Tokini Peterside: Sustaining the lifeline of Nigerian artists
Launched in 2016, ART X Lagos aims to reinforce the visual arts sub-sector, as an important component of the creative industry in Nigeria and Africa through its contribution to the increased visibility of African artists. In this interview with the founder, TOKINI PETERSIDE sheds light on the art fair, from the start of her dream and what the future holds for African art
How was the idea of Art X conceived?
I would say that for the last five years, I have dedicated my career to working in the culture sector. I have worked in fashion, film, music and the art. I have also been collecting art for about 10 years. There was a kick-off point for Art X Lagos, when I visited Venice Biennale, the world’s largest and biggest art exhibition in 2015. Okwui Enwezor Will was the first black African to be invited to curate such a huge project. His exhibition that year involved so many Nigerian and African artists and it was a truly dynamic and inclusive Biennale. That experience, for me, resonated in a number of ways. It was very exciting to see African artists positioned on the world biggest stage in such an even way. It also stressed for me that at home we needed to develop more platforms that could similarly bring the world to see what we have going on and see the potential of the art sector in Nigeria.
This belief came up because I was in conversion with many Nigerian artists in their 30s, who were having very exciting careers internationally. Majority of them were no longer living in Lagos, and the number of them living in Lagos were looking for ways to leave Lagos. I thought these artists needed to be present in Nigeria. How do we stop our country’s brightest stars from leaving? How do we ensure that many more of them can stay in Nigeria, thrive in Nigeria, sell their works to Nigerians and also to the international market? I then decide to think about what type of platform could do that. Would it be a Biennale, as we now have in Lagos through what Folakumi did this weekend, or would it be an art fair? So, I chose the art fair format.
Where were you before Art X?
I was in the middle of an MBA programme, doing a masters in Business Administration, and, after the Venice Biennale, I went back to my masters programme and made up an extensive research project with my classmates from all over the world. There were six of us grouped together to work on this project. The brief of the project I had for them was, what kind of platform do we create to celebrate, support and be a catalyst for the patronage of African artists within Nigeria and across Africa? Initially, we thought it was going to be a digital solution. We thought we were going to create a massive website and display the art and sell them there. But we decided, after a while, that something more experiential, more tangible that you could touch and feel would be the first step and right way to go. So, that was what we decided. At that point, while I was doing my MBA, I was also running my business, TP Collective, which is a strategy consultancy for luxury and culture sector.
What is the focus of Art X, as it appears to be a mixture of local and international artists?
Our focus is in the pan-African dimension. We recognise that Nigeria is the powerhouse in pan-Africanism. We, first of all, want to increase the number of collectors in Nigeria. We bring art from a variety of countries. We want to inspire the next generation of artists. With each generation, it is harder for our artists; we want to ensure that the lifeline of Nigerian artists is sustained.
How long did it take to put up the first Edition?
The MBA I mentioned was in 2015; I graduated in December 2015. I came back to Lagos immediately because I knew I wanted to work on my business and to continue growing it. I spent the first two months just getting reacquainted with all my clients, and it was in late February or early March that I started working towards the art fair. We then had to decide if it would happen in 2016 or 2017. All the international advisers said 2017, with the view that it was absolutely madness to think you could create a fair from the scratch within eight months. But there was something that made my team and me realised that we had to do it in 2016 and it was ironic because 2016, as we all know, was a very tough year for Nigeria. Businesses suffered, many private individuals suffered, a lot of people said, ‘are you sure that Nigerians would buy art?’
In fact, I remember when I met you and Yinka Olatunbosun, she was asking me if people were going to buy any art. But, in the end, we said, ‘let’s do it!’ And we were very excited to have done it because, as we watched thousands and thousands of people coming to Art X Lagos, the one piece of feedback we kept hearing from people was how their spirits felt very uplifted by being in that atmosphere, seeing the talents of Nigeria and the continent’s artists. They just felt hopeful for the future. These were both young people, as well as the more mature, more affluent collectors, all telling me the same thing and saying that 2016 was a very hard year, but they felt that the Art fair experience was a very uplifting one in which people from all walks of life felt welcomed to participate and to belong. In the end, we were glad to have done it!
How did you arrive at the curator for the fair?
The decision to work with Bisi Silver was a bit serendipitous. I had been nursing the art fair idea, thinking, ‘should I do it? How would I do it? And I wasn’t 100 percent certain I would do it in 2016. Then one day, I spoke, placed a call to Bisi about another project. Then at the end of that call, she said to me, ‘have you ever thought about doing an art fair? I think you could be the person to do it.’ So, I said to myself, ‘how would this woman think about it just like that? I have all the research, have done everything on my MBA programme. How does she just randomly say this to me?’ It was vey strange. So from that moment, she became the instant first curator for Art X. I then went back to her some weeks later; she was surprised by all the plans. I think she thought I had done all those plans within that short space of time. I didn’t think she knew I had done it the year before. I invited her on board to be the inaugural curator for the fair and she accepted. We then started working together; she was advising and guiding me on the galleries we would be exhibiting at the fair, while I focused on sponsorship for the fair. I also handled all the logistics. It is one thing to have all the idea of what you want to do and it is another thing to be able to execute them in Nigeria, which has its challenges. I brought all my experiences and decided that I was going to start up a world-class art fair in Nigeria.
At the end of the end of the first fair, we were very lucky to have had her as the curator. But this time, we decided to look into a different curator and this year, we invited Missla Libsekal, who is partly Ethiopian and partly Algerian. She was part of our advisory board and, after talking with her for a long time, I thought we were like-minded and felt she could follow well on Bisi’s solid foundation for the fair.
Are you looking at changing curators every year?
Originally, that was the idea, but we are going to decide, though we don’t see it as ideal. Libsekal is not your typical curator; she spent many years as a writer. We are open to different types of curators, but I must say that I have really enjoyed working with Libsekal this year. At the end of this year, we would evaluate and see how we can move forward. Art X is still a very new creation.
What was the response of the local galleries after the first edition?
There were galleries that chose to showcase on Art X, while others refused. But we invited every gallery. Those that showcased were very excited and many of them were genuinely pleased at the response because of the thousands of people that we managed to attract to the event. The calibre of people that came and, in some cases, their sales were good as well. For instance, we had a gallery that brought 27 works and sold out 23. Most galleries had very significant sales; some were moderate while others learnt a lot after the first edition. The other galleries, which did not work with us, a number of them later said to me that they saw the potential of what we did, and for them, they were very encouraged that the visual art sector in Nigeria could pull in the crowd. My hope is that we would work with more galleries in the future, especially as we hope to expand the fair.
The National Gallery of Art held an Art Expo, which did not last beyond four editions. What strategies are you putting in place to ensure sustainability?
Ideally, when you start up a business, you intend for it to continue. I never attended the Art Expo, when it happened. But with everything I have gone through trying to set up Art X Lagos, I can understand why somebody starts and three years later, finds it difficult to continue. It is a huge undertaking. I think a lot of people, who attend these fairs don’t understand how much goes into developing them. I definitely know that it is easy for somebody to start then fail to continue, especially if you don’t have financial support. For Art X, we are very fortunate that all our year-one sponsors are coming back, and we now have new sponsors saying they want to be part of this story. We pray and hope that that continues in the future because without their support, this fair cannot happen.
It is actually a lot easier than many would imagine to stop because it’s tough. The stress involved in trying to deliver a world class fair, the expense in Lagos, plane tickets and so on. It is a full time operation. My hope is that we will keep growing to expand the brand into many other areas. Most importantly, we hope that our sponsors stay with us or we may not be able to continue on our own.
How long is your gold sponsor, Access Bank on board for this project?
I can’t say they are with us for this particular number of years because nothing like that was stated from the beginning. But recently, Access Bank’s Managing Director, Dr. Herbert Wigwe, commented thus on the collections of Ben Enwonwu’s sculptures at ART X Lagos, “We are looking forward to sharing this poignant and historically significant body of work from the Access Bank Collection, as a befitting commemoration of the centenary year of Ben Enwonwu’s birth. These sculptures of his have made an interesting journey from being commissioned by the Daily Mirror in the 60s, lost, recovered, auctioned and acquired by Access Bank, as a necessary addition to our vast collection of African art. Ben Enwonwu is undisputedly a national treasure, who played a pivotal role in the acceptance and global recognition of Nigerian artists during his time. We are fortunate to be custodians of some of his works, which form an intrinsic part of our national history and are a source of immense pride for us as Nigerians.” Last year, we had four sponsors and this year, we have 10, including a German airline, Lufthansa.
How many galleries and artists are we expecting to see this year?
This year, we are expecting to see the works of over 65 artists, drawn from 10 countries around Africa. Our venue, Civic Centre, isn’t that big, and that is why we have maintained 14 galleries to feature in the fair.