Ten years after its inception, the annual Life In My City Art Festival – called LIMCAF – has emerged from the brushwoods of uncertainties to become one of the most consistent and credible art events in Nigeria. Its success story is one that is shared by its many past winners, says Okechukwu Uwaezuoke

That late October night, a yellow-painted taxi crawled into the already congested parking lot of an imposing building. And a lady and three men emerged from the taxi. They then headed for the entrance of the edifice (an amphitheatre), whose bright lights was the only source of illumination in that part of the campus.

Earlier, as the taxi’s headlights probed their way through dark undeveloped parts of the Institute of Management and Technology, Enugu’s main campus, the occupants had wondered if they hadn’t missed their way. For this wasn’t what they’d hoped to encounter along the way to the venue of the 10th year anniversary of a celebrated art event.

But then, the metaphor seemed lost on them. For just as the venue was the only islet of illumination in that vicinity, so are art events in most Mammon-driven localities. Indeed, the activities inside the hall sharply contrasted with the desolation outside.

Life in My City Art Festival – better known by its acronym LIMCAF – was marking its 10th year anniversary in a spectacular way. Its impressive guest lists sparkled with the names of such dignitaries as the Enugu State Governor Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi, the French Consul Laurent Polonceaux, the Obi of Onitsha, Igwe Nnaemeka Achebe, the Founder and Chairman of Honeywell Group of Companies, Oba Otudeko and the iconic visual arts luminary Professor El Anatsui, among others.

It is a credit to the annual national art festival cum competition that it has so far remained resilient in a culturally-hostile environment. And if it’s just about how long an event has been around, then it has already earned its seat of honour among the country’s leading cultural endeavours.

Of course, LIMCAF’s first decade of existence is replete with bright spurts of illumination. The Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria-based Professor Jerry Buhari, who headed of the jury of LIMCAF’s ninth edition, drew its keen devotees’ attention to an increase in the number of sponsors. “By crude statistical analysis, the success story of the sponsorship of the sponsorship of this festival shows that approval rating of both public and art patrons have doubled,” he said. “This is very important because private institutions are not sentimental about where they put their money.”

Many – especially, a significant number of the past winners –would readily share Professor Buhari’s enthusiasm. Yet, they would be naive not to factor in the unsavoury effects of the gloomy economic climate on such a non-money-spinning endeavour. Indeed, organising the recent editions of the festival had been rather arduous for the LIMCAF team, as one or two of the banks (known in the past for lending their financial muscles) started humming and hawing at the last minute.

Still, one cannot discountenance the enormous goodwill that has sustained the event over the years. Besides the invaluable partnership that has subsisted between the Alliance Française network in Nigeria, the Institut Français and the French Embassy, LIMCAF also enjoys the support of 30 other corporate entities, which include the Paris-based Clam Lab, the advertising firm Rocana Nigeria Limited, the Pan African Circle of Artists, Honeywell Group, FBN Holdings, the Enugu State Council for Art and Culture, the Centre for Contemporary Art, Lagos and Thought Pyramid Art Centre, Abuja. Ditto prize endowments and special donations from the Justice Anthony Aniagolu family, Vin Martin Ilo, Thought Pyramid Art Centre, Mfon Usoro, Pius Okigbo family, Art Is Everywhere, the Centre for Contemporary Art, Professor El Anatsui and Engr. Gesi Asamaowei, among others.

Then, there was the dramatic increase in the number of participating artists from across Nigeria between the festival’s inception in 2007 and 2011. This significantly dropped the following year after the introduction of participation fees. But soon afterwards, the skyward trend has since resumed till date.

That LIMCAF’s impact on the Nigerian visual arts scene has been galvanic is buttressed by the fact that its past overall and category prize winners are now gleefully spreading the gospel of its success story.

Ngozi Omeje Ezema, who won the first overall prize in 2014 as well as being a second runner-up in a category prize and winning the Best Entry from Enugu Zone in 2011, has gone on to win the Most Outstanding Concept Award in the African Artists Foundation’s National Art Competition in 2015 and to participate in the last year’s Dakar Biennale (Dak’Art) Off exhibition. “[Winning] LIMCAF gave me the courage to apply for other competitions within and outside the country and to keep trying even when I was not selected,” she said. “The best chance could be the next trial.”

Sor Sen, a five-time participant at the annual festival, has since moved on from winning the third overall prize in 2011 as an MFA painting candidate at the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria to winning a handful of other prizes. From clinching the second prize at the National Gallery of Art-organised National Visual Arts Competition in 2012, he won the Special Recognition at the Olusegun Obasanjo Presidential Library’s National Art Competition, the second prize of a visual arts competition organised by the Embassy of Spain in Abuja and the fourth prize of Experience Nigeria Art Show organised by the African Arts Resource Centre in Lagos in 2013, the third prize at the Visual Arts Competition organised by the Embassy of Spain in Abuja in 2015 and an honorary mention of the Leonardo da Vinci Prize in Florence, Italy as well as the third prize at the Visual Arts Competition organised by the Embassy of Spain in Abuja in 2016. “…Winning the third prize of 2011 LIMCAF…has reinforced my confidence in practice, supported me economically and for me, it was a springboard to move on and win other prizes on different platforms,” he disclosed. “Also, it increased my visibility and relevance in the visual arts scene.”

For overall prize winners like Olumide Oresegun (the 2007 winner), Samuel Palmtree Ifeanyichukwu (the 2010 winner), Mariagoretti Chinenye Eze (the 2012 winner) and Henry Osaretin Eghosa (the 2013 winner) it has been a continual ascent in their artistic career. Ditto Albert Okechukwu Eze (the 2010 second prize winner), Taofeek Abiodun Badru (the winner for the Best Textile in 2015), Stanley Dudu (a category prize winner in drawing, painting and mixed-media), Kemi Akinnibosun (the winner for the best photography in (2013) and Izuchukwu Muoneme (the winner of the 2015 edition).

Because this success story has been replicated among several others, some of these laureates have gone on to call, among other things, for LIMCAF to extend its programme beyond prize-awards. While Ms Ezema calls for organising solo shows for its past winners, Ms Akinnibosun urges the organisers to hold workshop programmes and residencies, as well.

There is no doubt about it: LIMCAF, which was started on a modest note by Rocana Nigeria Limited’s founder Robert Orji, is set to break new grounds. The annual participation in its programmes by Paris-based Andy Okoroafor and his Clam Lab is gradually burnishing its international image as the most consistent and credible visual arts festival in the country.