Burrowing through economic recession, the Founder and Director of West Africa’s first international art fair, Art X, Tokini Peterside made a bold statement for visual arts last year and now, is poised to celebrate iconic artists and landmark art works in Nigeria and across Africa this November. Yinka Olatunbosun reports.

It was an unprecedented challenge to any rationale thinking: in the heat of economic recession in 2016, this young art enthusiast named Tokini Peterside ventured into a massive art project called Art X. The apprehension on the success of the project vanished what with the huge number of visitors at the international art fair venue, Civic Centre, Victoria Island, Lagos and the success story that followed. No fewer than 5000 visitors thronged to the building with a geographical location that resonates in the nature of the event, which is a gathering of Africa’s and Nigeria’s finest fine artists, permit the rhyme.

Tokini, who breathes art, collects artworks and showcases artists, devoted a few minutes of her busy schedule recently for an exclusive interview with THISDAY at her eco-friendly Ikoyi office where her TP Collective is based and creative ideas are brewed.

“Expect a really enriching experience,” she began, looking up from her laptop computer. “Last year, Art X was a big bang. I remember you Yinka asking me last year if Art X was a wise investment, especially knowing that a lot of people don’t go to art exhibitions? Afterwards, I was so nervous that if this experienced journalist is telling you this, what hope do I have? But we were dogged, we pushed, we didn’t stop and in the end, we had 5000 visitors. The point of last year was to make a statement about the visual art sector as a very important aspect of our creative economy. We wanted our audience to be excited and inspired by the tremendous display of talents from Nigeria and across the continent and we achieved that. This year, we want to continue and go deeper. We want to provide an enriching educational experience so that people can learn some critical things about their country.”

For everyone in the art community in Nigeria, 2017 is quite historical. Asides being the 50th year anniversary of the war that almost tore Nigeria apart, literally, there are also more cultural anniversaries that must not be missed as Tokini observed.

“2017 is the 100th anniversary of Ben Enwonwu’s birth. We are proud to say that at Art X Lagos, we are going to exhibit sculptures from 1960 that had never been seen in public before. These sculptures had been at the Head Office of Access Bank and the bank has been generous to show these sculptures to the Nigerian public at Art X. For this edition, the sense of history and heritage is very strong and you can perceive it right from when you enter the art fair.

“The next anniversary we will be looking at is the FESTAC ’77. We will be showcasing a phenomenal art exhibition of the most amazing black and African minds in art. As you know, it is 40 years since Nigeria hosted the festival of arts and culture in Lagos. We’re inviting a pan-African platform to present all the pieces they had been researching for decades. We are going to have an enriching panel discussions. Many people of my generation knew that FESTAC happened but not a lot know the significant landmark occasion it was.”

It’s also noteworthy that 2017 is the 20th anniversary of the death of the legendary Afrobeat musician and activist, Fela Anikulapo Kuti. A statue in his honour had been unveiled in Lagos and one catchy feature is the missing head. To many observers, Fela’s controversial life may have outlived him. Even as he is immortalised, the “headless” sculpture at Allen Roundabout has been a subject of debates, both informed and contemplative. At Art X 2017, it will be inevitable to discuss Fela and how his movement in music had influenced the works of Lemi Ghariokwu, the artist famed for designing Fela Album covers as well as other international artist(s) such as Bob Marley.

“We are going to be in conversation with Lemi Ghariokwu, a core member of Fela’s pioneer movement. Lemi will be talking to us about his works at that time and showing Fela canvas as well as other archival drawings that had never been exhibited to show us what it was to be an artist and a creative at that time in history,” said Tokini.
The Art X Fair, which runs from November 3 to 5 ,will also focus on women who are trailblazers in art. For instance, Njideka Crosby Akunyili, recently awarded $600,000 grant by MacArthur Grant Foundation, a genius grant, is expected at Art X talk sessions. It took several months for Tokini and her team to secure her homecoming and this grant came just in time- before the talks.

“Our audience will have the opportunity to hear from this phenomenal young woman on how she is able to make all these marked achievements and how she went from selling her works at $100,000 at auction to $3m in six months,” she said. “We want to encourage such conversations. Peju Alatise will be in conversation with Wura Natasha Ogunji talking about what it means to be an artist in the present day, being a vocal citizen and inspiring other artists to do the same. These are just very few examples of the meaningful conversations that we’d be stirring up at Art X Lagos.”

The vibe from Absolut, one of Art X sponsors this year is about freedom of expression. The Absolut stand which overlooks the lagoon front is the heartbeat of the show where drinks, live music and live digital art will intersect. The brand, known for supporting global artists will be part of this pan-African fair which as theme, “The Artist as the Citizen”. Two singers, one rapper, two music producers will take over the stage at the Absolut stand.

Issues that artists feel strongly about will be brought to the fore. In the curated project, a 25-year-old artist had been selected to present a project on mental illness. His name is Olatunde Alara.
“Many Nigerians and West Africans are struggling with mental illness but in our society because it is a taboo, people hardly talk about it,” Tokini observed.

One of the valid feedbacks Tokini received from the visitors at the maiden edition was that the allocated halls for the talk sessions were crowded. She explained that since it was the first time that an event of its kind would take place, the large turn out was beyond expectation. However, she promised that such inconvenience would not be repeated this year now that the organisers know the size of their audience.

“The truth is that we prepared a room with 80 seats and there were more people standing than sitting. We were shocked. So we have taken that into consideration. On Saturday, we have two talks. On Sunday, we have three talks. On that Sunday, we will use the bigger room. We will also have the sponsors’ talk with Stanbic IBTC. Last year, we opened with our VIP preview on Friday evening. We will do the same this year. VIP preview is a preview specifically for collectors. Many collectors want a quiet opportunity to see the works, converse with the gallery and make their interest known.”

In selecting the participating galleries last year, the organisers of Art X only issued invitation to all the Nigerian galleries and prominent international galleries and not everyone responded. Now that these galleries have seen the outcome of the fair, it was extremely competitive to select 50 artists spread across scores of galleries.
“In the end, it worked quite well for us and we have a lot of variety this year. Last year, we had Nigeria, Ghana, Mali and South Africa. This year, we have gallery from the UK, Senegal and Ivory Coast. In total, they are bringing works from different artists and some of the South African galleries are representing artists from Botswana and Zimbabwe.”

At fairs, visitors expect the best bargain. At Art fairs, it is certainly not a lower-price bonanza but an avenue to foster relationship between the artist or gallery and the collector. Tokini further explained that it is in the artist’s interest for the gallery to keep consistent prices for the artworks.

“You don’t want to expose your artist to unnecessary fluctuations in price,” she explained. “It’s an atmosphere of new collectors, meeting new galleries and new relationships are formed and new conversations are stirred up. It is not at the art fair that the deal is closed. Sometimes, it is after the art fair. Most fairs spark the initial conversation or connection and then negotiations. And then you buy sometimes later. We hope people buy on the spot but if the pieces are not bought immediately, it doesn’t mean that something is wrong.”

Art X sponsors had grown from four to nine this year. With limited budget, Tokini was able to swing an idea into fruition. She expressed gratitude to all the sponsors, including Ford Foundation that is bringing Professors from different Nigerian Universities, two from Nsukka and another two from Zaria. To debunk the misconception that Art X is for the elite, children from marginalised communities will be part of the grand show.

“We will be bringing small numbers of school children from Makoko to attend the fair and to see something that they otherwise would not have had the opportunity to experience. Ford Foundation is also sponsoring Peju Alatise’s session and we also have the support of Lufthansa Airlines.”

As one who is neck-deep in art, Tokini has been monitoring the controversies trailing the new public art pieces in Lagos. The art community has been quiet before now, except for festivals and Lagos at 50. No serious intellectual argument has sent artists back to the libraries and archives for informed comments until these Lagos statues began to resurface, with the Lagos State government as initiator of the project. Tokini’s view is simple- appreciate the gift, don’t question the gift wrapper or the delivery man.

“I think that what Lagos State is doing at the moment is the first step in the right direction,” she argued. “And I think the government should be commended for that. In my lifetime, I had not seen this wide engagement with the art by the state government. Whatever you may feel about it, or how the artists were, the fact is that something is being done. What we should be doing is instead of pulling apart what the state is doing, I think those of us who are stakeholders in the industry should be part of the conversations to share experiences.”

The Art X 2017 begins on Friday November 3 with the VIP preview at the close of work. The venue of the VIP after party is kept under wraps as buzzing activities loom for the fair, which has set a record for visual arts and is restoring the glory to Nigeria, as a cultural destination.