The basis for the celebrations of female artists and their works should transcend mundane comparisons with the efforts of their male counterparts and focus on their more sublime content, says Okechukwu Uwaezuoke

A steadily growing attendance at the Nike Art Centre’s last-Sunday-of-the-month Spotlight Art and Artists Review programme lets on to the fact that it is gradually catching on with the Lagos art community. Of course, this may also have something to do with the charisma of the latest featured duo, Peju Layiwola and Peju Alatise, who are among Nigeria’s leading female contemporary artists. 

When the Lekki-based art gallery decided, in January this year, to distil its barrage of visual impressions into curated monthly art exhibitions, the awareness of the novel endeavour did not seem, at first, to have extended beyond the circle of its habitués. Nonetheless, that initial edition, which was a solo exhibition featuring the works of Tolu Aliki, must have been sufficiently well received to encourage its continuation. Indeed, this must have gone a long way towards bolstering the organisers’ confidence in forging ahead and featuring the duo, Stephen Osuchukwu and Augustine Obayuwana, in the subsequent exhibition in February.

Conceived to feature seven-day solo or two-man exhibitions that begin on the last Sunday of every month, this high-octane idea is being realised through a collaboration between the Nike Art Centre and the Ategun Art Foundation. The point of it all, according to the gallery’s proprietress, Chief Nike Davies-Okundaye, is to highlight the potential of the talent-glutted local art scene.

Back to Spotlight Art and Artists Review’s most recent edition. It is no coincidence that the joint exhibition, which concluded on Saturday, April 2, featured female artists. This, Davies-Okundaye explained, was a nod to the fact that March was dedicated to celebrating women’s accomplishments.

Speaking of accomplishments, both Peju Layiwola and Peju Alatise have consistently held their own as the local art scene’s poster girls and trailblazers. While Layiwola, an art history professor, rose to the top of the academic ladder as the head of the University of Lagos’s Department of Creative Arts, her younger namesake, who is an interdisciplinary artist and architect, has written two novels.

Both women have, in addition, indelibly engraved their names in the cognoscenti’s consciousness with their career-defining exhibitions. For instance, take Layiwola, who is the daughter of an Edo princess. Her 2010 solo exhibition, Benin1897.com: Art and the Restitution Question, held in Lagos and Ibadan, and the 2014 collaborative art project, titled Whose Centenary? and held in Benin City, burnished her public advocacy credentials for the return of the artefacts stolen from Benin during the British punitive expedition of 1897.

As for Alatise, who has almost become legendary for her experimental multidisciplinary works, her 3-D work “Flying Girls” was featured during the 2017 Venice Biennale, in which she participated as one of the artists at Nigeria’s debut pavilion. The 47-year-old artist, who is a fellow of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African Art, also won the prestigious FNB Art Prize that year and was later selected to feature at the 2020 Venice Architecture Biennale.

Back to Layiwola. Her exploits on the international stage are no less impressive. Besides winning the African Multiple Cluster of Excellence at the University of Bayreuth, Germany in 2020, she was also a Tyson Scholar at the Crystal Bridges Museum in Bentonville, the USA in 2019, a Distinguished Visiting Scholar at the University of Arkansas from 2019 to 2020, and was nominated as the State of Arkansas 2020 Ambassador of Goodwill. Having previously received the Terra Foundation Grant for American Art in 2018, the CAA-Getty Alumni Grant in 2018 and nominated to the US International Leadership Programme (IVLP) in 2011, she also partnered with The Bronx Museum of the Arts on the Hillary Clinton US State Department SmARTpower programme in 2012, won the US Lagos State Consulate Grant and was awarded a Goethe Resident Artist grant (KNW) in Düsseldorf in 2017 and the US Alumni Exchange Award 2018.

While featuring these two female art luminaries with such impressive antecedents inevitably raises the aficionados’ expectations of the subsequent exhibitions, it also inevitably puts the organisers in a spot when it comes to the selection of artists for the April and subsequent editions.

Of course, the whole point of the exhibition transcends the personal accomplishments of these women and directs the viewers’ attention to the works, whose salient messages trailed them as they sauntered about the gallery. 

Indeed, the monthlong celebration of womanhood, which seemed to be the theme song of the month of March, ought to transcend such mundane considerations that seek to measure the success of the fairer sex against that of its male counterpart. Because she is called to fulfil higher duties, she is endowed with inherent qualities that stand her in good stead to soar towards undreamt-of heights and thus uplift her surroundings. This naturally implies that she is already standing at that duty post assigned to her by her Creator.

Thus, the woman, as an artist, is able to gain access to higher spheres from which she consciously receives an influx of higher thoughts as a result of a specially endowed nature that has been adapted to this function. This should serve as the foundation for all celebrations of female artists’ works. And this includes the exhibition, which was held on Tuesday, March 8 by the Korean Cultural Centre in Abuja in collaboration with Nike Art Gallery and the Female Artists Association of Nigeria (FEAAN). Speaking of that exhibition, which was held to commemorate International Women’s Day, the impact of the over 400 artworks by 24 female artists on the over 500 guests in attendance should have reverberated beyond the cultural scene.

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