The Rise of Alternative Art Spaces in Lagos: 16/16
Tushar Hathiramani is the founder of 16/16, a dual concept creative space and boutique Airbnb for Nigerian creatives to interact with one another and the rest of the world. In this interview, he discusses why alternative art spaces such as his are vital in stimulating new ideas and reflecting the dynamism of Lagos.
There have been more alternative art spaces on the Lagos art scene in the last few years. What do you think is the reason for this, and how are these spaces helping to shape the art scene in Lagos?
I think fundamentally, alternative art spaces are exactly as they sound: they are alternative. They are, in a sense, a reaction to what already exists. I think they are spaces that provide a little bit more freedom when it comes to artists and what they can achieve; there aren’t as many solid constructs, and there’s more flexibility offered.
I also think these spaces in Lagos are fundamentally linked to the people who created them, and the public is responding to a feeling of a story not being told. In creating this space, I felt there was no platform for younger artists to exchange with the world. I was responding to a feeling: I had moved back to Nigeria; I was young and equally confused, as some artists can be, and I saw a bubbling over of arts and culture. That’s why I created the space, and I feel other art spaces will respond in similar ways.
You started out as a commodities trader but now function as a curator. What prompted this shift to art curation?
I would not call myself a curator. I just have a space and an intense desire to work with people. I’ve figured out that I prefer participating in the artistic process with the artist, to being a curator. I’m also not an artist , but feel that I’m within a grey area between them. A curator would suggest that I only select, but I think it goes further than that. For example, I work with artists to create products, and in that sense, I would like to think that I am an artist or at least a designer of products and services.
The jump from commodities trader to “curator” is quite interesting. I was always attracted to visual culture, through which I see the world. I’m very visual, so it was a slow meandering until I reached this point. I had a strong science background in school, but when I graduated and traveled to the United States, I was given the opportunity of a flexible education, and found myself taking all sorts of literature and art courses. I studied Mandarin as well because I always wanted to have a broad-based education. When I graduated and came to Nigeria, being a commodities trader was sort of a product of the times; it was a way to earn money in an economic slump, where Nigeria was. It was also a smooth landing in a sense, because you don’t want to return to Lagos and realise you can’t afford to live here.
I think the flow to curating happened naturally. It was very much the places I found myself, the things I found myself doing, people I found myself around, and the kind of conversations I wanted to have. I wouldn’t have figured it out unless I had come back and lived through being a commodities trader to know what I didn’t want to do and the kind of environment I want to work in. Maybe in about five years, I might be doing something else. I might be creating spaces or working with different people. I might be working in agriculture, for example, but it’s fundamentally about the space I find myself in and the space I like to create for myself to work in.
16/16 also doubles as an Airbnb residence and a restaurant. What is the relationship between these different functions, and how do they relate to your goal of creating a hub for creatives?
A hub implies some place where people can feel at home. In order to have people breathe, you need to have important things—nourishment and shelter. The Airbnb functions as a revenue stream. The arts are not well supported here, and so having the bar, restaurant and the Airbnb are essentially the way I “apply for grants.” Getting institutional backing is important, but I wanted to find more creative ways of earning money to support the arts. The space itself was originally conceived as an Airbnb. Then I thought art was a great way for everything to coalesce. Art and culture are the major elements that glue everything together. The restaurant and Airbnb, although central in terms of the revenue model, are almost woven around the art itself; that’s how I see everything working together.
How has the journey of setting up and managing been, and what are the challenges you’ve faced so far?
At this moment, I am happy but also never content because there’s always more to do. I think the biggest issue is finding partners to who are committed and driven, support the arts, and understand it. As a result, operationally it is time-consuming. It takes much longer than you would expect, but that’s also because as a space we are supplanting the educational system. When we work with people, they receive additional education to what they had before. You need them to relearn many things or make them think about things they would never have thought about before, like the way you serve a cup of coffee, or how to approach art or hospitality, how to have a conversation with another human being about fundamental rights or politics. As a space, we are supplying that education which people don’t receive. Or they might have received a shitty one, and that’s why it takes much longer.
We are in a mixed-use building, but it’s mostly residential. The space in itself is quirky but that also makes it beautiful. A year into it, I’m thinking of the different places in the building, not as separate entities but as parts of a whole. I think that will also help solve many things. I would say the space was an issue initially but now it’s not, because it is still vast and everything is available. There’s also this idea of working with people and training them; neither of these is hard, just time-consuming. In addition, in an environment like this where there’s no support for the arts or for what we are doing, there is much pressure to succeed quickly. However, we have a long-term vision.
What do you think is the evolving role of alternative art spaces, especially on the Nigerian art scene, both as standalone institutions and in relation to more traditional art spaces?
I love what Wura Natasha-Ogunji said in your interview with her about her space and experimentation, and her place being free for people to interact in. The way I look at my space and other alternative art spaces are as places to make people feel comfortable—a safe space for people to come in and be vulnerable in their practice- whether it is art, business, tech, or whatever- and can connect with each other. What excites me is when artists meet entrepreneurs over here, and all of a sudden they are working together and creating multidisciplinary pieces, whether it is eventually a work that hangs in the gallery or a constructed piece of engineering, a building, or a business that they run together. I feel like alternative art spaces allow for this, because as I said earlier, they are more flexible and allow people to just be.
I think that these spaces find themselves within the larger artistic landscape. I hope there are more connections between alternative art spaces and traditional ones. I think currently, alternative art spaces are for a younger generation to interact in and not feel sidelined, because traditional art spaces, by nature of how they interact, work with more established artists. They also connect with buyers who are well known, established and tend to be older. I don’t want to be ageist. I hope these spaces eventually interlink, because I find that traditional art spaces can feed from what alternative art spaces are doing. They are both parts of a growing infrastructure. I don’t think a proper art infrastructure exists yet, but alternative spaces are the answer to this. Artists would move to an alternative art space first, because it’s comfortable and are more welcome there. From that point, they are given space to experiment and work but can move on to more traditional structures if they choose. Alternative spaces are that in-between and a connection. By themselves, alternative spaces may eventually be institutions, but I can’t say for now. I think it’s all just part of a growing infrastructure.
16/16 regularly holds exhibitions, workshops and tattoo sessions, among other things. How do you go about selecting featured artists?
This is a point I’ve thought about a lot. Earlier, I said all art spaces are connected to the people who operate them, so Wura-Natasha Ogunji will select the artists she likes while Victor Ehikhamenor will do same. Much in the same way, I have to stand up to say I select artists I like, but it’s interesting the way it’s worked over time. Artists come in excited about a project, and just by their excitement and passion for it, I’ve selected them. I also pick a work because I like it or the artist. It’s been different things; I can’t say it’s one, but that would then imply I am a curator of sorts. However, my method of selection is much more flexible.
And now I’m opening up the space to curators, as well as to artists who want to curate other artists. We’ve also started an artist-in-residence programme, and those artists will be showing their own work and curating others. I want it to be a space without definition. I think we live in a world where labels are very important, but why should I call myself a curator? I don’t feel that encompasses everything I do. One minute I can be working with plumbers and training my staff on best practices in one thing, and then the next minute I’m having a conversation with someone from a museum, or with a businessman on how he can use art in his business. Labels should be thrown out the window, and we should descend upon this time where these questions need not be asked at all. It’s just an open platform for people to come and interact.
There has also been more interest in art from Africa, especially by non-Africans. What do you think is the reason for this growing interest, and how sustainable is it?
It is sustainable, but it’s up to us to figure out how sustainable it is. I sometimes feel like there’s always an outside gaze. So it’s like it took the outside world recognising that there was talent here for us to recognise it. There are multiple reasons why this is happening now. Just the fact that the space has gone with very little exposure until now—and also, it’s part of a larger economic and global cycle. In the globalised world, people cannot ignore Nigeria. In art, we are having similar conversations to those in business and finance. I think things tend to be more interwoven and interlinked than we might think.
The question of sustainability is my motivation and drive with opening this space. From being a part of hFACTOR, to trying to open more spaces, my plan is to create a fundamental infrastructure over here so that when this outside gaze has received all they want from here, it’ll be up to us to continue supporting it and taking it outwards. But first, we need to create, link and network within, be strong, and then go out. The interest is sustainable; that’s how things work when people who are working with intention in the local environment do things.
Is there any upcoming project you would like to share with us?
I’m excited about the projects happening at 16/16 . I’m using under-utilised spaces in the building. I mentioned earlier about how our space relates to the larger building and environment, and I’m doing things in the public space more. We had an exhibition last October by the Goethe-Institut’s artist-in-residence, Leon Hosl, and he did a sound exhibition that was throughout the building. We are also using the corridor area of our space, which is normally out of bounds and just for guests in the Airbnb. We created a pop-up shop that will last for two to three months, so that people can come in here and shop the experience. We just converted the space; it doesn’t look like a normal one.
I’m also excited about Sheila Chukwulozie’s installation. This year, we are celebrating “Blue Christmas.” I thought about the colours and the tradition of Christmas, with red and green being fundamentally tied to it. I got in its face and decided to pick another colour. Blue is kind of the colour of everything—of sadness, happiness, ups and downs, hot and cold, longing and desire. Chukwulozie, who is an amazing performance artist and dancer, came up with this concept of indigo dyeing and the process at the heart of it. She also did a bunch of quotes that are on the wall about the colour blue and the colour of longing. The two projects that are currently in the space excite me the most, but there are so many more. There’s the artist-in-residence programme that we’ve started as well that will see several artists run workshops and creatively interact with the growing infrastructure I’m building. So they’ll work with hFACTOR and with 16/16. I’m just happy to see this growing network and infrastructure come alive.
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