In Festive Ambience of Art X Lagos, Yinka Shonibare Anchors His Legacy

At 60, the British-Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare’s future direction points towards leaving legacies, which is exemplified by his G. A. S. Foundation initiative, whose official launch coincides with the West Africa’s leading commercial art fair Art X Lagos. Okechukwu Uwaezuoke reports

From its glitzy VIP opening to its weekend-long visual feast, Art X Lagos keeps art enthusiasts’ sights riveted to this throbbing metropolis that is home to an estimated 21 million people. This, therefore, is one reason why Yinka Shonibare’s Guest Artists’ Space Foundation’s launch, which has been in the works for years, slots in nicely into this period. This, after all, is where one of the winners of the Access Art X Prize 2022/3—a winner from Africa or its Diaspora—will complete a residency programme. The residency programme for the prize’s other recipient, a Nigerian, will be held at Gasworks London in the United Kingdom.

Talking about the Prize, which was hitherto awarded only to emerging Nigerian artists, it has expanded to include an additional award that is open to emerging artists from all of Africa and its diaspora, and the cash value has been upped to $10,000. 

As the icing on the cake of this festive season, a group exhibition, titled An Unfolding Prelude, presents works developed during and adjacent to the first six months of residencies. This exhibition, which celebrates the rich variety of practices that have been facilitated at the Foundation thus far while offering a glimpse into the possibilities that the programme could foster as it evolves, features the works of its residents from five different countries on three continents and spans a range of disciplines including painting, photography, film, and critical research.

The exhibition shows works from the Foundation’s inaugural cohort members, including Mariam Hava Aslam, Femi Johnson, Emma Prempeh, Ofem Ubi, and Uzor Ugoala. A series by Accra-based photographer Francis Kokoroko and pieces by Yadichinma Ukoha-Kalu are also included.

Back to the non-profit cultural centre, often abbreviated for brevity’s sake as G.A.S., it is an ambitious project originally conceived in 2019 by the British-Nigerian artist, who lives and works in the UK. This creative hub—spanning two sites, one in Oniru, Lagos, and another in Ijebu, Ogun State—provides opportunities for those working in the fields of contemporary art, design, architecture, agriculture, and ecology by giving them space and resources to research, experiment, share, educate, and develop work, and offers a new concept for residencies around the world. 

While the Lagos building houses an exhaustive library, including over 1,500 volumes donated by the University of London, UK’s Emeritus Professor John Picton from his lifelong private collection on African art and culture, the Ijebu location offers a 54-acre ecology green farm, which is part of the World Weather Network, a constellation of weather stations with 28 art organisations around the world, formed in response to the climate crisis. “We want to offer long-term support for individual artists, equipping them to thrive, not just survive,” enthuses the renowned artist, who turned 60 on August 9. “International exchange has a very strong value, especially in a world where there’s a great deal of conflict, and I believe that going to see other cultures and being creative with other cultures is really a very positive way forward. It can be a true vehicle for social change.”

Indeed, the opening of the Foundation’s doors to the international art community with a series of exclusive and celebratory events featuring leading figures from the international art world not only bolsters Nigeria’s image as a cultural powerhouse but also allows the art public to see the spaces activated and the outcomes of the first residencies. “The artists that we’re inviting and the researchers will be able to have residences on both sides and they stay from between one month to three months,” Shonibare continues. “We have also been able to create a platform for many international artists and researchers and local artists and researchers in various fields to meet and actually develop different projects together and it’s going very well and there is a huge interest both locally and internationally.” 

These two trailblazing Nigerian creative hubs, which Shonibare and a distinguished board of directors conceptualised, have been completed for sometime early this year. Already, the Lagos building, which was designed by Ghanaian-British architect Elsie Owusu in collaboration with Lagos-based Nigerian architect Nihinlola Shonibare, has hosted its inaugural G.A.S. Fellows and residents, including Lynhan Balatbat Helbock, Femi Johnson, Emma Prempeh, Portia Zvavahera, and Gideon Gomo. This edifice fuses elements of Brutalism with the traditional Yoruba architectural principles, which accounts for the building wrapping around a central courtyard. 

Hitherto, the Foundation’s residency collaborations have been with Tiwani Contemporary, Goodman Gallery, Stephen Friedman Gallery, and James Cohan Gallery.

Meanwhile, the ecological farm in Ijebu, which grows a variety of crops including cassava and cashew as well as pawpaw, peppers, and maize, presents a fresh and sustainable paradigm for artist residencies around the world. Its building, designed by Papa Omotayo of MOE+ with interior design by Temitayo Shonibare, was built with local materials, which included 40,000 bricks made from soil dug up for the foundations and by local artisans.

Perhaps nothing points more clearly to Shonibare’s future direction than the G. A. S. Foundation initiative. Could this be why the 2004 Turner Prize finalist, who aims to continue to develop his work and that of other local and international artists, specifically alludes to his G. A. S. Foundation’s project?

The artist, who exemplifies exceptional stoicism, doesn’t appear to be fazed by the fact that he has clocked 60, a crucial milestone age. “Oh, you know, I think age is just a number,” he quips. “I think if you remain active and you remain creative, then it should not actually be a barrier, and I think actually you do get better as you get older because you know you can use your acquired knowledge to actually create even more challenging things. So no, I don’t think that it should necessarily be a barrier. I think I’m actually possibly at my most creative now at 60.”

As a British artist of Nigerian heritage, his work invariably references race and class issues. He justifies this by alluding to the “one-sided” power relations that exist between Africa and Europe. “Artists have always dealt with issues that they’re concerned about in their work,” he explains. “As somebody of African origin, I want to actually understand that history, and I want to understand the history of colonialism, and so I do engage with those issues in my work, and, of course, you can’t really engage with those issues without thinking about issues around race and class.”  

Then there’s his famed hopscotch through many mediums, including painting, sculpture, photography, and video, which accounts for his expression’s flexibility. “I think that really these days, it’s not really about the medium that one is actually using; In a way, it’s about what you’re trying to say, and you could think about different ways of expressing yourself as an artist now, so I don’t necessarily see that there should be boundaries between the various mediums that an artist can actually use, and so that’s why I do that, just to give myself the freedom.”

A noteworthy hallmark of his work is his unique appropriation of the vibrantly coloured Dutch wax batik fabric, which was mass-produced by the Dutch and then sold to West African colonies despite being inspired by Indonesian design. He used this technique in his homage to the same-named painting by French painter and printmaker Jean-Honoré Fragonard, “The Swing.” Talking about the work, he confirms that it “does address the issue of decadence and the gap between the rich and poor in France at the time. I don’t necessarily think that Ankara [fabric] represents decadence passé, but I think in that particular piece, it has been used in that way to show the contrast between the rich and the poor.”

In Shonibare’s opinion, the increased popularity of African textiles, which he has been known to use as a medium for expression, will neither influence the perception of his works nor the manner in which they are collected. Among the works featuring elements of this medium are “Gallantry and Criminal Conversation” (a work commissioned by the late Okwui Enwezor in 2002 for Documenta 11 in Kassel, Germany, which launched him onto an international stage) and “Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle” (which, as the Fourth Plinth Commission, was displayed in London’s Trafalgar Square until January 2012). There are also his 2019 work, “Refugee Astronaut,” and his 2020 work, “The American Library,” which was exhibited at the ICA Boston, US, as part of a group exhibition, as well as his two films, “Odile and Odette” and “Addio del Passato,” which were both exhibited in M. Woods’ Temple Galleries in Beijing, China. 

As for his advice to the young artists looking to broaden their horizons, the eighth recipient of the prestigious Whitechapel Gallery Art Icon Award says: “[They] should be open-minded and also understand that you know they’re not the only artists in the world. They should be curious and they should look at art magazines, they should read relevant historical books on art as well as engage with actual exhibitions and just try and make sure that they see as many things as possible. 

And for those who are able to actually go to museums internationally, as well as locally, they should do that too and all that should help them develop their work.”

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