Prior to the opening of Art X Lagos, there was so much buzz unaccustomed to art events in Lagos. For many like me, it was an opportunity to witness firsthand an international fair in the same city that I live in. I remember a friend, also a contemporary art lover, describing it as a typical trade fair but with only artworks from different galleries and artists on display for sale.
Unable to visualize what this would look like, I took assurance in the previous successful art events curated by the artistic director Bisi Silva who was also the artistic director for the 10th edition of the Bamako Biennale of African Photography. It was acclaimed successful in spite of the upheavals in Mali at the time.
As expected, Art X opened with a VIP only preview show at the Civic Center on Victoria Island in Lagos. The center is a popular event place for hosting high society weddings, corporate events, and musical concerts. For a full weekend, Art X redefined the venue by transforming it into a cultural center bringing together the art crowd, people from entertainment, mainstream culture and the media sectors.
On the ground floor by the entrance was one of the specially curated projects ‘In My Garden, There are many Colours’ by Ngozi Omeji. It was an installation made from cut up rubber slippers in different colours and layers to form a horizontal bed held together by threadlike strings. Strategically positioned to capture the attention of visitors entering the building, it promises what to expect as you advance to the exhibition floor and other display areas.
The exhibition floor was a maze of sorts, paving way here and there to gallery booths, curated projects and spaces for live art. The floor was used impressively and a map was provided to guide visitors through the maze. An artwork stands at almost every turn to be encountered.
There was a tributary show for J.D. Okhai Ojeikere (1930-2014) showing his monochrome photographs. A piece titled ‘Untitled (HGO 541-05) – 2005 stands out. It is the portrait of a woman showing her side view and an elaborate head gear. For many familiar with his work, this would be a no surprise piece as he was known for exploring hairstyles and head gears.
It was interesting to see galleries from Nigeria and other countries represent African artists from South Africa to Ghana. Amongst them were works by Jeremiah Quarshie, William Kentridge, Barthelemy Toguo, Kudzanai Chiurai, Amadou Sanogo, and Bright Ackwerh. The independent artists shown were all Nigerians – Victor Ehikhamenor, Ade Adekola, and Obi Okigbo. There were fourteen galleries and six independent studios in total. Some of the Nigerian artists exhibited were Rom Isichei, Alimi Adewale, Sokari Douglas Camp, Ola-Dele Kuku, Kainebi Osahenye, Tayo Quaye, Taiye Idahor, Gerard Chukwuma and George Osodi.
Emerging artists also shared the spotlight at Art X. To encourage and promote budding visual artists, a special platform was given to them for recognition and visibility in the form of a competition. The top four finalists were exhibited at the fair. One of the four artists, Dipo Doherty, has consistently gained attention in 2016. His selected work, which I find unusual, is a mixed media photograph with systematically arranged burnt yellow rulers. Unfortunately, he did not win as another artist Patrick Akpojotor was announced as the winner at the opening ceremony. Akpojotor’s winning piece, a charcoal drawing on paper, has a multiple face man wearing a hat. It shows off the young artist’s mastery of complicated strokes and deft use of geometry and angles. Another young artist worthy of note is Stacey Okparavero featured at the Art X Live performance. She is hip, fun and experimental.
The Art X Talk was largely an important part of the art fair. For people whose interest in art and curating is only just beginning, it was the right place to find answers to questions like ‘how are artworks sold?’ and ‘who are the collectors?’. The place of art in the Nigerian economy are some of the many issues addressed through a wide range of discourse sessions curated by Bisi Silva. It was impressive to see art masters, El Anatsui and Bruce Onobrakpeya, as part of the 30 speakers of artists, curators, art patrons, collectors and media entrepreneurs. The forums had high attendance including students who found it useful and informative.
Karo Akpokiere’s life-size colouring wall was another interesting and interactive addition to the fair. Guests were encouraged to pick a spot on the wall to explore their artistic side using colour pens and markers. Not sure if this was deliberately targeted at children as many children were seen mostly in this section. Kids were generally a big part of the Art X experience and it was exciting to see them engage the art and the artists present alike. On two occasions, I saw parents with their kids explore the fair with curiosity. One of them had his daughter estimate the possible price of an art piece based on the work detail and artist’s popularity, who interestingly, the child was familiar with. These types of engagements and interactions are important for “catching them young”, and the future of art patronage in Nigeria.
With Nigeria’s current economic situation and a recession going deeper than presumed, one may question the timing of the art fair and the possibilities of sales. Who will buy at the fair?
A fair should ordinarily attract both local and international buyers and collectors, and in turn, contribute to the economy of that country on a measurable scale. It was evident that the galleries prepared for such impact and exchange as prices were available in both Naira and Dollar. But, it remains unclear what percentage of works were sold. Gallerists and booth representatives were generally reluctant to give numbers and even the organizers are yet to respond to an inquiry on the commercial success of the art fair. However, the general feedback was positive and the only number given so far shows over 5000 visitors attended.
For Tony East from Goodman Gallery, “it was an incredible thing for Nigeria, a good pedestal to take off from and he was happy to have been part of the foundation that will attain further growth.” For Victor Ehikhamenor who was equally excited to be part of the show, he points out that “it was only a beginning”.
Going by the turnout at this first outing of Art X and recent developments, the following inferences can be made about the contemporary art scene in Nigeria: Art is gaining popularity amongst young ‘near middle class’ Nigerians, and contemporary art is the new cool. In a city crazy about trends, many people are getting on board. Whichever way you choose to see this, it is a good development when compared to the little attention art has received in the past. In schools, more students will embrace art courses knowing that there is a place for them on the food chain. More corporate businesses will pay attention and invest in the local art market.
Overall, Art X was a satisfying and enlightening experience. Like the exhibitors have said, it is no doubt a sign of better things to come.