By Moyo Okediji
Must an artist disregard the market and produce only work that comes from within, regardless of what art collectors desire? Or must the market drive artists to produce only what seem to sell? These questions provoke the dilemma facing artists as they make decisions that determine the directions to grow their works. It is also a problem that many art schools tackle as they draw their curricula and train students.
Distinctively free, and unlike any other field of production, the art industry is not directly anchored to the markets that directly consume it. This freedom is further complicated by considerations of the intention and purposes of art. Clearly fallacious and disingenuous is the claim that art is without function. It is more realistic to maintain that the purposes of art vary and depend on the intentions and visions of the artists.
One of the most fundamental functions of art is to enhance life and dignify dying. In a world that is fundamentally tragic, art is a necessary panacea that mitigates the rough edges of life. The tragedy of life resides in death: that we are born to die is a reality that ridicules human vanity and mocks our incessant drive toward self-preservation. Art therefore becomes the ritual with which humanity thumps its nose at death, and all the vicissitudes of mortal travails.
Death is the time stealer, the rude reaper that harvests life at its ripest, just like a farmer plucks an orange from the branch of the tree when it looks most juicy. This is a traumatic and debilitating act that leaves a scar wherever the fruit is plucked, however tiny. In some cases the tree bleeds out a flow of sap to lament its loss of the fruit, from that specific spot from which the orange leaves the branch. Even if the farmer does not reap the orange, and birds or insects eat the ripe fruit on the branch, the lesions of their bites leave visible bruises on the fruit as it hangs.
But however long the fruit stays on the tree, even when ignored by humans and animals, it must drop down one day, overripe, possibly rotten and stinking, when it abides beyond its prime, and when its time to go arrives. But within the orange are embedded many seeds to ensure the continuity of life. One of the purposes of art is to celebrate life by reminding us of the fruits of regeneration within the plucked oranges of time, while preserving the golden and lustrous appearances and pictures of the ripe orange, before it gets rotten, or before its skin is peeled, and the content consumed. Art also celebrates the passing of the life with pomp and pageantry.
It is this passage of time, and this celebration, that Wole Soyinka illuminates in his poem, “To My First White Hairs.” Soyinka writes, “THREE WHITE HAIRS!/ frail invaders of the undergrowth/interpret time. I view them, wired wisps, vibrant coiled/beneath a magnifying glass, milk-thread presages.”
Now that the Nobel laureate must search with a magnifying glass for ANY dark thread within his thick vegetation of white hair, it seems impossible to imagine the moment when his first grey hairs sprung on him. His poetry not only marks that grey moment and makes it a timeless transition, he poignantly anticipates and slights death in a related poem. In “Post Mortem,” he concludes with, “let us love all things of grey; grey slabs/grey scalpel, one grey sleep and form,/grey images.”
A fundamental purpose of art therefore lies in its capacity to simultaneously defy and commemorate time by connecting the present to the past and the future, through the making of objects of desire, contemplation, reflection, and consolation. Art is a psyche fodder that sustains humanity in the negotiation of life’s wrinkles, and in the acceptance of the inevitability of death. And when death descends, as surely it must, artists make portraits, shoot photographs, mold sculptures, write songs, and craft words to mitigate the loss, and memorialize a life when spent. This metaphysical underbelly of human mortality is the dimension within which art plants itself, germinates, and grows in the psychosomatic elements. To be human is to dream and plot to terminate death. With the making of visual, musical, literary, choreographed, filmed, and performed arts people minimize the pains of bereavement.
A new dimension is now expanding the perspectives of artist in Lagos and its metropolis, if not in the entire nation of Nigeria. The auction house is now fast becoming a major player in the creative reality in Nigeria. Specifically, the Outhouse Auction House is positioning itself at the centre of the cultural production and marketing in Lagos, the commercial hub of the Nigerian art exchange. It is tempting for Nigerian artists to want their names and art works listed in the catalogues of the auction house. This is a slippery slope, as the auction house may push creative work too aggressively in the direction of its market, when a healthy dialogue between the market and the studio is the equilibrium that promises a robust condition for creative growth.
Nigerian artists must beware the nature urge to apply cosmetics and gaudy colours, and pander to agents of the auctioneering house. Recent history has demonstrated that the lasting measure of creative depth lies in the production of rigorous works that centralise innovation and experimentation as the foundation of art making. Pandering to the current fad in the desire to enter the pages of the auction catalogue may box an artist up within a fiscal package. It may provide a momentary tease for the art market, without engendering any lasting impression in the passage of time. The images in the pages of the auctioneer’s catalogue are not conterminous with those in the annals that define creative excellence. A conflict of purposes often lies between staple auction house materials, and the drive for innovative excellence that feed critical creative rigor.
As the Outhouse catalogue demonstrates, many highly inspired artists are able to balance this celebration of the essence of life with the market appeal that attracts an auction house. The cover of the catalogue features a drawing titled “Uyai Iban,” by the United States based Nigerian artist, Victor Ekpuk. He says, “In ‘Uyai Iban,’ which means, ‘Beautiful Maiden,’ I reduce form to its essence to convey Ibibio ideas or concepts of creativity. I explore the concept of Uyai, (beauty) as transcending the physical to metaphysical (inner) attributes; hence the Ibibio preference and praise for a maiden who possesses both ‘uyaya edu’ (good character) and ‘eti iwot’ (good head)—the head being the domain of inner beauty.”
The catalogue encourages two speculations. First, that the idea of an auction house is long overdue in Nigeria, and Outhouse is attempting to fill a vast vacuum. Second, that one auction house is vastly inadequate to embrace the robustness of the emerging art market Nigeria.
Not only does Outhouse struggle to fill the enormous vacancy that it is too small to plug; it also demonstrates the complications that arise in a monopoly market. While showing a variety of works to satisfy a wide range of consumers, Outhouse excludes many important possibilities.
Three elements are crucial to the organization of art auctions. The first and most important is the availability of a vibrant, varied and exciting body of art objects. The second is an economy that can support the acquisition of these objects. The third is the availability of highly organized and savvy art technocrats able to pull these objects together to fashion an accessible market.
Nigeria has the first two elements in abundance. Where Nigeria remains challenged is in the third element, without which the first two remain unconnected. A good eye, an indefatigable passion foe art, and demonstrably tensile managerial skills are crucial to the function of an auction house. Outhouse is not a Sotheby’s or a Christies’. But these auction houses have mostly ignored contemporary African art, while building a viable venture on selling “traditional” materials from Africa.
Outhouse, initiated by Kavita Chellarams, and assisted by Nana Sonoiki as the Manager and Specialist; Sumbo Biobaku as the Account Manager; and Olasehinde Odimayo, as consulting specialist, is innovative, bold, and enterprising. George Oshodi shot nearly all the pictures of the art objects in the November 2012 auction catalogue. Chika Okeke-Agulu and Frank Ugiomoh served as researchers, and wrote the texts. Because many contemporary African artists remain unknown outside the continent, additional writing would have further enriched the catalogue.
More room exists. Will other power players in Lagos, especially Nike Gallery, African Artists Foundation, or Signature Gallery, tackle the challenge? Will the market dilute the vibrant art that is beginning to emerge from Africa? Or will it serve as a catalyst that opens up the region to the global market? By crafting a commercial support for contemporary art in Africa, Outhouse breaks a new dawn.
• Professor Okediji writes from the University of Texas, Austin (USA)