A recent international art fair in Abuja – thanks to a collaboration between the National Gallery of Art (NGA) and the Society of Nigerian Artists (SNA) – offers private galleries in the federal capital city a rare opportunity to put their best foot forward, says Okechukwu Uwaezuoke
That Thursday, March 17, early afternoon, the festive ambience of the elegant – albeit slightly old-fashioned – Cyprian Ekwensi Cultural Centre had nothing to do with St. Patrick’s Day. Besides, who celebrates that here, anyway? Rather, it has to do with the works by diverse artists, which, by proclaiming their quirks and career paths, adorned the stalls in its village square-like courtyard. Tucked away somewhere off a winding, bustling thoroughfare in Abuja’s Garki Area 10, this venue, which used to be originally known as the Arts and Culture Complex, is well-positioned as an edifying oasis amid the bedlam of this cultural wasteland. For the city’s growing art community, its serene ambience offers an escape and a welcome respite from the mammon-driven activities of its surroundings.
Is it surprising, therefore, that it got the nod as the favoured venue for the maiden edition of the Abuja International Art Fair, which the National Gallery of Art (NGA) organised in collaboration with the Society of Nigerian Artists (SNA)?
This art fair, which ended on Wednesday, March 23, is a long-overdue addition to the federal capital city’s calendar of cultural events. Local cognoscenti can’t help but draw parallels between its advent and the precursory 2008 collaborative efforts between the NGA and gallery owners operating under the aegis of the Art Galleries Association of Nigeria (AGAN).
The collaboration, it was, that subsequently birthed five uninterrupted years of Art Expo Lagos. And about the art expo, the current NGA’s director-general, Ebeten William Ivara, said it “was designed with the intention to showcase the best of Nigerian art besides those of master artists in the national collection.”
This was while delivering his welcome address before an audience during the art fair’s well-attended opening ceremony in an adjoining near-capacity-filled hall to the courtyard.
Meanwhile, the parastatal’s dogged efforts at inclusiveness found expression in its extension of the art fair largesse beyond Lagos and Abuja to other cities like Jos and Enugu, among others. The idea, according to Ivara, was “to showcase artworks peculiar to the zones in the country.”
With the promise of more such outreach events to come, the NGA hopes to regale aficionados with a cocktail of visual fares from virtually every part of Nigeria. “What we have today,” Ivara stressed, “are the best of the best from the private galleries in the FCT. Efforts are on to get embassies in Abuja to participate.”
Talking about embassies’ participation, a strong representation of the Chinese Embassy at the opening ceremony led by its Cultural Counsellor, Li Xuda, offers a glimmer of hope in this regard.
If the recently concluded harvest of talents – dubbed the International Art Fair – seemed like a pale reprise of the NGA’s previous ambitious projects, one of which was the African Regional Summit on the Visual Arts (ARESUVA), it is because the current conditions do seem stifling to creative endeavours. Back then, the gallery seemed able to comfortably afford to host a coterie of artists from a handful of other African countries for about a week in Abuja.
Of course, the weeklong art fair was not just about displaying the creative potential of Nigerian artists. It also opened further channels for their empowerment through networking, which the following day’s meet-and-greet event was meant to achieve. Besides, there was the lurking expectation that visitors to the fair would ultimately wish to acquire some of the artworks.
Back to the opening ceremony. It was an ideal setting for a renewed appeal by the NGA director-general “for a permanent edifice for the National Gallery of Art, which will house the national collection and host future events such as this.” This was further backed by his prediction that the patronage of the local and international art enthusiasts would, in the long run, generate enormous revenue for the government.
“Indeed, since I assumed office, I scaled up efforts towards getting a gallery edifice for NGA,” he continued. “I wish to state clearly that Nigeria is one of the few countries in Africa and the world at large that does not have a befitting edifice as its National Gallery of Art. The result is that most of the artworks in our national collection are kept in an unconducive environment. This situation cannot continue.
“I am determined to ensure that NGA gets a befitting edifice at the shortest possible time. Besides having a conducive environment to display our artworks, visual artists will now have alternative spaces to exhibit their works. In the same vein, [the] government will begin to earn revenue as fees will be charged [to] visitors who come to view the artworks on permanent and temporary exhibitions. Also, a sculpture garden will be available for sculptors to do their work.”
Such unwavering dedication to realising the gallery’s edifice dream threatens to overshadow his willingness to carry along the industry’s stakeholders. Back in December 2020, the NGA, under his watch, held a stakeholders’ meeting to chart a way forward for the visual arts in Nigeria. “A major takeaway from that meeting was the resolve to make NGA revenue-generating and visual artists gainfully engaged.”
Speaking about “takeaways”, the information, culture and tourism minister, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, who was represented by the National Council for Arts and Culture’s director-general, Otumba Olusegun Runsewe, found it “instructive” that the event was held in Abuja, which among the cognoscenti is not a traditional destination for the visual arts. “I commend the National Gallery of Art for this event which I believe will have the ripple effect of scaling up art exhibitions in the FCT and spurring patronage of artworks by art connoisseurs and other art lovers,” he enthused, saying that he was “particularly thrilled” by the collaboration with the SNA. “The federal government encourages partnerships and other forms of bridge-building across the board for its Ministries, Departments and Agencies for effective service delivery.”
The minister also disclosed the federal government’s willingness to make art a viable venture. This is premised on the need to diversify the nation’s economy and make it less reliant on oil. “I encourage all of you to see art not just as a vocation but [also] as a lucrative profession. It is in the light of this that I view today’s programme as a building block to an enduring future for our teeming youth.”
Also present at the occasion was the representative of the Senate Committee Chairman on Culture and Tourism, Senator Rochas Okorocha, and the Minister for the Federal Capital Territory, Mallam Mohammed Musa Bello; the Sakaruyi of Karu, Emmanuel Kyauta Yepwi; Tai Solarin University of Education art lecturer, Professor Funke Ifeta; and Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria fine arts professor, Jerry Buhari, among others.