7 West African Institutions Animating the Region’s Contemporary Art Scene
The Treehouse, Lagos. Photo by Ayobami Ogungbe. Courtesy of The Treehouse and Bami Photography.
Across West Africa, in cities like Lagos, Ibadan, Tamale, Accra, and Lome, a spate of new art institutions and alternative spaces have recently opened, ushering in cross-regional dialogues and new approaches in the display and dissemination of the continent’s modern and contemporary art. In addition to establishing inclusive models built around community and artistic exchanges, these institutions are led by an ethos of experimentation, preservation, and sustainability. They also importantly respond to local contexts as opposed to Eurocentric, colonial ideas of art and culture. This approach has resulted in a wealth of new types of museums, artist residencies, project spaces, and architectural transformations all built under a catalyzing ethos of social and cultural change.
Yemisi Shyllon Museum of Art, Pan-Atlantic University
Installation view at Yemisi Shyllon Museum of Art. Courtesy of Yemisi Shyllon Museum of Art.
In 2014, the prominent Nigerian art collector Prince Yemisi Shyllon announced a proposal for the creation of his own museum, the Yemisi Shyllon Museum of Art (YSMA), to house works spanning Nigerian pre-colonial to contemporary art. In addition to receiving 1,000 items from Shyllon’s personal collection, the new museum would also become the new permanent home for Pan-Atlantic University’s holdings at the suggestion of Lagos-based art historian and current museum director Jess Castellote.
The resulting collection is expansive; some of the country’s earliest artworks, including Nok terracottas and Benin and Ife bronzes, are on display alongside modern and contemporary artworks by Lamidi Fakeye, Aina Onabolu, Peju Alatise Victor Ehikhamenor, and El Anatsui.
The 15,000-square-foot museum, with its distinct red-rust façade and cantilevered cubic building, offers free admission and is located on Pan-Atlantic University’s campus in Ibeju-Lekki. Castellote explained that the museum is grounded in learning and programming that puts Nigerians first. “Being a university museum, our primary function is an educational one,” he said. “Our curatorial and programming offers have to be truly relevant first to our local audiences, especially the youth. What Western museums do with their ‘African collections’ is not completely relevant to us or, for that matter, to our audience.”
Sheila Chukwulozie, performance view of No Fury at The Treehouse, 2019. Photo by Tom Saater. Courtesy of The Treehouse.
Founded by Wura-Natasha Ogunji in 2018, The Treehouse is located on the seventh floor of a YMCA (Young Men’s Christian Association) in the Ikoyi suburb of Lagos, Nigeria. Its program centers on promoting experimental artists on the continent and beyond and, according to Ogunji, “encourages artists to present work which pushes their ideas, aesthetics, and practice rigorously.”
This ever-evolving space has been converted from a habitable apartment to a plant-filled oasis to its current, more white-cube gallery orientation. Past performances include conceptual artist Yadichinma Ukoha-Kalu’s 24-hour drawing performance Ásụ̀sụ̀ (2019), which transformed The Treehouse into an intimate exploration of Igbo language and drawing. Meanwhile, Love Letter to Lagos (2020) by food explorer Ozoz Sokoh (a.k.a. Kitchen Butterfly) took the local fruit known as agbalumo (African star apple) as a point of departure for charting new directions in Nigerian cuisine with a participatory audience. Before the pandemic, The Treehouse presented a group exhibition titled “Niggas That Can’t Paint,” bringing together three artists, Olatunde Alara, Ifedoyin Shotunde, and Oladotun Oshilaja (Laja), who explore materiality and the avant-garde in contemporary Nigerian art.
Guest Artists Space (G.A.S.) Foundation
Lagos and Ijebu-Ode, Nigeria
Guest Artists Space (G.A.S.) Foundation launch event in Lagos. Courtesy of G.A.S. Foundation.
British-Nigerain artist Yinka Shobinbare CBE’s soon-to-be-realized live/work residency, the Guest Artists Space (G.A.S.) Foundation, solidifies the artist’s commitment to supporting African and diasporic artists. Building on his London initiative, Guest Projects, which offers artists access to a free project space for a month at a time, Shonibare’s new residency will connect artists with the urban dynamism of Lagos and a functional 30-acre rural farm in Ijebu-Ode. The Lagos building, designed by Elsie Owusu Architects, will consist of a multipurpose studio, gallery, performance space, and accomodation for the residents, while the Ijebu-Ode site will consist of a contemporary barn building set on a working farm that includes greenhouses, 1,000 cashew nut trees, and other crops which Shonibare is keen to see support food production and sustainability initiatives.
Belinda Holden, managing director of the Yinka Shonibare Foundation, stated that G.A.S. had been conceived as “a bridging place—a place for conversations, debate, and interdisciplinary and cultural exchange.” She continued, “It is both a physical and conceptual space that offers practical support and facilities for artists and creatives to conceive, develop, discuss, and disseminate ideas and practice.”
Both residency spaces will be flexible, barrier-free spaces supporting experimentation and cross-disciplinary collaborations. In light of COVID-19, G.A.S. and Guest Projects have recently embarked on a program of virtual residencies, called Guest Projects Digital, to support new work and collaborations across countries and cultures—in particular by artists living and working in Nigeria and the wider diaspora—ahead of its opening in late 2021.
Kòbọmọjẹ́ Artist-in-Residence (K-AiR)
Exterior view of Kòbọmọjẹ́ Artist-in-Residence (K-AiR). Courtesy of (K-AiR).
Taking its name from a Yoruba phrase meaning “not compromising the essence of one’s pedigree,” Kòbọmọjẹ́ Artist-in-Residence (K-AiR) in Ibadan, Nigeria, will open its doors to its first resident in early 2021 in the restored 1960s modernist home of the late humanist and activist Alhaja Suliat Adedeji. Running as three four- to five-week-long cycles a year, K-AiR will offer an interdisciplinary space for contemplation for artists, creatives, researchers, and scholars from around the world looking to immerse themselves in the city’s culturally rich heritage and present.
Founded by Adedeji’s son, art patron and investment banker Hakeem Adedeji, Kòbọmọjẹ́ is under the artistic direction of artist and cultural producer Jumoke Sanwo, who also works as a creative director at Art Incubator, a roving contemporary art platform in Lagos. The younger Adedeji came up with the idea of transforming his late mother’s home into a residency back in 2001, after informally letting artist friends, including the late Ben Osaghae, use it as a space for artistic production away from Lagos for years. “Ibadan was the intellectual center of the Western Yoruba state,” said Adedeji. “The first African university and TV station were established here. It is one of the foundations of Nigerian education, art, and culture. We love this idea of going back to these roots of Ibadan’s centrality in Nigerian cultural history, to emphasize turning artists’ attention here, even though Yoruba culture permeates globally.”
Spread across a split-level building incorporated into the elevated and naturally hilly Iyaganku landscape, K-AiR will prioritize giving local artists a space to reflect whilst engaging with the critical past and present innovative spirit of Ibadan.
Savannah Centre for Contemporary Art (SCCA) Tamale Artistic Director guiding students through a series of workshops as part of Ghanaian artist Galle Winston Kofi Dawson’s retrospective, “In Pursuit of something ‘Beautiful’, perhaps…,” 2019–2020. Courtesy of SCCA Tamale.
Part of Ghanaian artist Ibrahim Mahama’s vision for a consortium of interdisciplinary institutions traversing art, anthropology, ecology, and archaeology, Red Clay in Tamale, Ghana, draws on the artist’s longstanding interest in material transformations and architecture. The space runs alongside the artist-run project space, exhibition, education, and research hub Savannah Centre for Contemporary Art (SCCA).
Red Clay, as its name suggests, consists of interconnected red brick warehouse-style spaces. Meanwhile, abandoned airplanes on the site serve as repurposed educational spaces. “The idea was to build Red Clay with the intention of siting Parliament of Ghosts [a Mahama installation shown at Whitworth Gallery as part Manchester International Festival 2019] as a permanent artwork which is fully functional on-site,” said Mahama. “There are still spaces that need to be completed, but as with my wider practice, I’ve always worked with materials and processes in progress, as I think there’s space for both of these things to co-exist.” Mahama sees these projects in Tamale as a starting point for wider conversations and interventions to transform abandoned buildings, underused sites for future institutions of all kinds that will enrich communities.
Red Clay currently has on view its inaugural exhibition, “Akutia: Blindfolding the Sun and the Poetics of Peace (A Retrospective of Agyeman Ossei, ‘Dota’),” which is jointly presented with SCCA Tamale and co-curated by Adwoa Amoah, Kwasi Ohene-Ayeh, and Tracy Naa Koshie Thompson. This retrospective exhibition is part of a series exploring Ghanian modernism and traces the oeuvre of influential Ghanaian artist, dramatist, and educator Agyeman Ossei (Dota) beginning in the 1980s.
Martin Tokolu performing at Nubuke Foundation. Courtesy of Nubuke Foundation.
Nubuke Foundation is not technically new as it was founded 14 years ago in Accra, Ghana, and has supported over 200 artists, artisans, and creative individuals through rigorous exhibitions, public programs, and residencies. November 2019, however, heralded a new chapter for this prestigious Ghanaian art institute with a new cantilevered concrete building designed by architects Baerbel Mueller and Juergen Storhmayer.
The building, a contemporary take on tropical modernism, has access to the natural environment, light, and ventilation. The broad-scale renovation of the institution’s spaces transformed existing buildings into a multifunctional site consisting of a new commercial gallery, a shop, a residency space, a children’s library, a café, landscaped grounds, and shared working spaces.
In light of the current pandemic, founding director Odile Tevie emphasized the need for art institutions to adapt or else face redundancy. “What is now apparent is that in Ghana and beyond, an equal measure of importance must be placed on the development of local arts professionals as has been on that of the artist,” she said.
The Nubuke Foundation’s latest exhibitions include a major retrospective of pioneering photographer James Barnor spanning his seven-decade career, as well as a group show featuring artists born in or after the year 1989. Nubuke’s new extension and reconfiguration is a thoughtful institutional reinvention project that keeps abreast with the times and stays relevant to its context.
Palais de Lomé
Installation view of “Togo des Rois” at Palais de Lomé, 2019–2020. Photo by Nicolas Robert. Courtesy of Palais de Lomé.
Once a prominent symbol of German and French colonial power and the one-time Togolese presidential residence, Togo’s former Palais des Gouverne has recently been transformed to Palais de Lomé, a nearly 26,000-square-foot multidisciplinary contemporary art center.
Set in a 26-acre park consisting of a permanent exhibition space, dedicated galleries for temporary exhibitions, a bookstore, and two restaurants, new life is buzzing in this recently abandoned palatial residence. According to director Sonia Lawson, Palais de Lomé “builds ties with existing partners in Africa and internationally in the field of traditional and contemporary African expressions: from Togo to Africa, and from Africa to the world.”
The fall exhibition season launches with “Lomé Plus, Past, Present,”an expansive exhibition exploring the city’s past and future. According to Lawson, future programs will focus on contemporary African artists, activists, and designers. The organization also plans to launch a residency program, an annual art prize, and West Africa’s first design biennial in 2022.