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How modern, contemporary masters celebrate with 25 years of Lagos art space

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The mastery of art, its period and space come into focus in celebration context. And as contentious as the mastery of art is, some artists – based on their period of practice – have risen above such debate.

In Nigeria, most artists that are referred to as masters are modernists while a few form the contemporary bridge. However, the masters as well as their period have something in common: the art space. Quite a number of art galleries – during and after the incubation of the Nigerian masters – have closed for business. In fact, just as more are emerging, others are closing. At 25, perhaps the oldest space still standing, Mydrim Gallery, Ikoyi, Lagos, has every reason to celebrate with 12 masters.

In 2007, some masters’ works were shown by the same gallery, in a group exhibition titled Living Masters, at Terra Kulture, Victoria Island, Lagos. Between then and now, debates over when an artist attains the mastery of art still come up, mostly at informal fora. In fact, one or two formal Lagos gatherings in the past had heated debates over eligibility in the mastery of art.

However, the mastery of art, interestingly, has a string of period attached to its weight, making the ‘eligibility’ list shrink and more complex as the years and decades roll past. About 11 years after Living Masters, the organisers, Mydrim Gallery are back with a mix of some of the same list of artists shown in 2007 and new names. Yusuf Grillo, Bruce Onobrakpeya, Abayomi Barber, David Dale, Kolade Oshinowo, El Anatsui, Muraina OyelamI, Nike Davies-Okundaye, Jimoh Buraimoh, Gani Odutokun, Bisi Fakeye and Jimoh Akolo are the artists that will be showing as The Masters from June 3-4, 2018 at Desiderata, Banana Island, Ikoyi, Lagos.

Akolo, Odutokun, Buraimoh, Davies-Okundaye and Dale are the new entrants into the Mydrim Gallery’s second show in the hall of fame for masters. When Mydrim showed the Living Masters in 2007, Fakeye, Dale and Isiaka Osunde were featured. With the demise of two artists, the gallery still has a pool of masters to draw from for the 2018 edition.

“11 yrs ago, we showed Living Masters to celebrate those artists who were there when art patronage was more from expatriates,” founder of Mydrim, Mrs. Sinmidele Adesanya, told a select preview guests inside the gallery. “Today we have lost Osunde and Fakeye, but still have 12 that represent the old masters.”

For clarification on the eligibility of the exhibiting artists, Adesanya argued that mastery of art “takes a lifetime of practice and perfecting as well as having influence in the form of mentoring and teaching.” And when she likened the masters and their period of practice to ‘orisun’ (source or fountain), a foundation that bred today’s art appreciation was revisited, saying, “We believe that a river that does not recognise its source will dry.”

She noted that whatever gains Nigerian visual arts profession has recorded currently, in expansion and art appreciation, cannot be divorced from the past efforts of the modern and contemporary masters. “Young artists today need to know the history of those who paved the way for them,” Adesanya, said and boasted that Mydrim has shown 200 artists, recalled that the masters in the 2018 edition have created an extensive body of work and also changed the texture of African art. She cited, for example, the legendary spot of the old Zaria Art Society students of mid-20th century, noting, “Some of them like Onobrakpeya and Grillo brought heavy reform to Nigerian art in the form of the Zaria Art Society and rebelled against Western schools of thought during their school days.”

Interestingly, Akolo of the same Nigerian College of Arts, Science and Technology (NCAST), Zaria (now Ahmadu Belli University (ABU), refused to follow the art ideology of his colleagues’ famous ‘natural synthesis.’ The Zaria artists’ much-talked about ‘rebellion’ against the art forms of their colonial era teachers was not exactly opposed by Akolo. But he was said to have taken his own kind of ‘natural synthesis’ home, leaning towards Yoruba native form. “He wanted to be more broad in his expression,” Adesanya described Akolo’s different artistic route. Other members of the then Zaria artists included Prof. Uche Okeke, Demas Nwoko, Simon Okeke, Oseluka Osadebe and Emmanuel Okechukwu Odita.

However, at The Masters show next month, the two sides to anti-western art ideology will be showing in the same space, perhaps for the first time in decades: Akolo, whose work have been less exposed, will have an opportunity to be on display with the more famous two members of the Zaria Art Society – Onobrakpeya and Grillo.

More than just a group art exhibition of top artists, The Masters also represents the trajectory of Nigerian art: the Zaria narrative, the informal schools of Osogbo and individuals such as Barber, Davies-Okundaye and Fakeye. What a rich gathering and documenting of a country’s art diversity! Over a decade after the first show of masters, the second outing appears to be generating more interest, and possibly, heavy traffic too when it opens to the public. To manage the huge interest ahead of the public exhibition, the private viewing, sponsored by a law firm, Templars, was scheduled for an undisclosed venue.

There is no doubt that the masters for the show have risen above the debate about mastery of art. But the debate would never cease. Most likely, the appropriate answer to the debate lies in the choice of Mydrim’s combination of modern and contemporary artists each time the gallery displays its choice of masters. In Living Masters of 2007 and The Masters of 2018, modern and contemporary periods are still important factors. It is, therefore, safe to locate the mastery of art within modern and contemporary periods rather than narrowing the list to Nigerian modern era masters.

For The Masters exhibition, artists such as Oshinowo, Oyelami, Davies-Okundaye, Odutokun, Fakeye, Dale and Buraimoh – given the period of their emergence and practice – fit into the contemporary masters epithet. For the 2018 landmark show, a conference on relevant topics such as mastery of art, modern and contemporary would not be a distraction. Adesanya did not disclose any chosen topic for them yet. But she assured, “we will have a discussion event later in the year as part of different activities that fall within our purview of promoting artists.”

Among such sub-events is a recognition of those artists that grew with Mydrim in its 25 years. “This is to recognise the younger artists such as Olu Ajayi, Abiodun Olaku, Olusegun Adejumo, Edosa Ogiugo, among others” and for young art enthusiasts, Adesanya said Union Bank is organising a session for about 200 young artists and art students to interact with the masters during the course of the exhibition.

On display during the press preview were a few works by Fakeye, Grillo, Barber, Buraimoh, Anatsui, Dale and Oshinowo. A sculpture by Fakeye, thematically based on the Trinity doctrine and another one titled ‘Oge’, produced shortly before the artist’s death last year, will be on display for the show.

In his bluish signature, Grillo goes back memory lane to exhume a once popular slogan ‘Won kere si number wa’. The Lagos-Yoruba street expression used in competitive context, though made popular in contemporary Nigerian music scene by Fatai Rolling Dollars was said to have been coined in the 1950s. Most of Grillo’s paintings always depict his Lagos origin, particularly cultural contents of the past.

Barber, a classic example of the arts personified – a sculptor, painter and musician – is showing a version of ‘Ali Maigoro,’ his most popular sculpture series. A bust of an unidentified man of northern Nigeria descent, the sculpture radiates hilarious aura in the subject’s display of uneven form of teeth. Though reproduced many times over the decades, Barber’s ‘Ali Maigoro’ never loses its popularity.

Showing works of Nigerian modernists comes with the challenge of avoiding being caught in the wrong side of authenticity and provenance.

“We started with 20 artists but challenges brought the figure down to 12,” Adesanya disclosed her experience in avoiding fake works. “And for some, the issue of fake works also arose, and we have a name to protect as Mydrim Gallery.”

While the exhibition brings a double celebration of the artists and Mydrim, Adesanya insisted that the contribution of the masters to the development of Nigerian art is worth more attention, noting, “All of the masters in this exhibition have dedicated their lives to serving the art and have extensively studied, researched and honed their talent. These artists have the clout that is not born in a day. Mydrim would like to draw more attention than to the names of these artists, because their skill and creativity presuppose and speak for itself. Not only that but they also create emblems of Nigerian society at large and add depths to the culture.

Most of these artists are matured in age, so Mydrim wishes to celebrate them in their lifetime. Mydrim is the perfect gallery to commemorate these greats since we have been a part of all of their journeys in some shape or form. We owe it to give them the accolades they deserve.”

Adesanya recalled that before setting up Mydrim Gallery in December 1992, she had a passion for the fine arts and recognised the incredible talent of Nigerian artist. But art appreciation and artists then, she said, were not recognised as they are today, adding, “Unfortunately, at that time the art profession was generally not regarded as one of the noble areas, and society did not accord much importance to the artists or their works.”

She stated how Mydrim set out with the mission to change the wrong perception, saying, “The objective of the gallery was to rectify this anomaly and create a platform for educating Nigerians about the importance and the value of art. The gallery also sought to discover and promote new artists and also to showcase the works of emerging and established artists.”

Over two decades after, the gallery has a story to tell: “It has been an extremely challenging journey, but 25 years later, Mydrim Gallery has contributed significantly to the development of the visual arts in Nigeria. The promulgation of art as a great store of value has been established and artists are now held in high esteem. The works of Nigerian artists are now sought after all over the world.

“Mydrim Gallery remains at the forefront of providing art lovers in Lagos and across the country an avenue to discover and acquire important and collectable works of art by African artists. In 2015, Mydrim Gallery represented Africa at the modern art section of International Art Dubai Fair in recognition of its involvement with art in Nigeria.”


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