This weekend, Lagos became the beating heart of Contemporary African Art

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Artist Alimi Adewale in front of his paintings, Courtesy Arthouse Contemporary, ART X Lagos
Artist Alimi Adewale in front of his paintings, Courtesy Arthouse Contemporary, ART X Lagos 2018

Lagos is Nigeria’s largest city and the country’s economic centre. With its 21 million inhabitants, Lagos is also one of the fastest growing cities in the world and has become the capital of African Fashion with its popular Lagos Fashion week.

Now, the dynamic city is undergoing yet another transformation, turning into the beating heart of Contemporary African Art on the continent. This weekend, art galleries, collectors and art lovers are converging on the city to attend ART X Lagos, the first international Art fair in West Africa. 9,000 people flocked to the event last year, and more are expected this year.

Tokini Peterside, a long time art lover, launched the fair in 2016. In an interview with CNN Africa, she said, ART X Lagos existed to “tell the African story to the world” and “inspire [their] local audience.”
The fair along with the pioneering LagosPhotoFestival (launched in 2010 by Azu Nwabgogu), has galvanised the local art scene, drawing in a larger number of international visitors and created a suitable environment for other events such as Lagos biennal to emerge in 2017.

Sculptures by Cyrus Karibu, Picture by lcole Interiors
Sculptures by Cyrus Karibu, Picture by lcole Interiors

The ripple effect of the fair is mostly felt during the week it is held when in the same fashion as in Frieze week, a cluster of other events are organised to take advantage of the presence of international visitors and art lovers. One of the highlights of this week was the Art Summit, an educational initiative of Rele Gallery. The two days of talks about the Future of Art was lead by a panel of international artists that included Kehinde Wiley (who painted Obama’s portrait), the Ghanaian Ibrahim Mahama, and the Nigerian sculptor Nnenna Okore.

ART X Talks, the fair’s program of talks, draws its fair share of international panelists too. ART X Lagos have secured the participation of El Anatsui from the onset in 2016, followed by Njideka Akunyili Crosby in 2017. This year, the keynote artist is Yinka Shonibare. He will “discuss his practice and influences.” The artist’s hybrid sculpture “Planets in my head”  is exhibited as part of the fair’s special project.

Artist Patrick Apkojotor in front of Yinka Shonibare's "Planets in my head"
Artist Patrick Apkojotor in front of Yinka Shonibare’s “Planets in my head”

Yinka Shonibare’s attendance coincides with ART X Lagos reaching its biggest size yet with 18 galleries, (10 of which are based abroad), representing 55 artists from Africa and the diaspora.  It is a significant jump from previous editions attended by less than a dozen galleries.

However, the lasting highlight of this edition will be the reappearance of “Tutu.” the iconic portrait of a princess painted by Ben Enwonwu in 1974. The lost artwork reappeared in February at Bonhams’s Africa Now auction where it was sold for  £1,205,000 (including premium) over 5 times the low estimate of £200,000.  This is the first time the portrait has been seen in Nigeria in over 40 years, lifting the veil on its whereabouts after the auction.

Tutu, Ben Enwonwu, 1974, Image courtesy of Nkechi
Tutu, Ben Enwonwu, 1974, Image courtesy of Nikki.Cryan

“Tutu” is likely to make the headlines again and draw further attention to the buoyant Nigerian art scene. In a recent piece in the magazine “Something We Africans got,” Hannah O’Leary, head of the contemporary African art department at Sotheby’s pointed to Nigeria as “the market that excites [her] the most,” confirming the country’s position as an African Art powerhouse in the making.

For the time being, the African art leader is South Africa. Among the African countries, it is South Africa that boasts the most developed art infrastructure, from art collectors and patrons, to galleries and art critics, which are leveraged to support the work and development of their artists. The auction house Bonhams has had a dedicated “South Africa” auction every year since 2007. Johannesburg Art Fair was launched a year after in 2008, before “Modern and Contemporary African Art” as a whole started attracting international attention. Last year, Zeitz MOCAA – Museum of  Contemporary Art Africa, the biggest of its kind on the continent was inaugurated with great fanfare in Cape Town.

Although Nigeria has a vibrant cultural and artistic history to draw on, its art structure is still in its infancy. The Nigerian artists who dominate the auctions, such as Njideka Akunyili Crosby (who set a new record of $ 3.375,000 for the sale of Bush Babies at Sotheby’s in May) and Yinka Shonibare are based abroad and were also trained overseas. But what Nigeria as a country lacks in structure or even state support, it makes up for in dynamism, creativity, and entrepreneurial endeavor.

Henri Abraham Univers with Retro Africa
Henri Abraham Univers with Retro Africa, Picture by lcole Interiors

ART X Lagos is a private initiative supported by sponsors and partners. Since its inception, it has established an ART X Prize that provides the winner with mentoring in addition to monetary rewards. In Addition, Yinka Shonibare announced he was “building an international residency space in Lagos” in an interview with Art Africa.  Many art galleries and artists led initiatives have sprung up in the last few years, and new ones are in the pipeline.

If these initiatives stand the test time, they will transform Lagos into the art powerhouse of the continent. For now, we are being given a taste of things to come, as Lagos takes over the contemporary African art world for the weekend, with a daytime art fair and lively music with ART X Live at night.  Where do I sign up for next year’s edition?

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