Creating A Legacy of Nigerian Female Artists
In 2015 at a discussion organised by Art Forum Africa (AFA) held in Lagos, the question Where are the Women in Visual Arts? was the focal point.
Women in the arts have suffered under-representation and been written out of the history books. In schools, students are exposed to the token female artist and for a lot of the young female artists this can be disheartening.
“Optics matter, optics shape reality,” artist Ayobola Kekere Ekun says. “I think it is important for young potential artists to see not just women in art community but successful women. I remember studying notable Nigerian artists in secondary school and there was only a single woman.” Kekere Ekun’s work was part of the 2016 Young Contemporaries Exhibition which opened to great acclaim in Lagos. She went on later in the year to have an exhibition at the Ake Arts and Book Festival in Abeokuta and stirred a lot of interest.
At the AFA discussion, the peculiarity of the African situation was brought to light. Gender expectations limit the options of the girl child, existing tradition roles dictate that women be caregivers and homemakers and such also limit how much they can put into their careers. The few women that break past these face stigmatisation from their male peers and a refusal to acknowledge their work on the same level.
“Afi Ekong was an artist, a gallery owner and great promoter of the arts. She is acclaimed as the first woman to hold a solo exhibition in Nigeria in the late 50s. More people remember Ben Enwonwu than they remember her,” says Bukola Oyebode, art critic and writer who owns one of the few exclusive art magazines in the country.
However, while these discussions continue, several young women are doing amazing work and garnering recognition from within and outside arts circles.
“Considering the art community was previously dominated by men, this is a good development. Now, there are women organizing outstanding exhibitions, auctions and other kinds of art events. There is a long list of vibrant cultural producers in the arts community and the proactiveness is also visible on the artistic side. Some of the visible young female artists are competing strongly at auctions,” Oyebode says.
In November 2016, Njideka Akunyili Crosby set a new auction record at Sotheby’s with “Drown” which sold for $1,092,500. This record will be the second that the visual artist has broken in the space of two months.
“Women are becoming more assertive in following through with their ambitions. And the ones that are aggressive find a way to get into history. Assertiveness and awareness of limitations have been the propelling forces and winds of change,” Oyebode says.
Rele Gallery in Lagos is owned by Adenrele Sonariwo and continues to be a leading contemporary space and hub for young art lovers in the city.
Demystifying the art space has also helped. Studio of Modé, a gallery in Lagos, has a monthly film screenings and hosted a local wine tasting event recently. Rele Gallery hosts book readings and partners with technology giant Samsung to attract a younger crowd to the art scene.
“There is a general resurgence and neo-renaissance upsurge and I am glad that a lot of young women are standing up to be counted in both making and managing art it it’s multifaceted field,” visual artist Victor Ehikhamenor says.
Where are the women in arts? They are busy – Adenrele Sonariwo, owner of Rele gallery; Bukola Oyebode, owner of The Sole Traveler art magazine; Jumoke Sanwo, photographer and director of the The Revolving Art Incubator; Taiye Idaho, painter and sculptor; Eloghosa Osunde, photographer, Stacey Okparavero, Yadichinma, Ayobola Kekere Ekun, all visual artists; Modé Adenirokun, owner of Studio of Modé; Kovie Parker, art writer/curator; Yagazie Emezie, curator amongst others – writing their own histories.