By Tajudeen Sowole
Despite a seemingly modest use of space by all the 12 finalists - except one - at the 2014 National Art Competition themed Intervention, the yearly event could not get out of the 'large is art' syndrome as another huge, wall and floor work was announced as the first prize winner.
In the past four or more editions of the African Artists' Foundation (AAF) and Nigeria Breweries (NB)-organised art competition, art contents have been confined within huge or massive size context as all the winning works in the top prizes were always the largest of the finalists. But production, aesthetics and presentation - not sizes - were usually among the criteria in interpretations of the competition's central themes. While the organisers always argued that the jury had the final say and size was not part of the criteria, most of the past winning works would pass for coincidences too many, raising suspicion about a possible hidden agenda to promote a specific kind of art.
Winners at Interventions: Paul Mbah, Outstanding Production (left); First Prize Winner, Erasmus Onyishi; and Modupe Fadugba, Outstanding Concept.
One moment, shortly before the wall and floor assemblage collage Lines, Patches and Pathos by Erasmus Onyishi was announced the first prize winner inside the Civic Centre hall, Victoria Island, Lagos, one hoped for a change. But the Prof El Anatsui-led jury insisted that none of the other works among the 12 finalists were not (large?) or good enough. The two other winners for Outstanding Concept, a game house-like titled The People’s Algorithm and the Butterfly Effect by Modupe Fadugba and Outstanding Production, The T’ Eye Meline by Paul Mbah were only fortunate that no other works were as large as the first winner, perhaps, the two would have been left out winning nothing.
And could it be a coincidence too, that Anatsui, who is highly revered at the global art space with his gigantic series of sculptures, mostly rendered in soft metal, has been heading the jury of the competition in nearly all the editions? Indeed, the AAF’s national art competition has too many things, coincidentally adding up like a movie screenplay being directed by some coverts agenda, to promote ‘largeness’ as art.
Despite the burden of conspiracy haunting the competition, the 2014 edition would go into its history as one of the best in richness of real art contents, among the seven editions: works such as Paper Dolls by Jacqueline Suowari and Mat-matics from Emmanuel Dudu lifted the art essence of the yearly event. But, sadly, the seemingly covert large is art agenda of the competition denied creativity and the essence of art the rightful reward.
However the competition has sustained its prize money despite the economic challenges. First Prize Winner got N2,000,000, Outstanding Concept won N1,000,000 and Outstanding Production was given N1,000,000.
Recall that at the 2013 edition, the First Prize winner, I-DentitiTrees by Sesu Tilley-Gyado, which populated the headroom of the venue with poles, hardly found any breathing space at Art Twenty One, Eko Hotel and Suites exhibition gallery. In 2010, Sangodare Ajala’s The Fire of Nigeria Burns Strongly was a massive adire textile; the duo of Uche Uzorka and Chike Obeagu’s loaded installation as well as the 2012 winner, Chinenye Miriam Emelogu’s Human Hive, which occupied nearly the half of the Grand Finale space at Civic Centre, Victoria Island, Lagos were all top winners and the largest of the finalists works.
Speaking on the competition's choice of theme for the 2014 edition, Mr Nicolaas Vervelde, Managing Director, NB Plc explained that it was aimed at stressing the intervention role of art in politics, social and economics aspect of a nation building.
The theme explores how contemporary art serves as a catalyst for positive social change and engages artists to think about their relationship to the social, political, and cultural framework of the society that they live in, Vervelde told audience shortly before the winners were announced. He recalled how “a hundred proposals from across Nigeria of which 12 finalists were selected.”
Something new was introduced into the 2014 edition as what appeared like best losers were also rewarded. Nkechi Edubedike and Amarachi Okafor were each given cash prize of N 500,000, a consolation described as a “special jurors prize.”