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Proofreading Anna Knight

The Underground Lagos Artmosphere: Nigerian Artists Taking On the Challenge

by Iheanyi Onwuegbucha

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Lagos is Africa’s most populous city and the centre of creative enterprise in Nigeria. The city is home to about twenty million people, and in addition to being the economic capital of Nigeria, also serves as a cultural hub in the country. With its bustling energy and cosmopolitan nature, the city is attractive to artists and cultural entrepreneurs not only because of the ever-present deep-pocket patrons but the abundance of imageries supplying profound inspiration to artists of various genres. However, despite being a creative hub with a virtually unlimited supply of artists, cultural producers, and consumers, there is minimal art-relevant state infrastructure or state-funded institutional support for the city, which hosted the 1977 Festival of Black Art and Culture. Consequently, through profit and non-profit initiatives, private entities have been at the forefront of cultural production. Since the turn of the new millennium, a new crop of privately run initiatives has emerged, reshaping the cultural economy and artistic ecosystem in the city. Some of these initiatives operate in the margins and feed into the mainstream. In turn, the mainstream engages with the underground in what has now become an annual art calendar in the city. This article explores the relationship between the marginal initiatives and the mainstream in the complex ecosystem of art in Lagos.

From the Independence period of the 1950s and 1960s, the development of art in Nigeria has been championed by artists with occasional but limited state support. It has remained a common practice for artists to establish galleries and art centres alongside their studios as spaces for other artists to show and share ideas. Notable examples of these artists in Lagos include Aina Onabolu, who built an art gallery space as part of his residence at Ebute Metta, Lagos in 1954. The Bruce Onobrakpeya Studio now known as the Ovuomaroro Gallery was established in 1962 at Palmgrove, Lagos. Similarly, Afi Ekong who managed the government-owned Gallery Labac established the Bronze Gallery in 1964. In other parts of the country, artists like Felix Idubor established the Idubor Gallery for Arts and Culture, now the Idubor Arts Gallery in Benin City in 1958; Uche Okeke established the Asele Art Institute in Nimo; Demas Nwoko began the New Culture Foundation and New Culture Studios and Gallery in Ibadan; while Bona Ezeudu founded the Bona Gallery in Enugu. Of course, the above-mentioned are just a few among many such artist initiatives around the country. Several galleries have opened in Lagos since FESTAC 77 triggered an upsurge in cultural events in Lagos. However, a couple of initiatives started in the mid- to late-2000s. The Centre for Contemporary Art was established in 2007 and its entrance onto the scene significantly changed the direction of contemporary art in the city. With programming tailored towards public engagement and contemporary experimentation stretching the boundaries of art, a new trend developed in Lagos and now there are very few exhibitions without some public programme attached to it. Then the African Artist Foundation entered with the National Art Competition and Lagos Photo Festival and increased the budding contemporary photography practice in the city. The list continues.

Several new and compelling initiatives have sprouted in Lagos in the past five years, generating and propagating a wave of fresh energy in the city’s boisterous art scene. These new entries into the art landscape include artist collectives, commercial galleries, a museum of contemporary art, art fairs/festivals, a biennale, and several art spaces run by artists. These artists, favoured by the recent interest in contemporary African art in the international art market, have taken the challenge to fill the voids created by the non-existent state art institutions. The past few years have witnessed a surge in the number of new cultural spaces run by artists. As the international value of works by contemporary Nigerian artists grows, some have followed what seems like a tradition of social responsibility – a responsibility to the art community and a sense of giving back to the city that has been their springboard. In other instances, ‘artpreneurs’ have established workspaces that offer accommodation, restaurant and bar services, and gallery spaces for artists and other cultural producers that provide a cultural space and are profitable investments to support their art.

As in other parts of Africa, new museums are being established to fill the need of the fast-growing number of artists and to provide a home for the stolen objects from Africa when they are returned. Artists have taken the lead in establishing two underground museums in Lagos. The Junkyard Museum of Awkward Things and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Lagos: the Junkyard Museum is run by Germany-based Nigerian artist, thejunkmanfromafrika Dilomprizulike as part of JCC (Junkmania Creative Concepts) Worldwide. According to Junkman, the museum, which doubles as the artist’s studio, ‘will house anthropological works and concepts of the junkmanfromafrika produced for over 30 years’ and will feature the works of other ‘great and decent artists and proprietors of art in Nigeria and beyond’.1 Likewise, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Lagos (MoCA) also doubles as the studio of the founder Uchay Joel Chima. This museum tucked away in Anthony Village, a residential area of Lagos, shares the same building with the artist’s studio. With a small exhibition space, the museum offers an alternative space for artists’ experimentation, different from the litter of galleries and art centres in the city. The experimental museum space and location provide space for fringe exhibitions, artist residencies, and programming for Lagos’s mainstream events. With the right curatorial direction, MoCA has a unique opportunity to revolutionise contemporary museum practice in Lagos through its exhibitions and programmes. Like the early days of the Studio Museum in Harlem, it has the opportunity of providing space for emerging artists who are excluded from the mainstream museums and art spaces in the city. Also, MoCA has the opportunity to engage with the host community by including school children in its public engagement programs.

Besides the Museum of Contemporary Art, another impressive space that has emerged in Lagos is the Treehouse, run by performance artist Wura-Natasha Ogunji. Converting a part of her residence on the tenth floor of an apartment building with a grocery store on the first floor, the Treehouse offers weekly activities. Every Thursday, the Treehouse hosts artists and enthusiasts at an evening of networking and relaxation in a very informal atmosphere with shared food and drinks brought by guests to accompany an art activity, usually a film screening, solo artist’s installation, or performance. The Treehouse has hosted installations by artists like Rahima Gambo, animated drawings by Phoebe Boswell, a salon of line drawings by Kadara Enyeasi, among many others. The cosy and intimate atmosphere of the Treehouse provides an opportunity to engage deeply with the artworks without the pressure of formal public art events – perhaps that is the main idea, like a real Treehouse.

Less than five minutes’ drive from the Treehouse is Angels and Muse, run by artist Victor Ehikhamenor. The space is part of a growing trend to create alternative and cheaper workspaces with facilities for individuals and small businesses, in response to the high cost of real estate in major cities such as Lagos. But Ehikhamenor has taken this trend a step further by creating a shared workspace. Angels and Muse offers an exhibition space, co-working spaces for individual use, and rooms for seminars, training events, meetings, book readings, etc. It also provides a one-of-a-kind creative hideout: two fully-furnished bedrooms (the white room and the blue room) where individuals can block out all the noise and experience a private, more immersive creative process. The white room is a traditional bedroom, while the blue room is covered from floor to ceiling with the blue linear drawings that Victor Ehikamenor is known for. This provides guests the rare experience of living and working inside his art.

Like Victor Ehikamenor’s Angels and Muse, 16 by 16 is a creative space occupying a flat in a serviced apartment building in Victoria Island. 16/16 (as it is branded) is run by Tushar Hathiramani. The space offers seven ensuite apartments, a bar, and restaurant facilities in addition to a gallery space, which doubles as the restaurant space. The name 16 by 16 is taken from its address (the street number of the apartment building and the flat number). Although the space is yet to have a programme of its own, it has hosted some art events in collaboration with other organisations in Lagos, like the Lagos Photo Festival, which used the gallery space as one of its venues, and the ArtHouse Foundation (run by the organisers of the ArtHouse Contemporary auction house) which also used the space for an exhibition of works by an artist-in-residence. With their accommodation facilities, Angels & Muse and 16 by 16 are favourites of visiting artists and curators in Lagos.
The Lagos Biennale: From the Margins to the Centre
In October 2017, Lagos witnessed a surge of art events, including an art fair, festivals, and a biennale. The first edition of the Lagos Biennale titled Living on the Edge kicked off amid scepticism, including several intrigues, improvisations, and creative uses of space. The most impressive was the creative conversion of abandoned shelters in the Nigerian Railway Corporation’s compound in Lagos into exhibition spaces for video, photography, and installation art. The Biennale proved the can-do spirit of Lagosians and Nigerians generally, which manifested in the improvisation of space as the curators challenged concepts of the White Cube and the interesting participation of the homeless who occupied the exhibition spaces throughout the Biennale process. Its main exhibition space was an abandoned train shed, which before the biennale served as shelter to the homeless within the railway compound. The biennial event, which was an initiative by artist and curator Folakunle Oshun, aimed from this first edition to open up cultural, artistic, and political conversations between Lagos and the rest of the world. The second edition was also held in the abandoned but more ‘prestigious’ Independence Building on Lagos Island. The Biennale, which started out as a marginal underground project led by an artist-curator, has now evolved into a mainstream event.
Similarly remarkable is the Iwaya Community Art Festival organised by artist Adenremi Adegbite through the Vernacular Art-space Laboratory (VAL). The festival finds its home in Iwaya, a suburb of Lagos. By its location, the Festival aims at an inclusive art outreach by making art accessible to people who otherwise may not be able to visit exhibitions in galleries in the affluent neighbourhoods of Lagos Island, thus bringing art closer to ordinary Lagosians. Therefore, like the Lagos Biennale, the annual three-day festival uses alternative and abandoned spaces for site-specific installations and performances, using the streets in Iwaya’s community to stage alternative artistic interventions such as live performances, photography, video art screenings, workshops, panel discussions, and sports. According to the curator, ‘the festival was born out of the need to redeem the community’s youth as well as its reputation as a hub for crime. It is described as an intervention that seeks to channel the energies of youth in Iwaya away from negative activities by encouraging them to explore their artistic sides and to collaborate with like minds in the community.’2 According to Adegbite, the Festival was created to challenge the classism of art and its confinement to the white cube in Lagos cosmopolis and bring art to the people at no cost.3

This resorting to self-help by artists is not a new phenomenon in Nigeria. Nigerians of every socio-economic class are used to providing basic social amenities – housing, electricity, potable water, security, and in some cases, roads, as the state has failed to provide these things. Therefore, it is not surprising that artists will establish art centres to ensure their own survival. The proliferation of artist-run-spaces in Lagos is partly responsible for the effervescence that defines the Lagos art ecosystem. The availability of various spaces for artists to experiment and exhibit in various parts of the city fosters a sense of community. It also gives the artists a sense of ownership and control over their art, especially given the mistrust between artists and curators/dealers.

A Symbiotic Relationship
When asked by Jess Castellote (now director of the Yemisi Shyllon Museum of Art, Pan Atlantic University in Lagos), for his blog A View from My Corner, if the other more significant art events were going to be rivals, Folakunle Oshun, the founder of the Lagos Biennale, responded that ‘Art X complements the Biennial and vice versa.’4 He explained that while Art X shows the public that art is big money, the Lagos Bienniale ‘opens up more room for artistic expression and dialogue’.5 This sums up the relationship that exists between the mainstream and marginal initiatives in Lagos. Since a successful first edition in 2016 directed by Bisi Silva, Art X Lagos has become a signpost event in the Lagos cultural calendar. Scheduled in the first week of November, a few days after the Lagos Photo Festival opening and the Lagos Biennale, the art fair’s popularity has inspired other marginal initiatives to schedule special events and programs during the same period. The Art Summit is also held in the same week as the fair. With this, the underground takes advantage of the influx of art professionals and stakeholders in Lagos. The mainstream takes advantage of these other events to program tours for their special guests and partner with some spaces for fringe events.
Some of the marginal spaces like MoCA Lagos, Junkyard Museum, and even mainstream spaces like the CCA, Lagos, and the recently established Yemisi Shyllon Museum of Art are all located outside of Lagos Island. Therefore, special tour programs will have to be organised to enable foreigners to visit the exhibitions within a very short period. Another form of symbiotic relationship is the programming of Art X’s public programmes like the art talks series, public installations, and performances. Wura Natasha’s Treehouse featured performances in the 2019 edition. In 2018, a WhiteSpace creative agency run by Papa Omotayo curated an installation by Olalekan Jeyifous for the entrance to the fair.
In terms of other symbiotic relationships, the National Museum Lagos, an ethnographic museum, rents out an empty gallery within the museum for individuals and organisations. The museum takes advantage of the external exhibitions to attract new visitors to the otherwise moribund museum.   Organisations like Rele Gallery, which was initially a medium player but has now become a significant stakeholder on the Lagos market, take advantage of the neighbouring National Museum’s large space to hold major exhibitions. In early 2020, Rele hosted the anniversary of her young contemporaries at the Museum, a major exhibition that would not have been possible in the small space of Rele Gallery. Other artists, who are frustrated by the expensive fees charged by galleries to host exhibitions, also hire the Museum’s space for their exhibitions.
Like the National Museum, the National Gallery of Art needs to collaborate more with the new and existing art spaces in Lagos to show their collection. The National Gallery of Art in Lagos currently shares a space in the National Theatre built during FESTAC ’77, with 99% of its collection in poor storage conditions. What prevents the gallery from loaning some of its collection to the new museums in Lagos? It should also consider keying into the city’s art calendar to organise its programmes and, if necessary, collaborate with other spaces to receive professional curatorial assistance.
Although Nigerian artists’ commitment to the development of art in Lagos in particular and Nigeria generally is commendable, most of these organisations’ lack of a structure presents a problem. For instance, because single artists usually manage the art spaces, the establishment usually becomes unsustainable when the artist passes away or is incapable of managing the organisation’s day-to-day affairs. This is evident in the failure of artist-initiated projects like Afi Ekong’s Bronze Gallery, Uche Okeke, and Demas Nwoko’s Asele Institute and New Kulture Studios (which also published the defunct New Culture Journal) respectively. Afi Ekong had to move her once renowned gallery to Calabar, south-eastern Nigeria, when she retired, and after her passing, the gallery has remained shut. Simply put, the artists’ initiatives fade with their founders when no structure is put in place for continuity. The freedom from government control enjoyed by artist-run-spaces due to their independence from government sponsorship comes with a price. It means an over-dependence on international grants, which are not sustainable. There is also the general lack of curatorial direction in some of the spaces. The implication for the Lagos art ecosystem is that there is a lot of noise without meaningful substance. Also, there are as many socio-political issues to deal with as there are visual inspirations in Lagos. Strangely, only a few of the underground art spaces engage with political issues in the country. LGBT discrimination, religious intolerance, terrorism, and xenophobia are some of the burning issues that are begging to be explored. I would have expected these underground organisations to take advantage of their independence to explore some of these controversial but relevant issues.

The programming of art events in Lagos between October and November has its advantages, as outlined above. At the same time, it presents a problem for the cultural calendar of the city. The rush in the Art X week denies art spaces, particularly the marginal organisations, the chance to organise projects with deeper audience engagement. Visiting an exhibition or public programme for a few minutes does not give ample time to digest artistic and curatorial visions. Also, visitors to Lagos outside of October and November see very little of the vibrant artmosphere.
In sum, Lagos’s art scene continues to defy prediction in its intriguing evolutionary patterns, fostered by the city’s dynamic energy. However, as these new initiatives mushroom, it begs the question of what attempts are made by the creative industry stakeholders and other relevant players in the city’s art and cultural life in a coordinated effort to harness their maximum potential and develop a strong art economy and market that will compete favourably with other cities like Johannesburg, London, and New York. With museum projects now being built in Onikan, such as the John K. Randle Centre for Yoruba Culture and History, featuring a museum of international calibre, it will be interesting to see what new relationships will develop from the evolving ecosystem – especially since Onikan is already home to the National Museum, Rele Gallery, and Freedom Park. It will be interesting, for instance, to see more horizontal relationships emerge between marginal art spaces than between the marginal and the mainstream.

Bio :

Iheanyi Onwuegbucha is a doctoral student in the Department of Art and Archaeology at Princeton University. He was the Artistic Director of the Centre for Contemporary Art, Lagos.
He is presently interested in post-civil war art in Nigeria, focusing on the emergence of the Nsukka art school after the Biafra War. He is a 2016 Chevening Scholar.

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