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From Polo Ground, Esiri finds joy in Ikoyi, Lagos

By Gregory Austin Nwakunor
19 September 2021   |   3:08 am
Prince Albert Esiri is a ‘silent worker’. Humble and down to earth, the Executive Chairman of Ashbert Beverages Ltd, a bottling company in Abraka, Delta State

His studio

Prince Albert Esiri is a ‘silent worker’. Humble and down to earth, the Executive Chairman of Ashbert Beverages Ltd, a bottling company in Abraka, Delta State, also owns Abraka Turf and Country Club, which is a world-class resort in Delta State.

Aside from being a millionaire (or is it a billionaire?), he is also a top polo player, who hosts a yearly tournament in his club, every Easter.

A member of several polo clubs, he is known to spend money to buy the best ponies from everywhere and this stems from his deep love for the sport.

One other side of Esiri that is not known to the public is his love for art. He is one of the artists whose work is showing at the world’s most joyful art show, the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition 2021.

Held every year without fail, the summer show is a celebration of contemporary art and architecture.

It has always been devoted to showcasing contemporary art in all its forms, and modern visitors can expect a spectacular variety of sculpture and paintings, photography and film – coordinated by an artist and a committee of Royal Academicians.

The show is, in fact, a major highlight of the global art scene since the 18th century. It has run continuously since 1769. Even amid wars and pandemics, the Royal Academy has found a way to fit in its yearly pro-and-amateur artist jamboree.

In 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic threatened the show, it went ahead to hold in the winter, although not for a long run.

FROM today, September 19, to 21, friends will have the opportunity to preview the show before it opens for the public on September 22. A visitor can peruse prints, paintings, photography and film, as well as sculpture, architectural works and more.

“You can even take one home as most of the work is for sale; proceeds support both the exhibiting artist and the RA’s charitable activities,” the organisers say in a statement.

This year’s event is coordinated by the artist Yinka Shonibare and is ‘hewn in the image of his sculptural work, attempting to question historical injustices and to do so with abundant joy in the creation of art,’ critics have pointed out.

Shonibare has promised “magic” and Esiri is one of those delivering it with a work titled, Ikoyi, Lagos. Victor Ehikhamenor’s towering assemblage called The Holy King from the Sky and Lu Mason’s Magician are also part of the magic moment.

Njideka Akunyili Crosby, Michael Armitage, Jade Montserrat, Hew Locke, Rita Keegan and Alvaro Barrington, plus work by self-taught artists such as Frantz Lamothe, Bärbel Lange and Marie-Rose Lortet are equally showcasing their work.

Esiri’s Ikoyi, Lagos will be breathing the same air as that of Akunyili Crosby, whose Bush Babies painting sold for $3.4 million at Sotheby’s New York in 2017, making it the most expensive art sold at an auction on the continent.

As well as lining up household names with amateur artists, there’s a further twist to the summer exhibition: most of the pieces are available to purchase and part of the proceeds goes towards supporting some young artists chosen to study each year at the Royal Academy’s own art school.

That’s on top of an Architecture Room curated by David Adjaye, an accompanying sound programme, new works by Phyllida Barlow, William Kentridge and many more, not to mention brilliant art submitted by members of the public.

Shonibare has also invited international Black artists to contribute. Betye Saar is here, with Red Ascension (2011), a ladder between whose rungs is a narrative sequence: successively, an African mask, boats, chains, a dagger and a crescent moon and stars.

Ellen Gallagher’s Elephantine (2019) is another stand-out: a map of Africa with an elephant head embedded within, almost like a skull, and poles holding it up with the colours of the Belgian flag. It was made after Gallagher had researched Belgian colonial atrocities in the Congo. Other notable invitees include another US artist, Nari Ward, and the Beninese sculptor Romuauld Hazoumè.

Previous years have seen submissions from John Singer Sargent, Thomas Gainsborough, Tracey Emin, Sarah Lucas, Grayson Perry and even Winston Churchill – under a pseudonym.

THIS year, a visitor is guaranteed a peek into 1,300 works selected by Shonibare and a panel of artists, under the theme of ‘Reclaiming Magic’.

“The exhibition gives a lot of windows for non-professionals to build their work,” Esiri says. “Anyone can enter their work – leading artists, household names, new and emerging talent – and it provides a platform for the artistic community to showcase what they’re doing.”

As an entrepreneur and explorationist, how did he find himself in the show?

“There was a call for entries and I entered. The first round of selection was made from digital images of the artworks, from which the judges shortlisted,” he says.

After the initial selection, his assistant, Lola Okusami, handled every other correspondence, he admits, while acknowledging the diverse and inspiring work by celebrated artists and Royal Academy members that are appearing alongside pieces by up-and-coming names in the world’s biggest open submission showcase from September 22, 2021, to January 2, 2022.

To Esiri, his selection was an appreciation of his creativity.

“I know people who tried for so many years but were never selected,” he confesses. “You never know what the judges want; you never know what attracts them.”

The message of this selection, to him, is that “people should pursue their passion.”

Esiri always had a passion for art, but “I never pursued it until about seven years ago when I began taking classes to hone my skills.”

He says, “I draw and I do a few paintings for friends.”

His most preferred medium is portraiture. “It is intriguing. No two people are alike,” he says.

But Ikoyi, Lagos which has made the summer show in England, is a cityscape. The work is inspired by ‘perpetual darkness and poor power distribution in Nigeria.

Esiri had just come out of the polo club and there were generators everywhere to power the street light rather than the national grid.

The irony that interested him was one piece of light that protected the generator from being stolen.

He reveals that the show is steeped in drama and tradition. Historically, artists come together on Varnishing Day to add the final brushstrokes and polish to their pieces once hung.

To this day, they continue to gather at the Royal Academy courtyard before a steel band leads a procession along Piccadilly to St. James’s Church, where the artists receive a pre-show blessing.

Esiri says, “the reception was quite nice.”

He adds, with a smile, “it was really very exciting.”

It may not really be easy to fully assess this behemoth of a yearly show, but Shonibare has done a fantastic job and only on January 2, 2022, will it be fully known. The same way Esiri is likely going to take his passion for sculpting a top-notch. Maybe, his newfound love for ‘glass blowing’ will yield more work that will make future summer exhibitions.

Esiri at work

Ikoyi Lagos

An Untitled work by Esiri

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