On Nigerian Art, a Second Coming

Renowned artist Jerry Buhari writes an introduction to second instalment of Issues in Contemporary Nigerian Art, edited by Juliet Ezenwa-Pearce.

Contemporary art in Nigerian has experienced tremendous development since its humble beginnings with colonial patronage. We recall the academic drawings and paintings of Onabolu, the almost illustrative paintings of Lasekan and the expressive elegant dancers of Enwonwu. The works of these pioneering artists explored transforming personalities of men and women and even the young, transiting from a traditional African lifestyle into the western culture; or can we say, creating cultural hybridity. As it was the case in European art there was little focus on ordinary personalities. It is interesting to note that, though the new art expression evolved from a rich and enviable tradition of sculpture, painting emerged to dominate the art market and discourse. Distinctive indigenous painting expressed in body painting, wall painting (or murals), calabash painting, and pottery painting were completely
abandoned in preference to easel painting. The memories of this art form were lost even among art students in academic institutions. We cannot easily forget the Gong Gallery, a private initiative that set the tone for artistic display and viewing and created a pioneering atmosphere for art consumption.

Today, we have come to witness perhaps one of the most vibrant art scenes in Africa. Private art galleries continue to be born almost every art season. Art initiatives and projects are on the increase and often in fierce but essentially healthy competition. One of the most delightful developments of artistic expression is performance art, installation art, photography, video art and new media. Added to this is the way these distinctive art forms are beginning to find synergy with other art forms such as dance, music and poetry, among others. At last African art, which has always found expression in a holistic experience, is coming back into its original form. Also of most delightful experience is the growing interest of the so-called Eurocentric art world in contemporary art of Africa. But if these are defining moments in the history of art in Africa, nothing is affecting it like the presence of art auctions that have heightened the value of Nigerian art in particular, and African art in general, to a level that can is both wonderful but also problematic. First, auctions have made art practice a prestigious profession earning the artist respects in society. Art auctions have brought to the fore the economic and social value of artworks as a viable tool for national development.
The popular jargon of the governments of today runs like this, “art has become a game-changer.” It is “a viable alternative for wealth generation and economic diversification”, etc.

But with this vibrant story of art, there has arisen the need for a platform for critical dialogue that would provide the fuel for its journey into a future that is healthy, sustainable and with a capacity to bequeath to human civilisation a cultural heritage that is both unique as well as universal in engagement. These types of platforms are only emerging and they cannot be enough. This is why a book like this is both historic and significant. In it, art historians, artists, art collectors, cultural officers and any art lover for that matter is provided, as it were, a
parliament of discourse. A platform such as this interrogates, refines, dissects and exposes us to the life and spirit of the critical issues in the art community. The fact that contributors are not encumbered with heavy academic jargon makes the platform a true and natural parliament of cultural discourse. The essays in this issue capture in a realistic and simple manner the heartbeat of the various nuances of contemporary Nigerian art.

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