Cultural producer Missla Libsekal discusses the curated projects she has overseen at ART X Lagos

Missla Libsekal spearheads the curated projects at this week’s ART X Lagos, Nigeria’s first international art fair. The writer, cultural producer and founder of digital platform Another Africa, brings a fresh perspective to this series of programming that incorporates solo presentations, special exhibitions, talks and performances by regional artists who span the emerging, established and past.

Libsekal was born in Ethiopia and grew up between Swaziland and Canada. After a stint in Tokyo, and then New York, she now calls Vancouver home. Her work focuses on furthering the arts in Africa with one recent endeavor being 89plus, an international research project co-founded by Simon Castets and Hans Ulrich Obrist investigating the generation of creative practitioners born in or after 1989. Just published with the Google Cultural Institute, it involved workshops in Addis Ababa, Accra and Johannesburg with Libsekal facilitating a mentorship programme. Here Nataal, an ART X Lagos media partner, talks to her about her vision for the fair.

What appealed to you about being involved in ART X Lagos?
I’m interested in arts on the African continent and working toward making sustainable, critical spaces for it to exist, circulate and be understood. Art fairs are one of those spaces and ART X Lagos is catalysing the contemporary art landscape in the West African region. Tokini’s Peterside’s approach (as founder) is very professional so for me, it’s about being ambitious and learning how to work within this new business model.

You took your first research trip to Lagos earlier this year. What were your initial impressions?
The city reminded me of Tokyo or São Paulo in terms of its almost infinite urban sprawl. The scale is quite overwhelming, and the sky is high and open, which makes you feel small. There’s also a very specific energy created by such a huge volume of people and there’s an anonymity that comes with that. The trip was quite rigorous and I enjoyed meeting with artists and finding out what motivates them. Nigeria has the educational sector but that doesn’t necessarily connect to the gallery system, so it’s hard to get a sense of the network. I appreciate Tokini’s desire to create a platform that consolidates all of these areas by allowing independent artists to show alongside gallery artists, as well as encouraging young artists to excel through initiatives like the ART X Prize.

Describe your approach to the curated projects.
I was thinking about the rupture of histories within the African context and how we address them - that felt critical to use as a foundation. I also wanted to think about materiality and expand on how contemporary art is understood and defined. How can Lagos exert influence in terms of what becomes understood as contemporary African art? Nigeria has long been important in art production but we live in a globalised world so as African art continues to become a recognisable niche market, those tastes, and the purchases that happen in different markets, create trends. Finally, I wanted to explore the inventiveness of artists and the alphabets they come up with to use in their work.

You’ve focussed in on some specific historical moments as a starting point for these themes.
It happens that 2017 marks a few significant milestones. It is 100 years since the birth Ben Enwonwu, 20 years since Fela Kuti passed and the 40th anniversary of FESTAC. Those three things alone are significant. Ben is recognised as a major modern artist, FESTAC was the largest pan African black arts festival, and the issues Fela raised with his music are still pertinent. It’s about understanding where we are at today by knowing where we came from.

So let’s talk through each curated project. The mid-career Nigerian artist Olu Amoda presents two new large format assemblage sculptures, Speckle and Eye IV.
Materiality is very present in Olu’s work. He uses all kinds of repurposed, industrial detritus that has travelled through global industry and ended up in Lagos. He creates incredible sculptures out of them with many loaded meanings. He’s also part of a discussion during the fair on radical sculpture, past and present.

Lemi Ghariokwu is a celebrated illustrator and graphic designer famed for creating many of Fela’s most well-known album covers.
Lemi became close to Fela in his youth and gave aesthetic form to his ideas – in total he made 26 album covers dating from the 1970s to 1990s. I’m excited because we’re opening up his archive, pulling out not just these covers but letters, photographs and cartoons. We’re delving into his universe to understand the socio political landscape from those times. Jazz Hole has also made up a playlist and is doing a sound installation.

Bofa Da Cara aka Angola’s Nástio Mosquito and Pere Ortin use film to confront the colonial gaze and the evolution of language between the West and Africa.
We have two film screenings, My African Mind and My European Mind: Rebranding Europe, which is going to be very challenging.

Ghana’s Yaw Owusu is a young artist whose work engages with the themes of value, exchange and the global environment.
We’re showing several pieces he has produced this year. They are remarkable sculptures made out of the 1 Pesewa coin, which has almost no value, yet he makes these enchanting, glimmering works that confront economic policy making in Ghana.

Young Abuja-based artist Rahima Gambo presents her long-term project, Education is Forbidden.
It’s a photographic series that lives somewhere between fiction and documentary and deals with the Boko Haram insurgency in north eastern Nigeria. She asks what post trauma looks like.

You’re also honouring Ben Enwonwu, MBE (1917-1994).
We’re presenting seven of his wooden sculptural figures for the first time in Nigeria. They were originally commissioned by the UK’s Daily Mirror newspaper in 1960 and then subsequently lost. They were rediscovered in 2012 and auctioned, where Access Bank purchased them and now it supports their display at the fair.

Each of these figures is holding a newspaper, which connects to Johnson Uwadinma’s Amnesia, a site-specific mixed media installation presented in association with Zina Saro-Wiwa’s Boys’ Quarters Project Space.
Johnson’s work deals with memory. It’s a kinetic sculpture series made out of newspaper and a nice response to Ben’s sculptures. It’s interesting how Johnson makes these dense balls so you can no longer read the newspaper print, which comments on the production of news in Nigeria.

Another young local artist, Olatunde Alara, has been selected for the inaugural ART X Absolut Commission.
Absolut wanted to work with the fair to support freedom of expression through creativity. We invited artist to respond to the theme of ‘artist as citizen’ and address a topic that they believe is urgent. Olatunde’s time-based installation comments on mental health, anxiety and depression.

Finally you have Wura-Natasha Ogunji performing If I Loved You, a piece she debuted in New York at Nataal’s New African Photography exhibition at Red Hook Labs earlier this year.
Wura’s work thinks about what it means to be a woman in the public space in soft and subtle ways. We live in a moment when conversations around gender are important. The idea is to give audiences different entry points to ask what is art, how does it constitute itself and how do artists devise their strategies from their own experiences. Wura is also doing a talk with N’Goné Fall and Peju Alatise about the artist as citizen, which weaves back to how Fela’s art was enlightening for the people by advocating revolution – a topic Lemi will do a talk on at the fair. In the 1970s, he definitely knew what the artist’s role was. Art speaks to its time. Wura and all of these contemporary artists speak to how things are today.

What do you hope the audience will take away from your curation?
It is going to be three days of intense activity. I hope the themes throughout the programming responding to absences, histories and inventiveness will start to echo, that people will be charmed and that they go away moved.

ART X Lagos runs from 3 to 5 November 2017 at The Civic Centre, Lagos. Read a full preview of the art fair here

Visit ART X Lagos

Published on 01/11/2017