Now that the party is winding down, can we tell ourselves some truth? By now, we should see the smoke clearing and the noise of being part of the next big thing on global art stage subsiding.

It was no ordinary hype that art and artists from Nigeria and its diaspora over the past few years gained lots of attention in the media and at international art events. The recognition opened opportunities for some and, for others, it translated into commercial success at local and international auctions and exhibitions. By 2016, art became the trend in Lagos and especially caught on among young people on social media. With that, sponsorship started trickling in from unusual corners, which certainly was not the case four odd years ago.

Although, this progress is commendable, and it is a great thing that art from Nigeria is experiencing greater following and indeed witnessing a commercial boom (which is, however, under threat in the current economic situation), the same, unfortunately, cannot be said of the quality of output. Aside from a relatively small number of artists who are innovative, consistent in the quality of their work and in the depth of subjects explored; a large part sadly still come out flat and less stimulating. 

Most artistic products remain in basic forms, barely rising above the realms of perfecting lines and literal representations of the environment. For the most part, we have portraits with near blank faces, women at owanbes, sisi ekos, street scenes, marketplaces, mother and child, rooftops, and lots of similar figurative art that say nothing. 

While art is a physical product that is to be sold and collected, it is still expected to carry some energy and intensity that will create emotions when it is encountered. Like music, art is experienced within, and for this simple reason, it can not be empty. Beyond decorating walls, art has a role and purpose. I dare say that this element of purpose is somewhat missing in most art showcased in Nigeria today. A great picture is good, but should it remain at just being a great picture? 

With the international media and the recent hype gradually shifting focus to other countries on the continent, there is room for us to see clearly and question what we are producing. Some keen observers are already wondering why there are so many fine lines and empty artistry. Where they once praised us, they are beginning to think we are boring and unadventurous. If you look at our society, you will also wonder why there is a disconnect between the environment and the art. Or perhaps, you will wonder why there is more focus on some particular areas of our lives. 

When one walks into an art space, the pictures on the wall are far from certain important realities. The society is in pain but our art smiles and there are ‘slay’ queens everywhere. Are we going to claim all these ‘pretty’ works are for us to escape the harsh realities of life? Or did the pretentiousness or despondency of the general society also slipped onto the canvass, the ideal place for reality and truth? Really, how are we able to breathe around this pretense? 

What is the role of the art in a corrupt system? Can art thrive without engaging its society? A society where almost nothing works properly, people die daily because of neglect and greed… hello… this is not just in northern Nigeria!!! Retiring civil servants are denied gratuity, some are told there is no money or the federal government has ‘borrowed’ it. The plight of pensioners has remained a topic in the news for some years now. Girls are being raped and kidnapped. There are no jobs. More hungry people are on the streets. Small businesses are suffocating from high costs of running. We have an absentee president. The neuropsychiatric hospitals are admitting more patients than ever in the last ten years. The list goes on.

As exaggerated as it sounds, look around you then look at the works in the galleries you visit; how much of it is reflective of your social realities? How often are you inspired and see your hidden experiences reflected? How often does the art you see at art centres engage you, leading to further conversations about your lived experiences? Where are the punches and critical reflections on the conditions in the society? Where are the site-specific, functional works and collaborative interventions? Where are the partnerships with other artistic disciplines?

A country in recession – social, political, economic — cannot be a happy one! Indeed, what is the role of art at this time?

For a time like this, we need art that is relevant. We need art that speaks to the people and on behalf of the people. Part of the manifesto of the iRep International Documentary Film Festival this year is one that the visual arts community can borrow from. The manifesto demands “a cinema culture that deepens democracy, advocates responsibility, elevates accountability, defends human rights and freedoms, and exposes the vestiges of disease, poverty, and illiteracy.”

Please note that there are some artists doing these already, but they are few. They are very few but they stand out. They stand out because hard work, ingenuity, honesty and boldness are hard to hide. Although, after some time they become tired of the mediocrity that is the Nigerian space and end up in Europe and America. This happens for a number of reasons. One of which is, there are very few collectors patronizing their works locally and we know that patronage goes a long way in a system where there are no government grants for the arts. They also move away because there are no adequate resources and necessary technical support to produce the ideas that will challenge the status quo. Others who do not relocate manage to deal with the abject situation to produce relevant and meaningful pieces, but many artists seem to retreat to the little they know and what is safe. Hence the repetitious geles, the markets, the Lagos street scenes, the Durbar horsemen and the beautiful artworks that say nothing to the mind.

Of course, the problem of the visual artist extends to the writers, critics, and curators too. I am not pleading myself free. Critical writing is as scarce as quality art. Only a few art writers engage intensely. We pat artists on the back and join in the chorus of ‘weldone’, ‘you are too much’, ‘grease to your elbow’ and other praise-singing gibberish. Often, inexperienced writers who are not really interested in the arts, to begin with, are sent to cover exhibitions. I have attended press briefings where supposedly trained journalists ask ridiculous questions on sponsorship instead of the arts they were supposed to write on. The end result is too often a copy-and-paste review of the artist’s statement or curatorial notes.

Not many write genuinely about an exhibition in Lagos. You are either hiding your true reaction to something uninspiring or overpraising the one that manages to outshine the average. Most art writing lack engagement/dialogue with the works: what does it say to you, what is the artist saying and how does it fit into a wider context? Is the work relevant and in what context? When a writer eventually manages to critique and questions, in true Nigerian fashion, he or she is attacked and not the message. You will be told that you are discouraging artists; that you are frustrated (even with this write-up, I will be judged of course), and so on.

My only plea is let us confront these problems now before discernible observers/critics start to point and laugh at us from outside. There is no better time than now to make our art relevant, true, and great again.

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Art Featured: Victor Ehikhamenor, Pensioner, 2017