Friday, February 8, 2013

Contemporary art in Nigeria and Ghana

Book Review
Title: Contemporary Art in Nigeria and Ghana
Author: Ester Adeyemi
Publisher Alfred F. Spinnler
Friedrich Reinhardt Verlag: Basel 2005

Reviewer: Prof. Bruce Onobrakpeya MFR.

This book contains a selection of the works in the collection of the publisher Chief Alfred F. Spinnler, the CEO of Swiss Pharma Nigeria Ltd., (Formerly Roche Nigeria) a pharmaceutical company with headquarters in Basel, Switzerland .

The book has 299 pages with 115 plates representing the works of 40 artists made up of 32 Nigerians, 5 Ghanaians and 3 non-Africans who have either lived or worked in Nigeria at one time or the other. According to Spinnler, the book was inspired by his passion as a young boy for Africa, and this was further stoked by his godfather’s collection of African traditional art, which he acquired from soldiers who went to fight in different parts of Africa during the Second World War. This was way back in the 1940’s. However when he came to Nigeria in 1984 as manager of one of Roche’s Divisions in Nigeria he encountered a new form of art-Contemporary African Art.

This very fascinating story is contained as part of the publishers preface to this book. As a follow up to this discovery Spinnler decided to encourage this new art and the artists that produced them by supporting the contemporary Nigerian artists. In this wise he started collecting their works.

In putting this collection into a single volume, he engaged the services of Mrs. Ester Adeyemi, a Swiss art historian and a regular art reviewer in Swiss newspapers as well as an organizer of exhibitions, readings and musical events before she moved to Nigeria in 1999.

This book, which is published in German and English, is divided into five sections. The first section contains all the pre-text materials such as the title page, copyright page, dedication and table of contents, the publisher’s preface, the author’s foreword, which includes a brief explanation of Spinnler’s collection and the structure of the catalogue. Finally in this section you have the author’s Introduction, which is further divided into seven sections.

In the Introduction, the author attempts to give a background to contemporary Nigeria Art and a brief review of the state of art in Africa in the 19th Century. She also looks at the development of Art education in Nigeria . She explains how Aina Onabolu persuaded the British colonial government to introduce art in schools. Her treatise is quite accurate in terms of the general flow of the events as they unfolded. The author goes ahead to talk about the opportunities for artists to exhibit in Nigeria , a brief note on the literature on Nigerian art and peculiarities of Nigerian art.

The second section presents the Nigerian artists whose works are featured in the catalogue. In this section each artist’s work is preceded by a brief narrative on the artist followed by a description and analysis of each of the works shown. The artists featured are: Tayo Adenaike, Joseph Adeyemi, Samuel Amurawaiye Ajobiewe, Duke Asidere, Jimoh Buraimoh, Eugene Chime-Age, Nike Davies-Okundaye, Uche Edochie, Emmanuel Ekefrey, Victor Ekpuk, Obi Ekwenchi, Kunle Filani, Krydz Ekwuemesi, Rom. Isichei, Osahenye Kainebi, Marcia Kure, Wole Lagunju, Mavua Lessor, Nkechi Nwosu-Igbo, Christopher Odunkwe, Ebele Okoye, Mike Omoighe, Bruce Ononbrakpeya, Donald John Onuoha, Chike Onuorah, Ben Osaghae, Kolade Oshinowo, Sam Ovraiti, Muraina Oyelami,  Fidel N. Oyiogu, Emeka Udemba and Tola Wewe.

The third section deals with expatriate artists who have lived or worked in Nigeria at one time or the other. In this section you have Cora de Lang, wife of the former Director of the Goethe Institut, Lagos ; Djamina Linger, a Swiss German who lived in Nigeria for a year and exhibited her works in 1995, and finally Jonathan Stoeckle, a Swiss whose parents lived in Nigeria and so visited Nigeria from time to time. His works are highly influenced by Northern Nigerian scenes.

The fourth section focuses on the Ghanaian artists namely: Emmanuel Adiamah, Kofi Agrosor, Ablade Glover, Ammon Kotei   and Wiz Kudowor.

The fifth section is the appendix, which contains the biographies of the artists and their photographs where available; bibliographical references for further reading, as well as brief biographies of the Publisher, the Author and the Photographer, Michele Kappeli, who took all the wonderful photographs of the works in the book.

The style of the author is free flowing and makes for easy reading. There is indeed evidence of intensive study and in terms of dates and other specific facts she cannot be faulted. In terms of research, the information in the book is certainly well researched. There are 73 bibliographical references for further reading, and from a perusal it would appear that there is evidence of a clear understanding in the area of the historical development of contemporary art in Nigeria and Ghana . It is also interesting to note her observations of the differences between Nigerian and Ghanaian Art. In Adeyemi’s analysis of the art scene in Nigeria , she described Ben Enwonwu as “ developing two art styles of painting, one academic, the other African.” While one appreciates that she is trying to emphasize the fact that Enwonwu’s works vacillated between western style realism and stylized forms akin to traditional African art, her statement seems to suggest that African art is not academic.

Her reference to the Sango monument in front of the NEPA (now PHCN) building as the Nepa Monument takes away from the context within which the statue was produced. While the author is correct in saying that the statue represents the Yoruba god of thunder, the correlation of the NEPA building being the head office of the nation’s national electricity corporation is de-emphasized thereby making the choice of Sango as subject for that commission lost. This would have helped to strengthen her discussion on the contributions of Kenneth Murray, who was Enwonwu’s teacher and the emphasis he (Murray) placed on drawing from African tradition for subject matter.

Her description of the state of media coverage of the arts may also have been a little over exaggerated; it would appear that today the media is doing more coverage of the visual arts. Most newspapers cover the arts in their columns and now on both government and private television there is an increased coverage of the visual arts. However like always it is still not enough. There is also an off-handed description of sculpture as an art form that has dwindling chances of survival in her essay on The Structure of The Catalogue. Although it is true that more exhibitions are dominated by paintings and a greater number of artists engage in paintings, it is not entirely true to say that sculpture, even though not as popular as painting, is diminishing. There are Nigerian artists who are practicing sculpture at a serious level and they are getting commissions. Many state and local governments have commissioned sculptures for outdoor spaces while individuals are equally commissioning works most especially statues and busts for their homes.

The catalogue section is well presented and the pictures are well placed on the pages with only the captions neatly placed on a straight line below the pictures. The artistic styles of the artists vary in theme, materials and conception. There however appears to be no attempt to present them in any analytical order. The artists are just presented in alphabetical order. While on its own, there is nothing wrong with that, it nonetheless gives the impression that all the artists are at the same level in terms of age and artistic practice. While one appreciates the fact that Adeyemi being a foreigner may not be familiar with the Nigerian contemporary art scene and she actually admits not making any attempt to classify the artists, she should at least attempt some sort of art historical process. 40 artists who are certainly not within the same age bracket nor are they from the same background nor did they even start practicing at the same time should not be lumped together. Dividing the artists into groups would have helped readers and scholars have a good art historical perspective of the collection.

Indeed there is a dearth of appropriate literature on Nigerian contemporary art, but this is not to say that there is no literature on current developments. Increasingly more books and publications are coming out. The National Gallery of Art for instance has published a few books on contemporary Nigerian Art. But these are not as frequent as one would have liked them to be. I also think that it would be unfair to say that in the past 20 years government has not supported any art initiatives. The National Gallery has supported art projects in the past and they are still doing so. The major challenge is how to get more attention as always no money is ever enough.

The book Contemporary Art in Nigeria & Ghana definitely stands out because it is the first attempt in Nigeria by an individual collector to put his art collection of a specific region in one volume for public consumption. It is indeed a vital contribution to knowledge. The publisher has exhibited a broad and robust perspective of the art of the region. The book has been able to provide information that could be used in studying Nigeria and Ghana’s contemporary art. It highlights some of the key players who are practicing now. It also provides some in-roads to Africa’s 20th Century art, as well as gives an insight into the art of the 21st Century. This volume also helps to promote the artists featured and create for them a sense of fulfillment, while scholars will have an opportunity to see works by the artists that will not be in the public domain.

It would however be misleading to assume that the works in this collection ultimately represents the contemporary art of both countries. Most of the Nigerian artists featured either live and practice or exhibit frequently in Lagos. There are several other artists in Nigeria who practice outside Lagos. In the same vain, it would not be surprising if the same could not be said of the Ghanaian art scene. The publisher himself admits that he only bought the artworks that appealed to him. This therefore means that what we see in this volume are actually the publisher’s preferences, which are personal to him. It would therefore be more appropriate to have titled the book The Spinnler Collection of Contemporary Paintings from Nigeria and Ghana .

After all has been said, I congratulate the publisher on his foresight and tenacity. I also thank the author for the extensive research, which she undertook to produce this volume that should be an essential document for scholars, students, collectors and general interest readers. I therefore recommend the book to all and sundry.

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