Ayodeji Rotinwa reviews the Sterling One gallery space and exhibition, an unusual, new marriage between visual art and the corporate world

‘My Selfie’, Oil on Canvass by Evuarherhe Ufuoma

In Nigeria, art has always found friends in boardrooms, amongst suits, a place made for it on balance sheets and it may sometimes be listed for benevolent charity donations. A close inspection of this creative-corporate union would reveal that the relationship is hardly ever sustained for any extended period; that eventually a separation – though likely without any differences – must inevitably occur. Pieces will be commissioned. Bank walls will provide a home for them. An exhibition may be sponsored. That’s usually about it. A new, ambitious initiative by Sterling One, a private banking arm of Sterling Bank is trying to change this narrative.

The initiative is resident amongst Lagos’s nouveau riche, in Lekki. It is a glass-walled building panelled by silver discs in an indecisive black colour. It is an exclusive space for the discerning bank customer that functions as an office, a lounge for happy hours, and a place to network, to exchange brain capital. It is also a statement of intent. On its top floor, is an open space that is essentially to be a functioning commercial gallery space which will hold exhibitions quarterly. It is the first time in Nigeria that art will enjoy such commitment and attention from its on-off corporate partner. Yes, a number of institutions are invested in the art as their hallways and offices will show, but they do not have a dedicated space for the best of visual art talent, to be displayed, appreciated and ultimately, sold.

It was such talent that was on offer, during this past Democracy Day weekend, as Sterling One’s space opened in a private, lavish, impeccably curated three-day ceremony. Guests were feted with exquisite culinary treats, champagne, a soulful string quartet; serenaded by a jazz act and were read to by one of Nigeria’s foremost performance poets while they took in the art- the art of a booming, emerging generation of artists, working to take their pride of place in minds, and any pantheon, an enthusiast, critic or the public may care to build. They were Tolu Aliki, Olumide Onadipe and Ufuoma Evuarherhe. The three artists in their works shown captured an urban, contemporary mood that’s at once colourful, vibrant and inviting through the feminine lens.

Tolu Aliki in his signature style plays with bursts of colour, his canvas populated by women dressed elegantly and in different states of considering the world around them, sometimes with a man present, sometimes not, always the central focus, statements of fine lines and irresistible beauty. He also captures urban life, in forms that are suffused with colour and irreverence. Aliki’s cities are ones to play in, to thrive, and to exist without ever wanting to leave. Upon seeing them, you may realize that Lagos provokes these feelings but never at once, never as beautiful as Aliki has so simply captured.

Ufuoma Evuarherhe brings his forms to life with generous strokes and technique, depicting the upwardly mobile woman who is full of movement, attitude, at once powerful, a joy to behold and not tear eyes away from. In one especially striking work, he captures the zeitgeist of our times – the selfie. A woman with flawless make up, eyebrows wing-tipped, curled like a pass mark, lips dutifully gathered together in a form now known as ‘duck face’, smartphone turned towards the face, finger on the trigger, ready to click. Most of us know this woman. Some of us are this woman.

Olumide Onadipe’s style is more muted, more deliberate in the artistic woman he calls to life using the form of fallen leaves. She is moody, introspective, but still embracing of, given to bursts of colour. While the other two artists call to memory all that is exciting, vibrant, Onadipe is the antidote that stills. His piece de resistance, ‘Thinking Boy’ a depiction of a lone child, kept company by his arms and his knees, facing downwards in a winning mix of black, white, yellow acrylic on canvas will either move you or stop you in your tracks.

Either way, you will be entranced.
The ties that bind these three artists go beyond similar subjects and explorations or their technical gifts. Born in a succession of decades, the 60s, 70s and 80s, they have emerged as today’s booming generation of contemporary artists, collected at home and generating interest abroad, the class of artists that are attracting fervent interest in Africa’s art market.

It is this art market that Sterling Bank seeks to prime the discerning enthusiast (or recruit new ones) to take advantage of. Asides being a space for artistic engagement, the space is also to be an incubator of knowledge for the aforementioned subject. What is to be taught is: art can be an investment, an increasingly safe bet in the volatile economy we exist in today. Just over a week ago, Nigerian artworks shattered records and made history in a London auction (the Bonham Africa Now – Modern Africa sale) garnering over N500m in gross realised sales (N568, 338, 750) from the works of three renowned artists. Bonham deals exclusively in modern and contemporary African art and in the secondary market that is in works whose value is established and has seen impressive returns on such value. It is these kinds of opportunities that Sterling One seeks to open its guests to, exposing them to works of high value, one hand and feeding back into the visual art community as a reliable hub for artists to showcase, sell and promote their works.

Art will continue to have friends in high rungs of the corporate ladder. With Sterling One, it would seem art has a partner to not – only – climb on but soar with.