The Rise of Alternative Art Spaces in Lagos: Revolving Art Incubator (RAI)
Founded in 2016 by contemporary Nigerian artist Jumoke Sanwo, Revolving Art Incubator (RAI) is an alternative art space for multi-creative engagement and contemporary art discourse. With a focus on emerging and mid-career artists, RAI promotes artistic and social development through collaborative projects, presentations, and exhibitions. In this interview with Omenka, Jumoke Sanwo discusses the importance of alternative spaces, RAI’s contributions to the dynamic Lagos art scene including the poetry platform outSPOKEN, as well as new projects.
What inspired the creation of the Revolving Art Incubator (RAI), and how has the journey been since its inception in 2016?
I decided that I needed to create a space that I would like to be part of as an artist. So I think my inspiration at some level was the question of what sort of space I would need to grow as an artist, and that was what inspired the creation of RAI. Prior to our opening at Silverbird Galleria, I had been looking for warehouse space on the mainland, because the industrial areas are situated on the mainland. We went to places like Ilupeju and Oregun, just looking around, found a couple of places, but they were very expensive. They were asking for all kinds of costs, so it didn’t happen.
Then I travelled to New York for a few months and came back. Apparently, at the time, Silverbird Galleria was going through some financial challenges; AMCON had taken over. One of the AMCON representatives then who was managing Silverbird Galleria had been following me as an artist for a long time, so he contacted me and said that they had challenges with footfall and asked how I could help. So I told him that I had this idea, and I’ve been looking for a space to execute it. He said he’ll show me around the space. So he showed me around, and they had a lot of empty shops. I wasn’t looking for a shop type of space, so I said, “Let’s just walk around the space,” and we ended up where RAI is at this point. At the time it was just an exit. It was a staff entrance and a fire exit. When we got there, I told the guy that this is it, and he was like, “No, this is not a space; it’s like the exit.” I told him, “Don’t worry, I’ll make this work. Trust me. This I think will be a win-win situation for everybody. Firstly, it’s dead space to you guys, so it’s not going to cost you anything for us to use the space, and secondly, you’ll have footfall in the sense that people will come to the space because they’re coming to our space. And that’s how RAI came to be.
How have you been able to deal with funding, taking into consideration that your thrust is not purely commercial but aimed at producing and disseminating contemporary art in Nigeria?
It’s been a little bit challenging because our focus has not been on the commercial aspect of art. Also, there’s another thing that we are trying to guard against, which is constantly looking to the West for funds for things that we are doing locally. So we are kind of moving against that, and we are trying to self-fund, and also ensure that our source of funding is local as much as possible. That is how we’ve been running the last two years.
It’s been challenging, but we try to look for ingenious ways to actually be sustainable without requiring a lot of funding. Majorly we have quite a lot of volunteers at a time that help us with certain things within the space. We continue to build ourselves. In the process we continue to look for ways whereby we can be sustainable without seeking funding and grants, because I think those kinds of models of funding institutions or organisations kind of limit your purview because with the funding comes certain expectations and agendas. And if it doesn’t tie with your agenda it becomes problematic, because once you start to get the funds, you’re reliant on them, and it becomes difficult to advance [without them].
For the last two years, our funding has been purely from our board. We are also supported by a couple of companies as well. Hydro-carbon Advisors, which is owned by Hakeem Adedeji, supports our programming in terms of our talks and our research. Also when we have sales of artworks from the artists that we show, we take a commission, which goes back into the pool.
RAI has staged four exhibitions so far this year with exhibiting artists working across diverse media. How do you select which artist(s) to show?
We are kind of biased towards artists that are experimental because we feel that they lack opportunities and spaces to actually project their work. Our model is pretty simple: we have a lot of artists approaching us, and we have them send in their portfolio, and then from that, we begin to have conversations, which include studio visits where we actually see the way the artists work. We are also interested in the intellectual and ideology behind the artist’s work. Those are the kind of things that generally shape our choice of artists.
We also have our focus as well. We are kind of focused on the decolonisation theory. That’s like at the forefront of our thought and ideology at RAI. So we are pretty much interested in any artist that is thinking along those lines, what is shaping their ideas and ideology. We’ve kind of managed to do that with the last two to four exhibitions that we’ve presented.
RAI also holds outSPOKEN, a fortnightly oral diary of contemporary times through poetry, spoken word, and music. How would you evaluate this initiative and its impact on popular culture?
outSPOKEN has been very interesting because the idea behind it is to kind of have a conversation around contemporary times. We realise that there’s not a lot of focus on contemporary discourse in general. There are not enough spaces that are actually having those kinds of conversations. We are often futuristic and not focused on what is actually going on now. We also realised that, especially for the performing artists, poets, and spoken word artists, there’s a limit to their focus and subject matter. So we thought, What if we had a space where every fortnight we engage based on what topic is contemporary at that time? So they do their research and go on the media space—the traditional and social media—and they try to streamline what people are talking about. We bring that from the media space into RAI, and then people have a conversation around it, and then they build poetry around it.
We have a poet-in-residence, a spoken word artist. Last year we had REZ and Pietrina. Pietrina continued with us this year, and we have Forttewrite and Caleb. Our poets-in-residence then generate poetry around the contemporary issue, and then there’s a conversation around it. We then document this entire process. There’s a lot going on at different layers. First, we are noting a contemporary discourse, there’s a conversation around it, and then there’s a tangible thing that comes out of this discourse, and that’s the poetry. Over time, the poets are actually building a collection as well, which means if we decide to do an anthology in the next three or four years, we would have an extensive body of work. The most interesting part is that a lot of people that are not within the “art scene” in Lagos actually come through for outSPOKEN. We are talking about bankers and people that are in our surroundings, like Victoria Island. They now see it as part of their routine. A lot of them are now able to engage their creative side, which they had sort of left latent based on the “hustle” mentality. A lot of them are going back to writing; some of them are even releasing albums, which is very interesting. They come here every fortnight; they engage with other creatives and something comes out of that engagement.
What do you think is the evolving role of alternative art spaces, especially in the Nigerian art scene, both as a stand-alone institution and in relation to more traditional art spaces?
I think alternative spaces are actually a catalyst for diversifying space because at this point we have a deficit of institutions in Nigeria. Because of that deficit, we have private individuals and organisations picking up [art] through the gallery system—which is not really a gallery system; it’s just basically art dealing. A lot of the alternative spaces are led by artists. They bring a different approach and dynamic into the art ecosystem because at the end of the day everybody is necessary. We are focused on our part in the creative process because work doesn’t happen in isolation. So artists shouldn’t just create work in their studio and bring to the galleries to sell. There has to be some sort of engagement that goes on in that process. There haven’t been a lot of artists articulating their work in the past, but now we have a lot of artists that are articulating their work. That articulation comes from engagement, because the more people ask you about what you are doing, the more you begin to form and shape your ideas and articulate them as well, so that’s on one level. Then you also have art criticism, which is not as it should be but is beginning to take shape because people are beginning to ask questions and beginning to know more about art. For them to know more, they begin to engage the artist more. So I think invariably the alternative spaces are opening up conversations around the creative process which I think is very important.
In recent times, there have been more artists working in diverse and experimental media. What do you think is the reason for this, and do you think they influence the creation of new, unconventional art spaces like RAI?
When you have a space that shows you without forcing you to create certain types of work— because that is what has been ongoing for a long time, a system where collectors are determining what an artist does—then you become a little bit more confident, and with confidence comes the need to begin to experiment. I don’t even think Nigerian artists are experimenting a lot with materiality. I think we are still kind of based in using traditional media like paper, canvas. We have a few installation artists, but there’s still not much going on in new media. Very few people are doing video art. There’s still a wide space that we are not engaging, but I think with more alternative spaces people will have the confidence to check out other things.
But I also feel that artists shouldn’t just create things because it’s trendy or on social media. I think there has to be a bit of depth in what they create. So, each artist should see themselves as storytellers, look around and see how they can use what they readily find to tell stories, and that’s how we begin to engage the material. What is the constant material that is around me? If you look at the art scene in Ghana, it’s very rich in terms of materiality. They are constantly pushing the boundaries and exploring and experimenting with materiality, and I think we can also do that. We just need to keep going deeper and not restrict ourselves to this island thing or Lagos thing, because there is so much out there.
Earlier this year, RAI launched the Animate Old Lagos project. Please tell us more about this.
Animate Old Lagos was a collaborative project, and that’s one of the things that we are trying to do as well—not limiting ourselves to the things we do within our space. We also want to collaborate with other institutions and individuals. So we collaborated with Legacy 1995, QDance Center, and The Art Exchange. The idea was that we wanted to begin to engage abandoned structures in Lagos and turn them into temporary hubs for a day and go into spaces. It’s sort of like an intervention where you have abandoned structures—some of them are even colonial structures, so they come with a little bit of colonial history—and to engage them historically, contemporarily, and in terms of the context of the building. We’ve had one edition, but unfortunately, it’s kind of taken a little backseat, not necessarily because we are abandoning it, but because we had a lot of challenges to even achieve the first edition. Our plan initially was to have it bi-monthly, but we realised it was not tenable, so we might limit it to every six months or annually and reactivate many buildings. We are still in conversation with our partners. We are still talking and trying to fine tune it to see how we can make the best of it.
Generally, one of the most defined characteristics of an alternative art space is its spontaneity, both of the work and the space. Is there a fear that alternative spaces in Lagos (like RAI) will gradually become more institutionalised, and possibly commercial, as time goes on?
I think on RAI’s part we are not going to turn into a commercial space. It’s a constant dialogue that we have. Our focus is still to engage. I don’t think we’ve done enough. There are so many artists that we can’t even afford to show because of space and time. We want our show to be a little bit more engaging, so we don’t want to do temporary shows for a couple of weeks, and people really don’t have time to engage the work. We want the shows to also engage the city, so it’s not in isolation. For us to do all of those things, it needs time, space, engagement, many layers of people, and interaction. Rather than turn into a commercial space, we want to engage more. One of the ways we are planning to do this is to engage this notion of art in privileged spaces, where art is located in a space where it’s by invite only and things like that. We want art to go more into the public sphere. Those are the kinds of things we are going to work on next year, where we’ll begin to actively engage the public space in the city of Lagos.
Is there any upcoming project you would like to share with us?
We are taking up four artists whom we are going to manage for the next two years: Babatunde Ogunlade, Bernard Kalu, Kehinde Awofeso, and David Akinola. We are going to help push their career. So those are the things we are going to work on next year. So you have to look out for what’s going to come from these artists. The preparatory process began this year, so they’ve been researching, experimenting, and exploring as much as possible. We are going to be getting a little bit more interaction and engagement with them starting from January next year.
This interview is part of a series documenting alternative art spaces in Lagos. Read the previous feature here
January 15, 2021
January 14, 2021