There’s a naked woman on the cover of Fela’s Yellow Fever. The young sylphlike creature, staring defiantly at you, shows off her pointy gifts, which are, as nearly the rest of her body, actually burnt yellow. I wonder what the artist behind the painting was thinking.
“I wonder what the artist was thinking.” That is the sort of thing you say when you see an arresting piece on display in a gallery or an art exhibition, like the three-day Art X fair in Lagos. It may also be a way to make the acquaintance of any up and coming or already notable creative.
Again, back to Yellow Fever, the historic song from 1976. It wasn’t as though the track itself, a 15-minute blend of call-and-response and dexterous horns, wasn’t poignant in itself. But the album cover was the prologue intended to pull the potential listener into Fela’s, um, colourful world. From Sorrow, Tears, and Blood to Beasts of No Nation and Alagbon Close, Ghariokwu deployed this technique to amplify the sensory experience for each of those hit songs. Today, what he did would be called transmedia storytelling.
These days, Ghariokwu works in mixed media, graffiti and murals, as well as the expected oil or acrylic on canvas. As for his subject matter, when it’s self-determined, you can expect to still witness his commentary on afrobeats, politics, and the human condition.
In the past 45 years, Mr Ghariokwu has developed a body of work that, of course, extends way outside his illustrative record envelopes. In so doing, the self-taught artist, acclaimed as the “king of the album cover” earned a name that rang a bell across the Atlantic. So, by the time one ambitious youngster by the name of Tokini Peterside launched Art X Lagos in 2016, Ghariokwu, the art virtuoso from Lagos, was naturally a perfect figure to help elevate the art fair in its very first year.
But that’s big-name Ghariokwu, whose work, by the might of the legend behind it, is already collectible. For others who may not be so storied, Art X Lagos is now the preeminent channel to locate the audience with the discernment and wherewithal to patronise their form of art.
In 2019, 9,000 of those people—collectors, VIP guests and others who were dropping in for Art X Live!, the music bit of the fair—showed up. Among them were 30 patrons of Tate Modern who had flown into Nigerian just for Art X Lagos. Currently, Peterside’s Art X Collective, the company she founded to run the fair, declares that 30,000 visitors have attended the events.
With Covid 19 in the air this year, Peterside had to make a few tweaks. Like everyone else running an international experiential, she presented her show as a “hybrid” of “physical and digital experiences”, from December 2 to 9.
Peterside admitted that indeed it was “an ambitious programme, considering everything that’s going on globally.” The on-ground part of Art X Lagos 2020 therefore included a public exhibition at Muri Okunola Park, of 60 works by various artists—a patriotic nod to Nigeria’s 60th independence anniversary. This ran for 10 days and, said Peterside, was “to celebrate the varying perspectives of artists from different generations who are all active within the Lagos art community.”
Altogether, Art X Lagos’s international audience was spread across 101 countries. Forty-four artists were on showcase, “represented by 10 of the leading galleries in Africa and the Diaspora”. There were 13 events in total, comprising a virtual display of artwork and panels that were headlined by rapper Folarin “Falz” Falana, photographer Kelechi Amadi Obi, photojournalist Yagazie Emezi, the previously introduced Mr Ghariokwu, the collectors Nish McCree, Lola Ogunnaike, and others.
Some of the artists on stage at this year’s online exhibition, are the painter Abe Odedina, mixed media artist Chike Obeagu, Ouattara Watts, Isaac Emokpae, Jonathan Aggrey, Koffi Setordji, and Nike Okundaye & Tola Wewe. There was also Roméo Mivekannin, Rufai Zakari, Sadikou Oukpedjo, Samson Akinnire, Segun Phillips, Sess Essoh, and 30 others.
The global pandemic notwithstanding, Art X’s pull grew stronger this year. Which should be quite satisfying for Peterside. Although it is only the fifth edition, certain teething problems appear to have been defeated.
No longer does she have to persuade galleries, sponsors, or collectors that this event could be the biggest of its kind on West Africa—because it is now. Neither does she have to preach to anyone that Art X Lagos would be a true launchpad for emerging African visual artists. As Peterside herself reckons, there is finally an art season in West Africa, beginning at the end of October, and (though a little different in the year of the pandemic) flagged off by Art X Lagos.
“Our work,” she told Apollo magazine, “has really been about multiplying the audience for the visual arts. We’ve played this role very successfully—you can look, last year, at the sheer vibrancy of exhibitions, performances, screenings and festivals going on in Lagos at the same time as the fair, such as the second edition of the Lagos Biennial, and the Lagos Photo Festival.
Recognised by FastCompany as one of the magazine’s Most Creative People of 2019, Peterside’s work with Art X Lagos couldn’t be more fitting for her. A few years after graduating from the London School of Economics and Political Science, she began consulting for Moët Hennessy in Nigeria and later ran the company’s marketing department.
Aside from Moët, she also helped grow other prestige names such as Alára—the African luxury concept store. Her work for them, she said, was essentially to build desire. And as her rolodex grew, so did her capacity to speak the marketing language of the affluent class of Africans. She collected art and learnt the “workings” of creative entrepreneurship.
She said, “From the business side, in those years when I was managing prestige brands a lot of what I was doing was creating desirability among affluent consumers – the same consumers who now form part of the collector base in Nigeria and across West Africa.”
One of the reasons Art X Lagos feels great to Peterside is that it pushes Nigerian culture and “there is so much potential for culture to be used as a vehicle to influence people’s perceptions of a country, a destination, a civilisation.” That said, the fair is also proving to be a stage upon which local artists may build stature and earn decent returns.
This article was first published in The Guardian [Nigeria] in The New Establishment column.