A New Phase of Art in Nigeria

2018 is the year after all things Art in Lagos and yes; contemporary Art in Nigeria will never be the same. With the demise of two important stalwarts of the Arts, the rise and rise of El Anatsui, the appearance of ‘new’ artists with training in other things to challenge the status quo; with a new patronage of Art by Ambode’s government and a fading away of yellow buses, with Sotheby’s first African Art auction happening and markedly starting an international scramble for contemporary African art, with Lagos hosting a second edition of West Africa’s biggest art fair, with the opening of the first major Contemporary Arts Museum in Cape Town; and a significant body of non-figurative artworks being sold, of installation and performance art becoming an area of interest and artists building their art spaces and usurping the position of the hitherto non-existent middlemen in their practice – with all these and more happenings comes the realization that there is an emergence of a new Nigerian Art.

Art House Foundation has a residency program that is gaining in importance and creating international connections, though one is not so sure of the auctions. Don’t get me wrong- I remain one of the most uninformed about the importance (Jess speaking) of these auctions! Apart from a few open auction calls, one wonders where or how some of these auction houses get their pieces. A way to look at it is that some of the older collectors open their storerooms and put them up to evaluate the present worth of their works.

Once iconic images like the yellow buses of Lagos are now scarce. There are fewer requests for such scenes by expatriates who want to take ‘something Nigerian’ home. The yellow buses have gone the way of the ‘Fulani milkmaids, durbar scenes, and load bearing maidens by mud huts, with the orange sun drowning into a river with coconut trees lining the riverside! To put things in context as per the New Art of Nigeria, one must remember certain facts about the present- History as a subject is no longer taught in Nigerian secondary and primary schools. This means that we have returned to the days of telling tales by moonlight, and the passing on of our traditions and history by ‘word of mouth’ (though such opportunities for conversation are also very scarce with social media activity on everyone’s mind for getting noticed, relevant or entertained.IMG_9801w.jpg

The economics of survival in a society where everything has been turned on its head has changed the view of things here. The landscapes got more and more abstract till they became blurbs of color splattered in split seconds on the artist’s canvas. Of course some of us had been early at this form of presentation of where we are as a nation, having spent most of our adolescence learning from the prophecies of King Fela Kuti. It wasn’t the marijuana that made him iconic. Not even the government of the day could rob him of his street credibility, his non-conformist, critical view of people in power. Adolescents could relate to the conflicts with their coming of age realities and phantoms. So we could paint those abstract scenes then. And like a bad dream, no one was buying it then. The connoisseurs (the buying age of pre-Independence adolescents who became adults in the glory days of the oil boom) had eyes for all histories pre-colonialism, with a few tweaks that added corrugated roofs and the bustling metropolitan chaos of an African State capital. A few of us were born in the crossroads, somewhere between the glory days and growing in the years of Nigeria losing it all to thieving leaders; to the present times where history is being erased, memories are being expunged, and new narratives to support where we are as a Nation has sprung up. For some of my generation, Art became the tool to use to speak a codified language interpreting contemporary realities. We remain the leftover bodies who did not join their smarter mates on the sojourn to new lands. We are ignorant, dull of hearing, or numb with shock at the aftermath of the disaster of contemporary Nigeria. The other day, a former classmate referred to how he now understood why some of us had publicly renounced their citizenship!Tony Nsofor, Rhapsody in Blues II

But I speak of one set of people. The other set are new to me. They have not really absorbed our history. They know what they have been told by biased relatives who think that their farmlands end at the edge of other people’s homesteads. The younger artists in Nigeria have come into it without the necessary, slower gestures of indoctrinations happening. They take what they will, and run with it. The restlessness of youth allows for hits or misses. After all, there is still time to make amends. A new non-figurative art is quite popular these days. This is understandable, judging from the foregoing. Everywhere one looks, the faces in artworks seem contorted by mixed, exaggerated feelings- anxiety, angst and sorrow, while elegant bodies now give way robust feisty bodies whose ‘aesthetic appeal’ lies mainly in being lively. Formalism is discarded for sensationalism, the wow factor is ‘it’/’in’ for now! Everyone has joined in on the ride. Nigeria blares out a new non-representational ‘ism’, all in a flush to become noticed by the institution. Now that Africa is in the limelight. Well things may be celebrated. Art is the only truth to tell the people of the gory mess we are in.

No wonder the prices of contemporary artworks in Nigeria seem to have gone up by two digits. Two privately sponsored art museums, in Lagos and in Onitsha will soon open the door to curious society who did not see Art becoming the phenomenon that inspires change, that promotes culture and transforms the mundane into a magical place in our hearts. One cannot keep up with all the exhibitions opening every weekend in Lagos. There are so many new faces and names. Is it because one is more involved in his profession, or is there an upsurge of non-academically trained artists taking over the art space? Gratefully, art is now practiced as a true profession. Artists are more interested in the end-to-end marketing and management of their work. With the growing popularity of the acrylic paint, it is now rare to meet an artist jumping out of a bus with a wet canvas, trying to sell to Mister Akar (of Signature Beyond). The Revolving Art Incubator is a new space and Nimbus was the place to see avant-garde art. 2018 is the year that completes my circle. Three years after I moved out of Lagos to establish a studio in my village, I return to a new studio in Lekki. There are new collectors who really find a resonance with my work. It is the middle age of Art for me. One is reminded again every time there is a call for artists for art competitions- one is usually 10 years overage. Maybe we have paid our dues. Maybe we paid the price to be where we are today. We open our studio doors to the rest of the world now. They should come. Things have changed so much. This year, there will be Dak’Art, many more art exhibitions and involvement with other spaces abroad. The words are fewer these days. A new critical way of discussing art has emerged. It is light-hearted, maybe like this blog post. I said it before- things have changed. Art has become fashionable, contemporary in strong terms. The child is now encouraged to become an artist. Welcome to a new phase for art in Nigeria. It cost us so much to get here. We won’t let anyone mess it up.

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Large paintings

To paint a small picture is to place yourself outside your experience, to look upon an experience as a stereopticon view with a reducing glass. However, you paint the larger pictures, you are in it. It isn’t something you command- Barnett Newman.

So, my experience has been that of stepping into my work head on, walking in and living inside it. This is a refreshing way of reliving the experience of art, in connecting process to theme, action to passion and reason. The gesture of laying brushstrokes is mediated by the span and reach of the creator/artist. In the larger work, the limit is physical. But the spiritual predates all that. You finally see summaries. Catchphrases stay on the mind forUi longer in a complicated life. We can always wring the phrase to squeeze out meanings like wandwaving magician’s apprentices on off day in the workplace. The very act of doing is enough justification for being presented as ‘art’. Now one ties to the idea of the dignity of labor. Not a sweat is wasted as it falls to the brown earth. There is a system to all the chaos, to the broken form, to the patches of color pointedly placed.

Of Facial Masks and Masquerading in My Work

IMG_1649webTill Uncle Akaraka’s death, his home was the resting place of Ude Ebube, Nwa Agbayaka the great ancient masquerade from my mother’s village Abatu. Tall, light-skinned and handsome, Uncle Akaraka seemed to live for the moments that Ude Ebube arises from the land of spirits to jolt our world. Akaraka would march out in swag, holding a large bottle of Guinness Stout in one hand and a stick of cigarette in the other as he walks alongside the masquerade; a sheathed machete slung sideways down his waist. Those are the moments that the village saw my uncle, apart from occasional sightings when he sits and looks out to the street from the balcony of his one-storey building. As an undergraduate student I made reference to the masquerades in my thesis ‘Colonial Influences on the Art of Oguta’, (to be found in the Arts department at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka)

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Ajekwu masquerade of Umudei Village, Oguta, Imo StateL1150594web.jpg
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Ipu Afia Agu of two members of the Igbuu society, Oguta, Imo State, Nigeria

My hometown is made up of 28 tiny villages (more like clans, really). Each village has its masquerade(s). It is time to set the records straight about the masks in contemporary paintings, about the faces in my chaotic canvases.

Ude Ebube mmanwu-ihu-ekpo (spirit masquerade with the face of a mask) is like the masquerades found in the riverine communities in the Niger-Delta regions of Nigeria. She (mother to other smaller masquerades, some from neighboring villages) has taken the most prestigious titles for masquerades. She is a great spirit guided by a procession of three groups of people chanting praise songs- the first set of people are the youth in their boisterous dancing and parading; then there are the middle class followers who generally carry the medicines, the ofo, the magical hand fan that waves away evil spirits; then follow the old, the elderly who move slowly, gracefully with the great spirit. Age brings them closer to death, to the land of spirits from whence came Ude Ebube to celebrate with us, to rain blessings on her followers and admirers alike, to charge up the land of the living. Ude Ebube is an ancient spirit, and is guided by an old dibia, usually among the strongest in the land. As spirit, she knows everyone by name; she lives with the ancestors in the other world.

By writing I do not want to take away your interpretation of my work- I want to give you my memories. I grew up following the masquerades during the Christmas periods and in ushering in the New Year. All my childhood friends know that I will more likely abandon them at the drinking parlors to run after passing masquerades. Something in their performance resonated strongly. It went beyond ‘religion’.

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By the Blue Lake, Oguta, Imo State, Nigeria

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My young excitable mind often dreamt of these masquerades, of being chased by them through different disjointed towns to my village house. The dreams came even when I visited other lands. It was a tradition for Father to drive us to the village to celebrate the Christmas season. He loved our culture and people dearly, and would take us on rounds to visit as many relatives in the short 12 days of the holiday. He contributed to the upkeep and beautification of Ngajeme, our village masquerade. Dad would also bow in passing to the great masquerades of Oguta. He would draw a circle in the earth and place a gift of money and a bottle of kaikai (locally brewed gin) in it.

Masquerading was in my blood, as my mother was from the largest family in Abatu, the great masquerading village in Oguta. Her father Chief Okonya Okoroafor was a polygamous man. So I grew up with the spirits that seemed to float in space, whose ruffled movements were like gliding, their raffia-clad bodies shivering in the shards of the hot afternoon sun racing down to the great Ogbuide Lake. I recall the masquerades in my work- the faces, the ripple of movement, the excitement and the magic. Sometimes the masquerades fight over seniority and other skirmishes and their followers join in. Every time I work, the work is charged by these memories. It will happen again this Christmas and on New Year’s Day. The wooden gong will sound to call all together, to awaken the great spirits, to breach the gap between the land of the dead and the living. Call it fetish. I call it culture, part of my heritage. Let’s play. Meet you at the village centre.

Abstract colors, More liberties

Detail of a work in progress, mixed media painting, 2017. 

In this blog, I have written extensively about my work, the creative process, and the figurative. It has become more important to dwell on the abstractions that seem to be taking centre-stage all around us.

Uli has shown us a way of looking at space, engaging it in a way that conveys meaning. Lines and shapes loaded with meaning are juxtaposed with negative bleak spaces that totally shriek in their silence.

Turning it around, the artist considers the power of that non-representational element as subject matter, relocation into deep meditation of color fields. Traditional notions of color no longer apply, nor restrain. Thus, color has gained an independence in its total abstraction- color is the new white noise in artistic communication.

The intention to emphasize local identity is lost on the new international that crosses borders at will. Appropriating passing fancies, one must acknowledge them as relevant memories; hallmarks from journeys, with a cognizance for seeing that in front lies an unfamiliar path that may demand new conversations/interactions. Or else, the artist becomes the bogeyman.

The body of work creates new imagery- exploring an eclectic embodiment- a morpheme of spatial representation. Visual elements are turned on their head- harmony, space, contrast, and balance. Everything is introverted to ‘work’ on the mind where it really counts. External superficialities are done away with in a signature economic style- the work is the reason. The reason is the work.

Reality is a dent on the conscience of the creative, holding ransom all notions and actions towards progress. Concurrently, one must hold on to fantasy- to the subconscious world of dreams as a vision for navigating the psychedelic, hybrid subcultures of today’s world. All accepted standards may fail in the circumstances; boundaries and borders melt away (standing only as a physical presence at the most). Time and Space suddenly embrace to become one experience.

Color is language, identity and representational subject serving all intents of the artist. Color can only be interpreted on a personal level, irreverent to all else. Herein lays the bane of the tribal art grouping- this melting point that allows no measures/ standards to retrain the use or absence of interpretative color.

Having learned drawing, we unlearn drawing. Drawing pretends to unravel the spatial feel of things, working as a witness to a ‘presence’. In turn around, drawing is the real presence. These are tangible existential ideas- generally cultures acknowledge an ‘other’ life separate from this one. Man then begins to ask his place- is this or that the ‘real’ life? To and fro, the tussle becomes the very matter of contention between Realism and Abstraction, the signifier and the amplifier.  

Our visual senses mediate in between engaging and nurturing the mind. Truth is- we know nothing. Let all knowledge begin from there to interrogate meaning.

Conversation in my head: Between Anthony and Richard

IMG_0084webThe words are distinct in my head. Sometimes the two characters change places- its like the flights, the rise and falls of an angel. There are two distinct personalities. Even I mix up their identities at times. You know how we mix up who is the good or bad twins when they are identical?! So, one is called Anthony; and the other is Richard. (As good catholics, my parents got me baptized as a child. I was named Anthony, after a saint. When I got older, receiving the sacrament of Confirmation, I took the name Richard, after another saint I identified with at the time) The conversation is between these ‘two’.

Richard: You really think you are doing work that could change the world?

Anthony: That is not the intent. I want to add to the raging voices screaming for a change. Mine is a little voice among the many.

Richard: Such modesty seems veiled with grandeur!

Anthony: I may be with the lowly, but I can stand to the exalted ones!

Richard: You start your work often like one thinking to blot out, to obliterate the white canvas?

Anthony: There is usually a first struggle. Painting is a fight that goes on till the very end. At the end, one may not even be able to make up his mind.

Richard: One sees familiar bits of the anatomy of your subject, scattered like in a scene of an accident.

Anthony: The accident has already happened in my mind- I merely recollect the evidence! The work is the statement of facts. In our times, the fact is distorted by new interpretations, situations and far away dreams of other lands.

Richard: Don’t you think your time of working could be put to better use?

Anthony: Maybe I could become a banker, or better still, farmer to eat and live? One has those thoughts drifting, interfering with the waving hand. There is the lure of fast money from the nearby art patron also. Selling out is a good idea. One can do better- sell oneself! I give a part of me into the work. The artworks are my children.

Richard: Hmmm, you begin to sound anti-society…

Anthony: On the contrary, I encourage an embrace of the abandoned in our society. Adoption is an excellent option. Traditional ways of growing society are quite valid, and supported. You see some of my themes are based on conjugal love and the family unit. Maybe those that try to broaden traditional definitions of being and society stir up a furor that quakes the foundations of our society?

Richard: One would think you were answering a different question…

Anthony: In trying to be precise, I preempt every question and give answers to one question in one hasty burst. It is the way we have become. There are complexities of interactions happening virtually, intruding into our physical reality.

Richard: You have other thoughts about the use of materials/media in your work.

Anthony: Oh that. I have had these questions about Material and Idea in Art, which is the more important? The physical material on which the artwork is created can be a very important thing for the young artist. I recall gushing at primed, ready to use canvas at an art materials shop as though it was a masterpiece! After buying it, I will stare at it for a while like one confronted by the notion of a dream that suddenly came true. The idea of the material would intimidate, freeze all intuition. The Idea is a different thing. Without the gift of inscribing the idea, the artist would become but a good craftsman. I don’t say that this is a bad thing- good craftsmanship. One should try to add it in one’s work. But importantly, brood over the idea, incubate it, wait for it. The idea usually comes before the material. Sometimes, I use what is on hand. The idea must be grasped and represented for posterity. It has to get out there. This thing about the importance of the material is rubbished when one realizes that even the must durable materials can be destroyed with poor care! In a roundabout way, the most fragile material can last longer if given proper care. As the artist, I stand with the idea first. Is the idea weakened because the material is not up to standard( quite a subjective idea that has no fixed boundaries)? The way Time acts on an artwork is another thing! Even that becomes included in factoring how one wants his work to be perceived. The artist may wish for the physical work to deteriorate with time, organically. Or allow the owner to choose how the work lives, or dies, or is presented in the future. Its really like when I have unrolled a canvas painting and sold it. I wont follow the buyer to a frameshop to put a frame around it.

Richard: This is too much of an explanation…

Anthony: Sorry, explaining can take some time. Let me go and continue my painting.

Richard: You say it like it is food.

Anthony: It’s not far from it.

Richard: Let me think about what you have said.

Squinting at a Crowded World: Genius and Madness at Play

IMG_0479.jpgThere will be more stylized artworks. Finally, it will be total abstraction. The world has gone mad. The script becomes more and more complex by the day that shows that it is so- it is the bane of contemporary existence! We are the noise. We live the noise. The little things don’t matter much anymore. The artist of today tries to recreate these feelings, the intensity of white noise creating static. We will be famous for showing the zeitgeist of now. Here, it starts from Lagos, the centre of the hullaballoo. Occasionally one makes sense of the nature of things, and winks knowingly at the other. It’s a standpoint that differentiates Sense and Nonsense; a time gap too. The millennial took over while I slept. In a daze, my contemporaries are playing ‘catch-up’. The gift is prophetic, making loud declarations. Art must be understood in the context of its time. Of course some ‘art’ are not meant for now.IMG_0077web.jpg