Saturday 26 April 2014

At 50, Omolayo recounts art blessings, highlights challenges of galleries

·      How six-year-old art galleries association AGAN is ‘moribund’ and new one ALONG is underway.

·      Why government should regulate art galleries

By Tajudeen Sowole
In becoming artist and art gallery owner, Biodun Omolayo has passed through diverse phases of art, in training and practice, which makes his input into the fledging Nigerian visual art scene cuts across the board.

Few days after he celebrated his 50th birthday in Lagos, recently, Omolayo shared his experience and thoughts on several aspects of art, including the challenges of being an artist who is also in the business of art gallery.  

  His outlet, Biodunomolayo Gallery, which promotes works of established and new artists, also organises workshops for children and informal art training classes for adults. The gallery has been engaging participants in mentorship for nearly a decade and is regarded as a bridge between formal art school’s end points and professional practice.

The artist and founder is also a pioneer member of Art Galleries Association of Nigeria (AGAN), a group of professionals whose activities and policy direction may make or break the prospects of Nigerian art market.

"Clocking 50 is a wonderful experience," he declared, shortly after taking a break from the supervision of one of the activities lined up to mark his golden year.  And there is a poetic narrative to being 50. "It means that, like a refined gold, one must have also gone through some moment of purification to attain the age of wisdom." Being 50, he noted,  "tempers you as well."

At a middle age, people tend to take a retrospective view of life. For Omolayo, being alive is an unquantifiable achievement. "So much still need to be done though, but I thank God for the little I have achieved. I have realised that being alive is a great achievement too; many have died in their primes. Also at 50, it is like a first half of a football game. The next 50 means so much."

At a point in life, one crucial decision could make a lot of difference, either a regret or joy. Reviewing the "first half" what crucial decision has he taken in the past that would have been done differently if he were 50 and wiser? “If I were 50 in 1992 when I took the decision to resign from a bank job and become a fulltime artist, I would not have thought differently.” He boasted that as a banker, “I never lost touch with art: during weekends, I either visited art exhibitions or stay at home, sketching and painting.”

And when he finally chose art, being self-taught was not enough. Already bagged a degree in Theatre from University of Ilorin, Kwara State, in 1986, becoming artist without formal certification, he thought, was an incomplete mission.  “After I left the bank job, I went back to school in 1993 to acquire formal education in art at Yaba College of Technology,” Lagos.

Basically, his sojourn at Yabatech, he disclosed, was to afford him the opportunity of understanding “the challenges that art students go through.” Indeed, the formal art training prepared him for his current business that include regular interaction with young graduates of art schools and interns. “For example I now receive students from different schools who come here on industrial attachment as well as fresh school leavers looking for jobs. My knowledge of the art academic environment comes into play.”
Personally, acquiring formal education, he argued “has boosted my confidence, and I don't have to feel that something is missing, even though nothing is actually missing.”

Biodun Omolayo
Nigerian art is expanding beyond the scope of the home market, and artists are seeking promotion abroad. While it sounds great that Nigerian art is making gradual steps into the international market in Europe, it does appear that local galleries are not active in this new trend of promoting Nigerian art beyond the borders. So far, Omenka Gallery and new entrant, The Space, are the two galleries, which recently took some artists to Europe.
What exactly are the challenges of galleries in Nigeria?
"As a gallery owner, I can tell you that those of us in the business are in it for the passion we have for art and not about making money. There is no way you talk about business without money, but the passion for art comes first." However, there are other important people in the business of managing a gallery who shares no passion, yet have to get paid. "The workers that a gallery owner employs don't share your passion, they have to be paid. The landlord of the building you rent for the gallery is not interested in your art passion."

And when he argued that government needs to support the art galleries, one wondered why public funds should be expended in private business. He explained: for the art galleries to meet up with the responsibility of promoting Nigerian art, government’s support is needed to face the challenges. We can't be talking of the international art market when we have not developed the home market fully. For example, I was at the Art Dubai Fair last year where I interacted with local galleries. I wanted a partnership with some galleries on how to take Nigerian artists to UAE. I was told that in UAE, the government's policy, which focuses on promoting the local artists to international level, would not allow my proposal."

Specifically, he cited the concentration of art galleries at a spot as an example of government's input. " I am sure you know that in Dubai, there is a place where the art galleries are located, maybe as part of government policy. And it works well with the economic of scale."

Perhaps Nigerian art galleries’ non-representation of artists is widening the gap of confidence between the two. "Yes, there is a mutual suspicion; lack of trust between artist and gallery. Most of the artists, particularly the young ones are impatient; not ready to wait for galleries to sell as the pace demands. During the moribund AGAN era we came together and tried to work out how to represent artists. But it did not work as the galleries were not ready to invest in young artists"

As crucial as the art galleries are to the development of art, home and abroad, there seems to be unresolved internal crisis in the professional body, AGAN. "There was no transparency in AGAN. Few members benefit from resources coming from National Gallery of Art (NGA). For example, there is a budget, only a few people know the budget and execute it. I think government should midwife the professional body of art galleries."

NGA nurturing of a professional body is even the problem of AGAN, so observers noted. Omolayo disagreed. "I am talking of regulation by government. Some of the galleries don't have functional space and only exist on papers. We can't run a true professional body that way, there should be a standard."

Currently, what looks like a parallel body, to be known as Alliance of Nigerian Art Galleries (ALONG), is being formed, and Omolayo is a member. The formation of ALONG started over a year ago, but the official announcement appears to be taking longer than expected. "We are working, but taking our time. We don't want to make the mistakes of AGAN. During the AGAN era, we were using secretariat given to us by an individual. We did not have say. But an office given by government brings neutrality of control.”

It has been observed that between art school and practice, there seems to be a disconnect, which leads to an exodus of young artists taking up non-art related jobs to survive economic challenges. Having seen both sides and interacted with young artists, Omolayo appears like a perfect resource person to shed light on the subject.

He noted that most of the students got admission into art school on a platter of gold, hence the less value placed in applying what they studied. “If you get anything easily, you may not attach value to it.”

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