Saturday 9 August 2014

Nigerian artists, new galleries head for global art market

By Tajudeen Sowole

As the appreciation of African art continues to rise in Europe and the U.S., more Nigerian artists are seeking representation abroad, and perhaps dumping the seemingly less innovative promoters at home. Surprisingly, new galleries at home - and not the old and pioneering ones - are also falling in line by exploring the foreign markets on behalf of Nigerian artists.

Meditation (enamel on canvas, 106.6 x 72.2cm (41 15/16
x 28 7/16in), by Abraham Uyovbisere

In the last three years, an unprecedented number of Nigerian artists have been exhibited in the U.K.-based galleries. Just the new outlets at home are poised at changing the old ways of promoting art. In fact, leading the trend are three or four new galleries based in Lagos. Although the development is gradually generating some level of competition among the emerging art galleries and promoters in Nigeria, the focus, as it appears, is the international art market.

In 2011, a group show titled Small is Beautiful (Miniature Art Fair), was held at Arc Gallery, Barge Belle, Tottenham, London and showed the works of Ndidi Dike, Duke Asidere, George Edozie, Okezie Okafor, Ayoola Gbolahan and Babalola Lawson. Over 150 pieces were reportedly taken to the fair.

In a separate outings, the gallery had also shown Nyemike Onwuka’s Elegant Urban Decay, a depiction of drift from beauty to decay; Uchay Joel Chima’s Much Strings Attached, a focus on mutual relationship; and in 2011, one of the exhibited artists of Small is Beautiful, Gbolahan made his debut with Arc in a body of work titled Horizon, a rove over his native Yorubaland, in relations to thoughts on global perspective.

When the Guild of Professional Fine Artists of Nigeria (GFA) elected its second set of executive in 2012, the new leaders, headed by Abraham Uyovbisere assured that the goal of the guild would focus the international art market. Last year, GFA, courtesy of a London-based promoter, Aabru Art showed the works of select GFA members in the exhibition titled Transcending Boundaries. In Asbru, GFA appeared to have secured a representative in the U.K.

Early this year, a new group of artists whose focus was international art market also announced its entry with a show, Serendipity, held at Alexis Gallery. Victoria Island, Lagoos. It comprises if Gerald Chukwuma, Jefferson Jonah, Dominique Zinkpe, Tolu Aliki, Nyemike Onwuka and George Edozie. The artists specifically have their eyes on lifting African art into the global art space.

Though yet to get a representative gallery in Europe, the Serendipity group, noted that launching from Nigeria was crucial in getting representative gallery abroad.
"We already have one or two galleries penciled down to represent us in Europe," Chukwuma said, but did not disclose the names.

However, a new generation of art galleries in Lagos, with focus on proper representation of artists at home and abroad have been emerging in the last one and half years. Art21 at Eko Hotel and Suites, Red Door Gallery, The Space, all on the Victoria Island and Omenka Gallery, Lagos Island as well as Centre for Contemporary Art (CCA), Yaba, Lagos, have been showing traces of changes to come on the visual arts scene.

Abiodun Olaku’s GRA Extension
But why exactly is it taking so long for the galleries in Nigeria to keep pace with the increasing broader expression of the artists? Some of the old galleries always complain of inadequate funding and lack of professionalism on the part of the artists. For example, the galleries are situated in choice property areas with high cost of rents. And when artists, according to the galleries, do not play according to the rules. Indeed, it has been observed, for example, that after a gallery orgainsed exhibition for an artist, those who reap the gains, according to one gallery operators “are art speculators, collectors and auctioneers who go behind the rules to negotiate with the artist.”

For the artists, enough of remaining at a spot, in an era when the international art market is waiting, so suggested the posture of the emerging group of artists. African art, Edozie argued during the preview of Serendipity, cannot wait forever. He warned that no matter how widely collected an artist is at home, it is still not safe to exclude the international market. "We want to concentrate more on showing abroad, we cannot continue playing local champions." He faulted Nigerian galleries for what he noted as lack of focus on the international scene. Clearly, a Nigerian gallery is ruled out in the focus of the group. "Nigerian galleries are not strong abroad."

Shortly before leaving Nigeria, few months ago for his last solo exhibition Chronicles of the Enchanted World, showed for five weeks at The Gallery of African Art (GAFRA), U.K, design artist, Victor Ehikhamenor argued that Nigerian artists have not been properly managed over the decades, noting that artists from other parts of the continent who are less experienced are better promoted in Europe. Despite recent impressive performance, and perhaps dominance of Nigerian artists at auctions in the U.K, Ehikhamenor thought they deserve more. “I think the reason Nigerian artists are seeking for galleries to represent them abroad has to do with the fact that we are not getting the best from galleries here at home, whereas some young artists in South Africa and other parts of the continents are doing better in the global market.”

With the growing efforts of the new generation galleries, Nigerian artists may not remain "local champions" any more. Last year, CCA Lagos took Ndidi Dike, Kola Adekola, Taye Idahor, Emeka Ogboh and Charles Okereke to the Marker section of Art Dubai Fair. CCA exhibited with other African galleries such as Espace doual'art (Douala, Cameroon); Maison Carpe Diem (Segou, Mali); Nubuke Foundation (Accra, Ghana); and Raw Material Company (Dakar, Senegal) at a fair that had over 70 galleries from about 30 countries across the world participated.

Also, last year, Red Door Gallery, which says it has about ten artists being represented, started with Ghariokwu Lemi's Po-Lemi-Cs in London after opening in Lagos. Few months ago, another new entrant, The Space, a sister outlet of auctioneer, Arthouse Contemporary showed Sokari Douglass-Camp, Kainebi Osahenye, George Osodi, Victor Ekpuk, and Victoria Udondian at Art14 Fair, Olympus Ground,  in London:. Omenka Gallery was also in Germany, U.K. and Spain with the works of late Nigerian photographer, J.D. Okhai Ojeikere and  South Africa-based artist, Gary Stephens recently. And currently, Art21 and CCA are listed among the galleries participating at the second edition of 1:54 Contemporary in London.   

The two Lagos-based outlets are showing at 1:54 Contemporary’s second edition with quite a number of other galleries from around the world.

Photographer, Ade Adekola’s repetitive technique shown at Art Dubai Fair 2013

Such participants include Whatiftheworld (Cape Town), SMAC Art Gallery (Cape Town), Afronova (Johannesburg), Knight Webb Gallery Purdy Hicks Gallery (London), Selma Feriani Gallery (London), Primo Marella Gallery (Milan), Taymour Grahne (New York), Galerie Anne de Villepoix (Paris), (S)ITOR/ Sitor Senghor (Paris) and Voice Gallery (Marrakech).

The ongoing search for Nigeria’s bite of the growing global art market is no doubt a commendable efforts by the artists and the new generation art galleries based in Lagos. However, the future side of appropriation seems to suggest an imbalance; the disadvantage of having the best of Nigerian art being outside the country, and perhaps in the collection of foreigners that are not traceable.

The absence of a modern and contemporary art museum or gallery in Nigeria makes the cultural flight of the nation more unavoidable. And with the rise of African art market abroad via art auctions and art fairs, Nigerian artists, irrespective of status, would not resist the global openings. 

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