Of all the remarkable aspects that a fair like Art X Lagos displays, its most notable is its consistency. For two years now, the fair has started – and ended – at the times it set for itself. This is a remarkable achievement in Nigeria, a country where citizens generally disregard the time stated on any invitation and routinely show up a few hours late. One can credit this punctuality, among many other wonderful accomplishments, to founder Tokini Peterside’s worthy team, which truly is the sum of all its parts working in harmony.
Art X hits many targets
Among Art X Lagos’s many wonderful offerings is its genuine understanding of contemporary Lagos culture. While it is touted as West Africa’s biggest art fair – it does indeed represent galleries and artists from across the subcontinent – many of the booths belong to Lagos-owned galleries. In addition, many of the side performances feature artists who predominantly operate in, or were heavily inspired by, Lagos.
In addition, there is a sense – and this is borne out by the large numbers that showed up over all three days of the fair – that Art X Lagos offers a chance for the public to interact with the art displayed and to take as many #artlife selfies as they need before the artworks find their way onto a private collector’s wall or some sacred gallery space.
Also important is the openness to young and old alike. On the weekend, when the fair was open to the public, it was common to see young children milling about with adults and in groups, interacting with the artwork. This is important because it is imperative that art is demystified at an early age, before a child’s impressionable years are over, and that art is stripped of its elitism in the eyes of the less privileged.
…but misses some
Despite all its accomplishments, however, Art X Lagos has one fatal flaw. For two years running, the fair has displayed the very Nigerian tendency of prioritising its VIP guests to the exclusion and frustration of other attendees.
In 2016, at its music and art fusion concert, ‘regular’ guests were refused seats on the insistence that they had been pre-booked for VIP individuals. At the end of the day, these VIPs mostly did not turn up, leaving a large amount of empty seats, which were eventually filled by the non-VIPs who were actually there.
The lounge section on the first floor of the Civic Centre is reserved for VIP guests to relax. It is filled with art on display to suit the aesthetics outside the window. Yet towards the end of the VIP preview on the first night, the lounge was filled to capacity by VIP and non-VIP guests alike. The end result always included non-VIP guests, so why bother with the demarcations in the first place?
In addition, despite the tour generously organised for a group of underprivileged children, the only children who were allowed to interact with the artworks bore the identifying marks of the privately educated: blazer-clad, holding on to the arms of their VVIP parents, and touting Apple phones. This was especially remarkable because several of the artists on display come from humble backgrounds. To quote exhibiting artist Lemi Ghariokwu: “Art today should be as free and accessible as music is, not hanging on some private person’s wall, hiding from the world.”
The only the children who were allowed to interact with the artworks bore the identifying marks of the privately educated.
Repair what is wrong
If Art X Lagos can get so much right, it should try to repair those areas where it is shortchanging the public. In a recent The Guardian UK article, writer Ruth Maclean detailed the irony of the organisers of the first Nigerian Biennial evicting squatters, despite the Biennial using resident squatters for a few displays. Unfortunately, Art X Lagos is similarly challenged by its “unapologetically commercial” orientation, as stated by the founder Tokini Peterside in a Financial Times interview.
Such an approach immediately draws a line between commoner and elite, limiting the audience’s opportunity to interact properly with the pieces on display. Many of the festival attendees arrived in the evening and with all the bodies in the space, it soon became hard to enjoy the pieces as they were designed to be.
When Art X Lagos takes place next year, it should celebrate how much it has gotten right – and reexamine how it fosters the transactional part of the art world’s ecosystem. This VIP culture is not restricted to Nigeria, but a particular affinity for ostentation often means we take the special treatment of VIP guests much further than is often practical.
“Art today should be as free and accessible as music is.” – Lemi Ghariokwu
Within the West African art scene, Art X Lagos is pivotal and useful. Its arrangement of talks and exhibits provide a crucial official connection between all the participants of the growing art industry. But by tackling its subconscious predisposition towards elitism, I believe it can have an even more powerful impact across Nigeria and West Africa.
Already, the free format of the festival opens its doors to a wider range of art enthusiasts, but its insistence on segregating certain sections, particularly during the festival, hampers this effect. The festival can only get bigger and it should not get bogged down by something as trivial and annoying as the stubborn reservation of seats for people who do not even show up.