Ideation is pedestrian, execution is divine. When Tokini Peterside was brainstorming the idea that would eventually be developed into ART X Lagos, she never knew her mind was moulding a lectern where African contemporary art will crack its choking voice and boom to the rest of the world for the attention it deserves.
All Tokini wanted was to simply support Nigerian and pan-African artists and also showcase them to local and international audiences. But the art fair has transcended into a cultural platform of its own, showering global art enthusiasts with throes of awe-inspiring artistic expressions that Nigerians and Africans can conjure.
Since the maiden edition in 2016, the international art fair has welcomed thousands of visitors through its doors, giving the brilliance and talent of African, most especially Nigerian artists, a much-needed elevated platform to shine.
The 2020 online fair reached people from 101 countries across the globe – the event’s most diverse audience ever.
This year’s edition hopes to further break the record with its hybrid fair which is happening physically at The Federal Palace, Victoria Island, Lagos, from November 4-7 with an extension online till November 21.
In this interview with TheCable Lifestyle, Tokini reflects on her love for African contemporary art, the birth of ART X Lagos, the peculiarities of the 2021 edition, and the nature of Nigeria’s art market.
What triggered your passion for contemporary African art and how did it snowball into the creation of ART X Lagos?
That’s a very big question, because, as you would know, it’s not one thing that sparks passion or interest. I would probably say that my interest moved from interest to action around 2008 when I bought my first serious work. I bought it at the Arthouse auction that Kavita Chellaram organised, and it was the first-ever art auction that was held in Nigeria as an independent art auction house. Obviously before one becomes a collector of art it means that you had an appreciation, so I would say that, of course, in my childhood, my teenage years I had a lot of exposure to the arts and encouragement that ultimately led to that moment when I bought my first serious work of art.
Of course, as you do, you have conversations with artists and you get to understand their opportunities, their challenges. And if you’re someone like myself you start to think and ask yourself: Is there something I can do to intervene in the art ecosystem and help to strengthen the opportunities for the vast numbers of thousands of talented artists that I encountered across Nigeria?
I should premise by saying that in those years I was working as head of marketing for LVMH group. Through that role, I was also supporting, very vehemently, musicians, filmmakers, fashion designers, art galleries; so I was very involved in the space even in my work. And in 2012, I left the company to form a strategy consultancy, and my biggest client at the time was Alara which was owned by Reni Folawiyo.
There was another pivotal moment where my focus started to grow beyond Nigeria to Africa because the Alara vision was a pan-African one. And whilst I was exposed to pan-African fashion and design, I was also indulging in more knowledge about pan-African art. Even as a collector in those years, I started to desire to collect more African art beyond the great work the Nigerian artists were doing.
In those years, I had a number of artists reaching out to me to ask if I could even work with them as an advisor or consultant that could help them go beyond their studios to build truly global and international practices as artists. So, I started to think about how I could intervene in this space in a way where I could lend my strengths and capabilities in business, but to a larger number of artists at the same time, as opposed to working with individual artists in silence.
I then went and did an MBA and spent a lot of my time in that MBA researching along with my friends and classmates and came up with a number of ideas, and the one that stuck was this idea of a platform that would enable the world, but Nigeria most importantly, to open up to the fantastic work done by artists across the continent. The vision was international and global but it was also very much local.
I wanted to see how we could inspire thousands of more Nigerians to appreciate the work that was being created at home — in Nigeria, across Africa — and then I wanted to see if we could connect with international audiences and bring them to Nigeria to explore and experience these exceptional works.
After my MBA I returned to Nigeria — it was a one-year program at INSEAD — and then I decided to launch ART X Lagos in 2016.
Do you think most Nigerians, pressed with the struggle for survival, appreciate African contemporary arts, or is it just a section of the country that patronises such creativity?
Nigerians are people who love music, fashion, film – expressions of creativity — are we saying these people will not love art? My hypothesis is that if the art is presented to them in a way where it is engaging, exciting, and welcoming, they love it. In the end, we were proven right with vision because in November 2016 we had 5,000 people come through the doors of ART X Lagos.
I assure you that only 2,000 of those people were from the affluent set. The rest were men, women, boys, girls, grandparents, and students. People that didn’t know me and I didn’t know them. They had heard the message of ART X Lagos and they came from far and wide.
The question you asked is a very important one because the truth is if you look around Nigeria today you will assume that Nigerians do not care about arts. In fact, you’ll assume Nigerians do not care about many things if you look on the surface. But I would invite you to go back a mere 200 years in our history; we were an exceptionally sophisticated collection of societies.
We had the Ife Kingdom, Benin kingdom, and societies across east and south that produced some of the most remarkable artworks that the world has ever seen; so remarkable that when Europeans encountered those artworks, they refused to believe that they were made by black Africans. Those artworks were part of everyday life. They were exceptional objects of beauty and craftsmanship of excellence.
Nigerians across the board in their different societies – whether Igbo, Kalabari, Tiv — appreciated those artworks, revered them and incorporated them into their daily lives. My theory is that what we see today is representative of the disconnect that we have with our true identity. We see that Nigerians are creatively motivated. You watch Davido or Burna Boy perform and you see Nigerians getting carried away and excited because we love creativity as a people.
I invite you to come to ART X Lagos and to see the reactions on people’s faces — even children — when they see the artwork. People tell us that they are proud to be Nigerians, Africans when they see those artworks. They ask questions. They are curious. They take photos to remember the work. It’s a very important part of our mandate, at ART X Lagos, to reconnect Nigerians with their genuine true identity as art-loving people.
Do you see art competing with other forms of creative expression in Nigeria in the next couple of years?
I think it’s already happening. It’s almost been like a revolution, over the past five and six years. Before when Nigerians had conversations about creativity they talked about music, fashion but today everyone knows that composition isn’t complete without art. You have someone like Wizkid who dropped his last album and invited artists in partnership with a magazine to do different renditions of his work. Falana, a wonderful Nigerian female musician, is doing a concept to launch a new album as part of the ART X Lagos weekend. She’s invited over 8 artists to respond to her album with their artworks.
ART X Lagos has been a catalyst in Nigeria to awaken and open people’s eyes to the fact that there is tremendous potential in the art world. I cannot tell you the number of government or developmental panels, conversations, working groups that I’ve been invited to join where a government agency wants to do something around creativity and they now know art must be part of the conversation.
But the journey is not yet complete and we’ve not arrived at the final destination. The truth is that: Nigeria has powerful potential in the art world. For hundreds of years, some of the world’s most exceptional artists you know names like Ben Ewonwu, Yusuf Grillo, Bruce Onobrakpeya — these guys didn’t start yesterday or last week or five years ago. So, we have the potential there and for a platform like ART X Lagos, we unite with other exceptional creators across Africa and that’s why I will tell you that we’ve only scratched the surface. We’ve really just begun with what we’ve done over the past six years.
You said the revolution has begun but it’s not at the destination yet. So, what can stakeholders do to get art to that destination?
Some have started. I’ll give you one example, I’m moderating a panel discussion at ART X Lagos this week and it is called ‘Beyond collecting: Building an ecosystem’ and it’s going to highlight four remarkable individuals who started out, like I did, as art collectors but very quickly realized and decided that they wanted to play the roles of catalyst in the sector of the industry.
Someone like Kavita Chellaram, who created the Arthouse auction house — a collector but decided to create that incredibly important institution that led to not just awareness of disability but also price transparency and record-keeping for Nigerian artists. There is Prince Yemisi Shyllon, who’s also speaking at the talk, one of Africa’s biggest collectors with 6000 to 7000 artworks. A couple of years ago, he partnered with the Pan-Atlantic University in Lagos and donated 1000 of his artworks to a new museum that has been created known as the Yemisi Shyllon Museum of Art.
It is a remarkable space filled with incredible artworks that are testaments to a man’s vision to empower his country’s artists. There’s also Hakeem Adedeji, who will also feature on the talk, an investment banker with success in the oil and gas field and has been a private patron and supporter for many artists; Giving them grants and money to help them go overseas for residencies, help them do the exhibitions and he just built a state of the art residency for these artists in Ibadan. They can go there for free, for retreats to create their work and they can be supported.
These are just three individuals I’ve named and there are many others who are starting to step up because they have decided that this sector must move forward. It is too powerful in terms of what it can contribute to reshaping and redefining the narrative about Nigeria and Africa, and so you have more collectors and stakeholders deciding that they are going to get involved in the ways that I’ve described.
What special offerings are coming to this year’s ART X Lagos fair that’ll stand it out from the previous editions?
I’ll start by saying we have 110 artists participating in the fair this year — that’s the largest number of artists we’ve ever had. We have 30 galleries from across Africa and the diaspora in the fair this year– that’s the largest number of galleries we’ve ever had.
Over half of those galleries will be present physically in Lagos. We have a parallel online art fair. The physical fair is happening live at the Federal Palace from November 4 to 7. And the online fair is happening parallel from November 4 to 21 on our website. The artists are from about 25 countries.
There are curated projects that the fair organises to broaden the programming at the fair and add events to also engage our audiences better. One of the projects we are doing revolves around the newest technology in art: NFTs.
NFTs are taking the digital world by storm. It will have a special exhibition partnering with a company called SuperRare, which is one of the world’s biggest important marketplaces and platforms for NFTs. We are exhibiting 10 incredible dynamic African artists who work with digital art. They will be present physically and also online at the fair. We are creating a short film live at the fair, in a project called ‘We Are Here’, which is sponsored by Flutterwave. We’re bringing a collective from Kaduna that creates all sorts of films, and they are going to be creating a film live at the fair with the audience in participation.
We have projects by Kelani Abass titled Unfolding Layers of Time, Future Africa which is a digital video installation by David Alabo and Adeola Olagunju. Etinosa Yvonne — a remarkable photographer who won the prize we organized for emerging artists in 2019 — will be doing a powerful exhibition focusing on the lives of survivors of terror and violence.
We have ART X Live which is the show where we mix art and music; we bring the two together and that platform demonstrates that the creative process is the same, whether you are visual artists or performing music artists. And the artists collaborate and put together a one-night-only special kind of concept that is also part of our program this year.
There’ll also be a presentation at the fair in honour of Yusuf Grillo, featuring some of his arts and books about him to help cement his legacy and greatness since he passed on, especially in the mind of the young audience
This year’s fair will be both physical and online, but while the offline exhibition runs for four days, the online showroom will open until November 21. What’s the idea behind the structure of the schedule?
It’s actually the effect of COVID-19. What COVID-19 has done is that it has made travel very difficult for visitors who want to come into Lagos and all over the world. It’s a lot more difficult to travel now. So last year we recognized that for our fair, ART X Lagos, to still have its global reach and connect Africa’s best artists with the world’s most serious and strongest art patriots, we needed to make this platform digital. So we resolved that we needed to always have an online fair alongside a physical fair. And that’s why we’re doing all the work to ensure that.
Many of our galleries were unable to travel into Nigeria for the fair because you look at a place like South Africa where, as we stand today, there are no direct flights between South Africa and Nigeria. And we have many galleries in South Africa that we work. They want to be part of the programme and the online fair allows them that opportunity to still participate.
It also exposes us to a bigger audience. Last year, we did our first online fair and we had visitors from over 101 countries — that is far more diverse than a physical fair will ever be. So we recognised the power of digital as well.
How big is the Nigerian Art industry at the moment?
Nigeria is the second-largest market on the African continent, eclipsed only by South Africa. Nigerian collectors are some of the most revered collectors on the African continent by international institutions. Nigeria, also in terms of its artists, produces very strong global sensation artists like Yinka Shonibare, who has had an illustrious career for decades, or Njideka Akunyili Crosby, who has had a shorter career but whose works are now commanding over $3 million at auction internationally. Nigeria is very capable of producing global heavyweights in terms of artists.
When it comes to the market cap — Like what is the amount in Naira or U.S. dollars that you can use to value the Nigerian market? — There’s nobody sitting or standing today that has that number. Because it requires truly intensive research reports that will not only look at public statistics, such as auction statistics, but we also have to delve into private statistics. Because a lot of what’s happened in the Nigerian art market is still private: private sales from galleries to collectors; private sales from artists to collectors. And without the ability to capture those private sales, it means that you wind up with an inaccurate measurement or depiction of the size of the Nigerian art market.
Can you tell us the impact ART X Lagos has had on indigenous artists since its inception in 2016?
ART X Lagos has had a very huge impact. In fact, a lot of people, when they want to send us words of congratulations or encouragement, always say the impact of this fair, this creation, will really be known in a number of years’ time.
What we have done in six short years is we have shone a spotlight on a sector that was bubbling under and had committed players and actors, but a sector that was not fully being ascribed its rightful place in the national consciousness.
What ART X Lagos has done is that we have put art back on the radar. Because what we do as an organization is to bring visibility to the sector and its key players. We advertise extensively, reach out to interested individuals, and partner with so many different organisations.
What we have done is to really create visibility for Nigeria’s arts sector to ensure that this sector is accorded its rightful place in the creative economy. These are work that we have done vis-à-vis Nigeria, but there’s also the international impact. The Financial Times issued a quote about us, saying, ‘ART X Lagos reflects Nigerian potential on the global scene.’ Because what we are also doing is showcasing internationally that there is talent and excellence in Africa and Nigeria.
The media may be filled with stories of the many negative happenings across Nigeria but just as those events are happening, there is also brilliance in Nigeria. ART X Lagos has brought thousands of individuals from across the world into Nigeria, each year, to experience that brilliance — life and direct and in person. Some of the world’s biggest art institutions – the Tate Modern Museum in the UK came to our 2019 physical fair with their global director and 30 of their biggest patrons for African art. They chose to do this visit at the time of our ART X Lagos and, from there, experienced and explored the rest of the art ecosystem in Lagos.
Because when a visitor comes to ART X Lagos, they also go to visit galleries, artists, restaurants, and so many different spaces. What we have done is to accelerate the building of a cultural season in Lagos that now attracts thousands of visitors from across the world.
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