Just picture the influx of thousands of people into Civic Centre every November 2 to 4 in Lagos to see tasteful, eclectic works of art. Since 2016, West Africa’s premiere international art fair, ART X has served as the loop connecting art and its multicultural audience owing to its special features such as live paintings, interactive media art installations, ART X Live, curated shows and of course, the ART X Talks which had featured the legendary artist, Bruce Onobrakpeya and the sensational Njideka Akunyili-Crosby in its first and second editions, respectively.
Heightening the anticipation for this edition is the glowing declaration by ART X Founder and Creative Director, Tokini Peterside during a recent press conference in Ikoyi, Lagos. Clad in a crisp powder-blue shirt and tailored cream-coloured trousers, she announced in sheer delight that the British-Nigerian artist, Yinka Shonibare would lead the talks at the two-day fair, sponsored by Access Bank,which is traditionally preceded by a VIP preview and a lip-sealed after-party.
Born in London in 1962, Shonibare’s global popularity hinges on many details of his life and career. For starters, he is a Member of the British Empire. But, more importantly, Shonibare pushed the frontiers of visual arts with his directorial approach to studio practice when he became confined to the electric wheelchair as a result of his long-term physical disability. Shonibare reportedly contracted transverse myelitis, an inflammation of the spinal cord at 18 which paralysed a side of his body. Fortunately, what didn’t kill him made him stronger. Shonibare emerged as a parallel of sorts to Stephen Hawking, a renowned British physicist who overcame a debilitating disease to publish world-acclaimed books that probe the mysteries of the universe – one of which is A Brief History of Time which sold more than 10 million copies.
Against the odds of his physical condition, Shonibare proceeded to study Fine Art at Byam Shaw School of Art and later at Goldsmiths, University of London where he obtained his MFA. Subsequently, he worked as an arts development officer for Shape Arts, a charity organisation funded by Arts Council, England that makes arts accessible to persons living with disabilities. A great initiative, one might add, by a state that has enabling structures to undo a disabling condition where there is a will. Perhaps, that was a turning point in his career. A CNN documentary once showed Shonibare making sketches for one of his art projects with his better hand. These sketches would later be the blueprint for his assistants to execute his work. This is how he earned the debatable description of a “conceptual artist”.
Launching him to the international stage was his work titled, “Gallantry and Criminal Conversation’’, commissioned by Okwui Enwezor in 2002. Two years later, Shonibare was shortlisted for the Turner Prize for his Double Dutch exhibition at the Museum Boijmans van Beuningen in Rotterdam and his solo show at the Stephen Friedman Gallery, London. With a rich portfolio of works that reference cultural identity, colonialism and post-colonialism, Shonibare tickles the minds of art collectors and critics. Needless to say, his works are sought after by leading museums worldwide and his larger-than-life installations are dominating the public spaces. In 2010, “Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle” became his first public art commission on the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square, City of Westminster, Central London and in 2016, one of his “Wind Sculpture VII” pieces was installed in front of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art, Washington D.C. That same year, that six-metre tall, fibre glass and steel sculpture was installed at Ndubuisi Kanu Park, Alausa, a rather secluded municipal part of the culturally and commercially vibrant city with competing options such as the Lagos Central Business District, Eko Hotel Roundabout, Race Course Roundabout, Freedom Park and Mobolaji Bank Anthony Way interchange with Agege Motor Road inwards Murtala Mohammed International Airport II (MM2).
Shonibare’s invitation to the Art X conversations will naturally pull a crowd larger than the designated hall for his story is an embodiment of inspiration to many artists constrained by life’s challenges even beyond the physical.
“I feel very lucky to be able to do that; I can realise my utopian dreams and still survive,’’ he once said in an exclusive interview with Art 21.
“Most artists will want to ask the basic questions such as, ‘Why am I here? How did I get here? What are my origins?’ All those are natural questions that you could ask yourself, anyway. My works evolved out of that. I get bored very quickly. And I have been doing this for maybe 25 years or so. I need to stay interested. Because I change the way I work so much, it’s never boring,” he said in the interview produced by Tateshots titled, “I’m The Rebel Within’’.
Certainly, there will be no dull moment, as the ART X visitors listen to Shonibare’s exploits on the global space and his integrity to artistic truths in his form and content. With art biennials and festivals seizing the art audience around this period in Lagos, ART X Talks with Shonibare is indeed a trump card to grow a broad spectrum of audience for the art.