The Rise of Alternative Art Spaces in Lagos: Angels and Muse
‘Alternative Space’. A term coined in the early 70s by conceptual artist Brian O’Doherty also known as Patrick Ireland. It refers to the various ways in which artists show their work outside of commercial galleries and formally constituted museums.
Alternative spaces are adding to the dynamism of the Lagos art scene, already populated with art institutions, the majority of artists living and working in Nigeria, art auctions, a photo festival, an art fair, a biennale, and commercially successful galleries. Complementing the efforts of the latter group, these alternative spaces offer more opportunities for the increasing number of experimental and conceptual artists to deepen understanding of their work to a broader public.
Alternative art spaces in Lagos do not exactly keep to the traditional characteristics of the early models, recognised for their temporality and spontaneity. However, they have been instrumental in showing new work, without an emphasis on sales and commercialism. Through a series of essays and interviews, Omenka aims to document this trend by highlighting the work of a few like Angels and Muse, the Revolving Art Incubator, The Treehouse, 16by16 and hFACTOR.
Occupying the ground floor of a three-storey building in upscale Ikoyi, Angels and Muse is a creative hub for nurturing and empowering artists. It boasts of a multi-disciplinary room which doubles as an exhibition and co-working space, as well as a residency area, which functions as an Airbnb with a lounge, a kitchenette and two ensuite rooms. The White Room is adorned with beautiful stained glass windows by Isaac Emokpae and a painting by Ngozi Schommers, while the Victor Ehikhamenor Signature Room, also features windows by Emokpae but is distinct for its walls inscribed with nsibidi-like forms, characteristic of Ehikhamenor’s art. Contemporary artist and founder of the space Victor Ehikhamenor talks with Omenka in his studio located just above Angels and Muse, about the inspiration behind the space, the rise of alternative art spaces in Lagos and the production and dissemination of art in Lagos.
What inspired the creation of Angels and Muse, and what is the idea behind its space design?
Angels and Muse was created to energise creative process and thought. It is a space where like-minded people in the creative industry, both local and international can come together to rub minds, as well as give back to the community in which I operate as an artist. It is also a place where young artists and creatives that don’t have the opportunities to show their work can come.
It is also a residency place, with two rooms where researchers, mostly curators, art historians and writers can stay. Angels and Muse is not necessarily an art studio, but encourages writing and intellectualism. They come out of town; some pay a fee, others do not if we receive sponsorship. We have constant programmes like book launches, as well as book readings and listenings. In addition, we have curated several talks and events here.
Angels and Muse is the first space to be fully documented by Netflix, from the initial stages to completion. I wanted to turn around a space that was hopeless and completely moribund. It proved that one can turn things around with the right people and minds. I worked on the project with the architect Tosin Oshinowo. We still keep old pictures of how the place once looked, and all the construction work. The process has become part of Netflix’s series called ‘Amazing Interiors’.
How has the journey been and what challenges have you faced so far?
It’s tough doing things like this in Nigeria, because there is no form of government funding or grants. I have been self-funding the project including all the events that have been staged. It’s also been tough finding the right staff. It is one thing to have a space, and it’s another to have people that understand its DNA and how it should work. It’s also been challenging because I don’t want to run the space on a day-to-day basis, I want young minds to see it as a clear template and the possibilities they can achieve with it. Despite these few challenges, things are otherwise fine as the space is not set up to make profit. I knew in building it I would spend a lot of money that could have bought me a house instead. However, it needed to be done and I have no regrets.
Angels and Muse has held several important art events including exhibitions, book meets, art talks and writing workshops. What informs the selection of artists and writers featured in these events?
Nigeria has many artists, and so we try to be unique. Every institution has to find a way of looking at what is interesting to them. Haneefah Adam was the first artist we showed. One, she’s female, two she’s not based in Lagos and three, she’s doing something fascinating with soft sculpture. I wanted to make sure artists who might be overlooked are considered. However, we do not accept just any artist, but find works that resonate with the space as we don’t charge, opting to fund their exhibitions and produce catalogues instead. Our curator, Emmanuel Iduma, receives proposals or I send them to him. He decides what he wants to work on and show.
We exhibited Abraham Oghobase next. We initially planned to show about 4 artists annually, but this year we have accommodated 2 so far. This gives room for more people to view the works longer. Oghobase was creating some very interesting installations with photography, and there were some images he hadn’t shown in Nigeria for a long while. So I introduced him to Iduma. They had a conversation, and it was a no-brainer to stage the exhibition, which was quite successful.
Angels and Muse is not a commercial space for people to show and sell their art. It’s a place to generate ideas and conversations. I have no business selling artworks.
What has been the impact of these events on the production and dissemination of art in Lagos?
It’s been quite interesting because of the feedback and increasing requests we have received. I’m not in a position to say this is ground-breaking or talk about the difference it has made, but I know people have seen and experienced it. People from all over the world have watched its development on Netflix. I get stopped by many in Las Vegas, Washington DC and Dallas in the United States saying, “Oh, you’re the guy that was on Netflix, that’s a great thing you’re doing in Nigeria”. It shows we are doing something very engaging in Nigeria. I’m not only concerned with the consumption of the great things coming out of Lagos and Nigeria, but also with the kind of conversations we have when we travel. Someone might ask, what are the things happening in the Lagos art sector? You would respond “oh, there’s Omenka, 16/16 and Angels and Muse, and they might enquire further about the programmes at the latter. You would tell them that it’s a place that provides opportunities for artists to have robust conversations about their work, then invite them if they want to have film screenings or an Artsy-themed birthday party for instance. Some may also have the opportunity to wander into the artist’s studio. Generally, many studios are not open to the public so people don’t know how works are made. Even though this is a private studio, I open up for visits by special arrangement.
As an artist and writer yourself, what further insight have you brought in the creation and management of this space?
I brand the sort of art that is shown and select the kind of people that are invited. Our programmes are art related and carefully curated. We had a workshop on how to earn money from freelance writing. A young man within the community, Ayodeji Rotinwa who is able to sustain himself from his practice, facilitated the workshop. Participants were excited, with few aiming to replicate his success. Our next call was how do you report art? I brought in a seasoned journalist from New York that has written for The New Yorker, The Voice and The Times. We sponsored a two-weekend immersive workshop, where about 12 to 15 young writers learnt how to prepare for an interview with an artist or write about an exhibition.
We also profile key people like curators on our social media, so that public knows who they are, what they do and what have they curated. Every day I come up with new ideas. If we have the capacity, we would do more. But as at now, we are not interested in the kind of artist that only wants to the paint on canvas; there are other spaces for him. However, if he has a fascinating video installation that speaks to this place, but can’t find a gallery to show it, he can come to express himself here. We must bear in mind that he does not have to spend money on renting this space. He would only spend money on his production. Afterward, he can put the experience on his resume.
We also realise that Angels and Muse is still growing, we are trying to make sure the growth is organic. The space is on Airbnb so that people can enjoy the experience. We earn money for public programmes from the rooms we rent out so that artists don’t have to pay for them. It’s like social entrepreneurship where one makes some money and re-invests all of it.
“As part of its educational arm, Angels and Muse will run a thought laboratory known as BookArtArea”. Please tell us more about this initiative.
BookArtArea is the not-for-profit arm of Angels and Muse. The name is derived from ‘Bukateria’, a place you go to eat food. Here at Angels and Muse, you come to feed yourself intellectually with ‘book’ and art. My main aim is literature and the visual arts.
Recently, there has been an increasing number of alternative art spaces in Lagos. Why and how do you think they help shape the art scene in Lagos?
I think it’s about time, because people now travel more, borrow from what is happening in other climes and fuse them with what is already available. You have the ANAI place, where people can learn about ceramics, as well as the Museum of Contemporary Art, where others can show and express themselves. There are several places for the many beautiful artists and photographers and poets to express themselves. It’s a sign of growth in the industry and people should do more unlike in the past when many successful artists were closed and didn’t help the eco-system. In contrast, many travelled out of the country to do residencies under foreign auspices. But what have they given back to the community? People need to learn to start giving back even in a small way. We keep waiting for Aliko Dangote and Jim Ovia to set something up. They have their interests and when they are no longer intrigued by an artist’s body of work or in the larger visual arts industry, artists would be left to starve. If those in the industry start establishing systems, they will grow and patrons would be encouraged to do more. If the government won’t build museums and national galleries where artists can display their works, then they have to take matters into their hands. Enough talking, I prefer to make things happen. We wanted to participate in the Venice Biennale and so we made it happen. We must stop waiting for the government that probably doesn’t think about us.
Are there any recent Angels and Muse Project you would like to share with us?
Yes, the 2-week art journalism workshop I mentioned earlier, which Siddhartha Mitter facilitated. We had Ayodeji Rotinwa’s and we hosted a press conference for Chimamanda Adichie with all the journalists in Lagos in attendance.
Organisations like The Lagos Training School run by Tony Khan have booked Angels and Muse for training. If we come across good ideas that fit into our DNA, we will encourage them. It’s a very democratic system; I do not make the final decision, there’s a manager that runs the place.
October 18, 2021
October 12, 2021