#WeAreNigerianCreatives, a dive into Nigerian bottomless creative well

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artwork by Marcellina Akpojotor
Left: Dear diary (Power Series) 2017, Marcellina Akpojotor (@Marcellina OA)

For the last 3 months, #WeAreNigerianCreatives has been trending on twitter lifting the veil on the creative wealth of the country.

The late Nigerian Artist Ben Enwonwu made headlines in February with the discovery of his iconic portrait “Tutu,” that had been lost for decades. The discovery and the subsequent record-breaking sales (£1M) only emphasized how little is known of the legacy of African Artists. They also underscored the struggle most African artists face to get exposure for their work, despite the rise of international interest in African Art.

Step forward Olaloye Bunmi. In January, the Nigerian artist launched the hashtag #WeareNigerianCreatives to “expose Nigerian Creatives to the world.” To participate, his fellow artists had to abide by some simple rules. Being a Nigerian creative, tweet 3-4 examples of their work alongside a brief bio and finish it off with #WeAreNigerianCreatives.

Drawings by Sheyi Alabi
Drawings by Sheyi Alabi

The collage of 4 pictures allowed each creative to show at a glance a mini portfolio that showcased the range of their work and their talents. Meanwhile, the hashtag itself was an inclusive rallying call, open to a wide variety of creative expressions: painting, poetry, illustration, writing, photography, design, music, content creation, etc.

2 pictures by Lazham Photography
Lazham Photography

The hashtag started trending after a few weeks, and Bunwi was ”blown away” by the enthusiastic response of his fellow Nigerian artists. From the self-confessed color Artist Yinfaowei Harrison to the hyperrealist painters Sheyi Alabi or the illustrators Ubiomo Ogheneroh and Emmanuel Idoko #WeAreNigerianCreatives began to unearth the hidden talents in Nigeria. Each new tweet revealed the depth and breadth of the creative wealth of the country.

e Illustrations by Ubiomo Ogheneroh (@lord_kpuri)
Illustrations by Ubiomo Ogheneroh (@lord_kpuri)

Among the visual artists, there are artists such as Olaloye Bolaji who creates digital images, while others like Folashade Fagorusi and Alex Peter Idoko resort to traditional materials using respectively thread and wood. As to Marcellina Akpojotor, she uses fragments of Ankara fabrics and painting to bring her characters to life and explore womanhood.

Nigerian artist Artist Folashade Fagorusi
Artist Folashade Fagorusi uses knitting wool and needle to create her “paintings.”

Three months on, the rallying cry for the creative is still growing from strength-to-strength and evolving: they are now using a collage of 9 pictures to show their work. Young artists are joining in while people on twitter (mainly) and Instagram continue to look in awe at the new art being produced.

I reached out to some of the artists to find out what has been the impact on them. For Promise Peter, the hashtag allowed him to reach new audiences. Sheyi Alabi also confirmed the hashtag had “a positive impact [and] created awareness about Nigerian Art as well as the artists.” Olaloye Bunmi also points to the success story of Silas Onoja whose superb hyperrealist portraits went viral a few weeks ago.

Left Nigerian Artist Silas Onoja painting; Right Through the Storm
Left: Artist Silas Onoja painting; Right “Through the Storm”

Beyond the immediate effect of increased visibility and sales enquiries, what Olaloye Bunmi has achieved over such a short period is to create a very dynamic and vibrant community, whose members are incredibly supportive of each other. They actively retweet each other’s work and share uplifting messages to spur each other on.

Illustrations by Nigerian artist Emmanuel Idoko
Illustrations by Emmanuel Idoko (@vortexxx_bolt)

Another artist, Emmanuel Idoko confirmed that the hashtag has allowed Nigerian Artists to connect and inspire each other. He went as far as to say that it was “curbing the negative stereotypes associated with Nigerians.”

In a way, it reminded me of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “Wear Nigerian” campaign. Last year, the acclaimed writer and novelist decided to wear exclusively clothes made by Nigerian designers to support and promote the local fashion industry. The pictures of the high profile events she attended were published on her Instagram account,  created specifically to help with her fashion patronage efforts. A year and 169,000 followers later, it is evident she has used to great effect her international reach to promote the work of fellow Nigerians.

Illustrations by: left Michael Olasubomi Balogun (@TheBalox), right: Yinfaowei Harrison (@tyiinfaowei)

There is no celebrity firepower in this art initiative. Instead, the engine that propels this grass root digital campaign is stoked with the trust, goodwill, and discipline of the participants. As an artist, Olaloye Bunmi has sidestepped the traditional Art pathways for young artists and solved the issue of lack of exposure by building a large following on social media: 36,000 to date on Twitter.  He understands all too well the power of social media and wants to harness it to effect a positive change for his peers and the Nigerian creative industry at large. He is also using his Instagram account and his 11,000 followers to spread the word about the unique work of his peers.

drawing by Promise Peter
Promise Peter (@Promise266)

For him, #WeAreNigerianCreatives is more than a hashtag. It is a movement with a meaningful purpose: “changing perceptions and stereotypes about the Nigerian youth.” He describes himself in his Twitter bio as a dreamer and he does have big dreams for the movement. There could be an exhibition in the future and yearly events to create more opportunities for these young talents to be seen and appreciated. If the movement is successful, it is likely to propel the careers of young artists, connect them directly to art buyers and change the art landscape in Nigeria in the long run.

Illustrations by Nigerian artists Illustrations by: Left Papi (@OhabTBJ) Right Olaloye Bolaji (@artnerdx)
Illustrations by: Left Papi (@OhabTBJ), Right Olaloye Bolaji (@artnerdx)

Ironically, while I was writing the blog, Twitter erupted in an uproar over President Buhari’s declaration at a Commonwealth forum. He complained about some of the Nigerian youth “[sitting] around, doing nothing” expecting to live off the country’s oil-funded social welfare.

The subsequent trending “LazyNigeriansYouths” gave an insight into the challenges some of these creatives face to establish themselves. From the long hours and years of practice to hone their skills (most of them are self-taught), to the multiples side jobs to make ends meet, it is evident they are doing anything but sitting around.

Interestingly the hashtags paint a picture of a youth that is resourceful, talented and incredibly innovative. In the face of multiple obstacles (lack of art structures, funding, and exposure), they are taking matters into their own hands, using the tools at their disposable to disrupt the old order and create opportunities for themselves.

Most of the art we see today has gone through a certain filter or selection. Searching for #WeAreNigerianCreatives, unlike other experiences, is a dive into a diverse world of raw talents, uncensored and unfiltered. It is a virtual place where young artists, some, in the early stages of their careers can show their work alongside more experienced artists whose work is breathtaking.

Don’t take my word for it. Search the hashtag #WeAreNigerianCreatives and let me know in the comments what you think. Alternatively, let’s continue the conversation on Twitter, Instagram or Facebook.

Did you read my interview with Wole Lagunju? The artist paints hybrid characters with Gelede masks to challenge the manufactured hierarchy of cultures.

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