Aside from practising as an artist since 1980, Jahman O. Anikulapo has been an arts and culture journalist since 1984, writing mostly on the performing arts, visual arts, literature, film, and cultural affairs for a number of local and international publications. Jahman is also an arts and culture activist, helping to shape national and international policies through seminars, conferences, art festivals, and projects. The Art Momentum caught up with him in the lead up to ART X Lagos 2020 to discuss the shifting perceptions of art on the continent, the importance of archive, and the political responsibilities of the artist. He also shared his views on the relevance and impact of private initiatives like ART X, and the evolution of artistic practice and arts writing in Nigeria.
For the past 40 years, you have been committed to the arts and culture landscape in Nigeria and across the continent. What are your most revealing observations about the evolution of culture and artistic practices in Africa?
The production and expression of culture have changed drastically in character and volume. Significantly, the demographic changed in the sense that a lot of young people who were not part of the ecosystem joined up, especially on production and, of course, in consumption. Historically, parents in the 90s and mid-2000s were known to discourage their children or wards from studying the arts, or exploring and developing their talents in disciplines in the arts. Mostly they wanted their children to study so-called elite disciplines – law, medicine, or engineering. The situation began to change in the late-2000s as new social and economic realities in the national schemes opened up inherent resources in the arts. The emergence of a new middle class spurred and, perhaps determined by consumption patterns and tastes, helped trigger this rediscovery of the potentials of the disciplines in the creative arts. With more young people involved in the production of creative products – music, movies, plastic arts, fashion in particular, and literature to an extent, this ostensibly also affected the demography of expression and consumption of artistic products. Another factor is the shift in global economy, which, in a way, led to the return of a huge population of diasporic Nigerians to their homeland. This class of Nigerians came with mental and material resources that were hitherto locked out, and these injections helped to change the dynamics of consumptions, ostensibly also affecting productions, including packaging and allied services to the creative sector. This situation, I believe, also resonates with the rest of the continent.
Beyond your vision of journalism, would you say that documenting, testimony, and archiving are essential to building the history of a city, of a nation? Does a private initiative like ART X Lagos also contribute in some way?
Very affirmative. Documentation and archiving, in particular, had been largely absent in the production and expression of culture for a long while. Such significant services had been left to the mainstream media and academia, which had limited or underdeveloped capacities and lean resources. These two vital services were not seen as viable ventures that could help resource the creative production base. However, the advent of what could best be described as the ‘accidental visual culture’, signposted by the film industry (Nollywood, in particular) helped to set in motion a sort of reordering of the system.
For one, there was now a plethora of recording equipment, facilities, and investments, which were ready and willing to be deployed to service documentation and archiving. Essentially, Lagos, and by extension the whole of Nigeria, became constant features in visual representations. The former imaginary character of Lagos as a chaotic, dysfunctional, uninhabitable site changed dramatically as the movies, in particular, began to paint a different picture of a sassy, sexy centre of human creative outputs.
The coming of ART X Lagos has helped to burnish this new profile, in that it brought in a new set of creative producers, who probably would never have paid any significant attention to what had been going on here. For instance, Nigeria’s contemporary visual arts production, which had been on for nearly a century, gained traction globally in the 60s with the emergence of the first set of modernists represented by the products of the famous Zaria Art School. ART X Lagos, remains, however, the single biggest interventionist project to bring the global visual arts family to feast on Nigeria’s artistic resources.
The record of accomplishments has been incredibly impressive in such a short time. Its success, I believe, has helped to spur such other initiatives, such as the Lagos Biennale and the annual Art Summit, even as it has enervated the existing gallery and studio structures and practices.
How would you describe the evolution of arts writing in Nigeria? What important changes have you noticed in the past years?
I recall I was a speaker at one of the past discursive sessions at ART X on arts writing and documentation in the arts, and the conclusion we drew from that experience was that even the practice of cultural journalism (where I have been active in the past three decades) was changing exponentially.
Various art schools were beginning to take courses such as Art History more seriously, attracting a lot more students and producing more doctoral students and professionals in the discipline. For a long while, writing on the arts at home was concentrated in the print medium, with a few journals and occasional publications by the few art historians practising. But the increased activities in production and means of expression have encouraged a lot more people to venture into the vocation, with broadcasting media especially taking keener interests. Nearly all the major TV houses now have programmes dedicated to the visual arts, for instance.
Remarkably, there are more journals – both print and digital – emerging and helping to create an environment of enlightenment, education, and empowerment around the creative industry.
Over the past five years, the artists participating in ART X Lagos have been engaged with numerous subjects, such as post-colonialism, African diasporas, identity, police brutality, and injustice in all its forms. Would you say that it is the duty of the artist and more broadly of the art industry to raise a voice to allow for political and social change?
Fundamentally, an artist should have certain ideals to which his creative vision is committed. There ought to be a deliberate intent to his/her production. I do not think any artist creates out of vacuum or a void of intention. But then this is my personal conviction. In particular, for an artist of African orientation, or one compelled by circumstances of birth, location, or practice, I doubt such can be impactful without being affected by the social and political factors in their environment.
As one had stated elsewhere, an artist in our kind of circumstances (existential and developmental challenges) on the continent do not have the luxury of art for art’s sake. Even if the artist is oiled by resources or grants from charitable, external sources, this can only last so long. To remain relevant to their audiences and impactful in their immediate environment, the artist would have to be deliberately socially conscious in his vision and creations. So, affirmatively, I would say it is the cross the artist must bear to respond to the extenuating factors that exist in his production base or location of practice. I guess this also applies universally; I doubt if there is any creative production base in the world that is shorn of its own peculiar social, political, or even cultural elements that feed into the artist’s vision and practice.
ART X Lagos has grown to become a catalyst for talent from the African continent and to make contemporary art accessible to the widest and most diverse audience possible. As a fervent defender of culture for all, what is your opinion of the relevance of the mission of ART X Lagos in Nigeria today?
I think essentially, the ART X has manifested as a game changer in the way visual arts is produced and presented to the public. Appropriately defined, the ART X is an intervention agency for the repositioning of art and, by extension, the creative industry in the national economy.
Associated with this is the fact that it remains the prior agent for the globalisation of home products and practice. It creates the necessary nexus between the home market and the global scene. It is also a pillar for networking, cooperation, and collaboration between and among artists across the various divides of age, race, gender, and orientation. For Nigeria in particular, ART X has helped to showcase the new possibilities of its otherwise monochromatic economy. How the
managers of the national economy key into this emerging vision is another matter entirely. ART X seems ahead of the politico-economy system in which it has found itself.
Public art can express the concerns of a community and contribute to change on a larger scale. We have seen this in recent events where public statues or works of art are either seen as symbols of change or as representative of systemic oppression. What about the vibrant city of Lagos?
Art in public spaces, though a long, tested practice in Nigeria, has not gained the necessary traction or earned the profile it deserves. This is perhaps because art patronage until the turn of the century had been largely governmental. While private collection had been around for a long time, it had not been so pronounced until the arrival of private galleries and private collectors in the era of liberalised economy of the mid 90s to early 2000s.
However, the combination of free political space, liberalised economy, and its attendant change in the economic dynamics, which led to reemergence of the otherwise suppressed middle class, has led to a drastic change in the perception of art, changing the consumption pattern that then favoured creative products. As a result, public art has gained a good measure of prominence, which, in Lagos specifically, was consolidated by the massive investment by the former Akinwunmi Ambode-political administration.
From your perspective and experience, what is your view of the impact that an art fair or commercial initiative like ART X Lagos can have on the local art scenes in both the short and the long term?
Art fairs and ‘commercial practice’ help to direct sharper focus to the potentialities of the creative economy. About a decade before ART X was born, there had been the Art Expo, promoted by the Arts Galleries Association of Nigeria, AGAN – to which I was an active participant. It was purely commercial in intent, but it helped a lot to bring greater awareness to the value of the arts in the economy. The only other initiative within easy recall was the Society of Nigerian Artists (SNA)-promoted October Rain, which, although artistic in orientation by the nature of its organisers, also had underlying commercial interests that were not all that hidden, as invitations were directly extended to select members of the business club.
ART X has been so clear and direct in its objective of dragging Corporate Nigeria into its arts patronage. The strategies are there, even in its operational profile and programming content. The longer-term effect is the fact that the art will become a staple means of investment by Corporate Nigeria. A recent study revealed that, next to real estate, visual arts has become the second most favoured investment for the rich and the middle class. This can only be consolidated with the increasing engagement of the resources (marketing, promotional, capacity building, etc.) which ART X and other art fairs would ultimately bring in.
ART X LAGOS – 2-9 December, 2020.
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