A new coffee-table book ups the ante with its packaged offerings of the actors of the contemporary Nigerian art scene, Okechukwu Uwaezuoke writes
They all begin with ideas, don't they? Not surprising therefore that a spur-of-the-moment, albeit nebulous, idea started it all. It eventually spawned this first-of-its-kind project: the catalogue called Artists of Nigeria. Artist Onyema Ofoedu-Okeke's original thought of a quarterly art journal was soon refined after a discussion in 2002 with the Ford Foundation West Africa's executive director Dr Adhiambo Odaga. The discussion bordered on a possible sponsorship for this art journal. "She noted that the materials I had presented were so vast and intricate that instead of sponsoring quarterly journals, she would prefer supporting the publishing of seminal anthology," he recalls in a recent interview. "I had previously thought of a book as a follow-up to the journals but Dr. Odaga fatefully opted for the book."
Of course, embarking on the project called for sacrifices. "At the time I started gathering information for this book, I was based in Enugu. So, I had to take up residence at the Pendulum Art Gallery Lekki in order to seriously devote my time to the book. I had always known that a project of this magnitude required a full focus."
A moment of decision soon confronted him. Tasked to the limits by the challenges he experienced while writing the book, he had to choose between postponing the project until a much later time and just plodding on to the finishing line. "I elected to carry on with the drudge of research and documentation until publishing," he said.
This implied having to shutdown his painting studio which provided his main source of income. He was now intent on penning Nigeria's most comprehensive art history. "In terms of sacrifice, creating this book was an exercise of faith for Nigeria's cultural redemption, and significantly a suspension of immediate financial gratification of art production. Being away from Enugu put a long distance between my family and myself, and seriously delayed the completion of certain major family projects."
Fortunately, Offoedu-Okeke enjoyed the cooperation of his colleagues, who he described as "magnanimous" especially when it involved making available the images of their works. He was mindful of the fact that they could have resented his "frequent intrusions and short-notice visitations to their studios". So a decade later, a 677-page coffee-table book materialised...
Bound in an orange-coloured hard cover and wrapped around with a similarly-coloured jacket, the book takes a cursorily look at the contemporary Nigerian artscape. Separate forewords by Dr Adhiambo and Professor Ogbechie precede two scholarly essays and are supposed to whet the readers' appetite.
Artists of Nigeria might not be the first book of its kind on the contemporary Nigerian art scene but it is unarguably the best produced book of its kind. Published by 5 Continents Editions in Milan (Italy), its pages are interspersed with well-reproduced images of artworks.
It is segmented into sections, which dwell on periods in the contemporary Nigerian art history. Besides the Colonial Era, which neatly runs from 1851 to 1950, the other periods are conveniently segmented in decades. The result is that what the book calls The Structural Adjustment Program (SAP) Era is compelled to start much earlier, in 1980, rather than in the actual year, 1986.
Artists of Nigeria is thus not without a few flaws. Besides wrongly ascribing some of the art works to the wrong collectors, the book contains a few factual errors. On page 314, it claims: "During the last decade of the twentieth century, Nigerian artists were collectively horrified to learn that Nsikak converted to Pentecostalism (which in Nigeria remains a rather far right-wing fundamentalist strain of the Christian faith) and had subsequently destroyed his archive of artworks, which his pastors had characterised as the work of the devil."
The author has duly retracted this deplorable misinformation. In a terse statement, he writes: "I want to use this opportunity to retract the statement which is an unfortunate editorial oversight, and declare that there is no truth in the statement. I deeply regret the discomfiture and grief it may have caused the artist."
The book also forgets to mention the demise of the artist Emmanuel Inua, just before the 2011 Lagos International Art Expo.
Looking back, Offoedu-Okeke said he enjoyed collaborating with the US-based Professor Sylvester Okwunodu Ogbechie while producing the book. He lauded his "exceptional expertise in African art history", which he said "was critically important in the editorial exercises of this book."
Among the criteria used in the selection of the artists who graced the publications were genre, media, style, technique, subject matter, influence, progressiveness, and the Trans avant-garde tendencies. "In compiling the artists who will feature in this book, I was not swayed by force of personality, instead I needed a proper narrative structure that utilises certain criteria to create a coherent art anthology of a multi-dimensional society like Nigeria."
Should readers expect a sequel to this book? "A sequel to a book often times is necessitated by the need to progress arguments to different levels and to pursue lines of enquiry to logical conclusions. Yes. I am hoping that a sequel to the Artists of Nigeria book will materialise."