The di­rec­tor of Art X La­gos talks about how Nigeria can flex its soft-power mus­cles to change the ways cit­i­zens think about their coun­try, and how it is seen from the out­side

The Africa Report - - EDITORIAL - In­ter­view by NI­CHOLAS NORBROOK in La­gos

The di­rec­tor of

Art X La­gos, Tokini Peter­side, talks about us­ing cul­ture to change per­cep­tions

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

“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.”

Tokini Peter­side, founder and di­rec­tor of Art X La­gos

Vis­i­tors at the an­nual Art X event in La­gos

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