Saturday 14 February 2015

Insulating factors in Nigerian art market against austerity measures

By Tajudeen Sowole
Once again, the resilience of Nigerian art market faces a test of its economic relevance as the recently announced austerity measure may push art collectors into crucial choice of art buying in 2015, and perhaps in the years ahead.

Possibilities (Bronze, 157 X 176.5 cm, 2013) from Babatunde.
Economic measures that tend to limit choice of spending to 'essential needs' are not exactly strange to the Nigerian art market. From the recession years of the Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP) in the .mid 1980s through the later part of the same decade to the political unrest of the June 12 1993 era of the 1990s as well as the 2008/09 global meltdown, art collecting has proven that essential needs are relative. During each of these periods, some collectors, ironically, increased their collection just as artists churned out more works. Such behaviours only underscore the fact that art could be an essential need, ironically, in the period of economic recessions.

After several alarms were raised by sections of the private sectors over the worsening state of Nigerian economy, to which the Federal Government consistently reeled out series of denial responses, Dr Ngozi Okonjo Iweala, the Coordinating Minister for the Economy and Minister of Finance, formally made a pronouncement of admission in November 2014. "As part of the response to falling oil prices, the Medium Term Expenditure Framework (MTEF) and the Budget 2015 proposal to the National Assembly have been revised," Okonjo-Iweala stated. She explained the oil benchmarks as varied inconsistence with the budgets. "Government is now proposing a benchmark of $73 per barrel to the National Assembly compared to the earlier proposed benchmark of $78." As she prepared the minds of Nigerians for the task ahead when she said, "We must be prepared to make sacrifices where necessary,” the price of oil has since dropped further than the budget envisaged.

Beyond a mere official pronouncement of austerity measure, economists and other financial experts would  want to argue that across the board, the nation's economy was hardly out of the hard times anyway. For the Nigerian art market, its appreciation value in the last six to seven years has risen unprecedented, suggesting that the art scene would respond adequately to the austerity measure without slowing down of business activities. 

The Nigerian art market can be divided into formal outlets such as art galleries, auctions and exhibitions. The sales and other exchanges in art market that go on regularly via individual artists' studios may be loosely refer to as informal outlets. Given the fact that most artists are not represented by art galleries in Nigeria, the sales done within the studios are often shielded from formal records of art auctions and exhibitions.

Few days ago, artists and art managers such as gallery owners and dealers expressed diverse views about the effects of the new economic policy on art. A formal pronouncement of austerity measure by government, according to Kolade Oshinowo, a former President, Society of Nigerian Artists (SNA) “is always very frightening and destabilizing especially for the artists.” Oshinowo agreed that “people immediately want to re-order their priorities and the first thing they believe they can do without is art.”

But the austerity measure challenge for art has been contained severally, curator at Quintessence Gallery, Moses Ohiomokhare said. "We have had two slumps in 1973 and 1983, which opened us to new ideas,” he recalled. The new austerity measure challenge, he stated will not be any different from similar ones several decades ago.  “This is what one expects in 2015 as there will be reduction in spending." Oshinowo insisted that some collectors would “step down their activities,” while the more passionate ones keep buying art. He also warned that new economic policy discourages “potential and new collectors.”
While noting that art collecting is considered a luxury in Nigeria, particularly as in the period of anticipated effect of the drop in international oil market price, Ohiomokhare argued that art is the overall beneficiary in the devaluation of the local currency.  "However if one is able to interpret the effect of devaluation of our currency, one finds that it encourages exports of arts to other markets as you get more value for your money if they are sold abroad."

Indeed, the Nigerian art market has, subconsciously though, prepared for the sudden devaluation of the local currency. In addition to the rise in value of Nigerian art at home and in the U.K market, few Lagos-based art galleries and quite a number of individual artists have stepped up their efforts in exploring the European market in the last one year. For examples, Omenka Galleries, Art21, ArtHouse Contemporary and Centre for Contemporary Art (CCA) took some Nigerian artists to art events across Europe last year. The trips added to a yearly art auctions Africa Now, organised by Bonhams - one of Europe’s leading auction houses - which has been holding in London since 2009. But Ohiomokhare cautioned that such outlets may want to take an advantage of weaker naira to look for cheap Nigerian art. "The international market will find our art now cheaper than before the devaluation."

For artist, Emenike Ogwo, the period of austerity measure and devalued naira should bring the best out of the studios. "This is the time to be more creative so that artists have reason not to allow collectors devalue your work," the painter warned.  “Amazingly at the end of every dark tunnel there is a ray of shinning light,” Oshinowo stated, arguing that “the period is always the best time for the clever collectors to get the best works.”

With access to the Internet, artists, Ohiomokhare stressed, would be more opened to foreign market. “The net should be explored more by art dealers.” And for the local market, it is not likely to be a hard nut to crack for long in 2015, he predicted. “My expectation is that the art market will open up in the second quarter of the year after a lot of adjustments must have been made and one is able to see the direction of the change." Oshinowo, a former art teacher of over three decades and currently in full-time studio practice, said courage is the motivating word. He urged artists to “braze up for the challenges ahead by being prudent with their finances and keep their creative activities alive,” as well as “maintain their professional ethics and bring out their best at this period,”

Being the only sub-division of the creative sector that is hardly profiled based on racial boundary, the visual arts have the potential to earn more foreign currency than other products of The Arts. And that Nigerian artists have been dominating the contemporary African art market scene in Europe of the last few years suggests that the economic situation at home may be an additional boost to further exporting of art from the country.  For examples, sculptor, Bunmi Babatunde recorded his world auction sale with Possibilities,  (ebony wood, 255 x 16.5 x 42cm, 2014) sold for (£31,250) at the last Bonhams Africa Now auction, in London, last year. Much earlier, 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.

Last year, works of Sokari Douglas-Camp, Victor Ekpuk, Kainebi Osahenye, George Osodi and Victoria Udondian were the face of Nigerian art as Lagos-based Arthouse Contemporary joined a global gathering with R-evolution, a stand at Art14 Fair, in the U.K. Recall that after 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. A year after, GFA, courtesy of a London-based promoter, Aabru Art showed the works of select members in the exhibition titled Transcending Boundaries. In Aabru, GFA appeared to have secured a representative in the U.K.
And when artists were not going under a group, individual efforts also came in as well.  Last year, a solo exhibition Chronicles of the Enchanted World, by design artist, Victor Ehikhamenor showed for five weeks at The Gallery of African Art (GAFRA), U.K. But despite recent impressive performance, and perhaps dominance of Nigerian artists at auctions in the U.K, Ehikhamenor thought they deserved more.

                      Adire Hybrid a mixed media by Victoria Udondian shown at Art14, London.

However, the other side of the sword is not so pleasant as it also means that the best of modern contemporary Nigerian art may be heading abroad, most likely in the collection of private individuals. 

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