For Art X the Future of Art in Africa is Stunning

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Last weekend, the second edition of Art X, West Africa’s first international art fair, was held. Solomon Elusoji, who was there, reviews its offerings

On a warm afternoon last Sunday, a group of school kids trooped into a lobby, clad in dark jackets and curious expressions. Chaperoned by a female guide, they turned left and paused in front of a

’s installation, some seven wooden sculptures commissioned by the Daily Mail in 1960. The kids had no idea who Enwonwu was, so the guide launched into a brief explanation of the artist’s significance and they, in return, nod their heads and study the form standing opposite, wonder in their puerile eyes, caught in bubbles made of meteors from distant lands.

The school kids, who were attending the last day of Art X Lagos at the Civic Centre, Victoria Island, were not the only ones trapped within these strange bubbles. From the burly man who held his son between the crook of his elbow and chest, to the solitary, dreadlocked lady who wore a red tank top and a perpetual smile, to the group of raucous friends, who filled the gallery with loud banter, everyone moved through the installation with a sense of awe, of awareness. “I’m in love,” Bisoye Bello, a business analyst who works in Lekki, told THISDAY.

The people behind Art X described it as West Africa’s first international art fair, a platform to showcase “the best and most innovative contemporary art from the African continent and diaspora and to widen Nigeria’s connection to the art scene across Africa and internationally.”
In a recent interview with THISDAY, Art X’s Founder, Tokini Peterside told this reporter she wanted to create something like the Venice Biennale, a once a year spectacle that brings the world to experience African art. After welcoming over 9,000 visitors for this second edition and featuring over 60 artists from 15 countries, Tokini’s dream seems not so far-fetched.

The fair’s first night, on November 3, was for a select audience led by the Emir of Kano, Lamido Sanusi, who was the Chief Guest of Honour. The Emir was ushered around the exhibition space by Ms. Peterside and he was visibly pleased with the quality of art on display, noting that such a spectacle be replicated in the northern part of the country, too. The federal government was represented by the Honourable Minister of Information and Culture, Lai Mohammed.

The CBN Governor, Mr. Godwin Emeliefe, leading the corporate world, was also present and was ushered around by Chairman/Editor-in-Chief, THISDAY/ARISE TV, Mr. Nduka Obaigbena. Other corporate personalities included the Managing Director of Standard Chartered, Mrs. Bola Adesola, the Deputy-Managing Director of Access Bank, Mr. Roosevelt Ogbonnaya, Chairman, Zenith Bank, Jim Ovia, notable Chartered Accountant, Bashorun J.K. Randle, amongst many other others.

The elites and art connoisseurs of Lagos were not left behind, with a cast that included the founder of one of the biggest art auction houses in the country, ArtHouse, Ms. Kavita Chellaram, art curators Sandra Obiago and N’gone Fall, business woman and socialite, Mrs. Nkiru Anumudu and billionaire spouse cum entrepreneur, Mrs. Nana Otedola. An avalanche of expatriates, too, were present, keen to experience the wonders of African art and, most likely, collect. Of course, the presence of Ms. Peterside’s parents, Mr. and Mrs. Atedo Peterside, loomed large across the exhibition space.
The next two days were opened to the public and were sprinkled with a lot of discussions about art and artists (MacArthur fellow, Njideka Akunyili Crosby, delivered her first talk in Nigeria), music shows and spontaneous art performances.

Art X’s most important attribute, perhaps, is the high level of diversity it strives to achieve. A Dutch entrepreneur plying her trade in Lagos, Sanne Steamers, told this newspaper this was what struck her most about the art fair. “The diversity on display is simply amazing,” she said. A paper artist, Morenike Gbadamosi, also said: “I had an idea it was going to be quite diverse, but I didn’t expect it to be on this level. It’s a really rich fair and just shows that Africa has a lot to offer.”

A brief back-story
When Tokini Peterside was a child, she was very interested in art. She used to draw and paint and her parents, who collect art, paid for her to attend art lessons. But she had no pretensions of becoming a professional artist. “I would say my real interest, in depth, came about when I was in my teenage years, when my mother was collecting quite a lot of art,” Peterside told this newspaper, during an interview in her Lagos office one sunny morning, last month. She wore a dark, lacey blouse and spoke in long, almost perfect sentences couched in fine diction.

After secondary school, Peterside proceeded to the London School of Economics to study Law. At the LSE, she immersed herself in culture – literature, music, fashion, food, art – so much that, despite her first class honours Law degree, she knew, after graduation, that all she wanted was to work in the culture sector. During law school, she started to write a food cum fashion column in the now defunct NEXT newspaper. Among her friends, she became the go-to consultant and expert on everything culture.
In 2008, Peterside started collecting art when she attended an ArtHouse auction where she bought a piece by Oyerinde Olotu, an artist who considers himself an impressionist with a leaning towards scenes and historical subjects.

Peterside went on to volunteer at ArtHouse – the auction house which she credits for being the “channel through which I started to appreciate the diversity of artists in Nigeria” – before moving to work with the Moet Hennessy Group, where she was Head of Communications. While there, the brand sponsored several cultural projects in fashion, music and film. “It also exposed me to the art sector, because we sponsored many art gallery events,” Peterside said. “So I carried on personally collecting art and became more and more interested in Nigerian artists and started to add to my collection.”

In 2013, she left Moet Hennessy to launch her consulting business, TP Collective and her largest client a business owned by Ms. Reni Folawiyo, a business which Peterside later named Alara.
Alara’s portfolio includes an art gallery and her research on how to improve the business took her across Nigeria and Africa, where she had meetings with a plethora of artists.

“And that was when my eyes were opened to the pan-African art world, to see and experience the great artists that existed within Nigeria but also outside Nigeria’s shores,” Peterside said. Because she was consulting for several clients in the luxury and culture sector at this time too, she was able to recognise that while other sub-sectors in culture were all making tremendous progress, art did not enjoy the same kind of fillip. “I began to think of what else could be added to this sector to ensure that we give it the same kind of boost that the music, film and fashion sectors have had?”

In 2015, Peterside left her consulting business to study for an MBA at one of the world’s leading graduate business schools, INSEAD. That year, a Nigerian living in Germany, Okwui Enwezor, was selected to curate the Olympics of art fairs, the Venice Biennale. He was the first African to be selected curator in the Biennale’s 120 year history and he brought more than 15 sub-Saharan artists to his central exhibition ‘All the World’s Futures’, marking the highest representation of African artists at the renowned art showcase. Peterside, who was then in nearby France, attended.

“In experiencing that Biennale, a thought hit me, that across Africa there are phenomenally diverse talented artists,” Peterside said. “In Europe, art fairs such as 154 had started to bring more prominence and shine the spotlight on these artists. But I started to think that even back home, there was more that we could do. Why couldn’t we look at creating a platform, like the Venice Biennale, that would bring the world once a year to experience what we have?”

The questions kept raging at her, even after she returned to INSEAD’s France campus, which is located on the edge of the Forest of Fontainebleau. Together with five of her business school classmates, none of which were Africans, Peterside developed a project around African art. “We did a lot of research and spoke to a lot of people, from Peju Alatise to Rom Isiche. We spoke to African gallery owners in London, trying to understand the industry.”

The goal, Peterside said, was not just to create an African version of the Biennale, but also to increase the patronage of African artists, internationally and locally.
The result of that research work is Art X. “Art X Lagos holds an unusual distinction: it is almost certainly the only high-end art fair to have begun life as a classroom assignment,” Harriet Fitch Little, writing for the Financial Times, said recently.

The future is stunning
Since the days of Aristotle, artists have always depended on the wealthy and powerful for patronage. In the middle ages, work of arts were usually commissioned by these patrons and then made to order. These days the market allows artists to exercise more creative freedom as they create independent pieces and, working with galleries, sell at prices mostly affordable to members of the top echelons of society.

Peterside’s strategy to help improve the art sector was based, roughly, on this thinking. Nigeria harbours millions of poor people – one of the highest percentages in the world – but there are still thousands of wealthy individuals. “There was a need to expose and give greater visibility of African artists to this group of Nigerians who are increasingly affluent,” she told the Financial Times.
Her thinking has not been proved wrong. In 2016, at the fair’s debut edition, prices ranged from $2,000 to $100,000 and Peterside told this newspaper that “sales were good.”

But, rather than make it an all-elitist affair, what Peterside has done is to design a fair that appeals to an avalanche of young people who “maybe can’t collect today, but will be able to in the future.” This is genius thinking. Among the over 9,000 people who attended the fair this year, this newspaper can confidently report that over 50 per cent of them were in their 20s and 30s, with aspirations of one day becoming collectors. “I hope to one day become a collector,” one of such visitors to the fair this year, who is also a young, multimedia journalist with the BBC, Abdul Malik Fahd, told THISDAY.

If Peterside’s long term vision for Art X thrives, what it means is that there will be an explosion of artistic talent on the continent, as more individuals look to cash in on the boom. The value of the explosion, of course, is tied to the value of art itself. Peterside thinks it is very valuable. “Art produces, in some cases, phenomenal objects of beauty and aesthetic pleasure, which have a very profound impact on the way a people and culture perceive themselves,” she said. “And, secondly, art serves as an archive of a generation.”

There is a subtle point to be noted, here: Art X’s success, funded from the purse of a privileged class, could spark a cultural revolution that inevitably will feed into social politics and set the stage for an economic revolution like the world has never seen. When contacted by THISDAY, award-winning visual artist and photographer, Victor Ehikhamenor, agreed. He said: “This is very possible.”