Narrow bridges

Shonibare: Building Bridges Between Arts and Opportunity

During the inauguration of the guest artists space in Oniru, Lekki, Lagos, British-Nigerian artist, Yinka Shonibare CBE RA reveals the motivations behind his ambitious charity project for artists and society at large in an interview exclusive with Yinka Olatunbosun

The wire mesh part of the building reflected the rising sun and a glimmer of hope. Guests at the press conference to announce the first of two buildings donated by British-Nigerian artist, Yinka Shonibare CBE RA trickled in and their banter was cut short with the arrival of the host.

The UK-born entertainer may have made regular visits to Nigeria where he grew up until his late teens, but this time the reception was quite different. He would speak forcefully about his nonprofit, Guest Artists Space, an initiative of his longtime charity, the Yinka Shonibare Foundation.

The two-pronged grant is intended to facilitate cultural exchange through tailored residencies, public programs and exhibition opportunities primarily for creative practitioners from Africa and its Diaspora.

The GAS Foundation, as an ambitious charitable project founded in 2019 by Yinka Shonibare CBE RA and a Board of Directors, provides great opportunities for individuals in the fields of contemporary art, design, architecture, agriculture and ecology with space and resources to research, experiment, interact, share, educate and develop work.

On the one hand, the GAS building in Oniru is a sight to behold, modern with a roof that gives a bird’s eye view of the neighborhood. Designed by British-Ghanaian architect Elsie Owusu in collaboration with Lagos-based architect Nihinlola Shonibare of NS Design Consult, it is furnished with live work units and versatile gallery space.

As part of the launch on Friday, February 25, an exhibition featuring a selection of works acquired by Shonibare over the past two decades is presented. The collection of photographs, sculptures, paintings, works on paper and mixed media collages curated by Temitayo Ogunbiyi draws every viewer into the contemplation of contemporary art in conversation with works of Nigerian modernism and antiquity.

On the other hand, the lush 54-acre Ecology Green Farm in Ijebu is home to Shonibare’s second building. Designed by MOE’s Papa Omotayo and interior design by Shonibare, it provides residency space for artists, scientists, farmers and researchers with sustainable infrastructure and food security for the host community. All the materials used in the construction came from the community: 40,000 mud bricks were used for the foundations.

“The art world must evolve: there is a rich pool of talent, but we could lose it if the status quo of the last thirty years persists. We work with the local community while opening doors for the next generation, equipping them to thrive and not just survive,” he said.

The first floor of the Oniru building has been reserved exclusively for Shonibare. Elevators wouldn’t stop on this floor unless he expected you to visit. Although he brought up the subject of this charity project when we last met, it was gratifying to see what he has to contribute – a bold project in a vastly underfunded sector of the economy.

“It gives me a lot of joy and I’m very happy to be here. It’s not a concept anymore. People can see it and support us more. I’m very happy about it,” he said.

Fortunately, it is a project that many have offered to support in order to make it sustainable. What surprised is that Shonibare also sets the tone by linking the arts to social justice with his ecological intervention. He does not ignore the needs of the average Nigerian.

“A lot of artists actually create art about things in the world that are relevant to them,” he said. “I know food sustainability is an issue in Nigeria. I know food is expensive for some people and Nigeria imports a lot of food and while we are also environmentally conscious we don’t want the things that we can grow here to be imported. It’s even bad for the environment. And I also know that there is a lot of unemployment in Nigeria and if I create something like agriculture, a lot of people can work there and a lot of people can have more businesses and sell their products. I know that’s way better – creating something like this is way better than sending money to a community where you have something that can build skills and jobs. People have that forever. Not everywhere in Nigeria is like Lagos so it will bring more opportunities to rural areas.

Coincidentally, this project was launched the very year the revered artist was turning 60. His life story has been an inspiration to many: At 18, he contracted transverse myelitis, an inflammation of the spinal cord that resulted in long-term physical disability. Undeterred, Shonibare went on to study fine art at Byam Shaw School of Art (now Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design) and then Goldsmiths, University of London, where he earned his master’s degree in fine art. arts, graduated under the Young British Artists. generation. Subsequently, Shonibare worked as Art Development Manager for Shape Arts, an organization that makes the arts accessible to people with disabilities and has exhibited at the Venice Biennale and major museums around the world. When asked if at 60 he had accomplished more than he ever thought he could, a smile warmed his face.

“It’s very interesting because, as you know, I got a virus in my spine when I was very young. I had a disability because of it. When I was sick, if someone had told me that I could really reach that age, I wouldn’t believe it. I think I more than surprised myself too. I could manage to do everything I can now. I am grateful for that. That’s why I’m very happy to support others. In fact, I had the opportunity that allowed me to fly. There are so many opportunities in Europe and I noticed that in Nigeria the same opportunities do not exist and I want to offer them. There are many talented people like me whose lives can change drastically just because someone gave them an opportunity. I think it is important.

His investments in Nigeria’s creative economy come straight from his heart and out of his pocket. As someone of moderate taste and self-indulgence, he considers doing this project a natural thing.

“I’m not someone who needs a lot of things. I don’t need expensive cars or stuff like that, so I like to do social things,” he explained.

Shonibare’s works embody discourses on race, postcolonialism, identity and globalization. With the cultural exchange programs and multicultural artistic residencies that GAS would organize, it is expected that the center will promote better mutual understanding of cultures and strengthen humanity. Given Shonibare’s commitment to these, he has responded to the resurgence of new global movements that tend to revisit the issue of racial discrimination.

“I think it’s very sad that the George Floyd thing happened in America. It’s very sad that black people still don’t have social justice and I think that’s retrograde. And I think it’s That’s also the point of having this residency – to open people’s eyes. If you bring someone here from another culture, maybe they’ve never bought black people or maybe they just ‘he doesn’t know anything about Africans, when he comes here he learns more and realizes that we can all learn from each other and that would broaden their thoughts. I think any kind of racism is based on the narrowness of mind and so you have to open their eyes to be educated. It’s the lack of education that causes some of these problems. I think if you have an international residency like this, people learn more and become enlightened and slowly some of these things are resolving.

It is intended to ensure an interdisciplinary structure for the residency. Among other opportunities, participating artists would hone their craft, learn about global arts markets, and broaden their perspectives.

“I know a lot of people internationally and they will come here to do projects, discuss their work. In my experience, you would never know who is in the audience and you would never have opportunities. I had my own opportunities the same way. You may never know who sees your work. So, I provide this platform to people and hope that someone would see their work show it in another art fair or in many exhibitions or museums. But if people don’t have the platform first, they won’t have any opportunities.

As a conceptual artist, Shonibare has always been a perpetual project manager. Needless to say, project management is the way forward to rebuild the art sector in the post-pandemic period. To meet the demands of project economics, it shares insights into what makes a project work.

“Without good project management, you don’t achieve your goals,” he said. “You have to be strategic and organized and you have to be an expert in planning. And you need to be able to mitigate any risk. And you have to be pretty quick in your thinking. Doing a project like this in Nigeria is not easy at all. I’ve encountered quite a few obstacles that I don’t even want to repeat here, but if you are determined and plan properly you could alleviate most of these difficulties and that’s something I’m used to. to do. And I really like challenges. If someone says I can’t do something, I want to do more. This is proof that it is possible to do this kind of project here.

He left with the promise that he would visit Nigeria more, but when it came to making an autobiography at 60, he replied, “Well, I’m still young. Maybe I’ll do that one day. I still have so much to do before I do this.