Friday, November 9, 2007

Biennials and their Lagos critics

I cannot help but discern a certain dunderheaded nationalism when some Nigerian, especially Lagos-based, artists comment on contemporary art. A few years ago, (following New Energies, a show organized byEl Anatsui at the Goethe Institute, Lagos) the big question, believe it or not, was whether installation and conceptual art were too alien, in other words too western to be condoned in Nigeria! If not that the "anti-installation" critics were also people one otherwise had reason to respect, I would not have given any much thought to that debate. But I did, in a lecture at Jazz Hole, in Ikoyi Lagos, in the summer of 2001 (published in The Guardian of Lagos a month later). This time around, a few commentators, including my good friend Olu Ajayi--a fine painter and current president of the Lagos chapter of the Society of Nigerian Artists—fulminate against art curators and biennials. In a recent report published in The Guardian Online (accessed Nov. 9, 2007), the paper’s art critic Chuka Nnabuife maps the biennial debate, describing it thus:
WHENEVER the word 'biennale' is mentioned in a gathering of Nigerian artists, a hot debate ensues. Artists take positions behind factions that appear like old foes: ‘them’ against ‘us’.”

As in the past, the arguments made by Nigerian critics of biennials have often reflected a hermit or siege mentality, the illusion that Nigerian artists are the better if left alone, without any supposedly “foreign” contamination emblematized by “installation art” or “biennials.” There is sometime pathetic, incredibly reactionary about contemporary artists who refuse to speak or understand the language of contemporary art, yet paradoxically miffed by the fact that curators of international exhibitions ignore their sometimes pretty but usually unambitious paintings and sculptures. The Nigerian art market is no doubt a large and thriving one, with local patronage that has produced a significant number of artists that can be rightly counted among Nigeria’s relatively small middleclass. So long as this local clientèle is satisfied with the canvases and fiberglass and wood sculptures produced by many a Lagos artist, all is well. Yet, the Lagos artists must also live with the fact that there is a world of contemporary art out there, to which is connected a zillion communities of artists, critics, curators, museums, institutions from Sao Paulo, Alexandria and Bamako to Beijing, Tokyo and Rome, from Los Angeles, Johannesburg, Buenos Aires and Dakar to Mexico City, Edinburgh, Mumbai, Istanbul and Sydney; a world the Lagos artists, should they care, have to speak to in the language of contemporary art. It is a matter of choice. Good thing though that there are a several photographers in the same city committed to exchange with other artists elsewhere; and artist-teachers like El Anatsui at Nsukka, and Tony Okpe and Jerry Buhari in Zaria who, against odds, continue through their work and teaching to expose young artists to the possibilities contemporary art, beyond staid notions of art canvassed by some Lagos artists.

Given the tone and tenor of the debates in Lagos, it should not surprise me that the longstanding, though somewhat insubstantial, campaign to initiate a Lagos biennial will either not succeed in my lifetime, or (God forbid!) if it does will be perhaps even a noisier version of Libreville's Bantu Biennial established years ago to promote the purportedly unique Bantu cultural identity of central African countries.

1 comment:

'Muyiwa OSIFUYE said...

I stumbled on the same article myself . My own thinking is that one must recognise that there is an evolving 'global culture' in many aspects of human endeavors....be it in the arts,medicine,fashion etc

For me everybody needs to have adequate information at his finger tips, to sieve such information and come up with new products or ideas subject to the influence of the elements that make up his background.

There has been much talk as in many aspects of life in Nigeria but we havent been bold to practicalise what we talk about...I wonder why there hasnt been a Lagos Biennale or Edo Biennale...?

In other words there is much to be done....the whole world is waiting..if we are ready...I believe the organizers of the so-called foreign biennale(as described) are ready to come in...

Lets get out of our 'matchbox'