By Tajudeen Sowole
If anyone was in doubt of the growing potential in Nigerian art at the international market, a solo art exhibition of Alex Nwokolo's paintings and mixed media, which just held in London confirms the rising interest for art from Africa. Nwokolo is not exactly new to the art appreciation space in the Diaspora, U.K., specifically. His works have been shown at several group exhibitions in London. Among such shows was the Transcending Boundary series, which feature artists largely from Guild of Professional Fine Artists of Nigeria (GFA).
|A section of guests at the opening of his solo art exhibition in London, U.K, a few weeks ago. PICS: C/O OF THE ARTIST|
Organised by a London-based art promoter, Careta Gallery, the exhibition, according to Nwokolo "was a success, even on the opening day." His success story is similar to that of a number of other artists from Nigeria who had taken a leap for a solo show in London.
Nwokoko's London show, promoted by a gallery based outside Nigeria, is, perhaps, a case study in the international potentials of Nigerian artists, which galleries in the local space hardly see. Apart from very few galleries that participate at art events, mostly of yearly calendar featuring artists from Nigeria, a lot of the outlets here hardly organise their own show outside the country.
"Art galleries in Nigeria are not ready to take risk in showing artists abroad," Nwokolo informed during a chat at his studio at Onikan. He noted that the art world was getting bigger and African artists were seeking wider space. Not exactly taking anything away from the resilience of some of the leading art galleries in Nigeria, Nwokolo argued that more needed to be done.
Whatever impact Nigerian artists are making in Europe and other places overseas today cannot be divorced from the consistence of the local art galleries who have built art patronage and appreciation over the decades. Nwokolo, who also operates a small gallery space and framing shop agrees, but insists that the efforts of the local galleries in investing in the system over the decades could be better appreciated and not end up as wasted effort only if they went further to exhibit artists abroad. He stressed that pushing Nigerian art, particularly through the works of established artists, was the way to go.
Nwokolo's experience traverses studio, gallery management and framing business. His creative and management strength lies more in studio practice, so suggest the impact his work has had on the Nigerian art exhibition circuit. His last solo held at Terra Kulture in 2012 exposed the artist's skill in contemporaneity. The acceptance of some of the new techniques he showed appeared to have encouraged him to project that he might return with another show soon.
Would the interception of the just held London exhibition affect his projection of having a follow up solo to Authenticity of Thought? "For some personal and private challenges, I would not be able to have any exhibition this year," Nwokolo clarified, disclosing, "I need a better frame of mind to have a major solo."
He recalled that Authenticity of Thoughts takes "much energy to put together and got such a widely accepted body of work." Anything short of that in his next solo, he stated, was unthinkable. However, he assured that between time, "I will have my works in group exhibitions." He had, in 2012, showed his last major exhibition, Authenticity of Thoughts in Lagos.
It 's about three years after the regime of the foundation president and vice president, Edosa Oguigo and Abiodun Olaku at GFA, of which Nwokolo was a treasurer. What is his assessment of the current regime of Abraham Uyovbisere, who is in the second year of his second term? Nwokolo recalled that the foundation period, particularly with the first executive members, "has done quite a lot to pave way for easy management of the guild for subsequent executives."
GFA, a group he founded with other artists is, perhaps, the only professional body of artists that is currently pushing for strong exposure of Nigerian art abroad. The profile of GFA is apparently attracting new members, particularly young artists, to join the group. But Nwokolo, a founding Treasurer of GFA cautioned, "being a member is not automatic criteria for exhibiting abroad." The promoters of the exhibitions and auctions determine which works make the list. He cites Bonhams auction for example. "Though Bonhams feature many works from the guild, it is based on individual artist's merit." He, however, added that "membership of GFA could be an advantage to feature in the auction." As much as the increase in numerical strength of GFA membership is a laudable step, Nwokolo appears apprehensive that there might be a challenge in managing the expectation of some of the new members, suspecting that the reason most of them joined the guild was to have their works exhibited abroad and get into the international secondary art market. More worrisome, he alerted, "when these artists, particularly the young ones, pay their yearly dues to the guild, and yet they don't, for example get their works featured abroad courtesy of GFA, it could be a complex thing to handle." Again, he insists that merit - based on the definition of the guild's foreign partners - not just membership is one of the major criteria.
Nwokolo is among the generation of artists who, over the decades, have been traditional and modernist in their practice. However, he has also been contemporary in his works, particularly in his last art major solo exhibition Authenticity of Thoughts, Specifically, what has been Nwokolo's experience in the last three years when it comes to massive imploring of materials as well as medium that are fast changing the texture of art landscape?
Among quite some shades of sentiments that have been put forward for or against the contemporary trend of art, Nwokolo's argument appears more as a guide. He noted that behavioural patterns of art collectors and other enthusiasts change from one generation to another, so the artists too could not be on one spot.
"As we (artists) keep meeting new people who see your work in different views, from one generation to another," and warned that some collectors seek new excitement. There are those who derive much joy in remaining conservative. He explained that even the much-battered repetitive theme still appeal to a lot of collectors. "There are people who have not collected your so-called old styles; they are always ready to pick one or more whenever such comes."
For Nwokolo, an artist whose experience cuts across studio and gallery management as well as entrepreneurial of art, "there is no hard rule approach; it's all about the artist looking at a theme from different angles and comes up with one." Art, he argues, "starts with ideas before it becomes appreciated."
Indeed, relativity of appreciation appears to be the core of the controversy that surrounds contemporary art. "I believe in sustainability," Nwokolo said, adding, "you produce art that can sell or be appreciated in whatever form."
If you are tracking Nwokolo's periods in the last six years or less, a theme he calls, Oju (Face) made its first prominent appearance in the artist's solo show Untitled, at Omenka Gallery, Ikoyi, Lagos in 2011. A year after, at Terra Kulture, Nwokolo, in another solo Authenticity of Thought turned 360 degrees from painting to flattening of metal sheet. However, the new technique still carries his style in collage along, in more textured surface, which his painting is known for.
In 2014, a solo titled Possibilities, a Miliki, had Nwokolo going deeper into the realm of contemporaneity with such pieces as ‘Society,’ ‘Dominion II,’ ‘Isale Eko’ exuding resplendence of a growing new concept.
Between 1978 and 1980, Nwokolo started cutting his interest in art as a member of National Museum Art Club, Onikan, Lagos. He later had formal training, got National Diploma in General Arts (Distinction) from 1986 – 1988, Higher National Diploma in Painting (Distinction) from 1989 – 1991 and Master of Fine Arts (MFA) from 1998 – 2000. (First Published in The Guardian Nigeria of the same date).