists’ works. How has the changing megacity look of Lagos’ architecture imbibed art in both space and contents? Castellote noted that clients who are engaging in new building are hardly art conscious, but hoped that “maybe with time things will change.”

Again, the National Gallery of Art (NGA) came under scrutiny when Ajayi revisited the lack of a modern and contemporary museum of art or national gallery edifice. Such facility, he stressed is necessary for artists to have a stronger space for expression.

Author of the most recent of the publications, Offoedu-Oyema shared his experience of how the Lagos art scene inspired him to publish the book. He explained how he came to Lagos with the intention of producing a magazine for the creative industry, but “saw a bigger vacuum in documentation”. He however argued that despite the question on quality, Lagos “remains the best place to get high quality” of nearly everything in art. He noted that the gap between Lagos and the rest of the country, still in terms of quality  “energized the book I wrote”.

Suggesting that the situation in the higher institutional of learning was not as hopeless despite the “obsolete curriculum”, Layiwola informed the audience that at UNILAG, entrepreneurial programme has been part of activities of the Creative Art Department lately. This, she explained, was designed to prepare the students for challenges ahead of post-school career.

The importance of visual arts in the yearly LABAF event was again stressed in what has become tradition of the festival, as art exhibitions of mainly installation and other forms were not left out. This year, five other artists joined the two regulars, Nkechi Nwosu-igbo and Jelili Atiku, in the exhibition titled No fly List. It featured the metal artist, Fidelis Odogwu, Photographers, Adremi Adegbite and Aisha Dapchi; Port Harcourt based painter, Diseye Tantua; and poet, Jumoke Verissimo.

In her curatorial note, Nwosu Igbo explained that the gathering of the artists and a poet attempts to capture the “controversies and excitement of living in Lagos” during the shades of response that followed the relocation of some destitute from the state to Onitsha.

Other art exhibitions held as part of the LABAF 2013 included Still Old And New by Uche Nwosu in association with Visual Arts Society of Nigeria (VASON) as well as Lagos in Pictures, a show of archival works from the collections of Edward Keazor, Dr. Raphael James of the Centre for Research, Information Management and Media Development (CRIMMD).

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