Who art exhibition ‘epp’?

Ngozi Omeje – Connecting Deep, CCA Lagos. Photo credit: Ayọ̀ Akínwándé. Courtesy CCA Lagos
Multidisciplinary artist Ayọ̀ Akínwándé casts a critical eye over elements of Nigeria’s visual arts scene.

I once read on an online art forum that “sitting and painting in the studio is masturbation if no one outside of your friends see the work.” A crass reference, but one that got me thinking. I believe the debate to show or not show one’s work in any format – exhibition, screening, and talks – is always at the discretion of the artist. 

My emphasis in this essay is on the need to make art exhibitions that are grounded in theoretical framework, artistic and curatorial research, and for the theorists, curators and critics to have the space and support to do so. When visual arts organisation CCALagos hosted the travelling exhibition Publishing Against the Grain last year, not many visitors were expecting to see books in the place of artworks. The exhibition took place within the context of the venue’s recent decision to place more emphasis on its library – the most extensive public reading space for visual arts in Nigeria – while scaling down on its exhibition programming.

The art world is one that’s infused with irony, which is generally conveyed by artists using clichéd statements about work that “addresses socio-political issues”

As an essay title, “Who art exhibition epp?” loosely translates as “who does art exhibitions help?” This could be both a statement and a question about the relevance of art exhibitions and to whom they are for. Art, or what we believe it to be, is not one of the “problems” of the people. Rather, it is tribalism, classism, corruption, religious intolerance, power outages, domestic abuse and violence, depression, poverty, gentrification, police brutality, kidnapping, terrorism, gender inequality, infrastructural deficit, electoral violence, impunity, pollution, displacements, unemployment … that are some of the main drawbacks. While these obstacles could become intangible materials for the artists to work with, the resulting exhibitions must therefore connect with these issues for art to become a tool of national reawakening.

Publishing Against The Grain – courtesy of CCALagos Gallery

However, the art world is one that’s infused with irony, which is generally conveyed by artists using clichéd statements about work that “addresses socio-political issues,” while very often failing to interrogate any of the roll call of societal problems. Additionally, there are those who believe that the continent is not a country, but are eager to talk about “Africa in Venice,” as well as the growing call for “Africans to tell our own stories” – all made at the altar of western funding institutions. 

In Lagos city, with its over 20 million inhabitants and abundant supply of artists, it remains an irony in itself that there exists only a handful of galleries. What is needed is a proliferation of private museums as well as these galleries and exhibition spaces.

‘Who art exhibition epp?’ is a question I’d asked myself at the beginning of this year, having had two solo showcases, first at Omenka Gallery and then at the Revolving Art Incubator (RAI). The question had come as both a personal reflection and a deep interrogation of what I had done. Having poured all of my soul into making these shows, I began to ask, “Who cares?”

The dearth of critical publications that accompanies exhibitions in Nigeria makes one wonder what happens to the message after these shows, or like everything else in the city, do they enter the recycle bin of history?

Up Nepa (performance still), Power Show I at Omenka Gallery (courtesy of Ayọ̀ Akínwándé)

I make it a personal duty to attend as many art exhibitions in Lagos as possible. This to me is the most practical form of learning about the artist’s works. There have been good and bad exhibitions – both the works and the curation – and three particular exhibitions that took place within the past year have inspired a personal reflection.

In March this year, fine artist Duke Asidere’s Sketches and Therapy at the Hourglass Gallery had 150 drawings and sketches, made between 2003 and 2006. These sat alongside a book compilation of the works. On entering the gallery space, viewers were almost blinded by these pieces, which were spread across a relatively small floor space. Perhaps a reduction of the works would have allowed the viewer to experience a transfer of the emotion conveyed by the artist with his lines and forms. On the upper floor of the gallery were canvasses inundated with colourful paintings – all created between 1991 and 2006. These become distractions, as the exhibition seemed to prioritise the artist’s drawings.

Installation view, Eva Obodo, “Ngwugwu (Packages)” 2019. Foreground – Food For Thought, 2018 Charcoal, metal, wood, silicone and cloth -. Arthouse – The space. Photo credit: Ayọ̀ Akínwándé.

Also this year, Arthouse organized mixed-media artist Eva Obodo’s solo exhibition – Nwugwu(Packages) at the converted Kia Motors Showroom.  On walking in, I couldn’t shift the feeling that Obodo’s charcoal works were “El-ish,” – a reference to the artistic style of the Ghanaian artist El Anatsui. Obodo had employed a visual language grounded in materiality that utilizes small objects, sewn together to create large(r) forms that are hung or draped on walls. Using nylon threads and wrapped jute fabrics in straight and diagonal forms, he illustrated the exploration of connectivity of the global human family.

The exhibition seemed to have been designed by using materials that produced sombre and vibrant characters, with the most contentious work being the Food For Thoughtinstallation, where the artist used charcoal, metal, wood, silicone and cloth to address the bloodshed from the killing of animals. The main piece took the form of a barbecue stand, positioned at about one metre high. This provoked a lot of reflection, however, it seemed like an afterthought when viewed in relation to the thematic framework of the other works in the show. 

Last year, Art Twenty One Lagos showcased photographer Abraham Oghobase’s Layers of Time and Place: What Lies Beneath, in which the present was superimposed onto the past, in a reframing of history. The exhibition took the city of Jos as a starting point in exploring Nigeria’s fragmented trajectory. Jos is located in the middle belt region of Nigeria, and known as the “Tin City,” due to the extensive mining of the mineral by the British, up until the 1960s. The photographs of old equipment bore witness to a mining past that has plateaued, peace and crisis collapsing in framed vast lands, to give a picturesque description of the central Nigerian town.

Installation view, Abraham Oghobase, No Matter Who You Are, 2018. Angels and Muse. Photo credit Ayọ̀ Akínwándé.

An additional performance element of what were self-portraits in abandoned buildings and deserted landscapes, built on Oghobase’s ‘Ecstatic’ series that began in 2009. The current images allow him to experience what he sees as a “momentary exhilaration” in his engagement with the city’s history. A sound installation of a train became the most powerful and yet subtle piece in the exhibition. With this, Oghobase was able to create both a visually and sonically evocative experience for the audience. However, a lack of an exhibition catalogue, a publication or some form of document that could contribute to future scholarly research on photography remains a disappointment.

Installation view, Abraham Oghobase, Layers Of Time & Place: What Lies Beneath, 2018. Foreground: Rock Specimen, 2018. Background: Rock Anatomy, 2018. Photo credit Ayọ̀ Akínwándé.

If exhibitions are put up for sales purposes, the ‘success’ or ‘failure’ could be predicated on the red dots and the conversations, possibly centred on pricing and valuation of the works. But then this cycle is one that is getting tiresome. With art fairs and auctions being the biggest events in the city’s calendar, the need to inject these commercial and social gatherings with doses of criticism cannot be overemphasized. 

How do we transcend the connotations that criticism has with distaste or contempt, when criticism itself is at the core of the development of the arts in any ecosystem? 

While I recognize that art criticism in Nigeria needn’t fall into the ecosystem of the West, what should it then look like in the context of its own social, political and cultural environment? What needs to be said and who has the agency to say those things? How do we transcend the connotations that criticism has with distaste or contempt, when criticism itself is at the core of the development of the arts in any ecosystem? 

The ‘creative chain’ starts with the artists and ends with the historians, curators, archivists, gallerists, researchers, dealers, experts, writers, publishers, critics, producers, collectors, and patrons. In the context of Nigeria, it’s usually unclear who plays what role. What then happens when these roles are not defined – or even refined? The fault lies  with the value or levels of artistic documentational resources available, where, for example, the artist becomes curator, and in many cases sponsors their own exhibitions. 

Nigeria is the definition of a “concrete jungle”; where every citizen is self-sufficient, is his or her own government, and survival is a durational performance. This is the landscape within which the arts also operate, and its survival is predicated on the synergy between the stakeholders, which homogenizes initiatives and amplifies activities. Until then, silence and prayer will continue to be the tools for combating the country’s cultural problems while we keep chanting “E go beta.”