The Curious Case of Africa’s Art Abroad
Ngozi Edozien was 13 when she bought her first art piece. “It was an ivory sculpture,” the investment expert says at a session of Art Forum Africa (AFA), hosted in November during Art X, the new art fair in Lagos. “I grew up in a household where I was surrounded by beautiful things, music, furniture and all that. And somewhere inside me is, I think, a latent artist or interior decorator.”
A year later, aged 14, she got her second piece, a gift from the late Nigerian artist and sculptor, Ben Enwonwu. (“I was fascinated by the movement of the dancer in the piece, so I begged him to give it to me.”)
Decades on, Edozien has collected more works by artists across generations and gender, and she continues to keep her eye out for more. “I acquire things that I like and want to have in my space; I collect because of love and desire. Things speak to me literally,” she says.
For the talks, Edozien is joined on the panel—moderated by AFA Co-Founder Wana Udobang—by two key persons in the local art scene: Moses Ohiomokhare (Curator at Quintessence Gallery Ikoyi) and Ifeoma Fafunwa (Chief Creative Director at iOpenEye Ltd).
There aren’t as many collectors in Nigeria as there ought to be in a country of 180 million, a situation commentators complain about often. “The collector is very important in the art industry,” says Ohiomokhare while recognizing the importance of other participants in the creation of art: the artist, the curator, the dealer and the critic. “All these people are key but it is the collector who spends the money, who helps to steer things in the direction they should go.”
Ohiomokhare later argues that many local artists disappear from the scene because they could not attract collectors for their works. But what determines the value or price of a piece of art? According to Moses, the age of the work and the creator’s pedigree are important considerations. “The artists also have to be consistent in producing their works, because if they don’t the younger ones will take over,” he says.
The younger ones have, in a sense, taken the stage—in Nigeria, at least. Almost there of every four galleries that opens its doors to the public is owned by a young entrepreneur.
Contemporary Nigerian and African artists are currently producing in-demand works that are already attracting global interest. Even at Art X, a good number of the works on display have been produced by artists under 40, nearly all of whom have a huge following on social media. And youths made up a large chunk of the guests.
Africa has produced remarkable art for millennia; art drooled over, bought, smuggled or stolen by Western collectors. In Nigeria, historians and stakeholders still make reference to the 1897 assault on Nigeria’s Benin Kingdom by British forces, during which countless bronze and ivory works were forcefully taken away.
Similar stories of forceful looting by The West were recorded in Ethiopia, Ghana, Benin Republic and Egypt, to mention just a few instances, in the 19th and 20th centuries. Today, they form part of private and museum collections in the West.
The Yale University collection has 2000 objects in its collection of African arts.
There have been repeated calls for them to be returned.
“I am one of those who believe that the artifacts should not be returned to Nigeria,” says Fafunwa, whose recent project was producing the hit stage production ‘Hear Word!’, a commentary on gender equality and the rights of women. “They will not be safe, they will not be taken care of and we will not respect them.”
Fafunwa reasons that every public institution in Nigeria has failed over the past 40 years (“So has our art.”). She wonders why, after six decades of self-rule, Nigeria can’t boast of diverse corporate or institutional collectors.
“I recognize that a lot of the historical pieces are exiting the country. The bulk of our art have already gone—I doubt if there are any left. All I see around are fake,” she says.
Edozien, Ohiomokhare and Fafunwa agree that Nigeria has witnessed an explosion of creativity and dynamism in recent years, starting from the 1990s thereabout, helped by globalization and the internet, which has given local artists easy and direct access to the global art scene and current trends.
So if there is a bunch of collectable art out there, why aren’t Africans collecting them? According to a recent survey, of the Top 100 collectors worldwide, only three are Africans.
Why are African arts appreciated more by Western eyes? Fafunwa believes colonialism is to blame. “There is a war between artifacts and religion in Nigeria,” she says, an argument that could very well apply to the continent, where Christianity and Islam is replacing various traditional practices.
“So many things about our cultural heritage, we do not value,” says Edozien. “The aesthetics of art is undervalued. I find it frustrating that we don’t seem to nurture that in our country.”
The Forum is the second in the series of conversations started by Arts enthusiast and publisher Bukola Oyebode and multimedia journalist, poet and filmmaker Wana Udobang.
The first forum addressed the subject of women in the arts, which resulted in the mentorship for 30 young female creatives by practicing and established professionals.
“We set up AFA to bring together thoughts and ideas that were otherwise discussed behind closed doors,” Oyebode says days after the session. “In this way, we can all tackle the problems of the visual art industry together and influence decisions if necessary.”