Though launched a decade ago on a cautious note, a visual arts festival held annually in Enugu has earned its place among the must-see cultural events in Nigeria, says Okechukwu Uwaezuoke

Theirs is your classic tale of resilience. Indeed, nothing – however daunting it could have been – seems to have blunted their enthusiasm. And this passion of theirs is for Life in My City Art Festival. To think that a decade had flitted by since its cautious, and understandably modest, launch at the Enugu Press Centre! Now, this festival (largely known by its acronym LIMCAF) is set to celebrate its coming-of-age outing in October.

At a press conference held in Enugu on Wednesday, August 17, the festival’s director Kevin Ejiofor reminded the gathering of the “memorable press conference at the Press Centre in 2007 which was addressed by the then Director of Alliance Française, Enugu Dr Gerard Chouin and the Founder of LIMCAF Chief Robert Orji.”

That, indeed, was the press conference that unveiled the festival, which arguably is the first of its kind in both the south-eastern and south-southern geo-political regions. Also, it remains unique to date as the only of its kind in the entire country.

Mainly bankrolled during its first four years by Chief Orji’s advertising and printing firm Rocana Nigeria Limited, it also enjoyed the Alliance Française Network’s and the French Embassy’s significant financial and administrative support. Ejiofor also acknowledged that the festival “was given operational shape by the Pan African Circle of Artists here in Enugu (represented at that time by Dr Krydz Ikwuemesi and Ayo Adewunmi) Esona Onuoha and Onyinye Igbo of Rocana Nigeria in structuring that first outing.”

Thus, one man’s passion for art-collection had morphed into a national art festival, which though initially funded by his firm Rocana was buoyed by the recognition of the French Government and its agency. Just as Ejiofor explained, “ without the support of the French, comprising the Embassy in Abuja and the Alliance Française Network throughout the country, this festival could never have become the national event that it is today, let alone aspiring to become the international event that it will eventually become.”

The annual festival is impelled by its lofty aims and objectives, which orbit around the promotion of “pan-Nigeria art through an annual competition that offers young people an avenue to showcase and commercialise their productions, win handsome prizes and interact with the larger art community on a national and progressively international platform and, in so doing create, a notable national and international art tourism destination in the country.”

Indeed, the famed coal city had, thanks to LIMCAF, become a mecca for both Nigerian and international visual arts practitioners. True to its mantra, which is “to position art for social development”, some of the festival’s past winners have been known to have moved on to become self-employed studio artists after graduation, using their prize money as seed money. There were others, according to Ejiofor, who “have already gone on to become internationally recognised studio artists and teacher/scholars in their own right.”

As LIMCAF crows about its “enviable milestone”, Ejiofor recalled its landmark feats so far at the August 17 press conference. “In the past nine years a total of over 2,700 young people from at 29 states of the country have participated in the festival,” he disclosed. “Major prize winners have come from six different states of the Federation and Abuja. Winners in all categories have emerged from nine states with Lagos, Ibadan, Enugu, Abuja and Auchi centres topping the list of major winners overall. All told nearly N14 million naira have been won by young artists.”

There was also the festival’s expansion to include the Photo Africa (a pan-continental photo competition) as well as its collaboration with the Paris-based Andy Okoroafor’s Clam Lab. For the festival’s milestone accomplishments so far, Ejiofor acknowledged the LIMCAF’s founder Chief Orji, the French Embassy and the Alliance Française Network in Nigeria and all those “who have endowed prizes and helped to increase the number of young persons going home with prize money” like the late Justice Anthony Aniagolu Family, Ms Bisi Silva of the Centre for Contemporary Art, Lagos, the Dr Pius Okigbo Family, a high-profile Lagos-based lawyer Mrs Mfon Ekong Usoro, the University of Ibadan’s Dr Ellis Onyekola, Jeff Ajueshi’s Thought Pyramid Gallery in Abuja, the Art is Everywhere Project headed by Ayo Adewunmi, and Vin Martin Iloh.

Ejiofor also specially acknowledged Senator Ayogu Eze, Mr Gozie Okoye, Chief Emma Egbunike (Odua Ngu of Onitsha), Mr Chisom Okoye of Diamond Bank and other members of the LIMCAF Family as well as individual members of the festival’s Board, “who have regularly made donations of cash and of course unquantifiable inputs of their time, expertise and energies into this project.”

In addition to the Diamond Bank’s support, the festival had also had the financial inputs from First Bank and Access Bank.

Meanwhile, entries for this year’s edition of the festival closed on July 31. With the 289 received this year, total number of entries since the beginning of the festival hit over 30,000. “We have had logistic challenges in some centres such as Lagos, and Port Harcourt,” Ejiofor said. “As a result we have allowed all participants in those areas and indeed other parts of the country to send their entries online.”

So far, Enugu zone has always had the highest number of entries with Auchi, Ibadan and Kaduna trailing it in that order. A cursory glance at the festival’s Grand Finale Week’s highlights reveals a flag-off of the proceedings with an exhibition on Monday, October 24, featuring “The Best 100 New Works by Young Artists in Nigeria”. This will be complemented by a special exhibition of all the major winning works of the past nine years. As usual, the Gala and Award night, which holds on Saturday, October 29, concludes the week.

Of course, several side activities featuring “supporting exhibitions by groups and individuals from these parts who have indicated interest in mounting those side attractions at no cost to LIMCAF” will fill in the gaps during this Grand Finale Week. “Details of such side attractions will be announcing later,” Ejiofor promised.

One of the festival’s most enthusiastic supporters, the Obi of Onitsha, Igwe Nnaemeka Achebe (Agbodidi), who is its patron, will grace the Award and Gala Night. But the organisers are thrilled by the acceptance of the state’s current governor, Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi, to not only be the festival’s Chief Host and Special Guest of Honour but also to personally grace the occasion.

They are no less excited by the fact that this year’s Award and Gala Night will be chaired by the chairman of Honeywell Group of Companies, Chief Oba Otudeko, who has expressed his willingness to personally grace the occasion.

Other A-list personalities and specially-invited private sponsors as well as donors are expected to attend this event. LIMCAF, as a youth empowerment project, has so far been sustained by the goodwill of such personalities. Hence the optimism of its organisers.