On her fourth visit, the American-born art historian shares her love-at-first-sight encounter with Nigeria and its vibrant art scene with Olufunke Adepuji
Janine Sytsma declared an undying love for Nigeria. At a canopied corner beside the OYASAF (Omoba Yemisi Adedoyin Shyllon Art Foundation) Sculpture Garden, she relished the fond memories of her previous visits. This time – the fourth, she said – she was here for the much-trumpeted comeback show of renowned Ona artists, who are all alumni of the then University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University) in Ile-Ife. The group exhibition, titled the Return of Ona, held at two notable Lagos venues – Nike Art Gallery along Lekki Expressway and Watersworth Gallery tucked away somewhere off the arterial Admiralty Way in Lekki Phase One.
Thanks to a very supportive US-based husband, which whom she tied the nuptials about a decade ago, she has taken a headlong plunge into her first love: art. Indeed, as a child growing up among her two siblings, she had been drawn to the enchanting world of paintings. Out of this sprouted an ardent fondness for art history, which became the theme song of her tertiary education. After her Bachelor’s degree in art history, she followed up with a Master’s degree in the same course. Presently, she is on the verge of clinching a PhD degree in the same course from the University of Wisconsin, Madison (USA).
Sytsma’s first visit to Nigeria was in 2008. This was when she came to curate an exhibition held at the Victoria Island-based, Lagos upmarket gallery, Terra-Kulture. The exhibition, another celebration of the Ona artists, was co-curated with Ifeoma Fafunwa. This was also when she heard about the OYASAF International Graduate Fellowship, having fallen in love with Nigeria. “I loved the opening,” she recalled as her eyes watered while she relished the memories. That exhibition lasted for 10 days. “I heard about OYASAF Fellowship programme, which I applied for.”
She has that programme, which she eventually did in 2009, to thank for all that she currently knows about contemporary Nigerian artists. The OYASAF programme also burnished her eligibility for a Fulbright scholarship to deepen her knowledge of Nigeria’s contemporary art scene. On the heels her OYASAF programme followed her brief study of the Yoruba Language at the Obafemi Awolowo University. But that is only sufficient for her to say to her amused interviewer, “Mo gbo die die” (I understand a little).
A yearlong tour of the southwestern part of Nigeria ushered her into the amazing world of local Nigerian cuisine. A vegetarian, the taste of most of the delicacies suited her palate. “If I wasn’t married I would have moved to Nigeria long time ago. I love pounded yam and of course the spices used in preparing the meal,” she added.
She also gained an unrestrained access into the studio practice of such renowned artists as Olu Amoda and Kunle Filani, among others. She was, of course, following the lead she got while still an OYASAF Fellow. This also led to her buffing her curatorial experience.
She hopes, with the conclusion of her PhD programme, to setup an exchange programme between Nigerian academics and their US counterparts. But she already foresees some difficulties because of the incessant strikes in Nigerian universities.
She also plans to work with the US-based Nigerian artist, Moyo Okediji for a month-long exhibition. “I’m looking forward to something different,” she said. “This is a change from the usual one-day or one-week kind of exhibitions. I hope to invite kids to engage in the educational aspects of the exhibition.”
So, how has she been able to strike the balance between marriage and education? “I have a very loving, caring and supportive husband,” she explained. “We talk every day. He has visited me before even while I was still an OYASAF Fellow. He encourages me [a lot] and, of course, there are no kids yet. He is based in Denver, Colorado and visits me every third week in Washington DC. That’s about a three-hour flight from his base. That’s like travelling from Nigeria to Senegal by air.”
Coming from the US, where artists enjoy some forms of government support, she acknowledges the challenges the Nigerian artists face when they pander to commercial whims. Thus, many artists who would have loved to explore other creative terrains are restrained by their existential needs. Creativity suffers as a result.
Meeting the OYASAF chairman, Omooba Yemisi Shyllon, remains one of her memorable moments in Nigeria. “I liked him the very day I met him. I never had any challenging time with him. He’s so gregarious.”
At the Smithsonian Institute in Washington DC, she is a doctoral fellow with a Nigerian artist Ugochukwu Smooth Nzewi. Apparently, her love for Nigeria has ensured that Nigerians would always cross her path.
On her next visit, she also hopes to meet the Ghanaian-born artist based at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka.