Saturday 19 April 2014

'Masters Series'…unchaining national collection for broad viewing.

By Tajudeen Sowole
Bringing modern and contemporary Nigerian art into wide viewership via a non-governmental initiative enlivens shrinking popularity of the country’s national collection. 

Titled Masters Series, it's a group exhibition of select works by renowned artists from the collection of the National Gallery of Art (NGA), currently showing till May 11, 2014 at Red Door Gallery, Victoria Island Lagos.

 Sculpture titled Yemoja by Abayomi Barber.
When the exhibition opened on Tuesday, the presence of visitors such as the members of the corporate sectors, expatriates, even some of the masters radiated a new aura that brought freshness into the decades-old collection.

Without an adequate gallery space, the vast collection acquired over 50 years period are housed inside a section of the national theatre building and in the stores of the NGA, at the Abuja office as well as some outstations across the country. Over the decades, the dwindling popularity of the National Theatre edifice, coupled with the rise of Lagos and Victoria Islands as the hubs of art have drastically reduced human traffic who visit the gallery space of the national collection.

From Abayomi Barber's sculptural impression of Yoruba water goddess, Yemoja, mounted at he immediate entrance of Red Door, to the cubism paintings by Yusuf Grillo, pencil portraits of legendary theatre artist, Duro Ladipo and 'Picasso' by Theresa Lucy Akinwale as well as Ladi Kwali's mastery of pottery among other works of 27 masters on display indicate all is not exactly lost despite Nigeria's unexplained lack of a national gallery of art space. In the next three weeks or more, the two floor Red Door gallery where the works are mounted will continue to serve as a window through which Nigeria's history and rich artistic expression are viewed, most likely, by those who never saw the collections.

And for those who are familiar with some of the collections, it could just be refreshing seeing the works at a new space outside the NGA environment. Ahead of the opening, director at Red Door Gallery, Bola Asiru assured that "many of the works on display will bring back nostalgic feelings amongst many people who have not viewed these classic pieces in decades."

He disclosed that the gallery, which made its entry into the Lagos art scene late last year has “a strategic collaboration with the NGA," to hold what he described as a "landmark exhibition."

It was quite an unprecedented gathering of masters under one roof, outside the confinement of the NGA. Some of the other works on display include a sculpture The Academicians by Grillo, Man of the People‟ by El Anatsui as well as paintings and sculptures by Prof Ben Enwonwu, Ehrabor Emokpae, Gani Odutokun and Ben Osawe.

Other featured artists are Uzo Egonu, Tayo Adenaike, Sina Yusuf, Solomon Wangboje, Abiodun Olaku, Odita Udechukwu, Obiora Udechukwu, Muraina Oyelami, Kolade Oshinowo, Josseph Ajiboye, Jimoh Buraimoh, JD Akeredolu, Gani Odutokun, Haig David West, dele jegede, Bruce Onobrakpeya, Ben OsaweAmos Odion, Ablade Glover and Akinola Lasekan.

A section of the visitors during the opening of Masters Series
The last time a select group of masters were shown, it was not from the national collection. Organised by Mydrim Gallery, Ikoyi, but on display at Terra Kulture, Victoria Island, Lagos in 2007, it was a also a show confined as Living Masters.

Apparently, the Red Door-NGA organised Masters Series is unprecedented. Asiru argued that the partnership "is momentous because it is the first time that a private gallery will collaborate with the NGA to exhibit works of Masters on a large scale." He explained that the show stresses the Red Door policy of adding value to the art and culture sector. "The collaboration is part of our policy to make the space not just a commercial gallery, but add other values."

Regular showing of the vast collection of NGA appeared to have been clouded or incapacitated by inadequacy of space and proximity to hub of art appreciation. However, the challenges of space, has not exactly stopped the NGA from showing the works, curator at NGA, Lagos station Mrs Okoroma Ekene explained. Speaking through her representative Emeka Odiari during the preview, Ekene disclosed that NGA mounts new set of works in every six month inside the National Theatre complex. She added that the collaboration with Red Door Gallery is expanding the scope of such exhibition to include the private sector. Asiru insisted that the gallery’s “philosophy as an organization is to celebrate those things which are positive and great about Nigeria and Africa as whole. The global art community is increasingly excited about African fine art and it is critical for Africans to also celebrate their heritage and be excited about the great men and women who have left a legacy for the next generation of art enthusiasts and collectors.”

Indeed the aesthetic, cultural and education value of the works selected for the Masters Series speak volume of the broad benefits to the viewing public. For example, a painting titled Police. Brutality rendered in a burlesque expression and dated 1980, explains the long history of the recurring abuse of power by members of the Nigerian security men.

Also, Nigeria's colonial era under British rule is recalled in a portraiture, Nigerian Soldier Under Colonial rule by Lasekan, dated 1978.

And for scholars who may want to study the elongated and dance periods of Enwonwu, works such as Ghana Dance (1975), African Dance (1973)! Dance Form (1981) and Negritude may be of useful resources. In fact, Negritude, which is one of the most repeated series of Enwonwu is perhaps very crucial given the origin of the theme. It has a link to a global gathering of art and culture professionals of black descents in the late 1950s, of which the artist participated.

The Director-General of NGA, Abdullahi Muku who wrote Foreword of the catalogue noted that “staging of The Masters Series, is not only a timely celebration of Fine Arts in Nigeria, it is the celebration of those wonderful creative brains that produced the works as well.”

He argued that the partnership “is not a coincidence,” and cited government’s policy of Public Private Partnership (PPP). “This collaboration derives from the Government policies that give fervency to the synergy and productivity of PPP (Public Private Partnership).”

CEO Nigeria Stock Exchange, Oscar Onyema (left); CEO Red Door Gallery, Bola Asiru; and Director General of the National Gallery of Art, Abdullahi Muku, at the Masters Series opening night.

Muku also wrote that the Masters Series comes at a period when Nigeria is still celebrating her centenary. “The richness of Nigerian Art, as an all-important documentation of many spheres of the nation, and as evident in the works of Nigeria’s all-time greats in Nigerian Art, predetermines a rich, deep, and colourful heritage deserving of communal celebration. Indeed, Nigeria is in the mood of celebration, relishing the fruitfulness of her 100 years of amalgamation that began in 1914. The centenary celebration has overwhelmed the nation with pomp, pageantry and razzmatazz – all of which will continue, for a long time, to serve as mementoes and memorabilia of sweet reminiscences.”

Parts of Muku’s texts stated: “This exhibition of masterpieces by revered Nigerian masters, which is the Red Door Art Gallery’s maiden staging of The Masters Series, is not only a timely celebration of Fine Arts in Nigeria, it is the celebration of those wonderful creative brains that produced the works as well. The show, therefore, is a salute to creativity. It is an acceptable traditional homage to the sages of artistic creativity in Nigeria. It is an outpouring of libation to the gods of creativity and to the fertility of creative heritage, the masterpieces that are sourced directly from the National Collection.”

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