A Biennial for Lagos, a City on the Edge
Lagos-based artist and curator, Folakunle Oshun, holds a Bachelor’s degree in visual arts and a Master’s degree in art history, both from the University of Lagos. Oshun’s work investigates the ramifications of politics and history on contemporary life. Using sculpture, he explores alternate dimensions of human sensibilities with emphasis on sound and the interrelationship between forms. Oshun’s vision as a curator is to stage artistic interventions in curatorial mind-spaces acting as a mediator between various parties in the contemporary art scene. In this interview with Omenka, he talks about his reasons for establishing the Lagos Biennial.
Congratulations on the inaugural edition of the Lagos Biennial, which was recently concluded. How were you able to realise an event of such magnitude and what factors prompted its creation?
The biennial was realised as an artist initiative of the Akete Art Foundation. We felt it was important to have a platform for critical artistic discourse and conversations in Lagos, and not necessarily a biennial. Conversations about a biennial in Lagos have been on for quite a while but we felt with all the energy currently being generated in Lagos, this was the right time. The biennial could not have been realised without an incredible team who worked hard all year pro-bono.
Why the theme Living on the Edge and what inspires your curatorial thrust?
The inaugural edition of the Lagos Biennial was intended to set a tone for the event and thus we felt it was important to start from home. I’m a Lagosian and I feel very passionate about my city. I always emphasise that I am from the Lagos Island and not just any part of Lagos. That said, the curatorial team was keen on telling a story reflective of the spirit of Lagos, its history, energy, precarious peculiarities. The main idea is to present a collage of scenarios around the world which mirror the city of Lagos. So we reached out to artists whose lives are embroiled in some form of crisis or the other. The concept for the exhibition space was to superimpose narratives from across the world on to a Lagos landscape. We were able to achieve this metaphorically and theoretically by engaging an old running shed in the Nigerian Railway Corporation who hosted the biennial.
Generally, art biennials tend to follow strict guidelines in selection of works. What criteria have you adhered to in selecting works for the biennial?
It’s important to note that this biennial did not have any form of funding at inception, neither was it State run. The Lagos Biennial is an artist run biennial and a level of unpredictability comes with that. It is more of a disruptive intervention, which cannot possibly have a set code of conduct. Why have another biennial that feels like every other one? We simply searched for artists whose works and practice resonated with the theme Living on the Edge.
How would you respond to critics that berate the omission of leading artists like Olu Amoda, Adeola Balogun, Bruce Onobrakpeya, Raqib Bashorun and Tola Wewe in your selection in favour of artists who are neither Nigerian, African, nor locate their practices on the continent?
Ah well, you really cannot please everyone, it’s not the Olympics – you can only have so many artists in a show. The Lagos Biennial is not a festival or carnival to celebrate Nigerian artists or any artist at that. The curatorial premise of the biennial was extremely conceptual and we selected artists we felt could respond to the ideas we were pushing. Like I said earlier, we wanted to create an event that would be reflective of Lagos in its status as a cosmopolitan and international city. This is probably the first biennial on African soil with heavy international participation – we cannot address issues in a global context if we shut the door to everyone else. Artists from the African continent are invited to art events all over the world, so it’s important we reciprocate the gesture – lest you get quite an awkward imbalance. This is just a first edition; there will be many more editions with a higher number of artists in participation. This year we had about 13 Nigerians out of a total number of 43 artists who were invited to participate.
It is often difficult to raise adequate funds to support the first editions of major art events such as yours. Did you encounter such challenges and what measures, including limiting your scope, did you have to take?
Yes of course, it was pretty difficult for a bunch of crazy artists to sell the concept of an international art biennial to any sponsor, especially with the limited time we had for planning. A few artists were able to secure funding from art institutions, while others were self-funded. We were able to offer some level of support to cover production for a few artists. We were also able to strike a couple of barter deals and partnerships to cover some costs – at some point we were exchanging donkeys for goats. It was quite a desperate situation, quite on the edge.
At the end of the day, the good people of Lagos rose to the occasion and we were astounded by the number of favours we received from individuals who opened up their homes to accommodate artists.
Can you tell us what you think changed to allow for the proliferation of art fairs, festivals and biennials, promoting art from Africa, and how do you think Lagos Biennial fits into this burgeoning art scene?
I think it’s just a thing of improved awareness. Many pioneers in the culture sector; curators, artists, writers, and critics, have sacrificed years of hard word to get us to where we are. More artists from the African continent are disrupting the international art scene and taking up spaces that were hitherto the preserve of artists from the West. As for Lagos, there is still a risk of everything falling flat if we do not consolidate these giant strides with proper infrastructure and an overhauling of our art education system. But for now, we hustle on, Lagos style.
How does the Lagos Biennial compare to other art biennials around the world?
I think I am too close to the picture to reflect on that just yet. In terms of the quality of work and how the artists responded to the theme and space, I think it was quite impressive. There has been a good reception of the Lagos Biennial both locally and internationally. We hope to build from here and with better planning, the next edition will be a bigger success.
Lagos seems the obvious choice for the biennial. What do you think can be done to improve the structure for the production, exhibition and dissemination of contemporary art in other parts of Nigeria?
That’s a question I usually shy away from. I am a Lagos boy through and through and I have lived here all my life. I don’t think this is a question of art; it’s more about economics. Lagos is the economic capital of not just Nigeria, but of West Africa, and possibly Africa. Most artists who want to make it big in Nigeria come here. I don’t see anything wrong with that, certain places in the world are known for certain things. If you want to excel in some fields, there are some places you will have to go to. So finally, we have something that has bypassed our outdated quota system and federal character.
What should we expect from the Lagos Biennial in the coming years and how do you plan to sustain its relevance?
Ah well, the first edition was criticised for being shrouded in secrecy, I guess this will change as we intend to throw the participation open and have an open call for the next edition. It was important to keep out distractions for the birthing of something this big, now we feel more confident about our capabilities and are open to more collaborations.
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