As Arthouse Contemporary Limited holds its 20th Auction of Modern and Contemporary Art in Lagos tomorrow and celebrates a decade of revolutionising the local Nigerian art scene. Okechukwu Uwaezuoke reports

Blank walls, everywhere in the newly-built house, stared back at the occupants. It was as though they were begging to be filled up. That was when it dawned on Kavita Chellaram – an aficionado of Indian art – to adorn them with a lot of the art works brought along by her family to Nigeria.

But shortly after an auction held in India, the value of these works astronomically appreciated. Taking some of the works to the auction confirmed this fact. One thing led to the other before the penny dropped: she could replicate the auction here in Nigeria!

Back then, the Lagos art scene – though awash with talents – was benumbed by a fog of delusion. And because the pricing of the works were arbitrarily pegged, the artists really bargained hard with the handful of existing collectors to make what they thought were reasonable sales. Even then, getting these collectors to part with their hard-earned money was a daunting task. For they ultimately fixed the prices and the artists had to be content with whatever they were offered.

This scenario not only made the creation of a platform to showcase African art to the international scene imperative, but also inspired her to help make the contemporary Nigerian art scene more transparent.
So, Mrs Chellaram set to work. Soon, the babel of local artistic expressions that initially assailed her sensibilities began to resolve themselves into some form of coherence. Thus, her initial collection – consisting of two bead paintings by Twin Seven Seven of the informal Osogbo School fame – were acquired in 1977 and 1978. These were over the years gradually joined by more works by Nigerian artists. The process of acquisition, it turned out, was an arduous one since they were no standard galleries, internet or telephones. Also because their was a dearth of documentation on the artists, assessing art works and artists proved even tougher.

Fast-forward to April 2008, when the inaugural auction of her Arthouse Contemporary Limited was held at the Civic Centre in the Victoria Island neighbourhood of Lagos. She recalls selling a Ben Enwonwu for N1.5 million, which in those days was still a lot of money. She also reckons that the same work would, today, probably go for N20 million.
Meanwhile, the groundwork for that auction had seen her pay visits to artists in their studios and even meet with dealers to find old works. Prior to all that, Mrs Chellaram had taken a coterie of Nigerian artists to India for a charity auction. That would probably explain why charity auctions consistently featured in the biannual Arthouse Contemporary Limited auctions.

Meanwhile, the Lagos-based international auction house’s 20th Auction of Modern and Contemporary Art holds tomorrow (Monday, June 4) from 6 pm at the Kia Showroom, along the upmarket Victoria Island neighbourhood’s arterial thoroughfare Adeola Odeku Street. This auction also marks the 10th year anniversary of its auctions.

Founded sometime in late 2007, this laudable endeavour set up by Mrs Chellaram focuses mainly on modern and contemporary art from West Africa. In the course of its decade-long existence, it has also featured a handful works by East African artists alongside others in its past auctions. Leveraging on the recent performance of African art in the global art scene, tomorrow’s auction features such already acknowledged masters and leading contemporary artists as Ben Enwonwu, Bruce Onobrakpeya, Ben Osawe, Kolade Oshinowo, Ablade Glover, Chuks Anyanwu, David Dale, Ato Delaquis, Mavua Lessor, Uzo Egonu, Obi Enkwenchi, Okpu Eze, Lamidi Fakeye, Amos Odion, Abiodun Olaku, Muraina Oyelami, Jacob Afolabi, Susanne Wenger and Sam Ovraiti, who are easily the sub-region’s most celebrated.

Specifically, this edition features over 20 works culled from the collection of a prominent art collector. These works include works by Ben Enwonwu, Tayo Adenaike, David Dale, Okpu Eze, Abayomi Barber, Jimoh Buraimoh, Solomon Wangboje, Abiodun Olaku, Dele Jegede, Ben Osawe, Kolade Oshinowo, Bruce Onobrakpeya, Sam Ovraiti, Twins Seven Seven, Simon Okeke, Obiora Udechukwu and Ben Osaghae.
Also among the front-line contemporary artists to be featured in the auction are El Anatsui, Peju Alatise, Rom Isichei, Sokari Douglas Camp, Ndidi Emefiele, Lemi Ghariokwu, Alimi Adewale, Duke Asidere, Chike Obeagu, Uche Okpa-Iroha, Oluseye/Lakin Ogunbanwo, Ade Adekola and Michael Soi.

For the auction’s charity segment, four lots from Gerald Chukwuma, Lemi Ghariokwu, Reuben Ugbine, and Uchay Joel Chima will be featured. The proceeds from this segment will be used to support the Arthouse Foundation, which runs a non-profit artists’ residency programme in Lagos.

Already, works for tomorrow’s auction have been on display at the Kia Showroom venue since Saturday, June 2, between 11 am and 6 pm and today, (Sunday, June 3), between 12 noon and 6 pm.
They will also be on display tomorrow, between 10 am and 1 pm.

As for the auction itself, it will as usual be led by the English-born auctioneer, John Dabney, who has been part of the biannual event from inception, and is being sponsored by Access Bank, Kia Motors, Veuve Clicquot, 7UP, Le Connaisseur, and Shiro, alongside its official media partner The Guardian. It is also being supported by Channels and Studio 53.

Besides its biannual auctions, the Arthouse Contemporary Limited also organises a series affordable auctions, which entered its third edition early this year. The auction, which targets young professionals and first time buyers, is part of its endeavour to build a new group of collectors for the rapidly growing local art market.

Right from its inception, the auction house has pioneered the promotion and development of the contemporary art market in Nigeria. This has been through the creation of a viable secondary market and a transparent pricing structure, which bolsters collectors’ confidence in Nigerian art as an investable asset.

Auction records have been set by works of such artists as Ben Enwonwu, Bruce Onobrakpeya and El Anatsui in the biannual event’s various editions. Hence, it has so far sold over N2 billion worth of art from auctioning 1,750 lots.

Beyond the auctions, Arthouse Contemporary Limited has relatively recently expanded its operations to include organising exhibitions of contemporary art with Arthouse-The Space and artists’ residency programme with the non-profit Arthouse Foundation. Among the exhibitions held so far are solo projects by Peju Alatise, Diseye Tantua, Chidi Kwubiri, Eva Obodo, George Osodi, Victor Ekpuk and Emeka Udemba. It has also held an exhibition of the works of master artist Yusuf Grillo, featuring his oils and stained-glass works.

Arthouse-The Space has, in addition, featured its artists at such international art fairs as Art 14 in London and Art X Lagos.

The Arthouse Foundation offers artist residencies in three-month sessions in Lagos. The residency programmes have so far held workshops, open studios and artist talks, as well as final exhibitions. This platform, according to a press statement by Arthouse, is meant to help artists “expand their practice and experiment with new art forms and ideas, offering live/work residencies throughout the year in three-month residencies.”

Since its creation three years ago, the foundation has hosted 16 artists for the programmes. It has also partnered with international art institutions to offer residency exchanges, including an exchange with the Matadero Museum in Madrid for Nigerian and Spanish artists and an exchange with the Goethe-Institut in Berlin for Nigerian and German artists.

Meanwhile, Arthouse moves into the next decade with the aim of expanding its growing online presence and building on its extensive client network. Just this year, it introduced the “Artist of the Month” on its website, offering artworks for sale on the internet. It “is also working to offer live bidding on its web platform and also aims to expand its international partnerships, bringing exhibitions of modern and contemporary Nigerian art across the globe,” the statement adds.