Saturday, 28 February 2015

Pulse of Africa’s modernity, contemporaneity at Art Dubai 2015

By Tajudeen Sowole
As the resilience of modern art continues to boost economic value of art appreciation across the world, a Nigerian master printmaker, Bruce Onobrakpeya and 12 other artists from Africa are experimenting the continent’s modern and contemporary contents at Art Dubai, holding from March 18 to 21, 2015 at Jumeirah, UAE. The 2015 edition, according to the organisers, features nearly 90 art galleries from about 40 countries across the world, which is considered a record for the nine-year-old art fair.
Mixed media work Small Sunflower by Olu Amoda showing under Art Twenty One at Art Dubai 2015, UAE.

Onobrakpeya, 83, showing under Mydrim Gallery, Lagos; Moroccans Mohamed Melehi b. 1936 and Mohamed Hamidi b. 1941 represented by Loft Art Gallery, Casablanca; and a Cape Verdian master, Manuel Figueira showing under Perve Galeria, Lisbon, are the four artists from the modernist African era in a gathering of about 17 others from across the world under the Art Dubai Modern. But as resilient as modernism appears to be on the primary and secondary art market across the world, contemporary art dominates Art Dubai 2015, with over 70 galleries from a total of 90.

At the contemporary end, Art Twenty, Lagos will show the works of Nigerian sculptor Olu Amoda and Beninoise artist, Gérard Quenum in contemporary context.  A Vienna, Austria-based gallery, Galerie Krinzinger, is showing the work of contemporary content by Nigerian, Jude Anogwih, from works produced during his residency in Europe.

Ivorian photographer, François-Xavier Gbré who, in early January closed his solo exhibition titled Abroad at Art Twenty One in Lagos joins his countryman, Yéanzi at Galeries Cecile Fakhoury in the contemporary circle; Sammy Baloji, represented by Galerie Imane Fares; and Cameroonian, Pascale Marthine Tayou, at Galeria Continua are all showing in the contemporary space of the yearly event. Quite interesting, most of the art galleries from Africa are showing at Art Dubai for the first time.

Artists and galleries from Africa would not walk alnoe during the 2015 Art Dubai; perhaps quite a number of art connoisseurs and enthusiasts from the region are expected at the event. Among the specially invited of such guests is one of Nigeria’s leading, Mr Sammy Olagbaju, who is a member of the Collectors’ Circle at Art Dubai. The Lagos-based art patron is the founder of Sammy Olagbaju Art Foundation.

African artists are increasingly visible at the Art Dubai fair in recent editions. Recall that the Marker of Art Dubai in 2013 was dedicated to art from West Africa and had artists feature under the curator, Bisi Silva. Exhibited artists included Ghanaian master, Ablade Glover, Soly Cisse (Senegal), Abdoulaye Konate (Mali), and Boris Nzebo (Cameroun) in what the orgnisers of Art Dubai described as exploring “the nature of evolving cities in West Africa and the way in which this change impacts society.” Designed as five artspaces, works of the artists have been selected from Centre for Contemporary Art (CCA, Lagos, Nigeria); Espace doual'art (Douala, Cameroon); Maison Carpe Diem (Segou, Mali); Nubuke Foundation (Accra, Ghana); and Raw Material Company (Dakar, Senegal).  For the 2015 edition, Marker focuses on Latin America and that region’s relationship with the Arab world.

The Art Dubai Modern is created to showcase art from the Middle East, Africa and South Asia under the presentation of what the organisers describe as "regionally and internationally based galleries." The works are scaled within the modern masters "from the twentieth century (up to the year 2000)." 

Artists from other regions showing in Art Dubai Modern include Shafic Abboud, Agial Art Gallery, Beirut; Shahid Sajjad ArtChowk, Karachi; Gouider Triki / Hatim Elmekki
Elmarsa, Tunis / Dubai; Mohsen Vaziri Moghadam
Gallery Etemad, Tehran; Mahmoud Hammad
Green Art Gallery, Dubai; Shafic Abboud / Abdallah Benanteur Galerie Claude Lemand, Paris; Farid Belkahia
Le Violon Bleu, Tunis; Dia Azzawi / Marwan 
Meem Gallery, Dubai; Ernesto Shikhany / Manuel Figueira
Perve Galeria, Lisbon; Jamil Molaeb
Galerie Janine Rubeiz, Beirut; Kourosh Shishegaran
Shirin Gallery, Tehran / New York; and Aref El Rayess
The Park Gallery, London. Sponsored by Mashreq Private Banking, Art Dubai Modern was launched last year.

The process for participation involves submission of proposals by galleries for booth exhibitions of "artists whose work has proven highly influential during the twentieth century and on later generations of artists."  The exhibits further go into specific focus "on a particular period or thematic within an artist’s practice."

Applications and proposals from interested galleries are reviewed by an Advisory Committee, selected from curators and art historians across the world who have "particular interest in modernist practices of the Middle East, Africa and Asia."
  Applicant galleries' curatorial strength, according to the organisers, determines the final lists of exhibitors based on "exhibition programme and the gallery’s submitted proposal."

Unilever, Haubourdin, France, Tracks series (2012)
by Ivorian photographer, François-Xavier Gbré
Courtesy:  the artist and Galerie Cécile Fakhoury - Abidjan

Communications and Marketing Manager at Art Dubai, Jessica Mason disclosed that the 2015 edition would have the contemporary as the largest hall with 71 galleries showing mostly new work by artists from across the world.
Truly proving its strength as one of the fastest growing art fairs in the world, Art Dubai, according to Fair Director, Antonia Carver interrogates diversity and quality, attracting "the broadest line-up of influential and dynamic galleries,” from across the world. “Each March, the fair – and the UAE in general – becomes a hub for art professionals and enthusiasts, and all those interested in a vision of the art world that is resolutely global.”

The Art Dubai Modern has its Advisory Committee selected from across the creative strata of the world, in such names as Savita Apte, art historian specialising in modern and contemporary South Asian art and chair of The Abraaj Group Art Prize; Catherine David, renowned curator with an extensive experience in the Middle East, whose exhibitions include Documenta X, and is currently Deputy Director of the Musée National d’Art Moderne; Silva, a
renowned curator and founder/director of Centre for Contemporary Art, Lagos (CCA, Lagos, specialising in modern and contemporary African art); Kristine Khouri, researcher and a writer based in Beirut and co-founder of the History of Arab Modernity in the Visual Arts Study Group; Nada Shabout, art historian specialising in modern Arab and Iraqi art and Consulting Director of Research at Mathaf, Arab Museum of Modern Art.

With a focus on how technology shapes art, the yearly Global Art Forum segment of Art Dubai takes off from Kuwait, in March 14-15 and continues at its regular venue, Mina A’Salam, Madinat Jumeirah, venue of Art Dubai from March 18-20. The theme of the 2015 Global Art Forum, according to a press statement is Technologies, and their Impact on the World of Art, Culture and Beyond. The gathering also features a workshop on digitising archives.

Participants expected include 50 local and international contributors under the co- directorship of Turi Munthe and Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi with Shumon Basar as Director-at-Large.
 The forum, it is gathered, “debates how technologies have transformed not only the way we work, but how we think, interact, learn and create.”

Also, it is expected to “shed light on how the Middle East region’s culture is being influenced by the streams of communication innovations that have appeared in the past few decades,” said Al Qassemi, Global Art Forum Co-director.

Basar noted, “Perhaps nothing makes our lives feel better and worse at the same time than technology.”  The director at large argued that while humans theoretically ‘invent’ technology, the reality is “technology ‘re- invents’ us humans constantly, in ways we aren’t aware of.”

Munthe noted: “Tech used to lag human: for all of history, we have imagined things that couldn’t be built. That may have inverted: we may not be able to conceive of what already exists. Most symposia that tackle the theme of technology believe in technology. We know it exists. We just don’t worship it.”

Launched in 2007 by Art Dubai, the Global Art Forum is presented by the Dubai Culture and Arts Authority (Dubai Culture) with the support of Dubai Design District. The Kuwaiti leg of the event is supported by The Tamdeen Group and takes place at Dar al-Athar al-Islamiyyah, in association with Sultan Gallery and Nuqat. It is accompanied by special exhibitions and events across the city.
The Forum’s diverse talks and presentations in Kuwait and Dubai include: a debate on the online art market, with directors from leading art dotcoms brought together for the first time; ways in which virtual museums in the Arab world and Latin America are reaching diasporic publics; conversations with artists working at the forefront of new technologies; a look back at the first communication technologies in the Gulf, from newspapers to radio and cinema; a panel that asks whether we have ‘Too Much Artificial Intelligence.’
Line-up of speakers include forefront of new developments in technology such as Jawbone founder, Alexander Asseily; M3/Relativity design director, Christopher Bevans; Google Cultural Project director, Amit Sood; and digital education innovator Ayesha Khanna. Artists, writers and curators include Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Amar Bakshi, James Bridle, Manal Al Dowayan, Cécile B. Evans, Omar Kholeif, Dan O'Hara, The Otolith Group and Troy Therrien.

In Lagos, artists converge to mitigate hazards of e-waste dumping

 By Tajudeen Sowole
 A tour symposium, which included performance art works featuring Nigerian and foreign artists with a focus on e-waste is hardly a popular outlet to create awareness on abnormality of being a perpetual dumping ground.

Visiting  Dr. Shu Lea Cheang and Dr. Daniël Ploeger speaking during the symposium at UNiLAG.
But Nigeria's foremost performance artist, Jelili Atiku is not perturbed as he and others conversed on Bodies of Planned Obsolescence: Digital Performance and the Global Politics of E-Waste at University of Lagos (UNILAG) Akoka, Lagos, last week.

The gathering included two performances titled Capacitance Does Not Consume Power by Atiku and Do You Want to Listen to US by Marcellina Oseghale and Olanrewaju Tejuoso.
Participants in the one-year long project included Dr. Shu Lea Cheang (new media artist/filmmaker from US/France); Peter Dammann, (photographer from Switzerland/Germany); Kehinde Olubanjo (e-waste researcher based in Lagos, Nigeria); Dr. Daniël Ploege (performance artist and lecturer at The Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, University of London, UK/Netherlands); and Christopher Williams (an academic based in London and also a lecturer at University of London, UK).

As an individual, perhaps a lone ranger in the Nigerian performance art space, Atiku is not an ivory tower artist. His works in the past and till date has been outdoor, mostly on the streets of high-density Lagos areas.  Shortly after the UNILAG session of the e-waste symposium, Atiku described the gathering as a converge of performance artists and theorists from Nigeria and the U.K, designed to "exchange and develop digital performance practices and theories that engage with the cultural and environmental aspects of the economy as regards   electronic waste."

The U.K, he noted, was crucial in the project, being "one of Europe’s main producers of e-waste." Atiku said that quite a significant part of "British e-waste is transported to Nigeria, where it is partly dumped in unprotected areas." He argued that the "performances were relevant interventions in the technologically deterministic discourses around digital technology.”

A country like Nigeria that is battling with political instability, impunity at the unprecedented peak and gross mismanagement of resources, it is not surprising that policy on physical environmental concerns is not taken with deserved seriousness. For the artists, it's best not to leave the future of a nation in the hands of those who have no business being in government. The implications of the e-waste dump in Nigeria, the artists articulated, are enormous.  According to them, dumping causes severe environmental damage as well as socio-cultural fracture.   

The unstoppable era of technological advancement via electronic, they argued, leaves Africa more vulnerable to damages of unimaginable level.  "Bodies of Planned Obsolescence is aimed at developing cultural and critical conceptual strategies in digital performance that take into account the global socio-material aspects of a (mainly Western) culture of rapid technological innovation driven by a logic of planned obsolescence."

In artistic contents, the works included artists working with what they described as  "informal e-waste recyclers at F-Line (Kalambosa Area) of Alaba International Market, Ojo." The market, which is located outskirt of Lagos metropolitan axis is a notorious place for electronic gadgets from mostly questionable source of importations. 

Atiku explained that the artists' activities at the Kalambosa Area were aimed at establishing "a research network, which will facilitate discourses and new artistic strategies that extend current developments in cultural critical approaches to digital performance studies and respond to acute political concerns around the global economy of e-waste."  Local participants were also engaged as "masters" under whose guide the artists "acquired" some skills.

Back to the symposium, the result of the activities was presented via performances at Creative Arts Department, Unilag. The speakers at the symposium included Dr. Cheang, Dr. Daniël Ploege, Christopher Williams and Olubanjo who highlighted the importance of the project. Listed among the values was effort at checking "the prevalent Euro-American-centric perspectives in both digital performance and cultural studies of technology."

The project initiator, Dr. Ploege stated:  “the  activities will facilitate the establishment of long-term formal and informal networks of exchange between Nigerian and UK-based performance artists and theorists. This would enable artists and theorists from both countries, who presently have almost no knowledge of each other’s work, to build on a cross-fertilization of aesthetic, critical and technological perspectives that originate outside their own cultural paradigms.”

Next stop for the project is a collaboration with the University of Honk Kong, the participants disclosed.  Atiku will join others such as Irini Papadimitriou, Janet Chan, Dr Ploeger and Christopher Williams from 3 - 10 March, 2015. "It constitutes an unprecedented cross-cultural platform for exchange of knowledge and artistic practice with a critical focus that reaches beyond the boundaries of post-industrial Western societies.” Atiku explained.

Atiku’s activism via art is well documented. For example, he found a familiar terrain in the debate and protests over removal of fuel subsidy in 2012. While the ‘Occupy Nigeria’ protests were on, Atiku also had a performance titled Nigerian Fetish in his Ejigbo local community. His thoughts: “As an artist, the only medium which I know to be effective in expressing oneself is art. Therefore on Friday, January 13, 2012, I enacted a performance, titled Nigerian Fetish as a theatrical dimension to debate on the fuel subsidy removal in Nigeria. 

Saturday, 21 February 2015

Merger, funding challenge of NGA's proposed-Abuja Biennale

By Tajudeen Sowole
With the implementation of the White Paper on Stephen Oronsanye-led Presidential Committee on the Restructuring and Rationalisation of parastatals, commissions and agencies, the proposed Abuja Biennale, which the National Gallery of Art (NGA) announced late last year appears to have suffered a major setback.  In fact, last week, a source from the NGA disclosed that the management of the government agency was not sure if Abuja Biennale has been captured in the yet to be passed national budget.
 D-G, National Gallery of Art (NGA), Muku Abdullahi

Also last week, a report indicated that Federal Government's financial commitments to all the affected agencies, parastatals and commissions in the White Paper have been stopped. Last year, the White Paper, among others recommended that the NGA be merged with National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM) and function under a proposed National Commission for Museums, Monuments and Art Among all the merger recommendations concerning the number of parastatals under the Ministry of Tourism, Culture and National Orientation, it appears that only that of NCMM/NGA was accepted by the Federal Government.

Indeed, there were indications in the last two years that NGA had its activities rationalised, perhaps due to the impending merger with NCMM. For example, one of its major yearly events, Art Expo Lagos did not hold in 2013 and 2014.

And when NGA, late last year, announced its plans to hold a debut edition of Abuja Biennale, one was almost sure that the Director-General, Muku Abdullahi-led agency would source funding for the event from the private sector, at least to prove a point that it could function without government funding. But the disclosure about waiting for the budget suggested that the art event would be the first major casualty of the merger.

Art biennale, in most parts of the world, is usually used as a convergence of artists from different countries for exhibition and conference. Named after a host city, it is most often organised by government in partnership with sponsorship from the private sector. Quite embarrassing that Nigeria, a country that has contributed to the development of modern and contemporary African art resources, in works by artists and input from professional art managers of Nigerian origins has no biennale or any functional yearly art event.

Irrespective of what becomes the status of Nigerian art under the ongoing merger, it appeared that there has been a disconnect, between the NGA and artists, particularly in the planning of big art event like the proposed Abuja Biennale. For example, in his contribution to the issue of harnessing resources outside government's scope to rescue the proposed event, artist and an art academician, Dr Kunle Filani disclosed that "I am not even aware of the Abuja Biennale announcement."  A biennale, he argued, was a good development for Nigeria, but suggested a better organisational structure. "I honestly think an expansive creative event such as a biennial requires more time for planning for both the organisers, artists and diverse participants," and hoped that NGA had factored such into the event before announcement.

Apart from the NGA’s proposed biennale, Filani noted that generally, funding of cultural events in Nigeria has been “abysmal.” Government, he argued “always ignore the value chain of culture to the economic and social development of a society." He faulted government policies that "are not implemented to empower culture ministries and parastatals to generate money either from government or non governmental agencies." His argument underscores the great potentials of Nigerians' contributions to successful art events across the world.  "One can only hope that with the wealth of curatorial and creative capacities that Nigerians both at home and in Diaspora have, the Abuja Biennale will at least equal that of Dak'Art, Senegal, in quality and spread."

Given the parastatal status under which the biennale was conceived, sculptor, Olu Amoda argued that NGA should have expanded its source of funding outside government. "I think it is not realistic to lump biennale on budget.” He urged NGA to use “its leverage as a government parastatal to lobby for funding from multi-national in and outside the country."
Associate Professor of Fine Art at University of Nigeria (UNN), Nsukka, Enugu State, Krydz Ikwumesi would not exactly fault reliance on government budget “as a primary source” for art events. He however agreed that “there has to be other sources, especially from the private sector and international funding organisations.” And in regards to the proposed Abuja Biennale, the tourism value, he explained, is enough to attract private partners if properly articulated. “A biennale is a good instrument for tourism development. You can see how it has worked in Senegal, based on the Senghorian legacy.” Noting that Nigeria has not been so fortunate to have “art-loving leaders,” in the like of the late Leopold Senghor, he insisted “we can do something with the very vibrant art circuit we have here.”

Given the global scope that most biennales, art fairs and similar art events lean towards, resource persons to lead event, according to Amoda, could be sourced outside the country. “They (government) need to appoint an artistic director from within or outside the country, who may not necessarily be Nigerians.” He explained that if “we can contemplate or engaged foreign football handlers to coach the national football team, I do not see why it can't be done in the culture sector, at least with specific projects such as biennale or art expo.” Amoda cited examples: “The national gallery of Jamaica was a good case study, they went through the moribund as our NGA, but got out the mess when the government took the bull by the horn to appoint a French national who has been active in the Jamaican art scene. Zimbabwe appoints a Zimbabwe trained curator to the national gallery for it to be turned around. In these two instances, the structure is carrier based personal while the head can come from either outside or within the government.”

Amoda’s argument is not out of place: one of the fastest growing art events in the world, Art Dubai debuted in 2007 with a foreigner, John Martin as its artistic director and is currently being handled by another outsider, Antonia Carver; Nigerian born Okwui Enwezor is the Artistic Director for Venice Biennale 2015; Nigerian, Bisi Silva is the Artistic Director for 10th Bamako Encounters: African Photography, Mali.

The new merger, which has Nigeria’s national gallery of art being reduced to a unit, may have its first test in the proposed Abuja Biennale. When the merger of NGA with NCMM was first made public last year via the White Paper document, artists and other stakeholders were unhappy and feared that modern and contemporary Nigerian art would further suffer neglect.  Former chairman, Society of Nigerian Artists (SNA), Lagos State chapter, Dr Kunle Adeyemi disagreed with the merger. "With the merger, art would be relegated just as a unit under the new parastatal," Adeyemi warned. He traced the merger to the lack of financial independence of the NGA and blamed "civil servants for mismanaging" the parastatal.

Really, the merger as it unfolds, perhaps affecting the take off of the proposed Abuja Biennale makes no difference. As a full parastatal on its own, yearly events such as Art Expo and African Regional Summit on Visual Arts and Exhibition (ARESUVA) were not sustainable.