On a warm late November evening in 2020, Lagos staked its claim in an ongoing revolution. The rest of the (art) world was, of course, still reeling, and had been the whole year. Art fairs, exhibitions, galleries, biennales, and museums had been shut down because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Billions sought refuge in their homes, their freedoms limited by an invisible virus and enemy. The prognosis by economists was dire. We all started living almost permanently on the internet. A Black man was lynched again by members of the American police. He was immortalised by a passer-by, who, phone in hand, recorded his last moments. Protests against racial injustice raged across the world, thousands pouring onto the streets armed with masks and righteous indignation, insistent that Black bodies cannot continue to be extinguished. Many art institutions faced a racial reckoning, questioned as to why they had ignored Black art production for so long. Auction houses quickly organised ‘Black art’ sales, no doubt capitalising on the moment. Artists depicting Blackness, particularly with figuration, in their paintings, gained meteoric visibility. White collectors suddenly realised they had no work by Black artists in their collections. Closer to home, there were protests against police brutality too – though in a vastly different context – which ended when the Nigerian military ordered its men to shoot at and eventually kill protesters.
At the height of it all, on 28 November 2020, the African Artists’ Foundation opened an exhibition in Lagos, Liminality in Infinite Space, showing work by young, emerging self-taught Nigerian artists – and others on the continent – all aged under 30 on average, which depicted and celebrated a resurgent trend of Black figuration, contributing to this belated update of global art history. In acrylic and oil on canvas, or in charcoal, graphite, or with textiles, they depicted Lagos / Nigerian life in its ordinariness: people in solitude, playing, in moments of introspection, or at risk.
The timing was auspicious and the exhibition was pitch perfect for the socio-political moment. But Lagos’ place in this global reckoning, its own contribution to the revolution, is much more complex, and meant more than what was happening 8,000 miles away in the USA. The exhibition was the climax of an artistic storm that has been brewing for years and found the perfect moment to exhale.
‘I don’t think we do enough to highlight the normative existence of Blackness. And that’s what these guys are doing. They are doing something quite radical and important,’ explained Azu Nwagbogu, curator of the exhibition, in a Zoom interview.
Admittedly, in Nigerian art history and in its most foremost capital, Lagos, the ordinary, the normative has been depicted for years and is nothing new, it may seem that way though, with artists working in this area suddenly enjoying more attention.
However, as Nwagbogu explains, this has not always been the case. Realistic works depicting everyday black life have not always gotten their due, at best and at worst seen as too easy, too ordinary, an inferior artistic endeavour, not worthy of the highbrow considerations of curators, gallerists, and art critics. What typically gets attention instead are works with an unmissable, strong socio-political arc, that highlight ills and tensions: money and the greed it inspires, conflict, feminism, gender-based violence, the theatrics of elections, the railroading of democracy, poverty, and wealth inequality. ‘Afro-futurist’ works that provided escapism from these were in vogue for a while too, depicting ‘black excellence’ and seeking to address the negative by erasing it completely.
Works that held the middle ground, depicting simple everyday living – neither overly positive nor dwelling on existential crises – have been largely ignored until now. They have not been the subject of major gallery exhibitions, have not been extensively critically appraised, and have not always held wide commercial appeal. They are sometimes a volatile art-market trend, as in 2016, when the painter Olumide Oresegun burst onto the scene with realistic paintings of ‘quiet moments of childhood’, such as children playing and splashing about in water. His paintings caused a market frenzy with an online auction of his works hastily organised by Arthouse Contemporary, a prominent Lagos-based auction house. But since 2016 such works haven’t garnered such high-octane excitement. Yet, they continue to be created in large volumes.
If you combed the internet for Nigerian artists, walked on any major street in Lagos where paintings are sold on busy corners, (hyper)realist drawings and/or paintings – self-portraits, portraits of family members, friends, scenes of ordinary life at home, watching television, playing, or staring into the distance – are a mainstay. They are so ubiquitous and so popular that when Emmanuel Macron visited Nigeria in the summer of 2018, an 11-year-old artist, Kareem Warris Olalekan, was chosen to make a hyperrealist portrait of him, which he completed in two hours.
‘These self-taught artists are resisting and doing something quite radical. They are writing themselves into history. When it comes to painting, they have been excluded. They haven’t been canonised. Most curators haven’t had the courage to pay attention to their work because it is ‘commercial’, ‘easy’, not socially conscious work. But I think it is the most radical form of counter conduct,’ Nwagbogu continues.
What appears to be happening is that these artists are evolving and innovating, experimenting with different mediums: marrying a long Nigerian art tradition with contemporary painting trends; and fortuitously coming of age in a time when the world is hungry for their work.
‘A lot of young Nigerian artists are picking up a lot from the internet, getting an education online, and they are adapting. There’s also a sort of pride in Blackness. It is not the same sort of representation with African-Americans,’ explained Wunika Mukan, in a phone interview. Mukan is a curator and gallerist who also put on a show in 2020 showing Black figuration, Locality and the Status Quo, at the Pacers Gallery, Lagos, in September 2020. She insists that the perception of realistic art is changing, going against the grain in an art industry that hasn’t always appreciated this sort of representation on canvas.
‘They are painting ordinary black life; it’s not always black excellence. They understand the nuances in between. These artists are very smart and they have talent. They are pushing themselves.’
And indeed they are, to the point of global reckoning. Some of them even lean on each other, forming a collective called The Kolony where they share work opportunities, best practices, and necessary information for navigating the pitfalls and sometimes the exploitative vines of the art industry.
‘Nothing external influenced me to want to paint, it was very organic. Things I see every day and the experience I can express through my art is enough reason for me to keep doing portraiture,’ says Chiderah Bosah in a phone interview, a 20-year-old self-taught painter, who has advanced from drawing realistic work to painting with oil. Bosah paints deceptively simple portraits with monochromatic backgrounds. One figure is typically in the frame, with an expression that is either muted or animated, and the body painted in a chromatic black-gold. His portraits are a mirror, filled with every (wo)man, reflecting the society that inspired them.
Tosin Kalejaye prefers to paint children, capturing an innocence and trauma at the same time, with a use of lines that resemble scarification. For him, the everyday is or can be political, as he captures children who live in stark socio-economic conditions.
‘I found it necessary to merge what I’ve studied – History – into my art. I see my art as historical documentation and telling the exact stories with my own view of what is happening in my society . . . The struggles and experience of my people,’ Kalejaye explains in a phone interview.
Of course there is a long list of artists excelling in figuration, in everyday subjects, in this radical ‘counter-conduct’ to what is mainstream, and this list is by no means exhaustive. But if you looked up Collins Obijiaku, Marcellina Akpojotor, Barry Yusufu, Tonia Nneji, Ekene Emeka-Maduka, Eniafe Oluwaseyi, Emma Odumade, David Otaru, or Jacqueline Suowari, you’d get a sense of what this rising moment looks like.
There’s a perception that this is a trend and that more artists are painting everyday figuration because of its commercial appeal at the moment. Ghanaian artist Amaoko Boafo, who paints eye-popping portraits, is attaining well over his estimated sales figures at auction and has made Black portraiture and figuration a hot commodity. Also, the racial uprising, the #BlackLivesMatter protest movement in the US, has brought a hyper-focus on Black artists into institutions and the American and European art industries, increasingly including African and particularly Nigerian artists in their exhibitions, some of whom have never even exhibited in the US before. It is debated that this perfect storm has created a domino effect on what Lagos’s artists are creating and what the market wants: Black portraiture.
Kalejaye strongly disagrees.
‘My art is not restricted to nor is it centred around Black Lives Matter. I am Black and I’m in Nigeria, a predominantly Black country, so what else am I supposed to paint?’ Kalejaye wonders.
One could also consider this shift as reflective of the times we are in. Those spearheading it are typically self-taught Gen Z artists raised in the age of identity politics. Belonging, representation, and pride in their heritage are issues in their everyday lives and they are constantly immersed in projecting, debating, and engaging with these topics with the rest of the world as an online audience. This crop of artists did not need to be convinced that Black Is King. They are defined by the overarching politics of the day: burdened by conflict, political tensions, environmental degradation, or whatever’s on the carousel of bad news and individual stories about Nigeria or African as a whole. Their considerations are not (always) survivalist. They want to see themselves in the work they create and are not waiting for permission.
So they paint friends, strangers, and lovers.
Ultimately the significance and power of the work of these artists is ultimately as local as it is global. It is the latter that can be argued as incidental. The Nigerian art scene and the society it reflects is survivalist in nature, constantly preoccupied with existential tensions.
‘I think that for the longest time African artists and curators have been burdened with this weight or insecurity, that our art needs to be improving, didactic, have a strong socio-political context and that is good and very important, and all my career I have done that,’ Nwagbogu offers.
But he insists this movement proves that there can and should be room for depiction of everyday life, so that people can see themselves in the work, free of the burdens they otherwise have to face on a daily basis. Artists must create a sensory experience of Blackness that everyone can relate to.
Will this moment or trend pass? Mukan is certain it will not.
‘They (these) artists are the moment. But I don’t think it will go away. Black is here to stay.’
Ayodeji Rotinwa is an essayist, art critic, and the Deputy Editor of African Arguments, a leading pan-African platform for news, investigation, and opinion. Based between Accra, Abuja, and Lagos, he writes on cultural and artistic practices and the intersection of visual art, culture, social justice, and sustainable development across West Africa. His work has been published in The New York Times, The Financial Times, Art Forum, The Art Newspaper, and VOGUE, among others.