Saturday 15 February 2014

At art auction lecture, critic, ‘gamblers’ take divergent views

By Tajudeen Sowole
As a fledging secondary art market that is barely six years old, art auctions in Nigeria have been evolving but there are some grey areas to be smoothened out. However, the teething challenges are not enough to discredit the role of auctioneers in this short period of phenomenal growth in the sector, so argued participants at a Lagos forum.

 And that the gathering’s theme of Art Auctions in Nigeria: Ladders of Progress or Shots in the Artists’ Feet? delivered by Ozioma Onuzulike was the second on art auction-related subjects organised by Omooba Yemisi Adedoyin Shyllon Art Foundation (OYASAF) Lecture Series within a period of five months interval confirmed the unprecedented interest in Nigerian art market, courtesy of art auctions in Lagos.

 Onuzulike is of Department of Fine and Applied Arts, University of Nigeria (UNN) Nsukka, Enugu State.

His over six thousand words length lecture pierced through the audience like a palette knife struggling to reconcile conflicting shades and strokes on canvas. But a chunk of the audience hardly found any knock for the Lagos-based auction houses, though few areas were noted as needing improvement.

Whatever the criticism Onuzuike reeled out, the two major art auction houses in Nigeria, Arthouse Contemporary Limited and Terra Kulture-Mydrim got more than enough doses. Though he started with few commendations, for example, noting that "Generally, the art auctions have given artworks more value, particularly those of younger generation of artists". On the other side of the lecture's daring blade, Onozulika questioned the expertise of the auction houses in the selection of works, and harshly described the buyers and sellers at Nigerian art auctions as "gamblers."

But the art auctions in Nigeria must have been good gambling, so suggested Onuzulike's confirmation of the progression that started breezing into the Nigerian art space after the Arthouse Contemporary's debut sales of N74, 845, 000. 00 in 2008 when Dr Bruce Onobrakpeya's Greater Nigeria, a panel of foils led the sales for N9.2 million naira hammer price.

  Still on the positivity of the secondary market, the art auction houses, he argued have added more than economic value. "In a country without viable art historical and critical publishing, the auction catalogues, in spite of their lack of careful documentation, have also doubtlessly provided invaluable records of modern and contemporary Nigerian works of art. " He added that the catalogues "are of important archival value."

Some of the participants, shortly after the conference.

  Also focused in the lecture was comparative market value for artists, which is one of the contentions areas of Nigeria's art market
On the issue, Onozulike appeared to have continued from where  the last lecture, Jacob Jari's  The Price of Art and its implication on Art Practice in Nigeria left, some months ago. He referenced Jari's argument that art sales at Nigerian auctions defy "logic" in comparative market values of artists' works.

    For Onuzulike, Arthouse and Terra Kulture-Mydrim have not done enough in their search for rare works. "It is apparent that both auction houses do not devote time and resources to scouting for rare works by living artists who are still in active production and, especially, those by emerging talents."

 His further diagnosing of the auction scene's expertise threw in what looked like a false alarm when he said "the identities of those who select works for their auctions are a closely guarded secret." But it’s a well-known fact that Arthouse, for example, always published the identity of the auction house's specialists inside the catalogues.

 .Supporting his argument about the lack of expertise in the personalities that select and value art for auctions in Nigeria, Onuzulike drew comparison with what obtains abroad in auction houses that are over a hundred years old such as Bonhams, Sotheby’s, Christie’s and other well established auctioneers. He stressed; "My research, however, shows that Nigerian auction houses do not have in-house specialists in the professional sense of “specialists”. He also stated that the auction houses are not capable of detecting forgeries.

 Onuzulike therefore stated that “operators of our art auction houses are gamblers.” He warned that “artists who submit” to the auction houses “may be lucky to find the auctions becoming ladders of career progress; others may be unlucky to find the auctions becoming veiled weapons with which they unwittingly shoot themselves in the foot.”

 Artists, art collectors, dealers and connoisseurs present at the forum, generally agreed that the auction houses have not done badly given the short history of the secondary market in Nigeria.
Art teacher, Dr Ademola Azeez noted that more energy should be expended on documentation of art, "and not just on production of art works."

  In her response to the issue of transparency and expertise, the CEO of Arhouse Contemporary, Mrs Kavita Chellaram who came in midway into the presentation disagreed with Onuzulike. She clarified that the identity of  “our specialists are well known to people because we publish their names and photographs in every auction catalogue." She also noted that the challenge of combating forgery in the art market is not peculiar to Nigerian art. "Forgeries exist all over the world, and we are trying our best to discourage such practice."

 Omooba Sehinde Odimayo, a specialist of nearly three decades experience and one of the experts in the Nigerian art auction market noted that some of Onuzulike's arguments were not fair to the evolving secondary art market in the country.

  Artist and art educationist, Dr Kunle Filani, art patron Chief Rasheed Gbadamosi, President of Society of Nigerian Artists (SNA), Oliver Enwonwu and others who contributed to the debate agreed that challenges are part of any evolving market such as Nigeria’s secondary art market. But Filani warned that "both the primary and secondary art markets must not commoditise art."
 Specifically, the convener of the forum, Prince Yemisi Shyllon cautioned that "we should applaud the starters of auctions in Nigeria." He argued that it’s unfair to compare over a hundred years of art business in Europe with 10 years of art auction in Nigeria. He added that  "Art business is never done in a hurry."

The OYASAF lecture series started in 2012 with a Wotaside Studio collaboration of Prof  Francis Ugiomoh's. On African Art And Identity Blogging: A Historical Perspective.

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