Raucous Nigeria's blossoming art scene tweaks the powerful
By Ben Simon, AFPLAGOS--With a champagne flute between his fingers, the Nigerian oligarch stares out with a self-satisfied grin on his bulbous face, not bothered by the desperate masses behind him.
January 7, 2013, 12:00 am TWN
Artist Wande George said the inspiration for the painting, called “The Ruling Class,” is visible everyday in the upscale Lagos district of Victoria Island where his work was recently displayed.
Nigeria, the most populous country in Africa, has long been regarded as one of the world's most corrupt nations, where enormous oil wealth has been siphoned off into the bank accounts of a select few.
Its richest sometimes cruise in chauffeur-driven 4x4 vehicles and sleep in ostentatious mansions, while the teeming poor crowd into slums and eke out a living where they can.
But such inequality and adversity can spawn provocative and creative work, and Nigeria is certainly contributing its share.
“We deal with it,” said artist Joseph Eze, whose work has explored the destruction of slums that have forced poor residents to abandon their homes, among other issues. “Otherwise, we would have just gone to ashes.”
Visual art, including that with a political bent, appears to be blossoming here, particularly since stifling military rule ended in 1999 — though the famously raucous country was hardly culturally mute when it was led by soldier-dictators.
Nigerians such as late afrobeat musician Fela Kuti and Nobel literature prize winner Wole Soyinka have long made their mark with politically focused work. Many painters and other visual artists working today carry the same torch.
“Local artists are looking more and more at how to express themselves,” said Marc-Andre Schmachtel of Germany's Goethe Institute cultural organisation, one of the judges at a recent national art competition in Nigeria.
“People are thinking outside the box now. Already from last year to this year, the level of competition has improved a lot,” he added, attributing the progress to changes in Lagos.
The sprawling city, despite being one of the world's most chaotic, has in some ways become an easier place to pursue creative work, with its slowly growing middle class and increasing number of art venues.
George, 50, told AFP that several of the pieces in his Re-Emergence series were inspired by the tawdriness with which some flaunt their wealth in a city where many of the roughly 15-million people are extremely poor.
'Nameless, overstuffed aristocrat'
Of the nameless, overstuffed aristocrat in the portrait, George said, “he doesn't care about the people around him.”
His work was exhibited at a trendy Lagos complex that includes a small gallery, a pricey restaurant serving a full range of local dishes, a library and stage venue that hosts theatrical and musical performances.
At the national competition hosted at a conference centre overlooking the Lagos lagoon, Eze, one of the finalists, used the foam from flip-flop sandals that he found discarded on a beach to assemble a large panorama showing the effects of urban development on slum residents.
This picture, taken on Aug. 27, 2012 during an exhibition in Lagos, shows a painting by Wande George depicting the corrupt lifestyles of affluent Nigerians.