Founder and CEO, ART X Collective, Lagos
You began your career working in marketing for luxury brands in Nigeria. How did the experience prepare you for a move into the art world?
Really it was my love of culture and creativity that led me into luxury brands. At the heart of many luxury brands is culture of some form. Working for Moët Hennessy and clients like Alára, I really deepened my understanding of the workings of creative entrepreneurs and I was introduced to many visual artists and gallery owners. I began collecting art – I bought my first work, by Oyerinde Olotu, at the first Nigerian art auction [at Arthouse Contemporary in Lagos, 2008], and then went on to collect work by artists such as Lakin Ogunbanwo, Kadara Enyeasi and Victor Ehikhamenor, to name a few.
I was spending my free time engaging with artists, taking in the art scene in Nigeria, and being very excited just to see the progress that was being made. From the business side, in those years when I was managing prestige brands a lot of what I was doing was creating desirability among affluent consumers – the same consumers who now form part of the collector base in Nigeria and across West Africa.
How did this lead you to the idea of founding ART X Lagos – the first international art fair in West Africa?
In 2016, when I launched the fair, Nigeria was realising a lot of potential in its music scene, its film scene, its fashion scene. But the visual arts were lagging behind when it came to the perception of the general public. Galleries didn’t have significant visibility and art exhibitions were preserved, usually, for a privileged core group of collectors – families in the south-west, who have been collecting art for generations.
My observation was that there was a need for growth – a need to bring more collectors into the fold to ensure that a greater numbers of artists could have their careers supported, and a greater numbers of galleries could also have their businesses supported. What I really wanted to do was to build a bridge that would enable the Nigerian art scene to connect much more strongly with art scenes across Africa and internationally.
What were some of the challenges in getting the fair up and running?
It was an interesting journey. Pitching the idea of this art fair to Africa’s leading galleries was a tall order, because nothing like this had ever been done in Nigeria, and so there was some hesitation and doubt as to whether we could pull it off. I spent a lot of my time persuading clients of my own and my team’s acumen in creating aspirational experiences, and thus our ability to build a world-class art fair here.
At the same time, we wanted to tweak the art-fair model by having this aspirational experience be as open and welcoming as possible. We had moments dedicated to collectors and VIP guests, but we really wanted the general public to feel that this fair was for them as well. So we decided to introduce alternative programming – such as our interactive projects, or ART X Live!, which is our music platform. It made for a very rich audience at that first fair – we had 5,000 people in that first edition coming to celebrate the best art from across Africa and the diaspora, and we have since grown to more than 10,000 guests at each fair.
There have been a lot of exciting developments in the Nigerian arts scene in recent years. What role has ART X Lagos played within the broader surge of creative activity?
Since 2016, our work has really been about multiplying the audience for the visual arts. We’ve played this role very successfully – you can look, last year, at the sheer vibrancy of exhibitions, performances, screenings and festivals going on in Lagos at the same time as the fair, such as the second edition of the Lagos Biennial, and the Lagos Photo Festival.
Encouraging the development of this art season now means that at the end of October and the beginning of November, Lagos is really alive with art exhibitions. Each year, we’ve had representatives from different global museums – Tate Modern came last year with around 30 of their patrons. They want to witness the activity at the fair, but also the art season that’s been built around the fair.
We’ve also ensured that our visitors – especially international visitors – spend significant amounts of time engaging with important institutions like the Yemisi Shyllon Museum [which opened in 2019]. And I’m a trustee of Yinka Shonibare’s artist residency, which he’s working to launch here soon. It’ll be hugely exciting, bringing renewed energy to the artistic community. As a fair, we’re very proud of having helped to establish this moment for Lagos – and for putting the city on the global art map.
How is the fair adapting to the pandemic in its fifth edition this November?
Well, if you know anything about Nigeria, it’s that we love anniversaries. We still want to have a celebratory fifth edition, despite the challenges of the pandemic. We’re delivering a hybrid fair with both physical and digital experiences designed for our different types of audiences. It’s an ambitious programme considering everything that’s going on globally.
We’re especially excited to be curating a public art exhibition at Muri Okunola Park – the largest park in Victoria Island. It will feature 60 works by artists in light of the 60th anniversary of Nigeria’s independence this year, and will be open to the public for 10 days. We want it to celebrate the varying perspectives of artists from different generations who are all active within the Lagos art community.
If you had to name a highlight of the last five years, what would it be?
There have been so many. The first would be last year, when we doubled the size of the fair – our move to the Federal Palace really proved that ART X Lagos could grow beyond its initial beginnings. We were thrilled to have pulled it off.
On a personal level, a major highlight was when ART X Lagos was invited to curate a special exhibition for President Macron, who was coming to Lagos for his first official visit in 2018. The event at the New Afrika Shrine [in Ikeja] revealed the best of Nigeria’s creative community; there were thousands of guests, and I had to personally escort the French president through the exhibition. It was an electric evening.