By Morenike Taire
Joseph Gergel is a curator at African Artists’ Foundation and LagosPhoto Festival at their headquarters in Lagos. Gergel received a Certificate in Professional Photography from the Speos Photography Institute in Paris, France. Obtained his Bachelors Degree in Photography and Cultural Theory from New York University and a Master’s Degree in Modern Art:
Critical and Curatorial Studies from Columbia University. He has assisted in the curatorial departments at the Museum of Modern Art (New York), the New Museum of Contemporary Art (New York), and the Zendai Museum of Modern Art (Shanghai).
FIRST of all, why did you want to come here?
I came here because I discovered that the art scene is developing and it’s a really exciting time to be here, but I think I came here with an approach of looking at contemporary art and specifically, Nigerian art.
Did you see a lot of Nigerian art when you were in New York?
I did see some which is why I think it’s a very exciting time to be here because you are right at the cusp of the beginning of international exposure for Nigerian artists which is one of the reasons why I’m here, to expose Nigerian artists.
When you say we face the same issues all over the world, what kind of issues did you have in mind?
Contemporary artists today are looking at changes that are happening with technology and the internet, urban development, population growth, then you come to Nigeria and you see the specific context of the artist which has particular experience within Nigeria, but it’s also something that is relatable and also about a global connection. I came here and met artists that are doing new projects, it’s not a stereotypical depiction of what African art is, it’s something that is more universal.
I don’t think so. There are different types of art everywhere and the artists that we work with at the Foundation are really beginning to look at a broader spectrum of reflecting social change and the culture.
Does art really have to relate to the changing social scene and not just someone expressing what they are thinking like the old masters did?
I think art can have many definitions and it can be applied to different contexts but in the history of art we have fine art. That was really just looking at art for art and how it reflects on the canvas, colour and all that stuff but today we are seeing artists dealing with how artists can be articulate, how artists can start dialogues and raise issues and raise awareness and I think that’s an important part of contemporary art. That is the kind of art we are interested in here especially with the kind of projects that we do, we have a theme.
Last year we had Consequences and artists can interpret that anyway they want to. This year our theme is Identity and we are looking at how they relate to their society. It opens up new eyes to appreciating art because it’s not just this domain within itself which doesn’t relate to anything else but relates to everything around it.
But outside of your com
petition do you see much of that happening?
Yes. The art scene here is not so regimental. You see artists working with different mediums and mixing it together and really looking at how their messages can be passed using different mediums to convey their message.
What happens to the winner of your competition? Do you have a project for him?
The first prize winner gets two million naira(N2m). This year he’s going to have a solo exhibition and get national and international exposure. The opportunities that come for them can really establish their career. The money can become key money for him to develop future projects. The second place winner is getting a million naira. In the past we’ve showed the work of the National Art Competition winner in Amsterdam.
Is photography really art?
I’m a photographer myself as well as a curator and I believe photography is unique because it’s very accessible to a wide public.
A lot of time you can look at a painting and say, I don’t get that, but with photography you can understand what you are looking at. For example one of the big projects with Lagos Photo is our outdoor exhibition that we do every year. We have our official exhibitions in art spaces around the city but then we do outdoor exhibitions in public spaces in congested areas around the city. We are trying to engage that public that might not come to an exhibition.
The University of Lagos is not congested…
There’s a lot of traffic and people that are interested in dance and music and poetry and art…
Exactly, so it’s the same old crowd who would probably go.
One of the most important things perhaps is trying to engage the youth. The University of Lagos is probably the perfect place to do that.