Wednesday 30 September 2020

Against suspicion, curators struggle in post-independence Nigeria

'Fabric-scrappers' (textile, acrylic on canvas, dated 2011) by Victoria Udondian.

DURING 60 years of post-independence Nigeria, curatorial practice was hardly active in mainstream exhibition circuits. Strangely too, some artists in Nigeria, still do not agree that artistic presentation requires critical input from a professional not involved in the creation of their art; they view curators through the prism of suspicion. 

As Nigeria marks its 60th independence on Thursday, October 2020 — leading to third decade of the 21st century — the behavioural texturess of some artists in the past 20 years, represented two generations of reluctance in accepting the crucial role of a curator in managing creative contents of art exhibition. In post-independence Nigeria of the last century, curatorial practice wasn't much noticed beyond the confine of state-owned museums and galleries. But in the last 20 years, the increase in the number of independent curators, slowly though and against suspicion, has been energised by the growing number of art events.

For most Nigerian artists who either had solo or participated in group exhibitions during the last century, and uptill ten years ago,  curatorial practice was seen as intercepting an artist's creative flow in self-expressions. The suspicion of adjurating artists in creative direction, had slowed the  growth of curatorial practice. Some artists, mostly in the commercial practice in Lagos, keep arguing that curators "interfere and obstruct freedom of presentation of art.”

It may appear strange that the role of a curator in presentation of artistic contents is still a debate in 21st century, but that’s a reality of the Nigerian creative environment. Quite a number of art exhibitions, from across top echelon of artists, either in group or solo, were organised without inputs of curators, during the last two decades. From either the catalogues of the exhibitions or newspaper review sources, lack of curatorial inputs were glaringly exposed.

The energy of art exhibitions, in numerical strength, no doubt increased in Lagos and Abuja during the periods in review. But less than three, out of every ten art exhibitions held during the period, were actually curated.

When does curating takes place? As art vocabulary meant to express management of artistic contents for broad understanding and communication, curating should not be a subjectivity or relativity argument. If one has to surrender to the argument that every art exhibition and gathering of critical appreciation such as  Artist Talks or similar fora, is presumed as having curatorial contents, whether or not a formal curating prefix is attached, then the entire professionals of curators spread across the world are practising in parasitic illusion. Such assertion, I think should be antiquated with cave painting, to say the least. In fact, not recognising the importance of content management expertise in art events also suggests that curatorial disciplines as a career in art academic acquisitions is a waste of human capacity.

However, the reality has proven curatorial expertise to be very important in managing the contents of either art exhibition or gathering of art professionals and enthusiasts for critical motives. / Perhaps, what is most likely to be a subject of debate as art in Nigeria goes into the next decades of the 21st century, is whether or not an academic qualification in formal training is required to be a curator. 

Also debatable is whether curating could take place through the same eyes that create the works for exhibition. For example: should exhibiting artist be the curator of their own exhibition? These are issues peculiar to the Nigerian art space, the commercial appreciation area, specifically. 

In a contemporary setting, generally, across regions of the world, the curator manages the presentation of the works. Within the context of a focused theme, the curator expands the desire of the artist for broad communication to the viewing public. The curator is therefore not seen as an exigency support that comes into the presentation of an exhibition or art event, only at the point of execution. 

While the artist creates the works, the curator also makes thematic input in supporting the artistic contents ahead of presentation. Most often, studio visit by the curator also helps the teamwork for better articulation of the central themes. Such studio visit by the curator should not be misconstrued to be refractory or interference in the artist's process of creating the works. 

From all indications, it appeared that presentation of artistic contents, in most spaces across Nigeria, during the past six decades, innocently, lacked curatorial inputs. Between the entry point of the 21st century, until few years ago, quite a number of artistic presentations still lacked inputs of curators.

Contents gathered from select reviewed art exhibitions and others through their catalogues revealed that curating was still not fully accepted in Nigeria.

Catalogue of 'Diversity' group art exhibition, 2007.

In 2002, Thoughts & Symbols, an exhibition of sculptures by Veronica Otigbo-Ekpei, at National Museum Onikan, Lagos seemed to Havelock no curatorial input. According to the catalogue of the exhibition, the published texts included 'Foreword' by Pat Utomi, director Lagos Business School; 'Introduction' from Pascal Letellier, Director, French Cultural Centre, Lagos; 'Thoughts & Symbols' by Abayomi Barber, Department of Creative Arts, University of Lagos; and 'Critic' written by Peter Cunliffe-Jones of AFP, Lagos Bureau Chief. No curatorial note or statement included in the exhibition catalogue.

Quite a number of art exhibitions during the same decade continued on similar behavioural patterns. In 2006, Mufu Onifade-led Ara Studio showed a group exhibition titled Araism Movement, at Harmattan Workshop Gallery, Victoria Island, Lagos. The show, which launched the ‘Araism Movement’ artists featured Olaniyi Omojuwa, Tope Oguntuase, Dotun Popoola, Abiola  Akande and Jonathan Ikpoza. As landmark, (at least to the members of the movement) as the exhibition was, its seemingly lack of curator, perhaps, aligned with the perception then that curatorial input was a mere academic fulfillment.

Apart from a review themed 'Araism: And the Movement is Born' written by Onifade, another literary input in the catalogue of the exhibition came from Kehinde Adepegba who wrote 'Araism in the context of Art Movements in Nigeria'. There was nothing to suggest, at least, a self-curate effort in the catalogue.

The two art exhibitions cited here that, most likely, lacked curatorial inputs represented widespread attitudes in presentation of art exhibitions throughout the first decade of 21st century. Other exhibitions  like Diversity, which featured works by Duke Asidere, Olu Amoda, Ben Osaghae, Ebong Ekwere, Gerry Nnubia, Ndidi Dike, Otasowie Agbonkonkon, Ogbemi Heymann and Peju Alatise, shown on 20-24 May 2007 at Terra Culture, Victoria Island, Lagos; Memories, a solo by Kolade Oshinowo exhibited February 2008 at SADP Gallery, Yaba College of Technology, (Yabatech), Lagos; October Rain 2009, at National Museum, Onikan, Lagos; and Richardson Ovbiebo's The Forms I Heard in September 2011, at White Space, Ikoyi, Lagos, were also caught in similar net of lack of specific curatorial inputs. Again, lack of statement or note from a curator, in each of the exhibition catalogue of the nentioned events suggests that, technically, there were no curatorial input.

For each of the exhibitions cited, among others, the host gallery, supposedly, had curators, whose input should have reflected in the catalogues, if indeed any curating existed. In art parlance, it is extremely rare for a curated space not to be so represented in documentation, specifically, in the catalogue of the exhibition. The catalogue or brochure of exhibitions, as perceived in visual culture parlance, is an extension of the presentation, even years or decades after the physical event.

The aforementioned exhibitions confirmed that most art galleries in Nigeria then and till date, serve as mere venue and not space designed as creative windows to promote artists' works. However, the entry of Centre for Contemporary Art (CCA), Lagos, founded by Bisi Silva strengthened curatorial adventure intervention in Nigeria's art environment. Silva  (May 29, 1962- February 12, 2019), who been an observer of the Nigerian art scene, launched curatorial discipline-focus of CCA with a trilogy art exhibitions that featured works of Ghariokwu LemI, Ndidi Dike and George Osodi. Each, in solo exhibition, had the CCA emphasised curatorial discipline as core of its focus, among others. 

On several occasions, CCA had hosted some international events of curators from Africa and other parts of the world. For example, Silva had, through the CCA platform, inspired some young curators in Nigeria.

As the 21st century advanced onto its second decade with so much energy in art contents, curatorial input was eventually on the increase. In contrast to the immediate pasts, more exhibitions, at least, had 'curator' prefix attached to them, even if some of them were meant to merely fall inline with the contemporary trend.

Whichever way, artists who still hold tight to self-help in presentation of their exhibition should, by now accept the reality that creative enterprise is unfriendly to rigidity: curatorial input into art event has come to stay in the lexicon of visual culture. Either through commercial galleries, critical art appreciation spaces, or non-facility outlets, more curators emerged on the Nigerian art landscape of the second decade of 21st century than ever before. Sinmidele Adesanya, Moses Ohiomokhare, Azu Nwagbogu, Burns Effiom,  Jeff Ajueshi, Sandra Mbanefo Obiago, Jumoke Sanwo, Ovie Omatsola, Ora Ataguba, Adenrele Sonariwo, Patty Chidiac-Mastrogiannis, Winifred Okpapi, Ronke Akinyele, Ugoma Adegoke, Caline Chagoury Moudaber, Ugonna Ejiogu, Tayo Ogunbiyi, Hana Omilani, Wunika Mukan, among others, are either independent curators or working for spaces not attached to government-owned museums.

Some of the emerging curators on the Nigerian art scene got formal training in curatorial discipline while others learnt on the job over the years.

With expanding consciousness in the years ahead, the patterns in curating of art exhibition may also include widespread self-help.  The self-help pattern of curating provides artist to be curators of their exhibition. Self-help curating is not new, but in the past, artists who 'curated' their shows had no such indications, either in catalogue or newspaper review documentation of the events.

 -Tajudeen Sowole is a Lagos-based Art Advisor.

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