Inaugurating David Zwirner’s new Los Angeles space is a solo show of vibrantly coloured, richly layered figurative paintings by Njideka Akunyili Crosby. ‘Back to See Through, Again’, May 23-29th July 2023, is the Nigerian-born, US-based artist’s first exhibition at the gallery.
Akunyili Crosby, who lived in Nigeria until she was 16 and has an MFA from Yale, draws heavily on her diasporic identity in her practice. Her inimitable, dense compositions combining depictions of people and places are interwoven with photographic transfers derived from her family photo albums and Nigerian fashion magazines. The exhibition at David Zwirner takes place six months after a record was set when Akunyili Crosby’s painting, ‘The Beautyful Ones’ (2012), portraying a young girl in a white dress standing at a porch, went under the hammer for $4.7m at Christie’s New York.
Artists based in the diaspora are contributing to the surge of interest in the Nigerian art scene. Art, fashion, film and music have long thrived as creative industries in Lagos, the economic hub of West Africa and Nigeria’s bustling, hectic and sprawling commercial capital (its actual capital is Abuja). Now, in a spirit of Pan-Africanism, local entrepreneurs, creatives and collectors, together with artists in the diaspora and those resettling in the megalopolis after living abroad, are strengthening its art ecosystem.
The British-Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare – famous for figurative, headless sculptures wearing Dutch-printed batik fabrics in works alluding to race, hybridised cultural identity, global trade and slavery – opened an artists’ residency in Nigeria in 2022. Following on from Guest Projects London, which invites artist to exhibit in Shonibare’s studio, the Guest Artists Space Foundation (GAS) runs residencies in Lagos and on a farm in Ijebu, northeast of Lagos.
Local players strengthen the ecosystem
This May, it partnered up with Lagos’ Center for Contemporary Art (CCA) to offer short residencies to three practitioners: Nairobi-based curator Rosie Olang, Finnish artist and researcher, Meri Linna, and Quebec-based multidisciplinary artist and printmaker, Alison Naturale. “I think that the future can only be bright for artists in this part of the world especially at a time when African art is getting much bigger internationally,” Shonibare said – about GAS during a conversation on artist-led spaces on the African continent at Art Basel in June – told CNN in an interview.
International players are also boosting the growing gallery scene. Last year, Maria Varnava, who founded Tiwani Contemporary in London in 2011, opened a second space in Lagos. Varnava, who is Greek-Cypriot, grew up in Lagos because her father has a construction company in Nigeria. After working at Christie’s, her love of Africa propelled her to study for a Masters in African Studies at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies. During her MA, she decided to launch a gallery that would represent international artists. Significantly, Varnava was encouraged to open her gallery – its name means “ours” or “it belongs to us” in Yoruba – after visiting Bisi Silva, curator and founder of the CCA, at her office in Lagos.
Silva, who died of cancer in 2019, played a pivotal role in the Lagos arts landscape. Holding an MA in curating from London’s Royal College of Art, Silva inaugurated the CCA, a non-profit space, in 2007. Three years later, the CCA launched Àsìkò, an innovative programme of annual workshops with the aim of filling a gap in Nigeria’s educational system. The CCA’s artistic director, Oyindamola Fakeye, lamented in an interview with Contemporary & about there being a “systemic problem around access to funding, administrative bottlenecks and bureaucracy attached to education as a whole” in Nigeria. So, in order to raise funds to purchase the building in which the CCA has been based since its inception, it teamed up with Sotheby’s in March 2022 on a benefit auction. Featuring 130 donated works by artists including Shonibare, Ghanian artist El Anatsui (who sits on the CCA’s board of trustees), African-America artist Kehinde Wiley and Mali’s Abdoulaye Konaté, the auction raised £3.8m ($5m) to help the CCA buy and revamp its home.
Also contributing to Nigeria’s burgeoning art scene is the Yemisi Shyllon Museum of Art (YSMA), which opened in 2019 at Pan-Atlantic University on the Lekki peninsula east of Lagos. Shyllon, a Yoruba prince, had a desire to exhibit the strongest works from his foundation’s collection of 7,000 pieces, ranging from wood carvings to paintings by Nigerian modern artist Ben Enwonwuo (1917-1994). The YSMA’s inception follows a wave of African museums resulting from private and foreign investment. The dearth of state-run institutions and lack of infrastructure in Nigeria, with the exception of the Nigerian National Museum (founded in 1957 by English archaeologist Kenneth Murray), makes the initiative even more welcome.
Modern masters are still in the lead
What’s particularly remarkable about the growth of the Nigerian art scene is the success of some of its modern artists, too. Enwonwu’s mesmerising ‘Tutu’ painting (1974), dubbed the African Mona Lisa, sold for £1.2 million ($1.6 million), at Bonhams in 2018. Depicting the Ife princess Adetutu Ademiluyi (abbreviated as Tutu), it is rumoured to have been acquired by a Nigerian collector. Enwonwu painted three versions of ‘Tutu’, the whereabouts of the other two are unknown.
Last November, ‘Tutu’ was showcased at Art X Lagos, the fair founded in 2016 by Tokini Peterside-Schwebig. Since being exhibited at the Italian Embassy in Lagos in 1975, the painting had been missing for more than four decades before being rediscovered in a London apartment where it had been hanging for over 30 years. Nigerian-born novelist Ben Okri wrote in the Bonhams magazine: “It amounts to the most significant discovery in contemporary African art in over fifty years. It is the only authentic Tutu, the equivalent of some rare archaeological find.”
Yusuf Grillo (1934-2021) is another modernist artist in demand. His painting, ‘The Seventh Knot’ (1969), flew past its £150,000-£200,000 estimate to fetch £403,500 (493,457 USD) at Bonhams this March. Beautifully exemplifying how Grillo fused geometry, formal techniques and spatial organisation of colour, it depicts a blue-hued female figure raising her arms to fix her head piece, her restful facial expression contrasting with the dynamic folds of her purple blouse. The diagonal planes being reminiscent of Picasso’s Cubism and ‘Les Demoiselles d’Avignon’ (1907), ‘The Seventh Knot’ acknowledges how African sculpture inspired Picasso’s work. Summarily, it brings the term “natural synthesis” – coined by Grillo’s peer Uche Okeke to express how Nigerian artists could synthesise their western-influenced art education with their own culture – full circle.
Grillo was a key member of the Zaria Art Society, whose founders advocated experimenting with indigenous traditions and merging them with their colonial era training. The prevailing use of blue in his painting recalls the Yoruba adire technique of making indigo tie-and-dye cloth. Bruce Onabrakpeya, born in 1932, was a fellow member of the Zaria Art Society and also honoured the adire technique. Onabrakpeya’s painting, ‘Zaria Indigo’ (1962), depicting a central indigo dyer amidst the orange-and-yellow granite rock formation of the Kufena Hills, sold at Bonhams for US$81,325 in 2020. Loosely recalling Gaugin’s Tahiti period, it reveals how Onabrakpeya blended ideas from western art into his unique depiction of his countrymen and landscape.
It is against this historical backdrop that several artists from the diaspora have been returning to Nigeria in the last few years. Painter and sculpture Victor Ehikhamenor returned from the US in 2008. The Nigerian-American visual artist and performer Wura-Natasha Ogunji moved to Nigeria in 2011. And the artist Bolatito Aderemi-Ibitola decided to return from the US to her birthplace in 2014. After initially struggling to find a foothold in Lagos, her perseverance paid off. She won the Art X Prize for contemporary art at Art X Lagos in 2018 and fulfilled a residency at the Palais de Tokyo in 2020. Indeed, she belongs to the upcoming generation of artists that is crucial for the future development of the Lagos scene.