As demand for Nigerian art booms abroad, a homegrown movement looks to inspire domestic collectors too

As demand for Nigerian art booms abroad, a homegrown movement looks to inspire domestic collectors too

Late last year, a family in north London contacted the Bonhams auction house and asked one of its experts on African art to come see a painting that might solve a decades-old mystery.

In 1973 and 1974, the Nigerian modernist Ben Enwonwu painted three portraits of Princess Adetutu Ademiluyi. The artist was Igbo and the princess was Yoruba — ethnic groups that had been pitted against each other in a brutal civil war — and the portraits were widely seen as a turning point in reconciliation between the two groups.

But all three versions of “Tutu” had been missing since before the artist’s death in 1994.

One of them, it turned out, was the painting that hung inconspicuously in the London family’s home. Initial estimates suggested it could sell for up to $417,000.

In a February auction that was livestreamed to a room of about 100 participants in Lagos, Nigeria, an anonymous telephone bidder paid $1.68 million.

The sale was the latest sign that Nigeria has arrived in the world of contemporary art. Demand is booming in the U.S. and Europe — but most significantly in Nigeria.

The newfound interest there is part of a larger cultural and economic revival. It wasn’t long ago that moving abroad or catering to outsiders’ perceptions of their country was the only way for artists here to survive. But as the economy has surged — diversifying from oil into manufacturing, telecommunications and a thriving film industry to give Nigeria the biggest gross domestic product in Africa — so has interest in fashion, music and art.

That has fueled a rise in the number of galleries and auction houses. It has also allowed many artists to make a living at home, reclaiming their Nigerian identities with creations that take on themes that resonate with a Nigerian audience, such as corruption, national politics and gender relations.

Nigeria remains a poor country, with a per-capita GDP of about $6,000 and more than half of its 186 million people living in poverty. But some artists raised there and educated at local art schools say that even their parents are starting to embrace art as a career choice and abandon old beliefs that only doctors, lawyers and businessmen can earn money.

The demand for art has grown so much in recent years that auctions are popping up in some unusual places.

As a British auctioneer called out bids one night in November, men in white gloves carried pieces of art to the front of a Kia car dealership showroom. The works ranged from paintings large enough to take up an entire wall to sculptures so small they could be held in the palm of a hand — one of which sold for about $10,000.

The event, which garnered interest from international and Nigerian collectors, was the 19th auction in nine years that Arthouse Contemporary held in Lagos, where it is based. The first ones took place at the Wheatbaker hotel in the upscale Ikoyi neighborhood. But expanding interest presented the organizers with a problem familiar to artists and gallery owners across this mega-city of 22 million people: a lack of spaces to display art.

“This is almost as white cube as it can get,” said Joseph Gergel, a consultant for Arthouse, describing the Kia showroom as a stark modern gallery. “It happened out of necessity.”

Though Arthouse has traditionally targeted the wealthy, it recently launched a more affordable series of auctions. “The idea is to engage a new group of collectors who may be scared away by prices in the main auction,” Gergel said.

Late last year, the second annual Art X Lagos, West Africa’s first international art fair, drew more than 9,000 people — bank executives, government officials, the emir of the northern city of Kano and other potential customers, as well as ordinary citizens who came to witness the Lagos Civic Center’s transformation into a gallery for a weekend. There were installations, paintings, photographs, record sleeves and sculptures — including seven large wooden pieces that were crafted by Enwonwu for the Daily Mirror newspaper in 1960.

In one of the more political exhibits, photographs by Rahima Gambo depicted ordinary life in Nigeria’s northeast and the toll of government negligence and attacks by the extremist group Boko Haram on schools and children.

Tokini Peterside, the 31-year-old founder of the fair, said one of her goals was “to encourage the increasing number of wealthy West Africans to see themselves as collectors and to see art as an investment.”

Another was to offer the region’s artists a rare opportunity in an art world dominated by the West: the chance to display and sell their work at home.

“There’s a generation of young, vibrant artists of Nigerian or African origin who have felt that the gallery infrastructure in West Africa is not sufficiently developed for them to connect with the international art market from their home base,” Peterside said. “For generations, when it comes to exporting its cultural capital and so many other things, Africa has had to go overseas.”

Yaw Owusu, a Ghanaian artist, stands in front of his work at Art X Lagos in November 2017.