Sunday 6 September 2015

In Lagos, Debate On Diaspora Space Supports African Artists

By Tajudeen Sowole

Appropriating African art through its Diaspora artists, which gives a perception of little creative energy from artists based on the continent, has inspired German scholar Johanna Wild to research into the matter. She shared her findings at an interactive event with a community of artists, collectors, connoisseurs and other art-related professionals in Lagos.

Visiting scholar, Johanna Wild (left); Prince Yemisi Shyllon and Mrs. Funmilayo Shyllon, shortly after the lecture

Specifically, Wild was in Lagos courtesy of Omooba Yemisi Adedoyin Shyllon Art Foundation (OYASAF) Fellowship, as the 2015 beneficiary of the yearly programme. In dissecting the visitor's research, OYASAF, through the Fellowship Interactive event tagged Beyond the Black Atlantic: Artistic Production in Lagos Today had the visitor delivering a lecture based on her research findings.

 Wild, a Ph.D. candidate at Department of Art and Art History, University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, U.S, had during the month long research visited quite a number of studios and galleries in Lagos.

In her introduction, Wild traces the creation of awareness for Contemporary African art in the west to quite a number of efforts that came from writers and curators in the 1990s to the early periods of the last decade. She, however, singled out Germany-based curator, Okwui Enwezor, as the individual who "shaped the field through his organisation of large-scale exhibitions" of African art contents.

 Ironically, Enwezor is not exactly the blue-eyed boy being celebrated across the shades of opinions; the academia cousin of mainstream art curatorial divides has issues with him. For example, Wild cited how "Enwezor’s curatorial work has been faulted for his privileging of African diaspora artists such as Yinka Shonibare over continental producers."

She noted the view of U.S.-based Nigerian art historian, Prof. Sylvester Ogbechie who argued that seeing African art through the dominant Diaspora artists trained in the U.S. or work under European art settings has imbalance that "had the calamitous effect of essentially writing continent-based African artists out of contemporary art history."
Having chosen Lagos, rightly too, as one of the hubs where the pulse of African art can be felt, Wild showed her audience slides of select Lagos-based artists' works whose concepts and appropriation of themes are no less strong, if there should be need for comparison with African Diaspora artists. 

She stressed, for example, that despite the fact of Shonibare's absence at Nigeria exhibiting circuit, apart from a lecture he gave in Lagos in 2011, "People know about his work through social media."

Curious to know how the global space interact with Lagos-based artists' contents, Wild disclosed how she arrived at the choice of Ndidi Dike and Peju Alatise for her dissertation. She hoped to "put their works in conversation" with that of Shonibare as her research progresses.

For Dike, her solo art exhibition, Waka-into-Bondage, which was part of a trilogy that opened the Centre for Contemporary (CCA), Lagos in 2007/2008, attracted the radar of Wild. The visitor found out how Waka-into-Bondage, a revisit of Trans Atlantic trade in slave, was "triggered by" the artist's visit to Badagry, a historical slave route coastal town, and on the occasion of the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade. 

 In Alatise's solo exhibition, Wrapture, which held at Art Twenty 21 in Lagos in 2013, Wild also found a space to drag Shonibare's work into the conversation.

Shade of comments came from the audience at the lecture, including Dr. Kunle Filani who argued that academics and curators of African descent in the Diaspora cannot represent the content of the continent without properly connecting with home.

As much as it is a fact that the volume of energy on the continent is grossly undermined by the kind of representation that curators and art historians in Diaspora projects to the global space, the reality is that little effort appears to be coming from home to correct the imbalance. For example, curators, gallery owners, writers, among other professionals in the field of art promotion hardly push artists' from the continent into global view. Unavoidably, the vacuum is being filled by the Diaspora efforts, based on their reach outside.

  To correct such imbalance, Shyllon, in response assured that a Journal of Art (TOJA), courtesy of OYASAF, to be launched soon "will assist in filling such vacuum."

Wild is Chair of Dr. Kirsten P. Buick, Associate Professor, Department of Art and Art History, University of New Mexico.

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