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Tokini Peterside: “Culture is a vehicle to influence perceptions”

By Nicholas Norbrook, in Lagos
Posted on Tuesday, 5 November 2019 11:34

Tokini Peterside, founder and director of Art X Lagos. TOM SAATER/NYT-REDUX-REA

There can be something galling about seeing a younger sibling succeed. But, for Tokini Peterside, the glorious show that Ghana put on at the Venice Biennale serves more as inspiration.

[This article first appeared in The Africa Report 108 July-Sept print edition] 

There was a lot of questioning about why Nigeria was absent this year,” says Peterside, who adds that Nigeria’s top art and design community is speaking of little else. “[Venice] is such a fantastic place to show the best work of your artists. It’s an opportunity for cultural diplomacy.”

Surrounded by exceptional paintings and photography in her Lagos office, Peterside is a relaxed and reserved presence, passionate about wielding art as a weapon of progress. She founded and directs Art X Lagos, West Africa’s only international art fair, whose fourth edition happens in early November.

The fair does glitz and substance in a way that only Lagos can. At the opening top collectors rub shoulders with the political and business elite. Last year, ­photographers snapped the Emir of Kano, Lamido Sanusi, in electric-­green headgear standing next to imposing pieces of sculpture and mixed-media work.

It is easy to get lost in Nigeria’s problems: rising population and unemployment, mounting ethnic and religious tensions, rampant impunity and exodus. In all this, the sight of members of the elite lifting champagne flutes while taking selfies next to high-concept paintings might seem incongruous.

So, is there a role for art when Nigeria’s parched north is sending hunger and violence southwards?

“There is so much potential for culture to be used as a vehicle to influence people’s perceptions of a country, a destination, a civilisation,” argues Peterside. Of course, the fact that Nigerian musician Davido is climbing the Billboard chart in the US will not immediately reduce the risk premiums on investment into Nigeria.

Buzzing curiosity

She adds: “Soft power is not just a squishy concept. It is used very deliberately by European and now Asian powers. And I created the art fair to build that bridge that would enable a curious European or Asian to travel to Nigeria and actually see for themselves.”

And it is working.

“There is a little whispering about ‘What is this thing happening in Lagos?’” says Peterside. “More and more people are showing up. A couple of weeks ago, we had Vanessa Branson [sister of British entrepreneur Richard Branson] choosing to visit Lagos – she set up the Marrakech Biennale a few years ago. She was sharing this buzzing curiosity about what is happening in Nigeria.”

When France’s President Emmanuel Macron visited Femi Kuti’s New Afrika Shrine in July 2018, Peterside led him on a tour to see the work of three artists showing at Art X Lagos.

Many Nigerian artists abroad are doing well.

Painter Njideka Akunyili Crosby, based in Los Angeles, sold a piece for more than $3m in London last year. Now, foreign auction houses like Christie’s and Bonhams are quickly realising that there is a large, discerning and wealthy collector community in Lagos whose members are ready to throw serious money at serious art.

Some artists are returning home, like Victor Ehikhamenor. He used to be based in the US and is now a leading campaigner for the return of African art to the continent from European museums.

UK auction house Bonhams has twice held auctions in Lagos to allow collectors to bid for modern art masterpieces.

An auction was held simultaneously in London and at the Wheatbaker Hotel in Ikoyi, Lagos, – with bids also flying across the Atlantic to secure the work of 20th-century African masters such as Ben Enwonwu, Gerald Sekoto and Ahmad Shibrain.

The international interest means Art X Lagos keeps growing.

Last year, there were 18 galleries taking part; this year there will be around 25, demanding a new, more spacious location. Previous editions had been held in the Civic Centre, lagoon-side. Galleries from Ghana, South Africa, Kenya, Uganda, Côte d’Ivoire, France and Germany will take part.

More money and exposure for Nigeria is only the start. In the same way that the soft power of culture can help a country abroad, it can also help it at home. For Peterside, art can unravel and remix the old ways of thinking about national identity that have plagued Nigeria since it was stapled together by the British
in the colonial era.

A new museum in Lagos

Big local collectors see the point, too. Prince Yemisi Shyllon, who has the largest art collection in Nigeria, is teaming up with the Pan-Atlantic University to create a museum to house his collection. “Among which will be, for example, some very important Yoruba artefacts,” says Peterside.

“There really is no substitute for knowing where you come from,” says Peterside, who recalls going to school in the UK and learning endless lessons about European history. And so she champions the inclusive role art and museums can play in creating spaces for Nigerians to have difficult conversations. “When I travel to Paris or London, I see endless classes of schoolchildren going to sit in the galleries to learn,” says Peterside, who wants Nigeria to seize the opportunity to do the same.

That may indeed start at the art fair itself.

Because Peterside has ascended to a position of power in the art world at a relatively young age – the daughter of Atedo Peterside, founder of Stanbic IBTC Bank is still in her mid-­thirties – she can play a bridging role between generations.

She argues that this has helped her bring in a new wave of people who “had thus far been excluded from this world of art appreciation in Nigeria, which has typically been focused on those with the spending power.” Her goal is “to enable someone who doesn’t have very much money in their bank account to feel as though they are a valid visitor.”

Had she been older, she says, it may have been “a bit of a challenge for me to design something so open and so robust.”

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