scaling the heights

ART X Lagos is raising the bar for African art and culture

By Dele Yusuf

Posted on November 8, 2021 14:51

ART X Lagos Fair Showcases Best Of African Art
Alonhomba 1, The Power of Alliances by Nuits Balnéaires presented at ART X Lagos 2021

ART X Lagos is running as a physical fair from November 4-7, while its online version runs from November 4-21. Works of young and veteran artists dot the galleries, each telling a unique story about Africa’s culture and lost identities.

When Tokini Peterside launched ART X Lagos as West Africa’s pre-eminent international art fair in 2016, she wanted to restore visual arts back to its former glory and bring it back to its rightful place in the national conversation.

More importantly, she wanted to showcase the best and most innovative, contemporary and modern art from African and Nigerian artists to the world.

ART X Lagos founder Tokini Peterside speaks to Reuters during an interview at the ART X fair in Lagos © ART X Lagos founder Tokini Peterside at the ART X fair in Lagos, Nigeria, 5 November 2021. REUTERS/Nneka Chile

It has been almost six years and “we can say we’ve done a very good job on that” since the first edition of the international fair, she tells The Africa Report. “We saw ourselves as the catalyst to just shine the spotlight on the artists’ work.”

Herbert Wigwe, the managing director of Nigeria’s Access Bank, agrees that the fair has become a game-changer. “Each time people hear about Nigeria and Africa, the first things that come to their mind are […] diseases, poverty, hunger,” says the MD of Access Bank, which sponsors the ART X Prize, an offshoot of the fair.

“But Tokini decided to do something interesting and created a very strong conveying platform in ART X. We’ve seen African arts begin to go through the roof and […] take its place,” he tells the room filled with artists, a wide range of guests and cameras at the exhibition on Friday.

Tokini inspires artists to challenge the status quo

In each gallery at the ART X Lagos’ ongoing exhibition, cultural ambience, strength, glitz, resilience and glamour holds the walls and walks the paths.

With oil pastel, acrylic and charcoal sticks on canvas, Lagos-based Kelechi Nwaneri’s ‘Baecation’ tries to tell a story in line with his artistry focus on mental health, psychology and social values, with artworks mostly inspired by events that happen in his environment. Another of his works, ‘Love at First Sight’, takes you through the inner struggle people go through when they fall in love at first sight: it shows a man being carried away by a spirit figure as he tries to get to his love, a woman held back by a female being.

Boris Ange, a 28-year-old Cameroonian artist, uses visual contrast between realistically-rendered black bodies and abstract, coloured grounds to achieve two things: to make Neo-Pop art paintings that provide spirited insights into his stylish models, while simultaneously pointing out the pervasive influence of consumer culture.

ART X Lagos Fair Showcases Best Of African Art © ‘The Black Widow’ by Anjel (Boris Anje) presented at ART X Lagos 2

Starting out as an artist, Angel Arthur Koua, from Côte d’Ivoire, felt trapped by the use of only paint as a medium, thus, he wanted to “be free to touch, to use any object and everything with the only concern of satisfying my inner self.” Some of his works on exhibition, titled ‘Iconoclaste’, have been created with mixed media and use textile materials and papers to create an image of human portraits, with one filled with ‘hope’.

Mona Taha’s works tell the story of women taking risks and having the courage to put themselves first, not just ‘the good girl’ who is repressed.

“You know how in African culture, they say ‘she is a good girl because she [is] quiet’…,” she tells The Africa Report as she shows her works, including of a woman looking away as though she is trying to find her voice. “It is about a woman being depicted as a good girl when she is not so opinionated, she obeys and follows the rules.”

My work […] is inspired by humanity and Africa. Today, Tokini Peterside was talking about the artist travelling abroad and not being able to create – this happened to me.

“For me it was personal because I was going through a difficult period when I was changing careers as a mother and a wife. I told them I have decided to become an artist – it was such a risk and nobody could understand why you should be doing this,” she says of her shift from studying economics, to becoming one of Tokini’s latest guests.

Senegalese Djibril Drame’s ‘Dead Man Walking’ shows a mass group as African identity and “all the surroundings representing what the western world has brought to us.”

“My work in general is inspired by humanity and Africa. Today, Tokini Peterside was talking about the artist travelling abroad and not being able to create – this happened to me,” he says. “I have been living in LA for over four years and I couldn’t even create, I had to come back to create.”

Anthony Yankouvic can’t seem to have enough of the unique African story from the displayed works as he joins other admirers at the exhibition, and it is not just the story that intrigues him. “The paintings and drawings, the colours – very fascinating,” he says, his gaze fixed on Helena Foster’s ‘Divided’, an oil painting of a woman with a forlorn face who sits as though she has undivided attention on her grief.

A ‘first’ in Africa with NFTs

Some of the featured artists this year are also making a mark with non-fungible tokens (NFTs) linked to the blockchain. NFTs and their massive opportunities started gaining increasing global attention earlier this year when Beeple, an American artist, sold his ‘Everydays: The First 5000 Days’ digital artwork for $69m.

How can we […] strengthen the art scene in Lagos, by bringing in Africa’s art scenes […]? How [can] we bring in the international community and enable people to better understand and connect […]?

“It is the first time we are seeing NFTs in an art fair in West Africa and I think also for Africa,” Prince Jacon Osinachi, a digital artist, tells The Africa Report. Osinachi helped curate a special NFTs sale in partnership with SuperRare, the digital art marketplace. “10 years from now, you are going to be seeing art fairs everywhere in Africa acknowledging NFTs like we are seeing here.”

ART X Lagos Fair Showcases Best Of African Art © Untitled 6 from series Things Fall Apart by Mario Macilau presented at ART X Lagos 2021

Let’s rewind to the beginning of ART X Lagos

Peterside started collecting artworks in 2008 as her love for art grew. “I started spending more time having conversations with artists, having conversations with them and getting to understand their pain points and didn’t understand the potential where they felt they could go,” she says.

It dawned on her that for artists on the African continent, it was not a very easy situation competing with their counterparts overseas who are connected to the global art market, and that realisation opened a world of opportunity. What followed was a series of questions.

“[…] How can we, first of all, strengthen the art scene in Lagos, by bringing in Africa’s art scenes here […]? How [can] we bring in the international community and enable people to better understand and connect with what our artists and galleries were doing for so long?

“How [can] we get everyday men and women inspired by art, excited about art, wanting to engage with artists? How [can] we ensure that corporate Nigerians would support the arts? How [can] we carve out a moment for Lagos from the global arts calendar?

“All of these [questions] were parts of the solution that we saw as […] necessary to ensure that the interest in Africa’s artists would sustain into the future; that the rise of African art that is being witnessed across the world right now would not be a passing moment or a passing phase, but could actually be sustained by the building of a collector base, a strong collector base […] at home,” she says.

The growth and prospects: ‘So much more to come’

In its sixth edition, Tokini’s ART X Lagos has evolved to become a platform “nurturing artists to the level they have gotten as a global powerhouse of artist expression,” says Lagos Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu, who was represented at the exhibition by an aide.

It also has various offshoots, including ART X Prize, an award for emerging visual artists, as well as ART X Live!, a live showcase and launchpad for rising musicians and artists.

With just four sponsors and 60 artists in 2016, there are currently an additional eight sponsors and the artists have doubled. The pan-African diversity of the galleries also continues to grow, with some foreign galleries from across the world, including the UK, Spain, France and Germany.

ART X Lagos Fair Showcases Best Of African Art © ‘Watching you watching nature’ by Henry Mzili Mujunga presented at ART X Lagos

In 2019, Ben Enwonwu’s famous Tutu painting, which sold for $1.6m at an auction in London in 2018, was seen in public for the first time in about 40 years at ART X Lagos fair that year. The fair has also played host to prominent individuals, including Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo, who attended the 2019 edition.

“They are already well on the way to achieving what their goal is, which is to truly become part of the global art fair circle,” says Sam Onyemelukwe of Tracy TV, one of the media sponsors of the fair.

Peterside is optimistic about so much more that she says is yet to come. “In 10 years from now, I see us opening up a larger number of collectors… I see us quadrupling the size of the fair. I see us taking our artists into other parts of the world, presenting their work and showing the power of storytelling across Africa. I see us launching new platforms at different stages of their careers.”

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