Life in My City Art Festival upped the ante at its 11th edition’s grand awards night held recently in Enugu. As a promising future for the annual art event beckons, the festival should be prepared to live up to the expectations of the new time, says Okechukwu Uwaezuoke

Tenacity has brought Life in My City Art Festival this far. Resilience also. On its 11th edition, it has clawed its way into reckoning as, perhaps, Nigeria’s longest running art event. For, indeed, the annual event, which is more popularly known by its acronym LIMCAF, has been around for longer than any other local art event in recent memory. This alone earns it a laurel wreath.

But the art festival also deserves a seat of honour among Nigeria’s other high-profile cultural events on account of its truly national character and its galvanic impact on the talent-glutted contemporary Nigerian art scene.
Then, there was the impressive guest list at its grand finale and awards night held on Saturday, October 27 at the Institute of Management and Technology, Enugu’s International Conference Centre. That it included the likes of the Enugu State Governor Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi; the former Cross River State governor, Donald Duke; the Obi of Onitsha, Igwe Nnaemeka Achebe; Nigeria’s former high commissioner to the UK, Christopher Kolade and his wife as well as a representative of the French Embassy, among other dignitaries, was a testimonial of its importance.

Egged on by the goodwill of such visual arts community’s greats as El Anatsui, Obiora Udechukwu, Okwui Enwezor, Olabisi Silva and Kolade Oshinowo, the LIMCAF organisers seem set to take the annual festival to the next level. And that would be to somewhere among the continent’s elite art events. “After the blood, sweat and tears (both of pain and joy) of the past 11 years, we are beginning to believe – no; I take that back: we now fully believe that we can go the whole hog and become a high-profile, art tourism destination, ranking among the top three in Africa within the International Art Events Calendar,” the LIMCAF chairman, Elder K. U. Kalu told the audience at the 11th edition’s awards night.

With the conclusion of the speeches, interspersed with musical interludes, the evening’s proceedings climaxed with the award of prizes to the last 26 artists standing. These 26 artists had emerged from a stage-by-stage elimination process that had started from the zonal level after 180 artists answered the call for entries, which was based on the theme, “In the Midst of Realities”.

Fifteen of the 26 artists soon dropped off the radar of reckoning, each receiving a consolation cash prizes of N20, 000. They were trailed by the seven winners of the category prizes: Godwin Ejike Ugwuagbo (winner of Justice Anthony Aniagolu Prize for Originality, worth ₦100,000), Taofeek Badru. A (winner of Dr. Pius Okigbo Prize for Technical Proficiency, worth ₦150,000), Etim. E. Essang (winner of Mfon Usoro Prize for Outstanding Work from Uyo/Calabar Zone, worth ₦200,000), Bolaji. K. Onaolapo (Thought Pyramid Prize for the Outstanding Work from Abuja, worth ₦100,000), Armstrong Obialo Grillo (Thought Pyramid prize for the Outstanding Work from Auchi/Benin/Delta, worth ₦100,000), Israel A. Fatola (Lawrence Agada Prize for the Most Promising Young Artist, worth ₦100,000) and Kingsley Ayogu (VinMartin Ilo Prize for the Outstanding Work from Enugu, worth ₦50,000).

The top four artists, who emerged from this elimination process, became the lucky four who clinched El Anatsui’s all-expenses-paid trip to Dakar, Senegal for the 2018 Dakar Art Biennale. Also, one of these four – Bamidele Abdulgaffar Raji – won the French Embassy Prize, which attracts a sponsorship to a major exhibition in Abuja. Raji was also the winner of the prize for the Best Graphics/Multimedia/Digital Art/Photography/Video worth ₦250,000. While Doris Nsiobodo and Judith Daaduut won Best Painting/Mixed Media/ Drawing and Best Sculpture Installation/Ceramics, respectively, which are both worth ₦250,000.

Thus, Ibrahim Afegbua became the overall winner of the ₦500,000 cash prize with his sculptural piece “Facing the Giants”, which was made with binding wire.

Meanwhile, LIMCAF has so far established itself as a credible platform for young, up and coming artists. Drawing on the intangible asset of these raw talents, who have long toiled unrecognised, the festival has grown even beyond the expectations of its founder Chief Robert Oji, who owns the Enugu-based advertising firm, Rocana Nigeria Limited.

Yet, with growth loomed the spectre of inadequate funding, which naturally became an existential threat to the festival. For even the modest cash rewards for the contestants could no longer be taken for granted. Take the endowed category prizes, for instance. A few ceased to exist though the gap they left behind were promptly filled by El Anatsui’s mouth-watering offer.

Still, sustaining the more-than-a-decade-long uninterrupted annual outings despite the obvious challenges was no mean feat. This attests to the resilience of the human spirit even in this inhospitable creativity-stifling wasteland. Bankrolled during its first four years by Chief Orji’s advertising and printing firm Rocana Nigeria Limited, the festival took its first toddling steps under the watchful eyes of the Alliance Française Network and the French Embassy, who provided both financial and administrative support.

Flashback to the festival’s modest official launch at the Enugu Press Centre in 2007. None of the organisers knew for certain that the festival would one day elicit the interest of such art personalities as Jerry Buhari, Kunle Filani, Sani Mu’azu, Peju Olaywola, Joe Musa, Chijioke Onuora and Tonie Okpe, among others. As a guiding orb were its lofty aims and objectives, which orbits 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.”

Then, there was the role played by the Pan African Circle of Artists – more popularly know by its acronym PACA – which was then represented by Dr Krydz Ikwuemesi and Ayo Adewunmi. The duo’s efforts were complemented by those of two Rocana staff members, Esona Onuoha and Onyinye Igbo, who were among the festival’s first administrative pillars.

A spectre of uncertainties still flits around LIMCAF despite the upward trend in its narrative chart. Indeed, this is an annual event, which according to Jerry Buhari “symbolises a quiet cultural revival that would one day give birth to a mega art festival like Documenta.”

Yet, somewhere in the midst of all this lurks the question: what next? The choice of “Twilight” as the next year’s theme seethes with so much symbolism for the festival which may have been lost on even the organisers. The annual event, like all endeavours, is being increasingly driven to that moment of decision when it must voluntarily aspire towards entrenching eternal values among its growing followership.