Not Just another Art House Next Door

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Tucked away in a busier part of an upscale Lagos neighbourhood, the Foundation for Contemporary and Modern Visual Arts (called FCMVA) asserts its relevance in the talent-glutted art scene. Okechukwu Uwaezuoke reports

Aground-floor flat of a tree-shaded building along Norman Williams Street, in the serene quasi-residential Southwest Ikoyi neighbourhood of Lagos, houses the Foundation for Contemporary and Modern Visual Arts. More conveniently known as FCMVA, this non-profit organisation, managed by its own trustees or directors, has been in existence since 2014.

From this operational base, its outreach efforts extend beyond Lagos to anywhere contemporary Nigerian artworks may be found – within or outside Nigeria. Buoyed by the lofty intent of uplifting the contemporary Nigerian art discourse, FCMVA has since its inception initiated laudable artistic projects and programmes.

These projects and programmes align with the Foundation’s key goals and objectives, which include the documentation of contemporary and modern Nigerian artworks wherever they may be found, the identification and promotion of these visual arts as well as beaming the spotlight on promising and upcoming visual artists.

Before it opened shop here, it first operated from a location across the Five-Cowrie Creek along Sinari Damijo Street in the equally upscale Victoria Island neighbourhood. Suave even in shirtsleeves, Akinyemi Adetunji, the bespectacled slim ebony-complexioned curator cum general manager, guides the visitor past an ante-room, whose walls are suffused with paintings, to a much larger room, which could be a reception area and a shared office space.

Two other occupants are seated pecking away on their laptops’ keyboards. Fidel, the black-clad fair-complexioned youth, is an intern. He is a mass communication student of the Pan Atlantic University, Lagos. The black-suited man at the other end of the room is Japheth. Full names: Japheth Imhanzenobe. He is the accountant and database administrator and an alumnus of the Venture in Management programme as well as of the Young Talent Programme of the Lagos Business School. Besides being a member of the FCMVA’s documenting team, Japheth’s duties include both the management and updating of its database and website.

Now and then, the Foundation avails itself of the services of more interns, Akinyemi discloses, as he settles down for a discussion with the visitor in the conference room. Soon after Japheth joins the duo, he reels out the names the foundation’s helmsmen: Olayinka Fisher and Jess Castellote.

Both Fisher and Castellote are well-known figures among the local art cognoscenti. Both, distinguished professionals by their own rights, are driven by their passion for the contemporary Nigerian visual arts. Hence their joining forces to actualise their visions for the visual arts on the FCMVA platform as directors.

Fisher has a long track-record as a frontline art collector and patron. This corporate Pooh-Bah’s name has frequently popped up in close art circuit conversations. That is usually when it is about who owns what in the art collection fraternity. Even an iconic artist like David Dale speaks about him in glowing terms.

Castellote, the Spanish-born architect, has been around in the Nigerian scene since 1984. He has been a project manager for just as long and finds time to immerse himself into several non-profit organisations, known for promoting development and educational projects in Nigeria. His familiarity with the Nigerian art terrain has led to his landmark projects in the art industry, which included exhibitions, publications of art books and the launch of a virtual museum.

Akinyemi, who first graduated from the Obafemi Awolowo University in Ile-Ife, had met Castellote while doing a graduate programme in art curation for web and electronic (new) media at the Pan-Atlantic University, Lagos. His experience while working with Castellote and in the art scene in general sufficiently equipped him for his position at the FCMVA, where he has documented and curated approximately 5000 contemporary Nigerian art pieces.

When the foundation was initiated, Fisher and Castellote were clear about what they wanted, for which they set a primary goal. And this is to contribute meaningfully to the documentation of Nigerian art. “At the foundation, we are aware that a clear mission is not enough, for this reason, at the end of last year we formulated a strategic plan that defines our objectives and targets,” Castellote explains. “I am very glad to say that, though the results might seem still modest, in 2016 we are on course to achieve most of these objectives and targets.”

Fisher dreads what he calls the “N” factor, which he fears “will sooner than later kick-in.” This is given the cheery forays Nigerian artworks have made in the international scene and the respectable prices they have been sold for at international and local auctions. “I hate to say that fakes would soon start creeping into Nigerian art market,” he says. “This phenomenon will not be peculiar to the Nigerian market; it is international; even though many in the art world would not admit this publicly.”

He cites a recent incident of a recall of a painting sold at an auction by Sotheby. The painting, thought to be by a Dutch artist, Franc Hals, was discovered to be a fake. “A few years ago, I remember an artist friend of mine in Lagos showed me a work that had been brought to him to authenticate,” Fisher recalls. “It was a fake [and] even his forged signature was excellently done.”

Thus, from its predominant mission, which is to document Nigerian art, the FCMV’s endeavours branch out into three main strategic directions. First, there is the creation of a database on modern and contemporary art; then, the production of documentary material on artworks and collections which are not easily available; and finally, the publications of books on Nigerian art. “To achieve them requires an uninterrupted work,” Castellote explains. “There is always a danger of becoming dispersed in trying to achieve multiple objectives. For our long term success, it is important to remain focused on what defines our mission as a foundation: documentation.”

The creation of a serious database of modern and contemporary Nigerian visual art was the Foundation’s first impulse. “In the short period of time since we started the foundation, we have been able to locate, document and archive information on thousands of artworks. This is a source of great satisfaction for us. Despite the fact of having documented already more than 8,000 works, this database is still at an embryonic stage. We dream of the day when the database of the FCMVA will become a serious resource for art researchers and practitioners. The response from the collectors and artists we have approached so far has been very positive. They have opened their houses and stores to allow us document artworks that, otherwise, would have remained ‘hidden’ and unknown. We are not in a hurry; we know we are building for the future.”

Fisher, on his part, hopes that the database being put together by the Foundation database will become an important authentication facility in the future. “It would be a main source of provenance for Nigerian art. As you are aware, very scanty documentation exits about Nigerian artworks. It will therefore be in the best interest of every collector, auction house, museum, etc. to ensure that their collections are documented and included in the FMCVA’s database.”
Flip over to the Foundation’s next thrust, which is the development documentary material on Nigerian visual arts. “I am very proud of what we have achieved so far,” Castellote declares.

“In co-operation with Pan-Atlantic University, we have already produced three 30-minute documentaries, on Kolade Oshinowo, Yusuf Grillo and the art collection of Igwe [Nnaemeka Alfred] Achebe, the Obi of Onitsha. Before the end of the year, we hope to have two more. We think this is a significant contribution towards the spread of knowledge on the rich diversity and depth of modern and contemporary art in the country. The title of the series, ‘hidden treasures’, aptly captures our concern about the lack of visibility of wonderful art currently produced and collected in Nigeria. The production of a series of documentaries on artists and collections is a long-term project, but we are moving at a steady pace. Our target is to have 12 documentaries by the end of 2017.”

There is also the Spotlight Mini-series, which has so far featured such relatively more recent generation or younger artists like George Edozie, Philips Nzekwe, Olumide Onadipe, Dipo Doherty, Tega Akpokona and Duke Asidere.

The Foundation’s other strategic direction focuses on the production of books on Nigerian art. “The first one, a well-documented monograph on Kolade Oshinowo has already been published,” Castellote discloses. “The second is well on its way and will, hopefully, be available early next year.”

More precisely, among the other titles in the works are a Collection on Contemporary Wood Sculptures in Nigeria and a monograph on Duke Asidere.
Also, there is the Nigerian Art Market Report, which is one of the FCMVA’s insightful publications, whose aim is to provide aficionados and other stakeholders with sensitive information on recent and historic events in the Nigerian art market. It is produced thanks to Castellote’s collaboration with Tayo Fagbule. Its 2016 edition not only surveys more than 150 persons directly involved in the Nigerian visual arts, but also nominates the most influential ones among them.

“We are very clear about the mission of the foundation,” Castellote adds. “Art is not only about the production of artistic objects. Without adequate documentation historians can’t study the evolution of art, without it, galleries, dealers and collectors can’t take appropriate decisions on the acquisition, promotion and distribution of art. I think part of our strength is that, after almost three years, we remain focused on that initial goal.”