The Rise of Alternative Art Spaces in Lagos: The Treehouse
Located in the top flat of a seven-story building in Ikoyi, Lagos, Nigeria and founded by artist Wura-Natasha Ogunji, The Treehouse supports creative experimentation, artistic investigation and the asking of radical and open questions. With views of the Cowrie Creek and Lagos Lagoon, Ikoyi Prison and polo fields, it provides a perfect platform for thinking about how spaces, architecture, and community influence and inform how we move, feel, and imagine the world. In this interview with Omenka, Wura-Natasha Ogunji discusses experimental art in Lagos, the future of alternative art spaces and her upcoming projects.
When was The Treehouse space founded, and what inspired its creation?
Our first exhibition was in February of this year. I wanted to see more experimental art in Lagos. I felt a lot of art looked similar and wanted to give artists the opportunity to try out different things.
“The Treehouse provides a perfect platform for thinking about how spaces, architecture, and community influence and inform how we move, feel, and imagine the world”. Please tell us more about this statement, and how you think alternative spaces are influencing the Nigerian art scene.
Well, one thing that is unique about this place is the physical space. It is on the seventh floor with a lot of light and breeze, as well as many views of the creek and lagoon. On the Lagoon side, you can see Ikoyi prison and the polo fields. When I first moved in, the elevator wasn’t working, so people had to climb up the seven flights of stairs. This is how it got its name, The Treehouse. For me, as an artist, space is very important; I need a lot of natural light. An open space does a lot for people’s minds, especially a busy, and sometimes stressful city like Lagos. It is nice to arrive in a place where you feel comfortable to sit, relax and have a have a drink and feel the world in an expansive way.
Recently, there has been an increasing number of alternative art spaces in Lagos. What is the reason for this, and how do you think they help shape the art scene in Lagos?
A diverse art ecology is one thing we have been missing in this city. There is the idea that art is about making something you have to sell to a collector; however, that is only one part of it. As an artist, this is important but it should not be the focus. The focus should be on supporting artists and pushing them to create visual language that expands their imagination and expands us as the audience. Few people understand this point. We are not here to make what the collector wants but to broaden a person’s view of the world. Much like a scientist, we observe things and expand perspectives on the world. We need different kinds of places for art, and alternative spaces are just another component in that entire landscape; they improve the quality and diversity of the art experience.
The Treehouse features artists working with experimental media like installations and performance. What criteria do you employ in selecting those to show at the space?
Sometimes artists inquire about showing in the space, and so we have a conversation. I’m interested in pushing the concepts, forms and aesthetic that an artist is employing. For example, a photographer who might usually show framed works in a gallery is not interesting to me. I want them to think of other ways we can experience photography; I want them to challenge their own process. What does it look like to hang a photograph in space or to project it, or for people to receive a photographic experience that surrounds them? At heart, artists are experimental and must push their experiences beyond what’s comfortable and familiar and beyond what their professors and collectors want them to produce.
“The Treehouse supports creative experimentation, artistic investigation and the asking of radical and open questions”. Experimental art like installations and performances, while not being a new feature of art from Nigeria and Africa, are just gaining the recognition they deserve on the continent. What do you think is the reason for this?
We have a situation where many things are happening at the same time. Different to other countries, in Nigeria, there is a collector base with money to buy art. However, this has also limited artists because collectors may heavily influence what artists create. Some collectors are careful and observant while others don’t know what the hell they’re talking about. This dynamic must shift, is shifting. The other important thing is the history of Nigeria; there is a younger generation coming back from being educated abroad. Some parents have worked hard to send their children to study outside the country, and many of them come back with a different perspective that they want to infuse. We also have a generation of people with access to a lot of information on social media. They are having completely different kinds of experiences in relation to their sexuality, gender roles, and expectations. Their minds are being open in new ways, and they don’t have the same kinds of worries their parents had. Of course, we live in a society in which many people don’t have all they need. However, they still have a sense of creativity and investigation, as well as the desire to change things, with others observing them as examples. At this moment there is a nice momentum.
What are some of the challenges faced by artist-run alternative spaces like The Treehouse when compared to those of more traditional spaces?
As an artist, I have always felt that art is a way for me to do whatever I want and not limit myself by anything. I feel that the mind is the most powerful tool in terms of knowing what’s possible in the world. So when I started The Treehouse, I didn’t wait to create an organisation, draw up a budget and hire a bunch of people, as I knew it was ridiculous. I just started holding exhibitions because I have a beautiful space.
As for the challenges, I think as The Treehouse grows, I will bring more people on board, to curate and develop the space. Finance is also important because I’m currently supporting the space. People tend to think those are all limitations but if we do what we love and trust, then the resources will come, along with the energy and the audiences. This space is developed just from this desire of mine and other artists to do what they love.
You recently staged an exhibition by Rahima Gambo and Adee Roberson, The Secret Life of Plants. Kindly tell us a bit about it, and how it fits with The Treehouse’s objectives.
I had this idea to create this series of exhibitions from non-human perspectives, thinking about land, animals and architecture and if we could make these central instead of humans. In their work, the two artists examine critically the importance of land of which they have reverence for. Adee Roberson who’s working in the United States made a video installation about Black migration in the United States. She references different landscapes from New Orleans and Florida so one can feel a sense of people moving and marching through the landscapes. Here, she interrogates our relationship to land. The history of Black people in the United States is such that many people don’t know their origins, and so relationships with land are very important. She also explores migration and those changing relationships to land. I thought it would be nice to pair her works with Rahima Gambo’s because the latter is producing a series that began in Abuja, called ‘A Walk’. Every morning she goes out and collects things on her walk, to create collages and installations. She is a photographer and her project was drawn from a documentary series she made called Education is Forbidden. It is about youths surviving the Boko Haram conflicts in the north. This specific work was conceived when she visited a bomb site and realised there was nothing to see, the earth was destroyed and there was dirt and debris everywhere. Rahima Gambo felt she could not talk about her experience in photographs but needed to go for walks, to have her body outside. I found it moving that the way she answered this question about documenting a young girl suicide bomber was to put her own body into the land itself.
Both artists, Roberson and Gambo have observant and reverent relationships with the land and though the images are completely different, I like their sensitivity to the environment.
Is there a fear of alternative spaces in Lagos like The Treehouse gradually becoming more institutionalised and commercial in the future?
I don’t think these are necessarily opposites. People think that one either produces work for money or remains poor because one does not make work for money. I think that is a misunderstanding. I produce and sell drawings that very much come from the heart, in a very free manner. Part of the money is used to sustain this space and support artists. People have told me they want to support this space; I’m interested in that. However, in developing spaces like this, one has to be careful to grow organically. So I think a lot about financial sources of support, as well as about how people use the space. The exhibitions are not just about people coming to buy works. Artists are welcome to sell their works and they keep all the money. I don’t have that sort of relationship with them because I am not interested in taking a percentage; I am interested in supporting the artists so that they keep creating beautiful things while developing genuine relationships with collectors that would be supportive of their careers. They don’t have to drop their prices to the insulting level many collectors here ask of them. I want the artists to experience what is possible and the power of their work.
With regard to my vision for the space and its archives, I want it to be dynamic, but also understand that when it is no longer needed or desired, it should not exist. I’m not interested in holding on to this institution forever, because I don’t want it to feel boring, dull and lacking magic with all the money going into staffing. I think its okay for things to die if they need to and for other things to begin. I trust that The Treehouse will live a beautiful life, and when it’s done, it’s okay.
Is there any upcoming project you would like to share with us?
This December there is the exhibition Rhythm by ‘Thrift Projects’. They are looking at the intersections of self-expression and fashion. In January, we have a drawing show titled Everything is a Drawing, which is the same title of a workshop that ruby onyinyechi amanze and I did at Omenka Gallery a few years ago. It is going to feature work by amanze and Yadichinma Ukoha-Kalu. The exhibition is about the possibilities of drawing; it is not just about an image on paper, but also about what happens in the studio, because they both experiment a lot. I am interested in showing that part of their practice.
This interview is part of a series on documenting alternative art spaces in Lagos. Read the previous interview here
April 16, 2021
April 16, 2021