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Africa's flourishing art scene is a smash hit at Art X

Artist Dafe Oboro (right), winner of the Nigerian Prize Award of the Access ART X Prize 2022/23, chats with an attendee at this year's Art X fair in Lagos.
Manny Jefferson for NPR
Artist Dafe Oboro (right), winner of the Nigerian Prize Award of the Access ART X Prize 2022/23, chats with an attendee at this year's Art X fair in Lagos.

"I wanted to create a moment for Lagos on the global art calendar," says Tokini Peterside-Schwebig, the founder of Art X, sitting in a chic private booth within the fair. "A moment that brought the rest of Africa together here and enabled us on home soil to encounter those around the world and ourselves."

From the hot blaze of a November day in Nigeria's most populous city, thousands of people pour into the cool shade of Art X, the eighth edition of the largest art fair in West Africa: Visitors from around the world and the local art scene, a runway of celebrities and the effortlessly glamorous Lagos middle-class, all make their way through a maze-like sprawl of paintings, prints, sculptures and moving image installations.

This is one of the most prominent events in Lagos' "art month," as it's unofficially and widely known – a packed calendar of exhibitions, art, photography and cultural events between the end of October and the end of November, mainly dotted around the affluent parts of the city. Its prominence is at the heart of Lagos' gradual re-emergence as an international center for art from Nigeria and the continent, a status that waned in the decades of military rule and economic turmoil after the iconic pan-African cultural festival, Festac, in 1977.

Tokini Peterside-Schwebig launched Art X in 2016. "I wanted to create a moment for Lagos on the global art calendar," she says. "A moment that brought the rest of Africa together here and enabled us on home soil to encounter those around the world and ourselves."
/ Manny Jefferson for NPR
/
Manny Jefferson for NPR
Tokini Peterside-Schwebig launched Art X in 2016. "I wanted to create a moment for Lagos on the global art calendar," she says. "A moment that brought the rest of Africa together here and enabled us on home soil to encounter those around the world and ourselves."

Peterside-Schwebig launched Art X in 2016, wading against the tide as Nigeria's economy slid into a recession. "And honestly, it took off like a rocket," Peterside-Schwebig said.

Amid a prolonged period of economic decline in Nigeria, rising insecurity and growing disillusionment with the political class, the emergence of the art industry has been a success story. Solo exhibitions by Nigerian and African artists are now a more regular fixture in Western galleries.

Art X, held this year at an event center in Lagos' Victoria Island district, right on the edge of the Atlantic, is one snapshot of how Nigeria's art industry, largely led by women, has flourished in adverse conditions. But staging this has not been without challenges, especially now.

Ten galleries exhibited at Art X this year, compared to 30 in 2022. Even so, the fair has evolved, offering a greater proportion of local galleries on show.

Art X, held this year at an event center in Lagos' Victoria Island district, right on the edge of the Atlantic, is one snapshot of how Nigeria's art industry, largely led by women, has flourished in adverse conditions.
/ Courtesy Art X
/
Courtesy Art X
Art X, held this year at an event center in Lagos' Victoria Island district, right on the edge of the Atlantic, is one snapshot of how Nigeria's art industry, largely led by women, has flourished in adverse conditions.

An amphitheater now sits at the center of Art X as a space for panel discussions and talks. "This is the scene for dialogue where talks will happen over the course of the fair, pulling in our audiences to say, look, these are trying times," Peterside-Schwebig said, pointing to the economic headwinds faced by the industry and the myriad challenges facing the country. "As citizens of this country and continent, what do we want for the future?"

The last decade has seen rapid success for several artists and galleries in Nigeria. One key driver has been growing demand from Western galleries for Black and African art, particularly the genre of "Black portraiture," depicting Black figures. The genre has grown in response to the historic under-representation of Black figures in Western art.

Dozens of visitors pore over the wide bright eyes and mythical, dreamlike illustrations from rising Nigerian artist, Adulphina Imuede, exhibited by Wunika Mukan. Mukan founded her self-named gallery in Lagos three years ago and has quickly gained wide regard within the industry, showing a variety of artistry.

She said a reckoning within the art world after the killing of George Floyd drove efforts to exhibit a greater diversity of artists and a greater representation of Black art.

Wunika Mukan at Art X. She founded her self-named gallery in Lagos three years ago and has quickly gained wide regard within the industry. She said a reckoning within the art world after the killing of George Floyd drove efforts to exhibit a greater diversity of artists and a greater representation of Black art.
/ Manny Jefferson for NPR
/
Manny Jefferson for NPR
Wunika Mukan at Art X. She founded her self-named gallery in Lagos three years ago and has quickly gained wide regard within the industry. She said a reckoning within the art world after the killing of George Floyd drove efforts to exhibit a greater diversity of artists and a greater representation of Black art.

"Nigerian artists have always been in the room, from [the late painter and sculptor] Ben Onwonwu to, you know, [painter] Nengi Omoku [and] [printmaker, painter and sculptor] Bruce Onobrakpeya but in the past three or four years, there was this like insatiable appetite for West African Black portraits and a lot of young artists started to emerge."

Demand for this type of black portraiture from the continent has slowed over the last year in part due to economic downturns around the world, reducing the appetite from foreign buyers. The slowdown is also due to a saturation of the genre as it has grown more lucrative. "I think the Black portraiture phase brought in a lot of attention, which is good. They're still here. So it's now time for us to also show more and, and yeah, be more flexible," says Mukan.

A scene from this year's Art X fair.
/ Courtesy Art X
/
Courtesy Art X
A scene from this year's Art X fair.

Beyond ART X is a wide range of exhibitions during "Art Month" held in alternative and immersive spaces. Faridah Folawiyo's "Image Impressions" exhibition hosts intimate family and individual portraits and a range of collage and animated illustrations exploring migration – and is held at the private residence of Remi Vaughan Richards, built by her father Alan Vaughan Richards, a late British tropical-modernist architect. The venue serves to create a "synergy between the art and the space it inhabited," Folawiyo said.

Farida Folawiyo (right) hosts the "Image Impressions" exhibition, with family portraits and collage and animated illustrations exploring migration. The venue is the private residence of Remi Vaugn-Richards (left), built by her father Alan Vaugn-Richards, a late British tropical-modernist architect. They're posing for a photograph in the Vaughan-Richards Garden.
/ Manny Jefferson for NPR
/
Manny Jefferson for NPR
Faridah Folawiyo (right) hosts the "Image Impressions" exhibition, with family portraits and collage and animated illustrations exploring migration. The venue is the private residence of Remi Vaughan Richards (left), built by her father Alan Vaughan Richards, a late British tropical-modernist architect. They're posing for a photograph in the Vaughan Richards Garden.

The home is a blend of Yoruba indigenous aesthetics, reflected in the various mythical figurines and carvings, along with tropical modernist ideals, with the entryways and windows and structure seamlessly interacting with the partly forested nature around it.

"This sweet young woman kept harassing me from London," Vaughan Richards laughs, explaining how Folawiyo convinced her to open her home for the exhibition. "Stalking me and harassing me nicely. And at the end of the day I thought, 'you know what, let me just try it.'" A stream of guests enter the compound and are guided into a smaller building near the gate, before exploring the grounds.

While local collectors have grown, with art works increasingly visible in businesses across Lagos, foreign collectors have largely driven the boom in Nigeria's art industry. A common discussion point during art month has been how to build local and sustainable growth, and not be beholden to foreign shifts. It's a challenge many are reflecting on, and meeting head on.

"For us, Africa is not a trend," Peterside-Schwebig says. "Africa is an important and pivotal voice in the mainstream. And so for us, this is about a sustainable future and longevity."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: November 17, 2023 at 10:00 PM MST
An earlier version of this story misspelled the last name of Bruce Onobrakpeya as Onagwapia, and last names of Remi Vaughan Richards and her father, Alan Vaughan Richards.
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Emmanuel Akinwotu
Emmanuel Akinwotu is an international correspondent for NPR. He joined NPR in 2022 from The Guardian, where he was West Africa correspondent.