Sunday, 25 August 2013

In pricing art, Prof Jacob Jari asks: Who do you think you are?


It's the third in the series of Omooba Yemisi Adedoyin Shyllon Art Foundation (OYASAF), which started
last year.

For the latest edition titled “The Price of Art and Its Implication on Art Practice in Nigeria, Prof Jacob Jari raises questions on criteria for rating artists in the art market. Excerpts;

“The Price of Art” may imply the amount of money which someone exchanges for a piece of work. It may also imply the unpleasant things which an artist encounters as a consequence of his or her practice. Initially, I opted to discuss the latter but I was not quite sure which of the experiences to stick to since discussing all of them may require several days of lecture and each of the experiences is as important as the other. Should I discuss my over 50 years experience as a citizen of this country caught in the constant act of witnessing to the public desecration of art and art works?

Should I discuss my experience teaching in a primary school as a “prop” teacher in 1976? I have always wished that there was a forum to lament the conditions of art teaching in many of our primary schools. The art lesson, if it is lucky to be included in the timetable, is usually held as the last lesson on a Friday. There are usually no art materials with which the art teacher will demonstrate anything to the pupils therefore, the school authorities prefer to turn the period into a singing or story-telling session. During examinations, the pupils are encouraged to buy any craft item from the market and submit for assessment.

Should I discuss my experience as a teacher in a secondary school in 1985? The desire for a forum to lament the conditions surrounding art teaching at this level becomes even more acute. Many secondary schools do not have art teachers. If an art teacher was present but he or she was knowledgeable in another subject, it was that other subject which the art teacher was assigned to teach. Where a teacher is assigned to teach art, he or she becomes the only art teacher in the entire school, teaching up to five arms of each class from JSS1 to SSS3. It is rare to obtain a double period for the practical lesson and no studio is provided. This levity with which art is handled in the secondary schools creates the impression as if art is a subject offered only by the unintelligent. Many in society grow up with this impression, some of them becoming iconoclasts eventually.

Should I discuss my experience teaching art in the university since 1989? This experience creates the greatest longing for a special forum to lament the price paid by artists. It should be noted that another term for modern Nigerian art is Nigerian academic art, which basically infers art created by university or polytechnic graduates. This is why many important modern Nigerian artists still maintain jobs at these institutions. The university is arguably, the location where artists are disrespected the most. It starts with the admission exercise, where, although the art candidate still has to qualify with a minimum of five credits including English Language, like every other candidate, the general perception is that the art candidate requires only a credit in Fine Arts. Indeed I once met a Professor from the Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences, Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria who claimed that he did not know that students admitted to study art in the university required any form of qualification! The Professor later on became the Director of the School of Basic and Remedial Studies of the same University and subsequently, the Vice Chancellor of the Kaduna State University. He represents many holding significant positions in academics with no regard for art.
 
Prof Jacob Jari (left), Omoba Yemisi Adedoyin Shyllon and Jessica Williams during the lecture. PHOTO BY OGUNTIMEHIN ARIYO
The ultimate disrespect comes when an artist assumes a teaching position in the university. While his or her colleagues are promoted based on the tenets of their discipline, the artist is compelled to perform twice as much before he or she is promoted. In many of our universities, exhibitions do not count towards the promotion of the artist. He or she is expected, after creating the work or works to write and publish papers about them not in catalogues but in journals. In comparison, a scholar in the humanities does not have to create any work. He or she could wait for the artist to create the work; the scholar then writes about it, publishes and is promoted. The creator of the work scores nothing while the commentator on the work scores full points! This trend has discouraged many artists in the university from practicing, seeking instead avenues to publish or perish.

Perhaps the time is ripe to create a special forum, as suggested at the National Gallery of Art Conference held in Calabar last year, to discuss art and the academia. Until then, I would like to opt to discuss the implication of the monetary cost of works on art practice in Nigeria when it appears there is no logical reason for paying a certain amount of money for a piece of work.
    
Sometime in 1991, Gani Odutokun, then a colleague but my teacher much earlier and subsequently, returned to Zaria from Lagos with the message that a gallery owner was interested in my drawings. I selected four of my very good drawings which I showed to Gani. By way of seeking his consent, I told him how much I was prepared to sell each. To that point, I had not yet sold any work in Lagos. He agreed that the prices I was asking for were fair so I left Zaria to see the gallery owner in Lagos. After a day’s trip and a night spent at a friend’s house, I was eventually able to locate the gallery the following day. The owner appeared happy to see me and even happier to see the four drawings I brought with me. Upon telling him the price of each drawing however, his countenance suddenly changed and he became instantly hostile, prompting him to speak acidly and unintelligibly. Amidst the muttering and hissing, the two questions I could pick out repeatedly were, “Who do you think you are?” and “Who knows you?” I was shocked at this tantrum and I remained frozen until he finished his outburst at which point I asked him how much he was prepared to offer for the drawings. He looked at me intently and without batting an eye offered the price I was asking for one drawing for the entire four! In response, I too looked at him in a similar manner and told him to pay! He was so shocked at my response that he asked me to repeat what I said, so I did. He suddenly became jovial once more and putting his arm round my shoulders, he declared that he could do business with me. He implored me to bring more drawings and my paintings when I got back to Zaria. He then told his wife to pay me what we had agreed for the drawings. I am not sure which one was more humiliating, the price he was paying for the works or the kind of notes his wife used in paying me. The best of the notes was stapled in seven places and oozing a stench worse that a latrine’s! I collected the money quietly and left and although I visited the gallery a few more times subsequently to run errands for Gani, it was the first and last time I ever had anything to do with that man. I believe that such cases of rape are rampant and for many young artists, it becomes the initiation rite into professionalism. I was haunted for long by the questions, “Who do you think you are?” and “Who knows you?” Why did it matter whom I was or who knew me if the drawings I produced were good?

I pondered over these questions over the years but the more I read about art and its practice, the more I realized that the last question was based on a certain naivety. To confirm this, I undertook an experiment with my students. I brought out four of my old drawings and showed them. Since they were not signed, the students did not know the artist. I tagged them, A, B, C, and D. I told the students that A was produced by me; Gani Odutokun produced B; Bruce Onobrakpeya produced C while Jimoh Akolo produced D. The students believed me since the Department of Fine Arts of the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, where this experiment was conducted, had the tradition of reserving works of graduating students which origins dated back to the 1950s. I then asked them how much they were willing to pay for each drawing. It was interesting to note that while drawings B, C, and D attracted substantial amounts, nothing significant was offered for A. Yet, in reality, I created all the drawings. I asked the students what informed their decision to award such prices and they simply explained that the other artists were more established than I. It goes to prove that the price of a work is hardly determined by the quality of the work but by the reputation of the artist.

A few other artists have pondered over this question about the reputation of the artist and how it affects the appreciation of the artist’s work. One of such artists was Tom Friedman. In 1992, he created a work he entitled, Hot Balls. The work is an installation of about 200 balls of various sizes and colours. The balls are displayed in a circular manner, the smaller ones at the periphery while the bigger ones are in the middle piled up one on top of the other with the biggest ball at the apex. They create an interesting viewing. There is however, a story about how the balls were acquired which the audience must read. The artist stole them from shops over a period of six months! This information affects the appreciation of the work because each time the spectator views it, he or she cannot help but be reminded that it is composed of stolen property.

Again, something about the history of the artist contributes to the reception of his or her work. In 1995, in a paper entitled, The Signature on a Work of Art, I argued that in order to have an objective assessment of a piece of work, its creator should be hidden from the audience because failure to identify the artist, the audience is forced to appreciate the work based on the aesthetic criteria available to it. When the artist is initially identified however, the tendency is to excuse any flaws if the artist was reputable and to see many of them if the artist was not that reputable. I presented this paper at a conference attended by many artists including Chika Okeke-Angulu who, I remember, argued that it was necessary for the audience to identify the artist in order to make the appreciation of the artist’s work complete. According to him, when an artist displays his work, the artist was also on display. By this logic therefore, the price of a work is influenced by the reputation of the artist. To further illustrate this point, I had cited in the same paper, earlier mentioned, the case of an artist in the Philippines described by Domingo Alconaba, once an art teacher at the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria. Alconaba stated that this artist was so immensely popular that there was a very long queue for his works to the extent that collectors could not wait for him to create paintings. They were content to buy primed and signed supports by him.

Although we are yet to encounter this bizarre situation, what collectors pay for certain works in Nigeria should awaken our curiosity. Granted that the prices of works are largely determined by the reputation of the artists, would that be the case everywhere including Nigeria? To put this issue in context, let us consider two artists, Jimoh Akolo and Demas Nwoko and their performance at a recent auction. The two artists were classmates and both of them had helped to found the Zaria Art Society in the 1950s. Akolo’s fallout with the society shortly after its founding is a matter for another lecture but suffice it to state that both artists grew in stature, each producing and exhibiting at home and abroad. Since Akolo lived and worked much of his life in Zaria, I was more conversant with his work ethics. He constantly painted at home although for many years he was a member of the Ahmadu Bello University administration as well as a Professor. A great draughtsman, Akolo won many prizes both in drawing and painting. Indeed, it was rumoured that he was probably the best painter of his graduating class which included Demas Nwoko, Uche Okeke and Bruce Onobrakpeya. In 2012 Akolo’s painting, Untitled, was auctioned by Arthouse in Lagos for N700,000. Compare that to the amount, N7,000,000, at which Nwoko’s work, Praise Singer, was auctioned the same year by the same Arthouse. By the way, both artists are alive. So, what parameters were used?

Arthouse has also auctioned a few of my works but I have never made it to any significant figure with the auction house. In comparison, I have seen much younger artists with shorter and, excuse the immodesty, less impressive CVs than I raking in twice, thrice and quadruple my figures. Some of the works I have sold recently include, Brighton at the Mojo Gallery in Dubai in 2011 for $10,000 and Untitled, a very small piece at the Bonham auction in London in 2012 for £3,000. Compare these to The Hunt auctioned at the Arthouse in 2012 for N800,000 and another Untitled at another Arthouse auction earlier this year for N500,000.

If I were rich, I would buy anything I fancy. We cannot therefore, begrudge collectors their right to collect works based on their fancy which may include kitsch.  What is however, disturbing is the impact of such collection on art practice. A little incident in 1994 at the Guinness exhibition in Lagos exemplifies this point. The Guinness company at that time was one of the few companies which promoted artists. It organized a yearly exhibition of works by young artists drawn from different parts of Nigeria. One of its policies was to buy at least one work from each participant and apparently, the participants from the Lagos axis already knew about this. In 1994, I was one of the privilege artists to be selected from the North. The others were Kefas Danjuma and Mohammed Sani. The organizers of the exhibition had earlier asked for the price list which we sent before our departure to Lagos. We were surprised on arrival by not only the relatively poor works exhibited by the representatives from Lagos but also the unthinkably high prices attached to them. We were to learn later that having been aware that Guinness would buy at least a work from each participant, these artists from Lagos brought their not-too-good works to dispose for very high prices. If this was true, what Guinness acquired from the Lagos participants were not the fair representative works from Lagos in 1994.

The point I have been trying to make since the beginning of this lecture is that the manner in which works are collected in Nigeria encourages artists to remain in a certain mould of creation which targets sales. There appears to be no logic in why a certain artist’s work attracts a huge price against another artist’s work which sells for almost nothing. There is therefore, the tendency for artists who wish to sell works to ape those who successfully sell theirs. This perhaps accounts for why forgery is particularly rampant in Nigeria not only perpetrated by artists but by gallery owners. There is no place this situation is better illustrated than in the workshops which expatriates set up in Nigeria in the 1940s and 1960s. Take the case of the Oye Ekiti workshop set up by Fr. Kevin Carroll in 1947. It was meant to employ already established carvers in Yoruba land to create Christian art for Catholic churches based on indigenous imagery. For about seven years the carvers in Oye Ekiti produced brilliant works for the churches until the strong lure for money pushed Fr. Carroll into accepting commissions to reproduce Epa masks which were both highly sought after by traditional shrine keepers as well as collectors abroad. Consequently, the workshop centre was closed down in 1953.

I have had the privilege of attending a few group exhibitions of Nigerian artists on at least three continents from 1995. One of the more recent ones was in Egypt in 2010, which had two sections, the Nigerian and the Egyptian, and both of them exhibited contemporary art from the two countries. It was clear to see how differently art from the two countries had developed. In the Nigerian section, it was difficult to see any transitions in more than 50 years of modern art practice. Generally, the same themes and techniques had been maintained. In contrast, the Egyptian section exhibited more conceptual work, contemporaneous to present art practice elsewhere in the world which I have seen or read about. This absence of any obvious change in the works of modern Nigerian artists is encouraged primarily by the price of art which is not founded on any logical basis. To overcome this issue, patrons of art and artists with a sincere desire to develop art should set up art foundations which should provide funds to assist creative artists with new ideas which might not be, from the superficial point of view, commercially viable but which sharpen the artists’ desire for freedom of expression, a condition which gives birth to different feats of gainful development. At the moment, such foundations are rare and even where they exist they are politically motivated. In ten years of coordinating the Aftershave Workshop (from 1998-2008) for instance, there was nothing we did not do to obtain funding from organizations. To this day, they did not give us a single kobo rather, we were able to organize a few events largely because of donations from foreign sympathizers. Some of the works created at these events speak for themselves.         

Selected References
Arthouse Contemporary Limited (2012) Modern and Contemparary Art. Spenta Multimedia, Mumbai, India.

Bridger, N.J. (2004) Revisiting the Oye-Ekiti Workshop: Africanizing Christian Art and Neo-Traditionalizing Yoruba Art. Paper presented at ACASA Triennial, 2004.

Friedman, T. (2001) Tom Friedman. London: Phaidon Press Ltd.

Jari, J. (1995) The Signature on a Work of Art. Paper presented at Akolo At 60 Conference, Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, 1995.

National Gallery of Art (2010) Nigeria Visual Arts World Tour. Abuja: National Gallery of Art.

Professor Jacob Jari
 (Curriculum Vitae)

Jacob Jari was born in 1960 to Ngas parents in Plateau State. He attended St Murumba College, Jos and Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria. He holds a Master of Fine Arts degree in Painting and a PhD in Art History. He was employed by his alma mater in 1989 and became a Professor in 2008. Jacob has helped to graduate students at different levels both in the practice and theory of art. He has participated in exhibitions, conferences, workshops, residencies and publications. He has also curated exhibitions and organized art events including founding art groups. A few selected milestones Jacob has achieved include, coordinating the Aftershave Workshop from 1998 to 2008; curating the Accident and Design exhibition at the Brunei Gallery, University of London, London in 2000; heading the Department of Fine Arts, Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria from 2005 to 2007; being external examiner to Makerere University, Kampala from 2006 to 2008; being external examiner to Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, Kumasi from 2011 to 2013 and being the Dean, Faculty of Environmental Design, Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria from 2013. His scholarship revolves around topical issues in art practice in Nigeria while his practice elevates rejects to prominence.




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