“Dear Nigerian artist,
We all may die poor, worse still, we may die unknown…”
These were my thoughts when on Monday I photographed the Colloquium of the Society for Art Collection in Nigeria – by every standard a high profile event filled with people who are passionate about art and culture, especially that which is African.
I was there in my capacity as an event photographer but unknown to them, I was also there as a student and a spy.
As a Nigerian photographer who is exploring the beautiful, vast world of fine-art photography, I held my ears open seeking to peek into the minds of these profoundly successful art collectors and maybe learn a thing or two to help me on my journey. I eavesdropped on these multi-millionaires as they discussed their collections of exquisite African art, the joy it brings them and the heavy sense of responsibility they feel as custodians of our shared culture and history, and right there it hit me: most of us, Nigerian artists, are doomed!!
The chasm between their attitude towards art and that of the rest of the population is undeniably vast. The idea of art as a reasonable expenditure is lost on the average middle-class Nigerian whose mind is filled with thoughts of more urgent needs such as rent, baby food, and replacing car shock-absorbers (thank you Lagos roads). Little wonder, an appreciation for art is deemed an exercise for the man dem wey don chop belleful.
Artists, to a large extent, are kept afloat by the interest and purchasing power of their patrons. So what happens when this interest in purchasing art is held by less than 1% of the population? How many times have we been in our Ubers on our way to work or to see a movie and seen some gorgeous paintings hanging on the side of the road somewhere on the island and just limited our response to “Hmmm, such talent!” because “please, there are more important things to do with money”. This is not in any way an indictment of the non-art-buying Nigerian population because… Nigeria! (it is what it is)
Beyond the seemingly endless opportunity costs of buying art, we also have the issue of a seemingly endless supply of (digital) art. Could it be that in the quest to grow our social media follower numbers, we are, constantly feeding the notion that the art we create is to be enjoyed for free, therefore devaluing our work? Imagine a world where ‘The MonaLisa’ was an Instagram post by @Leodavinci or “The Starry Night”, was uploaded by @VinVanGogh_ (#photooftheday #fineart #portraits #instadaily #likeforlike #followforfollow). They most definitely would not hold the historic significance they do today. How many absolute masterpieces have sunk into deep Instagram Graves, buried under an ever-growing mountain of ‘content’ produced daily, the creators of which got 140 likes and a few “Wow” “You are so talented” “This is truly amazing” in the comment section?
We may need to find ways to escape the mental conditioning that our dependence on social media has exposed us to, that leads us to create works of art that are, plainly put, ephemeral.
So, long talk summarised, the future is bleak and you may die broke and unknown if you are an artist in Nigeria, or maybe you won’t. Maybe you’ll figure out a way to create things that outlive you and are deemed valuable by the group of Nigerians that value art, and maybe that group will grow beyond the current 1%.
Featured image by Louish Pixel