Nigeria’s elite sipped champagne and splashed thousands of dollars on contemporary paintings at a fair in Lagos this week, an early step into the international art world for Africa’s most populous nation.
In front of major players from cinema, fashion and finance, about 30 art galleries from across the African continent – but also from Paris, London and Barcelona – showed off their best pieces at the ArtX fair.
“Nigeria’s art collectors are not well known globally, and when we arrived here we didn’t realise the potential,” said Lea Perier Loko from the Paris-based gallery Septieme.
“When collectors fall for something, they don’t hesitate to spend!”
The pieces they sold first were two gigantic blue paintings by Kenyan artist Kaloki Nyamai that represent “a part of history that isn’t found in books”.
The two paintings, each measuring 2 metres square, were sold separately for $20,000 (R298 291).
“In Paris, it’s much more difficult to sell paintings of this size. It really shows the difference in scale with Lagos,” said Perier Loko.
Among its 210 million residents, oil-rich Nigeria has some of the world’s wealthiest people, with bankers and traders now becoming important contemporary art collectors.
For a long time, Nigeria’s art scene was known for looking inward, with its collectors buying colourful, local figurative art.
“Things have changed a lot,” said Delphine Lopez from one of the continent’s best-known galleries, Cecile Fakhoury.
‘Bold, energetic’ Lagos
Her gallery has decided to bet on three Ivorian artists and two others from Benin at its stand.
Visitors stop, intrigued by a tapestry made from raffia sprinkled with seashells and pieces of string, created by Franco-Ivorian Marie-Claire Messouma Manlanbien.
“There is an ancient culture of textile art and tapestry in West Africa, and yet it’s different to what you find here in Nigeria,” said Lopez.
ArtX founder Tokini Peterside launched the project in 2016 to open up collectors in Nigeria to other markets, as well as to bring international galleries to the country.
“I wanted the world to understand the city in the way that I did, and to see the city for what it truly is… a very dynamic place with incredible, passionate, bold, energetic people,” said the 36-year-old.
And she hoped that the fair could also “counter the alternative, more negative image that usually is used to portray Lagos and Nigeria”.
Africa’s most populous country is known for being home to Boko Haram, one of the world’s most violent jihadist groups.
Its dynamic creative industry, miles away from the northeast insurgency, is often less known.
“When we announced that we were coming to ArtX in Lagos, some people asked us why, if there was even an art scene in Nigeria, and if it was not too dangerous,” said Perier Loko of Septieme gallery.
Yet many of the country’s artists, singers and designers are powerhouses on the continent and globally.
For those who made the trip, coming to Lagos was a winning bet, and many hope to come back and continue exploring the Nigerian art market.