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Nigerian contemporary art


“Nigerian art is dynamic because it is the product of cross fertilization and influences from at home and outside. This hybrid quality inherent in it, means that it can never be stagnant.” –Bruce Onobrakpeya MFR

Nigeria has always been a hotbed for art- home to artists with unparalleled talent such as El Anatsui, Nike Okundaiye, Ben Enwonwu, Nnnenna Okore; it has a thriving national contemporary art scene. Despite this, Nigeria is not fully integrated in the world of contemporary art due to the limited national art infrastructure and the small number of African led, funded and organized art fairs.

Enter Art X Lagos, a new art fair by Nigerians with the goal of maximizing the selling, valuation and exposure of Nigerian contemporary art in the world. The fair will feature over 60 artists from several galleries in Nigeria and Africa from Nov. 4 to Nov. 6 at the Civic Centre in Lagos, Nigeria. The relevance and timeliness of this fair must be emphasized as it has the opportunity to create a seismic shift in the presentation of Nigerian contemporary art, and building and growing a meaningful connection to the contemporary art world internationally.

Historically, Europeans have come into Africa to cart away its treasures- oil, gold, art; today they are less blatant. Now collectors find ‘hotbeds’ of contemporary art such as Nigeria and South Africa; purchase these works at a much lower price than the art of non-African artists. This is the biggest reason why Africa and Africans need to create their own Art fairs in which they ascribe value to the work. Homegrown fairs and biennales present opportunities for self-affirmation and assertion of sovereignty.

There is a misguided belief that the Nigerian contemporary art scene has a valid presence in the global scene. The media that often focuses on the very few top contemporary artists such as El Anatsui, Julie Mehretu, Wangechi Mutu or Toyin Ojih-Odutola created this view. These artists have gained access through their work to major auction houses and art dealers but their inclusion in these spaces are not enough to say there is any real connection to the contemporary art world scene. There are contemporary artists in Nigeria whose work is as mind blowing as their contemporaries who do not have the resources or the access these few artists have. This lack of access is what creates a void where African contemporary art as a robust market should fill.

There are a few African Art fairs that hold in Africa but many more, which happen outside Africa. African biennales and fairs (which happen too infrequently by the way) such as the Bamako or Dakar Biennial are often fully funded by the French or the local former colonial power. A combination of lack of access, state interest and resources has made it difficult for curators and artists to consistently organize art fairs. Generally, curators have a several years to plan and organize major biennials in the United States and Europe; Mr Njami who had the behemoth task of organizing the Dakar’s biennial- Dak’Art, had only four months to do so. If countries within the continent are able to consistently organize art fairs within their spaces and invite the top players in the art world including dealers with powerful reputations; they can begin to control the market as well as put these artists in front of those who actually control the global contemporary art scene.

Contemporary African art purchased in Africa is a bargain compared with art acquisitions from other parts of the world especially those of American and European artists. Bonhams expert Giles Peppiatt said works by Africa’s best-known living artists typically sell for less than $150,000, or the ballpark asking price at auction for works by much younger, less time-tested US artists- and this is exactly why art fairs and auctions within Africa are necessary.

Africa is the mecca for contemporary art and Africans must combine efforts themselves to celebrate and place a high value on their art; which is on par with the artwork of the rest of the world. African art is no more about traditional tribal masks and carvings, raffia and woven crafts- todays artists are well read, well travelled and tackling contemporary issues like oil spills, immigration, war, famine, femininity. Their works are bold and brilliant, uninterested in status quo.

With the continuous visibility and support of African organized art fairs within the continent, more infrastructure, institutional lendings, African fully funded fairs and biennales like ArtX, the Bamako Biennale we will see a massive rise in the value and presence of contemporary African art.

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