Charting New Course for the Abuja Art Scene

With his lustrous curatorial credentials, artist Nduwhite Ndubuisi Ahanonu has initiated landmark projects in an effort to dispel Abuja’s unflattering, prejudicial reputation as a soulless metropolis. Okechukwu Uwaezuoke writes 

Could it be that his eventual “detour to curating,” as Nduwhite Ndubuisi Ahanonu puts it, was the result of his insatiable thirst for a creative adventure? No sooner had he returned from the 2010 edition of the Dakar Biennale, where he represented Nigeria with a new perspective and direction of discourse in African contemporary art practice, than the artist began to stir things up in the Abuja art scene.

Along with his now deceased friend Harrison Ikibah, he initiated a few interventions in the federal city’s art scene, which then appeared to be exclusively dominated by government parastatals and embassies. The pair’s initiatives, which focused mostly on establishing and planning exhibitions, prepared the ground for their profoundly influential encounter with a group of British Council representatives who were in town for an event. Ahanonu recalls being invited to Lagos after that encounter. “This was [at a time] when there was a huge disconnect between individual or independent curators, art managers, and even art institutions,” he recalls. 

Soon afterwards, a handful of them were accepted into a mentorship scheme for a year, which led to Ahanonu studying cultural diplomacy in Berlin in 2008 under the Ford Foundation’s funding. It was at this point that the Imo State-born artist’s odyssey veered completely off course from exclusive studio practice. He had ever since taken courses on curatorial studies in Venice, the Asiko School of Art in Dakar, cultural management in Germany, social engagement for social change in the US (IVLP), cultural mediation and democratisation in France, as well as art workshops and artist residencies in several locations across the world.

In the midst of all of this, the duo founded the International Institute for Creative Development in 2010, which was a direct offshoot of the Ford Foundation mentorship programme to develop future cultural managers in Nigeria. Indeed, the Abuja art scene has been systematically positioned during the past ten years as a distinctive cultural identification by the IICD, as the institute is often called by its initials. “We do have a lot working for us here,” Ahanonu explains. “Abuja, from a distance, may appear soulless, as most people have in the past described it. Deconstructing this psychological stereotype and more are part of the reason the IICD Centre has a distinct modus operandi, as an open thematic experimental art space that infuses pedagogical and creative processes in the industry.”

As an artist, the Leuphana University, Lüneburg, Germany, MFA candidate has earned his stripes. Already, he has held four solo exhibits in addition to taking part in other group shows both inside and outside of Nigeria. As a curator, he has led and facilitated numerous local and international workshops and residencies; most recently, in 2018, he organised a portfolio review workshop with France-based curator Caroline Hancock in collaboration with the Institut  Français, Abuja. 

According to him, his over a decade of curating and art management has taught him how best to be an artist. “I am now applying and negotiating my art practice again, finding a balance with my studio practice and the institutional work we do here [at the IICD Centre].”

Still on the IICD, it runs an international artists’ residency that has sparked new creative synergies. This is in addition to its efforts to reposition the ideology and creative narratives of the Abuja art scene and artists, as well as Nigerian artists in general. Ahanonu, who participated in the Midbar International Artists’ Residence in Tel Aviv, Israel, in 2006, enthuses about how the IICD Centre encourages creative dialogues and interactions between Nigerian artists and the resident foreign artists. In keeping with worldwide curatorial standards, this focus aims to provoke fresh debates, arguments, and issues as well as research opportunities. In a nutshell, the IICD Centre’s main objective is to help artists in the framework of contemporary art practice establish their voice, connect their paths, and create new narratives.

So far, Ahanonu’s curatorial credentials glisten with his projects, which include the Hilton at 30’s “Catalyst for Future Cities” at the Transcorp Hilton Hotel, Abuja, and a performance in celebration of the Francophonie Festival, titled “Though I Don’t Know You,” which was held at the Belgian Ambassador’s residence in Abuja in 2017. In 2016, he curated a group art exhibition, titled Abuja Alive, held at the IICD Centre in Abuja in 2016 and co-curated the Finding the True North artist residency in Karlstad, Sweden.

His most recent flagship project, the Abuja Open House, which is unarguably the biggest art fiesta in the federal capital city, actually held its maiden edition in 2019, but was only able to hold its second edition in 2022 after being disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. Animating over 22 locations in four days, it is the most attended art event in Abuja, contributing its quota to burnishing the city’s cultural profile.

Ahanonu affirms that it has recorded over 1500 attendees, with an increase in gallery visits, and effectively groomed new cultural players in the industry. This is as he looks forward to the next and third edition, which has been scheduled to take place from October 25 to 28. “In the future, we will increase the number of activities to strategically democratise art and culture, taking it to communities that are disenfranchised,” he promises. “Our mediation will increase cultural consumption and create new creative ways to consume art and culture.”

Abuja Open House, created in collaboration with the United States Embassy in Abuja, aims to bridge the gap between Abuja’s art community, the general public, and art galleries. It is run by a board of directors, with new directors chosen and invited each year to lead the festival. If its second edition had an impressive run, it was thanks to its creative director, management team, curators, and, most importantly, volunteers.

Ahanonu contends that the city has produced great artists in his personal assessment of the Abuja art scene and its prospects. “What it has failed to do is keep them. Clearly, it is due to a schism in the professionalism of the players. We have far too many gate crashers who are unconnected to the growth of the artists and scene and are only interested in the glamour and money. The substantiality and authenticity of the content are severely lacking, owing to the Fordist production mentality.”

Nonetheless, he discerns a ray of hope on the horizon and believes that Abuja, which he calls “a young city with too many cosmetic inspirations,” is still developing its character. He says that new media, notably through digitalisation, would play a significant role in the sector’s future growth. “What we need is sustained cultural policy, driven by mediation to inspire consumption. We have the right position and proximity to government and the international community, but we lack the will to implement structures that demand sustained cultural policy, systems that guaranteed civil and cultural interactions, hence the fragmented growth.”

As for his recipe for the sector’s sustainable growth, it includes an intentional strategy, a projected plan that takes into account Abuja’s creative DNA, clear coordination with stakeholders and the government, and capacity building for cultural workers.

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