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Nigerian art market suffocates artistic creativity says Nnenna Okore

By McPhilips Nwachukwu
Educated at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, Nigeria, Nnenna Okore, an Assistant Art Professor presently the Chair of Art at North Park University, Chicago has emerged as one of the most significant visual art voices of her generation.

Sourcing her compositional materials from clay, recycled paper and other discarded materials, Okore has imbued in her art a new energy that bristles with the aesthetics of fashion, climatic upheavals among other socio-cultural issues.

According to an internet source profile, “Okore enriches her work with layers of meaning through familiar processes. Both in her home country Nigeria and United States, she relies on the use of flotsam or discarded objects, which are transformed into intricate sculpture and installations through repetitive and labor-intensive techniques.”

A widely exhibited artists both in Nigeria and oversears, the United States based artist also happens to be among the privileged artists, whose works met the ArtHouse Contemporary auction currently going on Lagos.

In this e- interview, Okore, who has participated in all  the three editions of the auction shares her experience about the auctions and as well, talked about the emerging African art market.  Excerpt.

Nnenna can you tell us about yourself?

I am an artist and an art professor. I chair the Art Department at North Park University, Chicago and have been widely exhibited in numerous international art galleries and museums. My most recent outings this year were at the Blachere Foundation Art Center, France and the 29th Sao Paulo Biennial, Brasil.

I spent over twenty years living and schooling in Southeastern Nigeria prior to relocating to the United States, which explains why most of my works are deeply rooted in my Nigerian sensibilities and experiences. Generally speaking, my works are inspired by stunning cultural, natural and architectural forms. I employ a wide range of mediums, including but not limited to clay, recycled paper, rope and wax.

You have featured in the three editions of Arthouse Contemporary organised auctions. How  would  you score the performance?

Arthouse has done well in promoting and marketing works selected for their auctions. What sets them apart from others, I believe, is their ability to create and set high standards, which are reflected in the organization, venue, catalogue, etc.  They’ve undoubtedly increased visibility for many artists and more importantly, brought greater value to works by Nigerian artists.

What would you say  are the high points of the exercise?

One of the high points of the auctions has been the exposure of Nigerian artists to an international audience, which I think will force the existing commercial art centers to treat their artists better and reckon with the professional standards set by Arthouse.

Do you think that auctions  meet the conditions required of the practice in the global art market?

I can’t speak much to the practice, having not had much direct experience with auctions myself. But from the much I know, the Arthouse auctions are generating wider national and international interests, which can be viewed as a positive step towards positioning African artists on the global scene.

What is your candid opinion  about the second and third tier visual art markets in Nigeria?

Do you mean the smaller galleries and craft stores?

Well,if you put it that way ?

I think the Nigerian art market, perhaps not intentionally, has generally controlled and suffocated artistic creativity for too long; largely because they have had to sustain and market whatever art styles or mediums that sell well.

As a result, artistic and conceptual originality is almost nonexistent in the Nigerian art culture. Struggling artists are forced to create and sell what these commercial galleries dictate. There’s no question that these dead-end practices have suppressed the progressive art growth in Nigeria, but I am optimistic that the new trends of interests and international visibility enabled  by art centers like, CAA and Arthouse will provide artists with a better platform to compete on a global scale.

Do you think that the present economic climate supports this emerging market?

Who is to say, especially when art sales in the global market have continued to surge. I don’t know how the Nigerian economy will affect this season’s auction, but judging from the outcome of the last Arthouse auction and their ever increasing reputation, I believe they will fare well.

Recently, the national gallery of art in Ngeria proposed a bill to the National Assembly requesting that certain royalties be paid to artists over the acquisition of their works by buyers. What is your take on this move?

I have not followed this too closely, but I can say this: It seems like a good idea, especially in the light of increasing value for art and incuring a better future for the Nigerian artist. However, it’s unclear to me how the royalty will be applied and sustained. With the exception of ‘resale or reprint royalties’, I am not aware that creative artists are entitled to lifelong royalty right like musicians. I think it will be challenging to implement or monitor it since we don’t have an institutionalized art industry and my assumption is that there aren’t high occurrences of resale.

Is this request the global practice?

As far as I know, many European countries as well as Australia have legislated the resale royalty rights; but it’s not as popular a practice as one might imagine. The United States, (with the exception of the state of Califonia), Canada, and New Zealand have yet to adopt any binding act. I think the pros and cons have to be considered carefully to ensure that artists will benefit from it.

If a buyer of work at an auction for instance, is expected to  pay royalties on such works. Don’t you think such a measure will frustrate the growth of the emerging art market?

It could, again depending on the terms of the royalty.

Finally, how do you see the future of African arts in the global arts market?

In all fairness, I don’t think African artists in general have done too badly in the global market. Africans, particularly from North, Central, Eastern and Southern Africa had enjoyed visibility and global attention for many decades and for good reasons: government support and international exposure. I believe Nigerian and West African artists, on the other hand, are beginning to make remarkable advancements on the international stage, and will become a competing force in the near future.


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