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The booming African art scene congregates at the biggest art fair in West Africa

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

It's Art Month in Lagos. Artists, galleries and visitors from around the world have descended on Nigeria's buzzing commercial capital. In recent years, Lagos has emerged as a rising center of art from the continent, and the prominence of African artists in the global art industry has been a major success story, as NPR's Emmanuel Akinwotu reports.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SICKNESS")

PRINCE NICO MBARGA: (Singing) I say (singing in non-English language)...

EMMANUEL AKINWOTU, BYLINE: Thousands of people pass through a wall of music and pour into the cool shade of ART X, the eighth edition of the largest art fair in West Africa. It's the biggest fixture in Lagos' art month, an unofficial calendar of exhibitions, events, parties and after-parties dotted around affluent parts of the city, drawing in people from around the region and the world.

TOKINI PETERSIDE-SCHWEBIG: I wanted to create a moment for Lagos on the global art calendar, a moment that brought the rest of Africa together here and enabled us on home soil to encounter those around the world.

AKINWOTU: Tokini Peterside-Schwebig founded ART X in 2016, overcoming several challenges during a recession to create the first of its kind in Nigeria.

PETERSIDE-SCHWEBIG: Honestly, it took off like a rocket. And over the first few years, we're very pivotal in the emergence of the art season that has now sprung up around the fair.

AKINWOTU: The fair is a magnet, attracting celebrities, Lagos' effortlessly ostentatious middle class and an emergent generation of artists, curators and galleries.

PETERSIDE-SCHWEBIG: It's very much become a place where the community gathers, where important questions are asked, which is especially important in a moment like this where Nigeria and African countries are facing quite extreme challenges.

AKINWOTU: ART X is a snapshot of how Nigeria's art industry, largely led by women, has flourished in adverse conditions. Visitors make their way through a sprawl of paintings, prints, moving-image installations and sculptures. This year, the theme is The Dialogue, with panels and talks organized partly in response to challenging economic times for the industry.

WUNIKA MUKAN: I'm currently showing one of the artists that we represent. Her name is Adulphina Imuede.

AKINWOTU: Wunika Mukan founded her self-named gallery three years ago and has quickly gained prominence in Lagos. The last decade has seen a boom period of relatively rapid success for several artists and galleries. A key driver has been a growing demand from Western galleries for Black portraiture from the continent.

MUKAN: Nigerian artists have always been in the room from Ben Enwonwu to Nengi Omuku and then Bruce Onobrakpeya. In the past three or four years, there was this, like, insatiable appetite for West African Black portraits. A lot of young artists started to emerge.

AKINWOTU: Mukan said a reckoning within the art world after the killing of George Floyd drove efforts to exhibit a greater diversity of artists and a greater representation of Black figures. But foreign demand for the genre has slowed this year.

MUKAN: So there was a bit of a wild wild west for a few years, and I think things are calming down.

AKINWOTU: But Wunika says the more challenging climate for artists and galleries is also an opportunity.

MUKAN: I think the Black portraiture phase brought in a lot of attention, which is good. They're still here, so it's now time for us to also show more and, yeah, be more flexible.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: And I want to top it off.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Praise the Lord.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Hallelujah.

AKINWOTU: In one corner of the fair, visitors take in the soundscape of a church service in a varied exhibition by Dafe Oboro full of collage, portraiture and visual and audio installation. Seju Alero Mike is a curator visiting ART X, and she says this year's fair has been one of the best she's experienced.

SEJU ALERO MIKE: I think the work that the artists have showcased this year is phenomenal. The fair has definitely scaled down. It's smaller. It's more intimate, and you're able to actually focus on the themes that you want to express.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SICKNESS")

MBARGA: (Singing in non-English language).

AKINWOTU: ART X founder Tokini Peterside-Schwebig is bullish about the future of Africa's art scene. Local demand in Nigeria has started, and international buyers have called. But there remains enduring and growing interest around the world and much to build on.

PETERSIDE-SCHWEBIG: For us, Africa is on a trend. Africa is an important and pivotal voice in the mainstream. And so for us, this is about a sustainable future, longevity.

AKINWOTU: Emmanuel Akinwotu, NPR News, Lagos.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SICKNESS")

MBARGA: (Singing) People went nowhere low, they been nothing too much (ph), (singing in non-English language)... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Emmanuel Akinwotu
Emmanuel Akinwotu is an international correspondent for NPR. He joined NPR in 2022 from The Guardian, where he was West Africa correspondent.