Nigeria: A Critical Look At the Art Auctions

All Africa | This Day | Okechukwu Uwaezuoke:


First, imagine the impossible: an art scene where everyone holds the same view. Works of all artists would fit into a natural pecking order. Only then would the ghost of the proper pricing of art works at the locally-organised auctions be laid to rest. And the auction houses, the art patrons as well as the artists would live happily ever after.

Participants shortly after the OYASAF Lecture Series

But, of course, no such scenario exists. Nor would there ever be. Therefore, when Dr. Ozioma Onuzulike, last Wednesday, at the OYASAF – acronym for Omooba Yemisi Adedoyin Shyllon Art Foundation – Lecture Series rooted for art history and art criticism in the evaluation or appraisal of modern and contemporary art in Nigeria, he was only re-echoing a popular refrain. His well-attended lecture, held at the OYASAF premises in the Lagos Mainland neighbourhood of Maryland, is the fourth of in the series. The previous editions had featured renowned such art scholars as University of Port Harcourt’s Professor Frank Ugiomoh, University of Ibadan’s Dr. Olukunke Filani and Ahmadu Bello University’s Jacob Jari.

With the title “Art Auctions in Nigeria: Ladders of Progress or Shots in the Artists’ Feet?”, Dr Onuzulike takes a critical look at the locally-organised auctions, challenging among other things the prevailing notions of progress. “My goal is to provoke healthy debates and productive dialogues around the presence or absence of credible and sustainable art auctioneering structures in the country in a manner that helps us to critically review their low and high points,” he told the audience. “It is hoped that my descriptions and analysis of key issues will provide ample basis for suggesting ways by which art auctions can truly become ladders of professional progress for Nigerian artists instead of constituting weapons with which they unwittingly shoot themselves in the foot.”

Given the relative newness of art auctions in the local art scene, many at the lecture thought the key-players in the business deserve commendation and not condemnation. Then, the talk about educating art patrons on what to buy – though it conforms to the widely-accepted notions of “best professional practices” – rings hollow when the individual’s personal taste is taken into consideration. The future of the local art auctions would never sidetrack the issue of demand. The much vaunted “influential art historical and critical platforms” would only become necessary to develop the future art market. For the more there are people in future who would appreciate the intangible values of art forms, the more chances would the auctions have for survival. Dr Onuzulike’s timeline of art auctions in Nigeria glosses over the possibility of other auctions before the widely-acknowledged first ever auction, organised by the Nimbus Gallery, in 1999. There could also have been more modest undocumented art auctions, which could have held concurrently with the more popular and better-publicised ones.

“The young history of art auctions in Nigeria reveals its steady growth and appreciable impact in the visual art sector, locally and internationally,” Dr. Onuzulike had conceded. “The Nimbus Art Gallery, run by Chike Nwagbogu, takes the pride of place as the organiser of the first art auction in Nigeria. Entitled ‘Before the Hammer Falls’ and held in 1999, at the turn of the millennium, the auction was historically timed and the result was revolutionary in the history of art and art market in Nigeria. With the record sale of Bruce Onobrakpeya’s Palm Wine Women for N2 million, the auction brought art to the front pages of the newspapers.”

In his review of the auctions held so far, the lecturer also acknowledged the significance of the total auction sales “in the Nigerian economic context”. For even while a few artists may have sniggered at his sometimes acerbic criticism of the practices of the auction houses, they are not unmindful of the latter’s supportive role in the development of their studio practice. His swipe at the selection process of the auction houses, albeit in good faith, smacks of insensitivity to the prevailing realities. The auction houses can ill afford the niceties expected of them by art scholars before lunging headlong into their businesses. Besides, artists have been known to contest even the most transparent selection processes. Dr. Onuzulike’s identification the auctions’ bestsellers in the somewhat lecture, which he would rather call an “interaction”, lifts the veil on the virtual unanimity of tastes among the local art buyers. But it is a credit to these art patrons that artists like Peju Alatise and Nnenna Okore could do well. What is evident in the editions ArtHouse Contemporary Limited auctions is the fact that there are new collectors on whose shoulders the future of the art markets rest.


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