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Arts & Travel

Seeing Art, Seeing Ourselves

[VIDEO] Inside Art X Lagos 2019

The 4th edition of Art X Lagos ended on 3 November with 22 participating galleries and over 90 artists exhibiting drawings, paintings, sculptures and installations. 

Organisers describe the event as “West Africa’s premier international art fair, designed to showcase the best and most innovative contemporary and modern art from the African continent and its Diaspora.” 

Founder Tokini Peterside said Art X Lagos is about positioning the Nigerian capital of commerce and entertainment as “a phenomenal cultural destination”.   

In this piece for The Daily Report, Pelu Awofeso highlights 16 works from the fair that not only speak to the present but also look back to a cherished — and disappearing — past. 

Lagos 20HZ-20KHZ / ALA

There was a lot to excite guests at Art X Lagos this year and the sound art and video installation by Emeka Ogboh were clearly two of them. In the first, the artist combines field recordings of sounds of everyday hustle and bustle (at bus stops, on highways, at markets, etc) with bits of electronic music to deliver an unmistakable soundtrack of the city that’s home to 20m people. 

Guests, with ‘silent disco’ headphones, listen to Lagos 20HZ – 20KHZ and watch ALA by Emeka Ogboh

Guest experienced this world through a ‘silent disco’ headset in three different channels (Modern, Contemporary, Curated). “The medium emphasizes the individual and a sense of self that informs collective experience,” the project description reads.   

In the complementing two-channel video (titled ALA), Ogboh pulls his audience into a more visual encounter, engaging them through sound, video and photography. They see Lagos unfold in many defining ways: ride in a Keke Marwa, vehicles speeding in both directions on the Third Mainland Bridge, Danfos parked on waterlogged roads, among other visuals). 

“Ogboh’s aesthetic choices nod to the many layers through which the city might be interpreted,” the introduction to the project says. “The mirrored effect applied to portions of the content alludes to the common experiences that connect persons in Lagos to both one another and the rhythm of the city.    

A Kind of Woman/ Samy Knows Best

Benenoise multimedia artist Moufouli Bello is represented by SMO Contemporary, which exhibited three of her works at Art X Lagos. Placed side by side, two of them — A Kind of Woman and Samy Knows The Truth — achieve such a visual power that stops viewers in their tracks (One guest describe them as ‘fiery’). And Bello leaves nobody in doubt about her feminist leanings. 

A Kind of Woman and Samy Knows The Truth by Moufouli Bello

For one, she is displeased with the fact that women have been made — and remain — invisible and voiceless, on the continent especially. “Society claims to know better what is good for woman (sic) than what she thinks is good for herself. Nobody asks for her opinion — sometimes, she even has to negotiate her humanity and the integrity of her body,” she argues.

Looking at the works, I get the feeling that she seems to give that power, visibility and voice to her subjects, deliberately dressing them up in bright-coloured, flowery fabrics. It is an inviting, genteel presence.. 

Even so, Bello is not done. “I want my art to start a conversation on taboo topics that society considers ”untouchable”  because of traditional codes which justify gender-based injustice, inequality and oppression. I want people who look at my portraits to actually meet the eyes of my women and actually see them, so that they, in turn, can also see themselves.”   

No Man’s Land/ Visionaries

Ivorian sculptor Jems Koko Bi sees human faces in tree trunks before he starts chiselling through them. “He sees their noses, their lips, their eyes,” says Delphine Lopez, Director of Galerie Cecile Fakhoury in Dakar, explaining the works comprising five sculpted heads. 

No Man’s Land/ Visionaries by Jems Koko Bi

More than than the artist, 60, is also making a statement about the need to preserve the environment as the world experiences alarming levels of deforestation arising from a rapidly expanding global population, city planning requirements and development. 

“Koko Bi carved Visionaries (charcoal black) to represent protectors and guardians of nature, and with No Man’s Land he is saying the green areas of the world doesn’t belong to anyone or any country but to all of us and as such something we ought to cherish and protect.”

Play As Creation/ Play As Collective

Both of these projects were hosted in the Interactive section of the fair and curated by A Whitespace Creative Agency. The first recognises that all humans are emotional beings with a range of heartfelt desires (happiness, Peace, Love, Joy, Success among them), and so guests face a wall to make a wish from the options and then scribble a prayer. 

Play as Collective creatively preservies Africa’s indigenous printmaking and ancient languages

“The audience is invited to engage with play as escape, with the hope of de-emphasising the constant routine of daily life, encouraging curiosity and creating a rich source of collective and creative energy,” the creators say. 

While the first can only be felt, the second project is tangible. The guests get to connect with a world that’s fast disappearing: traditional printmaking and some of Africa’s indigenous symbols (Adinkra, Nsibidi, Bantu). Here, the artists explore “the idea of print, pattern and form making, and reveals how these yield the average materials and textiles that adorn our bodies.” 

Serenity/ Naked Masquerade

Yaba College of Technology graduate Peter Uka’s paintings stem from a recollection of everyday scenarios from his childhood and younger years. Now in his 40s and based in Germany, he relives and recreates those times gone by through very vivid paintings. His work Serenity speak to an austere period. 

Pelu Awofeso stands admiring ‘Serenity’ by Peter Uka

“When I was young, only four or five people in my area had television. So back then if you had a simple radio, it was something of pride,” he said to a group of students who stopped by at the Gallery Voss booth. “Today, almost everyone has a radio and more at the tip of their fingers through the mobile phone. It is a luxury. So in my own way, I  try to document stuff like that, to preserve the struggle of our parents, from memory — to let people know how things used to be, that nothing was handed to them on a platter. They worked hard to get what they had and to become who they were.” 

Alta Ego/ Far From All Odds

The first paintings that guests to Art X Lagos see when they walk into the exhibition space are Boris Anje’s Alta Ego and Far From All The Odds. It is a study in contrasts (profligacy vs minimalism). In the latter, we see a dark-skinned, young mustachioed man decked in his designer clothes and accessories, topped by a fur coat. He shimmers from head to toe. The painting to his left shows another man about his age, wearing dreads, a pair of jeans and a singlet adorned with the face of Bob Marley and carrying a sign that reads: “Knowledge Is Strength”.

Alta Ego/ Far From All Odds by Boris Anje

In the accompanying profile, the artist’s point is delivered starkly. “In this consumer world, the desire to feign imposes itself as a human need, as a catalyst of our life, making us believe that it makes us superior, that it allows us to elevate ourselves within society.”      

Les Marabouts/ African Jesus 

Cameroonian Boris Nzebo is one of the most detailed (even complicated) works at Art X Lagos.  Yet at the heart of it is a respectful and multilayered representation of everyday people and settings, typified in this case by small congregation of spiritualists out on day’s ministration. 

African Jesus and Les MArabouts by Boris Nzebo

Seen from a distance the work comes across as one large turbaned head with two sparkling, alert  eyes; but on closer inspection, multiple figures materialise, one of them a young boy holding up an umbrella over the head of the spiritual leader. 

“Some people look at this work and see markets. You can see whatever you want to see, really,” says the founder of Douala-based Gallerie MAM. “There is no right way or wrong way to look at or interpret this work. What you see is what it iis.”

But his African Jesus (Aluminium coated with powder) is also quite gripping, even if understated. It is almost impossible to believe that Nzebo — who now lives in Italy — taught himself to draw, while earning his living as a Barber, sketching haircuts for shop displays and experimenting with various styles and formats. His body of work are as striking as they are complex. 

The Value of Nothing/ Where is Ubuntu? 

The Naira has depreciated compared to its stature at Nigeria’s independence. The Nigerian economy itself is in its worst state in decades. And the global media is bedeviled by misinformation and disinformation. 

Where is Ubuntu and The Value of Nothing by Ken Nwadiogbu

When I step into the Artyrama booth, I could tell instantly what hyper-realist artist Ken Nwadiogbu, 25, was getting at with his The Value of Nothing VI ( part of a series that includes the Yuan, Pound, Euro and the Dollar), one of which hangs on the wall: a large Naira sign created from printing paper with type-written words on them, and superimposed on a pencil drawing of a youthful, despondent face.

On the day Art X Lagos opened to the public, hyper-realist artist Ken Nwadiogbu, 25, tweeted: “We put so much power and value in money that we subconsciously lose our self value”.

His other works (Where is Ubuntu?) takes a jab the media which he believes tweak the headlines to misrepresent the actual mood of the larger society. “They hide the real news in a tiny section inside the papers and put less important ones on the covers,” he said.  

So what does he do? Picking a recent cover of The Punch, he rewrites the headlines, cancelling out some of the original words in red ink and replacing them with his own. To complete the story, he cuts out the cover image and in its place, we see a face sealed with plastic, struggling to breathe, to speak out. 

“They are gagging the public, preventing freedom of expression.”

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