Sunday 7 June 2015

Contemporary Artists from Nigeria... A view through outsiders' window

By Tajudeen Sowole

From a workshop held in Lagos nearly a year ago, courtesy of Italy-based not-for-profit organisation, Fondazione Benetton, comes Nigeria/Roots: Contemporary Artists from Nigeria, a publication that features works of over 200 artists. The project is an extension of the organisation’s global collection of specific size art in 2D, on 10x12cm format.

  Cover of the book

As much as the 'contemporary' specification or focus of the book could be taken for granted, there are indications that definition of ‘contemporary art' within the confinement of subsisting period may no longer sustain the ebullience of the creative space, in most parts of the world. Never has articulation of content been so complex in the vocabulary of art history as the word 'contemporary,' particularly in the African art space. Between ancient and modern art, there is no ambiguity; the difference is as glaring as contrasting colours. But between modern and contemporary, sometimes, the latter is applied loosely, particularly in recent documentation via books and articles in journals/newspapers as well as art exhibitions.

And as appropriating art in contemporary expression appears to be the blue-eye-boy in African art lexicon in the past few decades, the trend keeps rising, which perhaps also influenced Nigeria/Roots: Contemporary Artists from Nigeria. Published by Imago Ipunw, it's a 468-page bi-lingua (English/Italian), with a list of artists and works featured in a confined application of contemporary term.

The introductory pages by Head of Department, Graphics Design, Institute of Management and Technology, Enugu, Nigeria, Mr. Ayo Adewunmi; Moataz El Safty, founding director of EAN Group for International Artistic Cooperation, Egypt; and an Italian writer, Oriano Mabellini appear to have confined the book's contextualising of contemporaneity within the period of practice of the featured artists. Indeed, contemporary art, it has been argued elsewhere, should be more about the content being expressed in non-traditional forms, and not just the creator's focus on contents that represent the period of practice.

Clearly, the period of practice or creation of work wins the contemporaneity context of Nigeria/Roots: Contemporary Artists from Nigeria. Adewunmi, for example, in his contribution titled Contemporary Art in Nigerian Art, traces the emergence of contemporary art to the country's modernity.  He tracks the trajectory of Nigerian art from the modern period of Ana Onabolu (1882 -1963) through the Zarianists and other movements such as ulism and onaism, to conclude that the ideologies and philosophies of the modernists and post-modernists, which spurred many branches, gave rise to contemporary Nigerian art.

"Modern Nigerian art thrives and blossoms on actions and inactions, which are usually prompted by activism that has birthed stylistic studio ideologies and philosophies, which has now developed into branches upon which the contemporary artist perches."

In a contemporary Nigerian art space based on period of artists' practice, the post-modernists are crucial, so stresses Adewunmi. "Many art associations and cooperatives were founded in the late 1980s and 1990s as artists sought ways to propagate and promote their profession.” He listed such groups seeking identity as in the emerging post-modern era as “The Eye Society, comprising staff and artists graduates of the Zaria Art School, notably, Gani Odutokun, Jerry Buhari, Jari Jacob, Tonie Okpe and Mathew Ehizele. The Nogh-Nogh Group, also based in Zaria with Muazu Muhammed Sani, Kefas Danjuma, Duniya Gambo and Ken Okoli; The Pan African Circle of Artists (PACA), founded in 1991 by a group of students and staff of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, led by Krydz Ikwumesi, Kandibe Eya, Emeka Egwuibe and Cajetan Nwokedi, which had its leadership joined by Tochukwu Amano, Adewunmi, Helen Uhunmagho, Ugochukwu Smooth Nzewi, Kent Onah, and others.” Similarly, in the nation’s art hub, Lagos, quite a number of activities, Adewunmi notes, were unfolding.

“By the early 2000s in Lagos, the Culture and Creative Art Forum (CCAF) was founded by Kunle Filani, Ademola Azeez, Ademuleya Sehinde, Akin Onipede, Mike Omoige and Austin Emifonye.”

The post-modernists groups, he argues, “provided platforms for exhibitions, workshops, symposia and numerous artistic events, thereby arousing critical dialogues and art criticisms."
 Held at the Department of Creative Art, University of Lagos and Alliance Francaise, Enugu, the workshop, which produced the book, Contemporary Artists from Nigeria was coordinated by El Safty and Coordinator, Art Is Everywhere Project, Nigeria. Adewunmi. Ahead of the event, part of requirements for participants included practise "for a number of years" and showing "in not less than three verifiable professional exhibitions."

The coordinators disclosed that the workshop was originated from a five years-old passion of Mr. Luciano Benetton, the President of the Benetton Foundation who has started a collection of Artists Post Cards.  Among his collections are artists of South-American origin. The collection, according to the organisers of the workshop would further inspire Benetton Foundation, to create a large pool of “small artworks with the intention of connecting the different Art-Expressions from different Countries of the World."
 Featured in the Nigerian publication version of the Benetton Foundation are over two hundred artists, which include a mix of modernism and contemporary renditions. In fact, the works produced in traditional form with modernism characters appear more dominance. However, with artist, Kelani Abass opening the Artworks and Artists' section of the book, a flavour of contemporaneity is immediately perceived in his mixed media titled Akoni.

Nigerian coordinator of the project, Ayo Adewunmi

Some of the artists featured in the book include Akinleye Ademola, Christopher Atuba, Olusegun Jide-Ajiboye, Ben O Aku, Nwala Chibuenyi, Lilian Chizoba Pilaku, Chris Echeta and Krydz Ikwuemesi.  
  In a contribution titled A View of Imago Mundi Project in Nigeria 2014, El-Safty shares his Nigerian experience. He describes the Nigerian art space as that which has its strength in the diverse forms "distinguished from other African countries." El Safty recalls collecting Nigerian pieces during art events in Egypt few years before the Lagos workshop. Highlighting the gains of the workshop and the book, El Safty argues that it will help to project featured artists to the global art space. "The most important aspect of the project is that it will help introduce Nigerian artists to the organisers of international art events."

Giving more details on the not-for-profit texture of the foundation, the publishers state that "hundreds of Artists have donated small artworks to the Benetton Foundation and now the collection consists of about 2000 small pieces from: Australia, South Korea, Japan, India, China, U.S, South America, Kenya, Senegal, Somalia, Morocco, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Egypt."

Specifically, the Nigerian end of the tour workshop was aimed at giving “opportunity to a minimum of 210 contemporary artists” from the country. The artists were asked to create works using 10x12cm format. Later, the published works were scheduled for exhibition in October last year, in Rome, Italy as part of the foundation's African collection. More importantly, the non-commercial focus of the project was stressed ahead of the publication. "The collection under the auspices of the Fondazione Benetton has no commercial aspirations, but aims instead to unite the diversities of our world in the name of a common artistic experience."
Adewunmi studied art at Ahmadu Bello University (ABU) Zaria, Nigeria, where he obtained a BA in Industrial Design, in 1991. He holds MFA in Painting from the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. Adewunmi works with variety of mixed media, installations, photography and video. In 2005, he initiated Art is Everywhere (AIE) workshop, a waste-to-art recycling project. In 2007 the project became a mobile workshop with the aim of accessing more artists and resource materials. Adewunmi is a founding director of AAW international artists workshop 2012 for young artists.

Some of art activities of El Safty include being a member of the jury of the 20th yearly youth salon, Cairo (2009); organizer of Atelier of Alexandria at BJCEM biennale for young artist from Europe and Mediterranean; co-founder of DWAYER’s international workshop for women; and co-founder of AAW international workshop – with the curator Reem Hassan; curator of second show of Salon Gallery, Atelier’ Halls, Cairo (2008); curator of AAW international youth salon –from 2006 till 2010; and curator of POINTS1 exhibition – Dwayer group for arts and dialogue of cultures. 

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