FOR A CORONATION TREAT, HOW ABOUT A GLIMPSE OF THESE TIMES?

With a recent glitzy launch at a swanky venue, the Coronation Gallery seems all set to fulfil its objective of “democratising” the art scene. But regaling a segment of the Lagos art community with an exhibition of artworks from the collection of banking mogul Aigboje Aig-Imokhuede is only a right step towards its desired, indeed very distant, destination. Okechukwu Uwaezuoke reports.

Shouldn’t “zeitgeist” have been this exhibition’s curatorial anchor point? At least it would have served the gaggle of chic and dapper visitors, who were shepherded into the salubrious lobby of the Coronation Plaza’s main building in Lagos’s upmarket Victoria Island on Friday, May 13, as an infallible guide. Otherwise, what else would the babel of visual expressions in diverse media by mainly Nigerian artists and a handful of others from South Africa, Ghana, Cameroon and Uganda have in common? Indeed, “zeitgeist”, a term that translates as “spirit of the age” and is often traced back to 18th and 19th-century German philosophy, reworks itself with ease in these works, the majority of which were paintings.

Another section of the exhibition space

Perhaps, if used in another setting or circumstance, the word would have been superfluous, if not downright obtrusive. But in this case, besides the fact that they were being granted privileged access to selected works in the banking mogul Aigboje Aig-Imokhuede’s private collection, it leaves the guests with an additional takeaway. And that is the realisation that there is an increasing blurring of cultural boundaries, perhaps differences, among a younger generation of African artists, who seem to draw their inspiration from a common creative power-centre.

A few needful words about Aig-Imokhuede: Beyond his exploits as the former CEO of Access Bank, which were preceded by a glittering career that propelled him to the pinnacle of corporate eminence, he had been raised in an art-friendly environment—both parents being renowned figures in the local art scene. As the narrative goes, he began collecting art at the age of five, when he was barely out of his toddling years, and has since sustained this over half a century of a passion, which has been as eclectic as it has been reflective of his ideals. 

Under his watch, the Access Bank Group had wormed its way into the art public’s consciousness as major sponsors and keen supporters of visual artistic endeavours, which has made its support of West Africa’s premier art fair, Art X Lagos, legendary. Is it any wonder that, now that he is at the top of the corporate ladder of Coronation Capital, he is expected to replicate this same largesse?

Surely, it should have been clear by now that the exhibition was curated by the Coronation Gallery, which forms part of this corporate behemoth. So, it all added up that the Friday business soirée doubled as the formal launch of the gallery. Speaking about this gallery, Aig-Imokhuede disclosed that it would have a space wherever a Coronation office building exists and that the works in the collections of other collectors would have their limelight moments in these spaces.

It is, therefore, not hard to see how he intends to “democratise” art appreciation and collection. Yet, as an ice-breaking gesture, that penultimate Friday’s evening vernissage could at best be considered a right step towards the right direction to a very distant destination. This is because the general public’s deep-rooted reticence towards art appreciation would need more than just such tokenist, albeit well-meant, gestures to dispel it so quickly. 

Back to the works, which a statement from the gallery said “were carefully excerpted from the generously loaned private collection of Mr Aigboje Aig-Imokhuede.” They attested eloquently to a vibrant contemporary art scene, blessed with an ever-growing talent pool. That the collector, who is known to be well-acquainted with the works of such art luminaries as his childhood years’ icon Ben Enwonwu, Aina Onabolu, Yusuf Grillo, Obiora Udechukwu, Uche Okeke, and El Anatsui, among others, seems enamoured of the works of these younger artists, offers a glimmer of hope for the future of the local art scene. 

Not surprisingly, Peju Alatise’s enthralling 70 x 92-inch mixed-media (metal, stone casts, and acrylic paint) offering, titled “Sticks”, held court in a corner of the spacious foyer. But then, that was only long enough for the aficionados to notice other head-turners in the exhibition space. 

Among these, the Ugandan-born Henry Mzili Mujunga’s two 2021 oil on canvas paintings, “Life through Plants” and “Children through Plants”, deserve to be spotlighted. Could it have been a coincidence – or due to a deliberate curatorial decision – that it was placed next to Ndidi Emefiele’s 2020 48 x 40-inch acrylic on canvas painting titled “Celestial Diners” III? 

Art collectors at the event

Still, beside these Ugandan artist’s paintings, on the adjoining wall on the right-hand side, South Africa’s Manyaku Mashilo’s 2021 acrylic on canvas monochrome painting, titled “The Bride and the House of Unfinished Dreams,” asserted itself. Then followed Olawunmi Banjo’s 2020 48 x 40-inch oil on canvas diptych paintings, “Moments III” and “Moments II”, depicting human figures in acrobatic poses who seem to be unravelling from the electrical wires with which they were put together.

Perhaps not a few among the aficionados would, for a range of possible different reasons, affirm that Bunmi Agusto’s triptych, titled “Longer Throat,” was among the most enthralling works in the collection. That is, by the way, the work that features three identical stylised human figures, with exaggerated long necks, looking upwards and embedded against the backdrop of red-and-black striped traditional Yoruba aso-oke textile patterns.

Further away and adorning an adjacent wall, Oluwole Omofemi’s blue-themed polyptych portrait of the murdered African American George Floyd, whose death in 2020 sparked off waves of anti-racism protests across the globe, gave curious viewers good reasons to linger long enough before it. Probably, it was because there were hidden words in Floyd’s slightly-unzipped mouths in the nine portraits.  

Omofemi’s other work, a 2020 oil on canvas painting titled “Inspiration”, deserves an equally long viewing time, albeit for curiosity’s sake. In the painting, a maiden with cornrowed hair and clad in a thin-strapped floral dress backs the viewer and is huddled together with four topless young men before a stag-headed figure. 

In a special class of its own, Babajide Olatunji’s 2021, 60 x 82-inch charcoal and pastel on paper painting, titled “Tribal Marks Series III,” was well positioned in the hall to be fittingly acknowledged by the gushing aficionados. The work’s lifelike details and the artist’s deft manipulation of the mediums should be good enough reasons for that.

Similarly, so much of Chike Obeagu’s 2021 mixed media (folded paper on canvas) proclaims his industry and creative depth. These qualities should earn it a place among the most engaging pieces in the hall.

Meanwhile, it is with an expectant longing that the art public awaits the promised Coronation Gallery’s follow-up exhibitions, which are hopefully to be held on yet-to-be-announced dates before the end of the year. 

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