Artist Yinka Shonibare opens new spaces in Lagos to promote creativity and sustainability

The sites aim to connect the burgeoning West African art scene to other spaces beyond the continent

Ecology Green Farm provides residencies to artists and researchers, and was designed as sustainably as possible, using building materials such as bricks and local soil. Photo: Gas
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British-Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare has launched Guest Artists Space, a residency and arts centre in Lagos, alongside the Ecology Green Farm, to research food scarcity in the Nigerian countryside. The two spaces will increase connections between artists in Africa and those in international art scenes from the Gulf, Europe and America.

Gas is among a number of new art spaces being built in West Africa by internationally successful artists who are returning home to invest in the industry on the continent.

It also reflects a growing interest among artists in developing research on food and water scarcity. In September, before the official launch of the site, Gas hosted a symposium by the Sharjah Architecture Triennial. Tosin Oshinowo and members of the Triennial team discussed the themes of impermanence and adaptability across the Global South with cultural figures from the African continent such as the architects Adeyemo Shokunbi and Mpho Matsipa.

Gas has also signed up to the World Weather Network project, which began using art spaces around the world to map the changing climate earlier this year, and which counts the Jameel Arts Centre as a member in Dubai.

Focused primarily on residences, Guest Artists Space will invite artists, curators, thinkers, and designers for four-month rotations, with one drawn from Nigeria, one from the continent of Africa and one from abroad. They will live and work at the site and take part in seminars and lectures, which are open to the wider community in Lagos.

Years in the making, Shonibare had at first toyed with different ideas for the space — initially thinking of it as an exhibition site for a scene that lacks major public institutions. But eventually, he turned to the idea of residencies as the best means of helping artists to develop their work.

Yinka Shonibare has established an artist residency centre in his hometown of Lagos, Nigeria. Photo: Andrew Esiobo

“I had done some residencies in the past myself; one in Senegal, one in Sweden, and one in Philadelphia. That experience of doing the residency changed my practice,” he says. “Once you manage to take yourself outside your own comfort zone, as an artist, it pushes you to be more open, to be imaginative, and to push the boundaries of what you already know.”

The bespoke Brutalist building was designed by the British-Ghanaian architect Elsie Owusu and was inspired by local Yoruba architecture. The site wraps around a central courtyard and a large concrete screen, spanning two storeys and the width of the building, which partially blocks out the strong sun.

It also houses a live workspace for the residents, a gallery, seminar rooms and a library, which hosts the collection of John Picton — an eminent scholar of African art who taught at Soas in London. The library already has 1,500 volumes in its collection, ranging from art to anthropology and other social sciences, and has plans to digitise its volumes over the next two years.

Shonibare graduated from Goldsmiths College in 1991 at a time when the art school was a potent incubator for the pop, provocative projects associated with the YBA — or "Young British Artists" — generation, including Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin.

Shonibare distinguished himself from other artists by responding to the urgent legacy of colonialism, becoming known for his work with Dutch East India fabric, which has become associated with Africa.

Unravelling its complexity, he showed how the fabric was inspired by the traditional Indonesian batik print, and was developed by the Dutch for the market in their Indonesian colony. But the industrially printed material was not successful there and it was sold in to West African markets. Instead of representing an authentic African identity, it was instead a product of the economic and migratory ties routes created by colonial trade.

In a series of renowned videos and sculptures, Shonibare used the fabric for an 18-century court dress, representing the colonialism that fuelled European wealth of that era.

He has since continued to explore the fabric as signs of Africa’s history, while also revelling in the play of colours and patterns more formally. In 2014, he created the series Wind Sculptures, which rendered the fabric as steel sails, shaped as if formed by the wind — one of which was commissioned by Tarek Abou El Fetouh for Dubai Expo 2020 and remains as a permanent sculpture there.

Other projects delve further into how African idioms were disseminated across Europe, such as a beautiful suite of African-inspired masks, quilts and sculptures, shown last year at the London gallery, Stephen Friedman.

Inspired by Dutch East India Fabric, one of Yinka Shonibare's Wind Sculptures was part of the Public Art Programme for Expo 2020 Dubai and remains a permanent artwork in the new district. Photo: Thorsten Arendt / Expo 2020 Dubai

Shonibare has long been a major source of support to young artists. From 2006 to 2020, he ran Guests Projects space on the ground floor of his London studio off the Regent's Canal in East London. There he showed a rotating display of young artists, who he encouraged to be more experimental. Gas continues in that vein while also building links to Nigeria, where his family is from and where he grew up.

“The art scene right now is very commercial,” Shonibare explains. “But that is not great for the development of an artist, because artists need time and space to develop the work, and so I provided that opportunity. That’s something that gives me joy, to support a younger generation, and to give them some of the opportunities that I had when I was just starting out as an artist.”

The international launch was timed to coincide with the fair Art X Lagos, which has played a major role in establishing links across the continent and in growing the Nigerian artist scene. The space held a soft launch earlier this year, with artists including Lynhan Balatbat Helbock, Emma Prempeh, Portia Zvavahera and Gideon Gomo. Shonibare also staged a show drawn from his collection of ancient, modern and contemporary African art.

Yinka Shonibare, pictured at Gas in Lagos, has been a major source of support for younger generations of artists. Photo: Andrew Esiobo

Shonibare's second space is Ecology Green Farm in Ijebu, a village about 100 kilometres north-east of the Nigerian capital. A working organic farm spanning about 22 hectares, it is dedicated to researching food security — a growing problem across the African continent, and one that has become the focus of a number of artistic spaces.

The Delfina Foundation in London is currently centring three years of its programming around the politics of food, and Art Jameel launched its Jeddah site, Hayy Jameel, with the show Staple: What’s On Your Plate?, which looked at different artistic investigations into food and agriculture.

Members of the well-known Raqs Media Collective from Delhi are the first “weather reporters” at the site, where they will be in residence from early next year with other artists and practitioners to develop research around agricultural production in the southern Nigerian climate.

“The issue of food sustainability for local people is one of the pressing issues of our time,” says Shonibare. “It’s essential that we're growing food for the local community and doing research around ecology on the farm. And the farm will also give artists who are doing residencies in Lagos another opportunity to go to a rural area to understand Nigeria better and to start to engage with nature.”

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Updated: November 18, 2022, 5:12 AM