Turning her passion into a dream come true 25 years ago was for Sinmidele Adesanya the first step to further forays into the international art scene, Okechukwu Uwaezuoke writes

First, there were the stirrings of a longing. Or a dream. And this dream borne was aloft on the wings of a genuine passion for the visual arts. Indeed, it had to be passion. For, what else would explain the fact that Sinmidele Adesanya, even with a masters degree in law, regularly organised salons and exhibitions of artworks alongside her professional legal practice?

“Mydrim”, the name she eventually chose for her gallery, was the outcome of a word play. “It was ‘my dream’ to set up an art gallery and when eventually I did, the name emanated from a play on words,”she explains.

The gallery’s emergence into the Lagos art scene happened sometime in December 1992. Then, only few art galleries existed. There were indeed many “very small ‘art shops’ and art studios scattered all over the country,”Adesanya recalls.

Among the galleries, only three stood out from the lot as doing serious art business. But then, only one of these three galleries has survived till date. “I had heard of the galleries set up by ladies like Mrs Emily Imokhuede and Mrs Duro Emmanuel, which had all closed down before I set up.”

Thus, the birth of Mydrim Gallery was at a period when art practice was not exactly experiencing a golden age. Still, this did not blunt Adesanya’s enthusiasm. Her optimism spurred her on and sustained her during what she described as “long tough but enjoyable journey”.

The gallery, tucked away somewhere from where the narrow Norman Williams Streets begins to loop its way around an agglomeration of buildings in the South-west Ikoyi neighbourhood, had to contend with the Mammon-driven philistinism of Lagos. It became one of the few islets of creativity in this surging sea of stifling materialism and general apathy.

“Mydrim has been a part of the success stories of many artists,” Adesanya resumes. “We were there with many artists in their early days and we created a platform to showcase their works.”

Included among these many artists were El Anatsui, Abiodun Olaku, Bunmi Babatunde, Rom Isichei, Segun Adejumo, Aimufia Osagie, Bede Umeh and Olumide Oresegun. “We thank God we have built enduring relationships. We have overcome many challenges. Our story is one of dedication and perseverance. When many galleries were closing down, to the glory of God we weathered the storm.”

Above all, the gallery’s primary vision, which includes developing an awareness and appreciation of the visual arts in Nigeria, is being fulfilled. In its 25 years of existence, a couple of art spaces had joined it along Norman Williams Street only to close down a few years after. Three others have since sprung up in other locations along the same street.

Meanwhile, new talents swarmed into the already talent-glutted scene as the number of aficionados increased spectacularly. To meet the demands of a growing, but competitive, art market, Mydrim Gallery had to step up its game with other activities besides organising art exhibitions. It, for instance, collaborated with the renowned international Nigerian-born curator Bisi Silva to organise Institute of Visual Arts and Culture (IVAC) lectures series in the early 2000s. It was one of these lectures that brought the British-born artist and curator of Caribbean-descent, Eddie Chambers, to Nigeria. Another IVAC lecture featured the United States-based Nigerian artist, art historian, art curator and blogger Chika Okeke-Agulu, whose lecture, titled “What Is Wrong with Installation Art?” caused so much disquiet in a mainly conservative Lagos art scene.

Even in the exhibition circuit, the gallery spawned memorable shows like the Living Masters exhibition in 2007 (sponsored by Guaranty Trust Bank and declared open by the Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka at Terra Kulture in Victoria Island, Lagos), the medium-specific annual pastel exhibitions and a high-profile photography exhibition that glimmered with such leading lights as Don Barber, Philip Trimnell and Tam Fiofori, among others.

Besides collaborating annually with the Terra Kulture as TKMG to organise art auctions, it organised the Nigeria at 50 photography exhibition and curated the Eko Art Expo at the instance of the Lagos State Government and more recently, in 2015, represented the continent at the modern art section of the International Art Dubai Fair.

Adesanya described the Art Dubai Fair as an “amazing experience”. For her, it was very exciting – perhaps, also fulfilling – to represent Africa at the modern section of the art fair. “We featured the works of one of our renowned artists Dr Bruce Onobrakpeya. His works generated a lot of interest, the Sheiks revisited our stand and took pictures. We were featured in four newspapers and a few magazines in the Arab middle belt region. It was a rewarding experience for the artist and the gallery.”

Now at 25, the gallery is planning another Masters exhibition. This exhibition, which consolidates on the memories of the previous Living Masters exhibition held over a decade ago, will feature the works of Yusuf Grillo, Gani Odutokun, Bruce Onobrakpeya, Kolade Oshinowo, Jimoh Akolo, El Anatsui, Abayomi Barber, Jimoh Buraimoh, David Dale, Nike Davies-Okundaye, Bisi Fakeye and Muraina Oyelami and will hold for two days, on Sunday June 3 and Monday June 4 at Desiderata, Banana Island, Ikoyi, Lagos.

Adesanya, as the curator, explains: “A Nigerian proverb says, ‘A river that does not know its source will soon run dry.’ This exhibition is a display of the works of 12 of Nigeria’s masters such that art lovers, artists and art students know the source, that is, some of the artists who steered the course and remained committed and focused to developing the visual arts in Nigeria in the face of monumental challenges.”

She argues that the younger generation of artists are leveraging on the sacrifices made by these masters of Nigerian art scene, hence they deserve to be acknowledged for paving the way for others. These masters represent the leading art movements/schools in Nigeria, namely, Zaria School, the informal Osogbo Art tradition, Yaba School and Nsukka School.
“We researched on those who had contributed significantly to the development of the arts at the time,”Adesanya discloses. “A number of them like Isiaka Osunde and Yusuf Grillo were no longer actively working. It was very fulfilling to get them to work again and to celebrate them.”

When the idea of the Living Masters exhibition was being conceived over a decade ago, the plan was that it would be a two-part series. “It has taken us 11 years to organise the second part. Unfortunately, we lost two of the masters Isiaka Osunde and Bisi Fakeye during this period.”

As for the forthcoming Masters exhibition, it is banking on the support of the Lagos State Internal Revenue Service (LIRS) and Custodian and Allied Insurance PLC for the opening ceremony of its two-day event. For a discussion session, dubbed “The Masters Session”, during which the University of Port Harcourt-based Professor Frank Ugiomoh will deliver a paper, Union Bank is footing the bills. Also at the same session, Lagos-based artists Duke Asidere and Taiye Idahor will be part of a panel of discussants at the event, which will also feature an interactive session of the masters with selected young artists and students.

Meanwhile, the exhibition’s preview – sponsored by the law firm Templars – was held on Wednesday.

For the contemporary Nigerian art scene, Adesanya sees a bright future. That, she says is clearer than ever before. Her reasons: “Our art is sought after all over the world. Our objective to create an awareness and appreciation of what we have is being fulfilled. Social media have contributed immensely to the awareness of what we are doing in Nigeria. You can’t talk about contemporary art in Africa, in the world without mentioning Nigeria. The gallery’s role is being redefined. It’s a very good feeling and I give glory to the Almighty God.”

Besides, Mydrim Gallery owes its ascent up the ladder-rungs of reckoning to its integrity in relating to its coterie of artists.