Art Dubai turns to West Africa to explore ‘Cities in Transition’

Sara Elkamel from Dubai, Wednesday 20 Mar 2013

Artwork from Nigeria, Cameroon, Mali, Ghana and Senegal is spotlighted at this year’s Art Dubai, in an exhibition that also evokes the Egyptian experience

'Lagos Market' by Ndidi Dike. (Photo: Sara Elkamel)

In keeping with Art Dubai’s commitment to exploring cross-cultural exchange, 'Marker' is a curated platform for the discovery of artwork hailing from different geographies.

This year, the focus is on West Africa. Lagos-based Bisi Silva curates booths showing diverse work from Nigeria, Cameroon, Mali, Ghana and Senegal, ranging from paintings to sculptures to large-scale textile installations, tackling the theme 'Cities in Transition.'

At the press conference Monday morning, Fair Director Antonia Carver explained that when Art Dubai, now in its seventh year, first started, “the rhetoric was very East meets West in the post 9/11 era.”

The fair is still concerned with providing a hub for the exchange of ideas, but the focus has shifted towards a more “East meets East, and South meets South” direction, in the pursuit of untangling the “webs of connectivity that links us all” according to Carver.

The Marker initiative highlights links that are otherwise overlooked between geographically detached regions. “It’s perhaps artists that can really explore these concepts and ideas in the most interesting ways, and we really take this into the heart of the fair,” says Carver.

This year's Marker, held at the Art Dubai fair venue at Madinet Jumeirah, sheds light on the diverse art scene of West Africa, as themes of urbanisation, consumerism, and environmental problems running throughout the five collections handpicked by Silva; Centre for Contemporary Art (Lagos, Nigeria); Espace doual'art (Douala, Cameroon); Maison Carpe Diem (Ségou, Mali); Nubuke Foundation (Accra, Ghana); and Raw Material Company (Dakar, Senegal).

A total of twenty artists from West Africa are participating in this year’s Art Dubai, in a diversity of media forms.

Curator Bisi Silva explains that “in choosing the theme of Cities in Transition, [we considered] how that relates to Dubai and to the Middle East.” 

Silva suggests that West African capitals share the element of transition with Dubai, a city that has exhibited remarkable growth over the past decade. The curator also suggests that there is an economic relationship connecting both regions of the world; “There are two daily flights from Lagos to Dubai,” she says. “And they are packed.”

The Nigerian curator says she knows of friends who travel to Dubai to buy gold, and many others who buy their electronics in the now free zone.

“And naturally, culture follows trade,” she says. Silva expresses that she is keen to start a dialogue with Dubai’s art world, and that it is “exciting to engage with new geographies and discover the similarities and differences.”

Perhaps a more direct link here is between West Africa and the Middle East at large. The theme of this exhibition, “Cities in Transition,” provides a title and context that may be attributed to many North African and Middle Eastern capitals today, including Tunis, Tripoli, Baghdad, and perhaps most of all, Cairo.

The artwork on display at the five Marker booths, which captures everyday life in densely populated West African cities such as Accra and Lagos, is extremely reminiscent of the dynamics of the Egyptian capital, and in turn, of the country's artists.

Silva's description of Lagos as a “bustling 24-hour city where lowlife meets highlife, where the rich and poor collide and modern neighbourhoods with palatial buildings dissipate into slums,” cannot but recall Cairo for an Egyptian observer. 

Painting by Ghanian artist Ablade Glover. (Photo: Sara Elkamel)
Painting by Ghanian artist Ablade Glover. (Photo: Sara Elkamel)

An exhibition by established Ghanaian painter Ablade Glover capturing the dynamism of cityscapes, particularly market places, underprivileged neighbourhoods and lorry parks is among the strongest work in Marker. 

Held by Nubuke (New Dawn), an independent visual and cultural arts foundation established in 2006 in Accra, this exhibition reflects the swarming, multicoloured streets of the city through a series of textured canvases providing snapshots of everyday Accra cityscapes, painted in layers of rich, thick colour.

This collection is reminiscent of the work of Egyptian artist Mohamed Abla, who also jam-packs his canvases with dots and layers of paint to depict the hustle and bustle of the streets of Cairo. 

Perhaps this link between the two artists reflects a broader link between the cultures of the crammed and congested cities, and the inevitability of the cityscape’s influence on the artists’ work.

Also riveting is a collective exhibition organised by another independent foundation (due to the absence of government support for art activities in West Africa, most cultural initiatives are spearheaded by individuals or private organisations), the Centre for Contemporary Art in Lagos, Nigeria, featuring works that show how artists engage in different ways with the city.

One mixed media piece by leading contemporary Nigerian artist Ndidi Dike entitled 'Lagos Market' provides a colourful photograph of a typical day at the vibrant location, with 'Made in China' labels standing out in the composition. The work is a colourful satire of consumerism and the dependency on sub-standard imports to African countries.

'Head Series,' Number 6, by Taiye Idahor. (Photo: Art Dubai)

Another female artist, Taiye Idahor, exhibits 'The Head Series,' which zooms in on women and the intimidating portrayals of beauty in modern day media. The artist creates portraits of women made up of newspaper pages layered with white paint, and gives them wigs constructed by discarded objects such as film cartridges and plastic, a composition that probes the standards of beauty in the context of the multi-million dollar beauty industry.

Again, to the Egyptian eye, this collection evokes something familiar, in this case the work of emerging Egyptian artist Dalia Sabet, who previously exhibited a series entitled 'Mechanics of a Woman,' at Studio 14 and Tache Art Gallery, in which she used discarded materials such as bottle caps, cans, screws to depict the bodies of women, questioning the concept of femininity in modern society.

Curator Bisi Silva says the artwork in Marker shows how "the cityscape is changing and impacting our lives today.”

She explains that contemporary West African art captures the “everyday dynamics” of life on the continent, and by proxy, it is political, another similarity with Egypt's contemporary art scene, which carries undertones of artists' frustrations with current political uncertainties and societal challenges.

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