Taking a Closer Look at Lagos
The unofficial Lagos art season begins in October, with more art programmes held during the last quarter of the year than during the rest of the year combined. The highlights of this year’s season are the 10th edition of the Lagos Photo Festival, the second edition of the Lagos Biennial, the second edition of Art Summit Nigeria, the fourth edition of ArtX, Lagos, and the opening of the much anticipated Yemisi Shyllon Museum of Arts. There are also numerous solo and group exhibitions happening across the city. So there is much to see.
Two of the exciting non-commercial art spaces to check out in Lagos during this art season are Revolving Art Incubator (RAI) and The Treehouse Lagos. Both spaces are initiatives of female Nigerian artists—Jumoke Sanwo and Wura-Natasha Ogunji, respectively—and have continued to champion a move away from traditional art practices, embracing new media, appealing to younger viewers, and focusing on creating new audiences. Their programming is, however, often viewed as building on the work done by the galleries and art spaces that kept the city art scene alive in the 1990s.
The trio of Didi Museum, Mydrim, and Nimbus Gallery were some of the most important spaces for art discourses in the 1990s. They held solo and group exhibitions, produced publications, and reinvigorated the art market. A landmark contemporary art project in the year 2000 was the Institute of Visual Arts and Culture (IVAC), which came out of a collaboration between Mydrim Gallery and the late Nigerian curator Olabisi Silva. They organised a series of public lectures on contemporary art and culture that were delivered by international speakers on various university campuses in Nigeria.
The curatorial approach of the Revolving Art Incubator (RAI) and The Treehouse Lagos seems to be based on the premise of a dichotomy between public and private spaces. While RAI has moved into the public realm with its Extroversion project, The Treehouse Lagos is undergoing an expansion of its indoor project space.
RAI is located in the fire exit area within Silverbird Galleria mall, where it started off as a “spatial intervention.” It occupies three floors and serves as a bridge between the private and public space—publicly accessible, but still affording intimacy for art discourses. RAI opened on October 1, 2016 with a group show titled Artistic Representation in the Face of Commodification, featuring the works of David Akinola, Blessing Ibie, and Chima Enwenzor. By October 2018, RAI had organised 12 art exhibitions, alongside artist talks, workshops, and presentations.
The Treehouse, which holds its activities on Thursdays, is located on the seventh floor of the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) building in Lagos. It opened on February 8, 2018 with a solo presentation of the work of Rahima Gambo, titled Tatsuniya. The space grew organically from being the founder’s private studio space into a platform to share with other artists. By June 6, 2019, when the Cameroonian artist Justine Gaga was holding her presentation, the space had hosted over 30 projects in just over 16 months.
The first year of the Treehouse was driven by research—searching people out and inviting them to do projects. While conducting studio visits, the founders realised that although artists had works to display for exhibitions and fairs, they usually had something else they wanted to work on. And that “something else” was important to The Treehouse. This was evident in the collaboration with artists like Rahima Gambo, who opened the space, but also in subsequent exhibitions from her long-term project, the ‘A Walk’ series.
With Pilgrimage, an exhibition by artist Adeola Olagunju, the curatorial decision not to present framed works completely changed the way the works were engaged with. Other collaborations with Tunde Alara, who has been working in the public space, and Phoebe Boswell, whose drawings and animations have transformed the space, have also inspired people.
The Treehouse could be said to be a space that drives itself, developing its own rhythm. The space is looking to create a calendar while being flexible enough to accommodate a couple of projects outside of this structure.
In 2019, RAI moved away from the exhibition-making model that defined its previous years and began its Extroversion project, which is a trans-disciplinary model that engages the public realm. In the words of the RAI team, “We are trying to solve problems of the city, leaving all our formal knowledge behind, and embracing the street knowledge, by dissolving the walls between disciplines.”
The three frameworks that define what “extroversion” means in the context of RAI are apprenticeship, experiments, and outposts. For apprenticeship, RAI began with a workshop on archiving in July 2019, which focused on the culture of appreciating and archiving cultural objects.
For experiments, RAI launched the ‘Black Wall Experiment,’ which looks into the aesthetics of walls, both in physical and economic terms. The project also examines the legality of walls, what they connote historically and in contemporary life.
For outposts, RAI has designed a couple of outposts where the knowledge gathered from these experiences will be shared. These outposts offer various formats for presenting works, some of which include newspaper stands, which are seen as an informal gallery space. The outposts also revisit the concepts of the owambe (high society gatherings) by using parks and gardens.
The Treehouse hosted three exhibitions in 2019. These shows were as a result of people wanting to collaborate with the space. “We hosted the Cameroonian artist Justine Gaga, who was invited to Lagos by her colleague, Dunja Herzog. It was beautiful to have her share her works with the Nigerian audience. But then, the irony that she lives right next to us, and we are still far, isn’t lost on us at all.”
Both RAI and The Treehouse are spaces for artists to freely experiment with ideas, to deepen and understand their visual language. Their working model is one that prioritises the artists’ needs, and their collaborations span across disciplines. RAI believes “we must start thinking beyond arts, and making artists to see their ideas as a commodity.” For The Treehouse, the space becomes part of the way of thinking about community, and how audiences learn about different kinds of works. And the space “doesn’t have to exist forever; it might become something else after five years, and that is fine.”
No one knows the future of the visual arts in Nigeria, but the present is surely exciting. And as the art season beckons, there are tons of projects that will be unveiled by different spaces across Lagos. Indeed, as RAI and Treehouse continue to promote contemporary art developments, audiences will be afforded more opportunities to “take a closer look” at the city.
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