Article taken from The Face Volume 4 Issue 002. Order your copy here.
The term “African art” can produce a visceral reaction: those who are used to seeing their own country’s history and legacy mushed into one generic paste will, rightfully, recoil at hearing the phrase. But the term is in the process of being reformed into what it always should’ve meant – a celebration of a continent’s work as opposed to the denigration of a singular country’s contribution to it.
We meet Yinka Shonibare CBE in his east London studio, which is all creaking wooden floors and creative calm – no doubt enforced by the 57-year-old himself, who speaks with a certainty that comes with sustained success. His art is dotted around the room, including a miniature version of his most famous creation, Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle. The large-scale piece saw him become the first black artist to have his work displayed on Trafalgar Square’s fourth plinth, an opportunity he used to look at Britain’s colonial history in a sly and arresting way and, by placement alone, force the general public to do the same.
The British-Nigerian artist was born in London but moved to Lagos aged three, returning to England to study fine art at Goldsmiths. It’s this Afropolitan upbringing that provides Shonibare with a unique take on British colonialism and the relationship between Europe and Africa. But his current project isn’t an artwork in itself – it’s far bigger. He’s creating a Nigeria-based Guest Artists Space Foundation (GAS for short), which will see him dropping the ladder down for the next generation of artists.
The self-funded spaces he’s building (one in Lagos and one in rural Ibeju, due to be completed by 2021) will provide room for 12 artists a year in the three-bedroom residences. Those who are selected will be able to move between the two spaces during their three-month stay and showcase their work at the end.
Shonibare has an eye-popping roster of advisory board members, which reads like a dream dinner party guestlist. Names include Antony Gormley, Kara Walker, Wolfgang Tillmans, Njideka Akunyili Crosby and Olafur Eliasson. That these names would be so interested in being part of GAS is proof of the changing perceptions of African art.
While the Lagos half of GAS will have no shortage of applications across all artistic disciplines, it’s clear that Shonibare has put just as much, if not more, thought into the Ibeju space. Based in a rural area 62 miles from Lagos, the space is on a 30-acre farm that will employ 12 people and have 1,000 cashew trees, six acres of maize, cassava and plantain, and five greenhouses for growing vegetables. The greenhouses mean that local people will no longer have to travel for two days to get to the nearest market for their fresh veg.
“We want to add value wherever we go,” Shonibare says. “With greenhouse technology we can supply them with tomatoes literally on their doorstep. It’s a no-brainer.”
When we meet the artist in his studio near London Fields he’s keen to focus on adding value rather than helping in a tokenistic way. “International exchanges are basically about knowledge-sharing,” he says, when we ask about how GAS will help the local art scene. “It won’t just contribute to the Nigerian art scene, it will contribute to the British art scene and the American art scene too, because people will go there, learn new things, and bring that back. It’s a mutually beneficial thing.”
Shonibare himself benefitted from a residency in Senegal back in 1996 and describes the country as having one of the continent’s more vibrant art scenes, alongside South Africa. When it comes to Nigerian artists, he reels off the big-hitters, including Peju Alatise, Victor Ehikhamenor and Temitayo Ogunbiyi, as well as older artists such as Bruce Onobrakpeya, a leading member of the Zaria Art Society, whom he refers to as a “master”.
So is the perception of art inside Africa shifting? “I think attitudes have changed dramatically,” Shonibare replies. “When I was growing up, I was expected to be a lawyer or an accountant, but now it’s very different. Now they can see a few success stories and that it’s a viable profession.”
This shift, coupled with a growing art-obsessed middle class, means that the local scene is producing its own stars who aren’t reliant on international curators. GAS sits alongside fairs and auction houses such as ART X Lagos and Art House Contemporary, creating an ecosystem that will be able to sustain itself with minimal input from outside influences.
GAS will be part of a growing African art vanguard and Shonibare hopes it will foster a new way of looking at artistic achievements on the continent.
“Success is still a bit connected to money in Nigeria,” he notes. “But I think the next generation will move beyond that and develop a more spiritual quality-of-life approach.”