Omenka Gallery is based in the relatively affluent Ikoyi district of Lagos, located near the Lagoon. The complex of buildings I enter is surrounded by a beautifully kept garden with a cafe. The young and dynamic gallery for contemporary art is set next to the Enwonwu family home as well as the Ben Enwonwu Foundation. Oliver Enwonwu, Director of Omenka Gallery, is the youngest child of the pioneering modernist artist Ben Enwonwu, although, as he explains here, this did not predetermine his going into the gallery business. Under Oliver Enwownu’s leadership Omenka Gallery features regularly changing publicly accessible and commercial exhibitions of pan-African and some global art, participates in the international art fair circuit, and sells to a growing Nigerian collector base for contemporary art. The gallery also publishes many catalogues and a well-known art magazine.
During a recent visit to Lagos, following the trail of the much talked about art scene on the coast of Nigeria, I spoke with Oliver.
Raqib Bashorun, Seek and Hide, 2013, aluminium,steel, plastic and wood, 120 x 120 x 15 cm. Courtesy Omenka Gallery
The garden of Omenka Gallery
Bea de Sousa: How has the legacy of your father Ben Enwonwu informed you in running a gallery?
Oliver Enwonwu: As a child, growing up in the shadow of a great artist, I was not bothered about his fame or his "job," as I perceived it then. I studied biochemistry and later geophysics to be a rebel, I suppose. It was only after I completed my studies I had a change of heart and began studying art and art history and became an artist in my own right. I think after so much consideration and education in other fields it felt like it was my personal choice to turn back to art and thereby follow in some way in my father’s footsteps and my father’s father before him. When my father passed away in 1994 I began thinking about how to preserve his legacy and the many artworks and valuable books and publications he left behind. The family foundation commemorates his life and work. We opened this to the public, but later and through my activities as the president of the Society of Nigerian Artist I began to realize that I would do my father’s legacy and my own path as an artist and historian more of a service by supporting future artists.
Encouraged by the burgeoning presence of the Centre for Contemporary Art (CCA) Lagos, the African Artists' Foundation (AAF), and other contemporary arts organizations as well as a growing auction market in Nigeria, I decided to found a commercial gallery and hub for contemporary art right next to the Enwonwu Foundation. I named it Omenka gallery after my grandfather. I remembered that my father in his later life had once expressed the wish to establish such a gallery and that he would name it in memory of his own father. We represent a roster of Nigerian and African artists and we participate in international art fairs, for example Johannesburg and Art 13 London to name just a few.
Omenka Gallery, Preview of 'Okhai Ojeikere and Gary Stephens: Networks and Voids'
BdS: What is your approach to contemporary art? Are you more a dealership or a nurturing space?
OE: As the current president of the Nigerian artist’s society I supervise and mentor about 4,000 practicing artists with my team. I take this very seriously, because every artist needs guidance and someone else’s experience to learn from or have a platform to debate their practice. My special interest is in encouraging artists to experiment outside of the comfort zone of academic practice. Academicism is still highly rewarded by the Nigerian government, so an academically formal style prevails in the mainstream, which can slow the development of, for example, new media art, although there are now very strong new media artists coming out of Nigeria onto the international scene. Also commercially the local art collectors still prefer paintings and sculpture of a more academic nature to photography and video. Nonetheless we support more radical painters, new media artists, and even outspoken political commentary a part of our programme. I think preserving the intellectual heritage of Nigerian culture is important, which in time can also overcome any misconceptions about contemporary art. We see it as part of our work to educate the collectors about fresh tendencies in art and some are beginning to get excited about the new.
Nnenna Okore, Baggage, 2008, plastic bags, 175 x 100 x 25 cm. Courtesy Omenka Gallery
BdS: You are showcasing Nigerian art in the international arena—how do you see the future for Nigerian art?
OE: Omenka Gallery has been devised as a space, which is open, for artists from all academic or other backgrounds. We also allow for experimentation with media and performance and we hold concerts and events in our premises and garden. It is a place where culture can occur and be debated and enjoyed. We are therefore also always open for exchanges with, to date, mostly African countries. We have also already collaborated with a German and some London-based galleries and we hope to continue widening our network.
In parallel we are doing a lot of work to educating the Nigerian audience to become more receptive to international art, which is beginning to take root. We understand that import and export and customs issues can occasionally hamper global efforts but on the whole we and other galleries in the country are in the position to enable international exhibitions to come into the country and likewise to export Nigerian art with support of the government. This is an important stage to signal to the global art community that we are ready and able to exchange and trade. Young Nigerian art has come into the limelight on the international stage and we would like to strengthen and foster this interest by working together with international network of galleries and curators.
Raqib Bashorun, Transparency, 2014, Metal and wood, 200 x 100 x 20 cm. Courtesy Omenka Gallery
BdS: Nigeria has many cultural groups with their own language and artistic tradition. In the 60s and 70s Nigerian culture experienced a golden age during which time many international artists and musicians went to Lagos to experience Fela Kuti’s Shrine and the burgeoning art scene of an independent Nigeria. Many of the celebrated fine artists who achieved international recognition stemmed from the Igbo culture—with the Zaria School and Ben Enwonwu as some of the most noted practitioners. The Lagos region is largely a Yoruba area with its own cultural roots.
Does being Igbo matter?
OE: Although I am immensely proud of my heritage and I am pleased that you have noted the prevalence of Igbo in the arts I have always favored a universal approach to art. It is not confined to Igbo, Yoruba, Effik, or Nigerians in fact. I see contemporary art in global terms. In Omenka Gallery we have no favored artists. Naturally we support local talent but we also show artists from Ghana, South Africa, and beyond the African continent, Europe, and the US.
Bea de Sousa is a curator and the Founder/Director of the Agency Gallery, London.
(Image at the top: Uche James-Iroha, Canon Ball Anti Progress Machine, 2012, printed on enhanced matt paper, 120x90cm, Courtesy Omenka Gallery)
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