The struggling Nigerian economy, evident everywhere in the form of vacant business premises and widely divergent official and black-market rates for the naira, stands in stark contrast with a newly invigorated cultural scene. Late last year Lagos witnessed the inaugural edition of Art X Lagos, West Africa’s first international art fair.

The fair is the brainchild of Tokini Peterside, a young Lagosian businesswoman who previously managed other people’s projects in the culture and luxury industries and wanted to strike out on her own. She looked at the Nigerian art market and felt it needed a central meeting point, the way SA has the Johannesburg and Cape Town art fairs, and Senegal has the Dakar Biennale.

Miliki: Home to a vintage poster collection. Picture: ZEMAYE OKEDIJI
Miliki: Home to a vintage poster collection. Picture: ZEMAYE OKEDIJI

Peterside brought on board sponsors such as local investment banking firm Chapel Hill Denham, private jet timeshare outfit Anap Jets, Access Bank and Veuve Clicquot. The fair was held at the Civic Centre, a modern building centrally located on Victoria Island. On an outside deck overlooking the lagoon, you could order organic salads, sandwiches and juices from a local caterer, or drink champagne from the sponsor’s bar.

Fourteen exhibitors took part in the event, including two galleries each from Ghana and SA, and one from Mali. Bisi Silva, a driving force of the Lagos art scene for the past decade, served as the fair’s artistic director, guiding gallery selection and putting together the talks and special projects.

Prominent visitors to the fair included Zoe Whitley, Guaranty Trust Bank research curator at Tate Modern in London; Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka; SA collector Pulane Kingston; El Anatsui, Nigeria’s foremost contemporary artist; and Mark Coetzee, director of Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa in Cape Town; in addition to a who’s who of Nigeria’s boardrooms.

Hot properties

Apart from the Civic Centre, the art fair week revolved around an axis of private members club Miliki and concept store Alara, both on Victoria Island, and the Wheatbaker, a five-star hotel managed by SA’s Legacy Group, 20 minutes away on the island suburb of Ikoyi. All of these are new venues; Miliki and
Alara opened in 2014, and the Wheatbaker
in 2010.

The fair hosted its opening night party at Miliki. What makes the place magical is its locally rooted cosmopolitan décor. The furniture consists of replicas of standard issue Nigerian mid-century civil service chairs, tables and couches, which were heavily influenced by Scandinavian design. Miliki’s vintage poster collection — which includes work from Chinese superstar artist Ai Weiwei, legendary pan-African cultural festival Festac ’77, New York feminist activists Guerrilla Girls and the SA literary magazine Chimurenga — adorns the walls of this postcolonial take on Soho House.

Alara: We Won’t Wait installation by Abdulrazaq Awofeso
Alara: We Won’t Wait installation by Abdulrazaq Awofeso

On regular nights Miliki’s atmosphere is decidedly quieter, closer to a private library or New York clubhouse than a trendy private club. Johannesburg could do with a place
like this.

Alara has no equal in SA either. Businesswoman Reni Folawiyo has created a Lagosian take on Parisian concept store Colette across the five-storey, open-plan David Adjaye building. Here one finds Yves Saint Laurent alongside the best of African design.

At the time of the art fair the store hosted a solo exhibition by Abdulrazaq Awofeso that was organised by Temitayo Ogunbiyi, one of many Nigerians who have recently moved back to the country.

Downstairs, at the back of the building, is the restaurant Nok. The menu features contemporary updates of regional dishes. Full most nights, the place comes alive especially during Sunday brunch — or, more accurately, lunch, as church obligations by most of its patrons prohibit an early start. Live music is accompanied by New York brunch fare with local twists. In addition to a range of champagnes, the wine list includes some decent SA options, most impressively a 2012 Almenkerk chardonnay.

Nok restaurant comes alive during Sunday brunch — or, more accurately, lunch, as church obligations by most of its patrons prohibit an early start.
Nok restaurant comes alive during Sunday brunch — or, more accurately, lunch, as church obligations by most of its patrons prohibit an early start.

One island over, on Ikoyi, the Wheatbaker hotel has become a hub for the local well-to-do. It has rotating art exhibitions on its walls, organised by film maker and curator Sandra Obiago, and it is the venue of the seasonal Arthouse auctions of modern and contemporary art.

During the fair, business deals were concluded over breakfast as representatives from Sotheby’s and Bonhams shared tables with private dealers and collectors.

An art scene coming of age

Art X Lagos conveniently coincided with Lagos Photo, an annual festival launched in 2010. Lagos Photo is the most significant contemporary art event in the country, and the current edition included contributions from a number of artists familiar to SA audiences, including Mohau Modisakeng and Kudzanai Chiurai.

The better of the two venues hosting Lagos Photo was the new headquarters of the African Artists’ Foundation, a stone’s throw from Art X Lagos, with clean white walls and bright lighting. The space is a significant step up from the foundation’s previous real estate, and further evidence that the Lagos scene is coming of age.

The second part of Lagos Photo took place at Eko Hotels, which hosted the All Africa Music Awards on the same weekend as Art X Lagos.

Tokini Peterside
Tokini Peterside

Next door, Art Twenty One presented a survey of recent photographs by Swiss photographer Namsa Leuba. Art Twenty One, open since 2013, offers the city’s most impressive gallery architecture, with high ceilings, custom lighting and an immaculate concrete floor.

Lagos’s only public institution dedicated to contemporary art is the Centre for Contemporary Art (CCA) Lagos, situated in the neighbourhood of Yaba. For locals who live on Ikoyi and Victoria Island, Yaba feels impossibly far — but without traffic it is a 15-minute car ride from the art fair.

The CCA was founded in 2007 by Art X Lagos artistic director Silva, who still directs its programme. Currently showing the work of Kelani Abass, it is one of the rare spaces where conceptual art, photography and video are given free rein. One floor is dedicated to exhibitions and a second houses what must be Nigeria’s best public art library.

An expanding ecosystem

Several new spaces for art are in the works. Most prominently, Prince Yemisi Shyllon is building a museum for his personal collection of more than 7,000 works. The institution will be located at the business school of the Pan-Atlantic University in Lagos, ensuring future business leaders are exposed to Nigerian art history.

A young London collector who sits on the board of the Wheatbaker is planning to build a space near the hotel that will house part of his collection, most of it from artists outside of Nigeria.

These initiatives will join an increasingly sophisticated art ecosystem, which is bound to develop further.

Installation: If I Could Save Time.
Installation: If I Could Save Time.

One of Peterside’s hopes is that the art fair will prompt professionalisation of the artist and gallery system. It is not uncommon, at the moment, for artists to show with several galleries in Lagos, making the benefits of long-term representation elusive for both parties. Moreover, commercial galleries are reluctant to show work deemed "difficult", meaning anything other than traditional painting and sculpture — despite some of the city’s most successful artists working in photography, video and sound. For the Lagos art world to take its next leap forward, the galleries will need to start programming more ambitiously and experimentally.

For visitors from out of town, Lagos’s logistical challenges have abated. The arrivals process at the airport has been streamlined, matched by increased security. Local government has banned okadas, the previously ubiquitous motorbike-taxis, which has restored some semblance of sanity to the city’s roads. Most importantly, ride-hailing service Uber has made significant inroads, eliminating the need for a personal driver.

Peterside has promised to announce the dates for Art X Lagos’s sophomore edition soon. Get out your calendars — there is no better excuse to finally visit the city.

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