Saturday 4 July 2015

How Tantua's Afro Pop Art Blends With Contemporaneity

By Tajudeen Sowole
 The common phrase that suggests 'reinventing the wheel' as unnecessary adventure appears more salient in the field of creating art. Not even the energy of contemporaneity can make much difference in creating any 'never seen before art.'  However, the fear that some postmodernism styles or movements could, in the future, fade into the wind of contemporary contents cannot be dismissed. For pop art - a movement of postmodernism – which recently acquired a new African tone in Diseye Tantua's Afro Pop Art, the resilience is unshaken, the artist assures.

Diseye Tantua, in his studio, at Port Harcourt

Every artist has to create an identity, which clearly informs Tantua's Afro Pop Art style that surfaced on the Nigerian art scene some years ago. In less than a decade, Tantua's Afro Pop Art, a derivative
from the mid-1950s movement of popular culture imagery in art, which was later made more famous by late American artist, Andy Warhol, has made quite a loud impact on the Lagos art space courtesy of the Port Harcourt, River State based-artist.

  Generally, every genre or period of art has a tradition – a widely known look or texture - of identity that exists for decades or centuries. But contemporaneity is changing the face of art across movements, genres or periods, particularly in the painting family, of which pop art belongs. How resilient is pop art in maintaining its tradition in contemporary African context? 

"Pop art is very much practised internationally and still gets attention because of its child-like simplicity and colours," Tantua says in a chat online. "What I have done with mine, which was coined 'Afro-Pop Art' by Tam Fiofori, back in 2008-2009 for my solo exhibition at Signature Gallery, was to fuse pop and urban art."

His work breaks visual arts tradition with ‘one-liner’ inscription in mostly Pidgin English, "giving what I do a unique presentation." He stresses that his kind of pop art is aimed at "uplifting urban art to a higher platform with technique, style and class, so that it stands out in international space."

With such a close gap, perhaps common defiance in breaking tradition, between his art and contemporary texture, the line of identity could be blurred. But resilience of pop art, particularly in his kind of African flavour, he says, is a goal, though not yet with a definite direction. "I can't currently say how far it will go but I am still on course with it."

He recalls starting experimental effort with pop art, saying, "My romance with pop art is just an experiment of moving our traditional/ urban art into a modern space - making it contemporary for the times we are in." He insists that the generation that is excited about contemporary content will also drive the future of pop art. "I believe it is fast growing in the minds of this generation and I hope for the ones to come." 

Apart from the fact that most art from Africa - in the post-Ancient era derive their philosophy from western ideals, the marketing and promotion platforms have also shifted to the west recently. In fact, Nigerian artists are increasingly seeking representation outside the country, particularly of art galleries based in U.S and Europe. Tantua, whose work in recent times has made quite some bold statements at art exhibition and auction spaces in Lagos, is one of the few artists from Nigeria who have secured foreign gallery representations.

As much as the prospect is high in taking a Nigerian artist onto the international art market space via foreign gallery representation, there are disadvantages that need to be factored into the partnership. Abroad, tracking works of foreign artists for future provenance may be difficult just as non-involvement of the local galleries in Nigeria in most of the international representation appears inadequate. The local galleries, it has been observed, have better information in provenance from which the foreigners can tap.

Indeed, the trend about gallery representation abroad goes beyond individual artists in Nigeria. A group like GFA is also seeking representation by galleries abroad. Why are the artists not taking local galleries along? Tantua urges galleries, curators, historians and art critics to play their roles in documenting, promoting and selling of art. But, his worries: "The local galleries are totally concerned with sells and profit! This is why professional bodies like the GFA came together to say: 'What we do should be given a higher platform." 

So far, Guild of Professional Fine Artists of Nigeria (GFA), of which Tantua became a member last year is, arguably, the only professional group that appears to be pushing for international representation via regular art exhibtions in Europe. However, ahead of his membership of GFA, Tantua had, three years ago shown in U.S and France, courtesy of foreign representation. The shows: Paris - Lagos -The Art Of Diseye Tantua at Galerie Teodora, Paris; and Beautiful House U.S. in North Carolina.” His experience as regards having gallery representation abroad is something to share, more importantly for an artist who spreads his identity between Nigeria and Ghana.  "My personal contracts as an artist represented by galleries in France and U.S gives me the opportunity to focus on what I want to do and experiment on things I wish to do in future." For him, it's not all about escaping the hostile economic situation at home. "I don't paint to sustain my bills; I work to satisfy my passion.”

One of his Afro Pop Art works.
With the land mines buried in the much hyped globalization - from which art and culture is tapping - the fear that African art or art from Africa is vulnerable to loosing its identity in efforts to compete at the global market deserves a concern. "African Art or art from Africa is not going to loose it's identity at all," Tantua is emphatic. "With the coming of new mediums and technique, African artists express themselves better; the same story in more familiar clothes. This does not change their message and uniqueness but attracts a wider audience."  

As Art from Africa is getting more spaces at international events, the excitement may just turn out to be a short-live experience.  For example, art from Nigeria had once gained some grounds in the west with Osogbo breed of artists. The remnants of that era are still strong back home, but currently, it appears not as strong at the international market. "Contemporary African art can still make impart at international events and sustain itself; more artists based in Africa are expressing themselves internationally with western mediums." He argues, "Even with traditional ideas, works are done using western techniques and presentation."
Tantua is one of the non-regular names or non-old masters who have benefitted from the secondary art market.  In his assessment of the auction art market in Nigeria after seven years of consistent sales and as regards the prospects of artists, he notes that the change brought to the country by the auctions has been extended overseas, and benefits African artists in general. The advantage, he says, is that "more artists are now recognised for what they do and are introduced to international markets through the exposure the auction houses bring."  The market, he explains, "also wakes the consciousness of art lovers, art collectors, artist and students alike."

As crucial as documenting art is to the uplifting of art from Africa, not much attention has been given to it, at least from the art historians, curators and others in the management of art. The growing vacuum drags artists into self-documentation. For Tantua, he is joining the train. "I am currently working on a coffee table book." Details, he says will be coming soon.
Six years after his last solo art exhibition, Look and Laugh at Signature Gallery, in Lagos, the next attempt, hopefully, comes before the end of 2015.  

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