Tag Archives: ikoyi

The sun shines on all Nigerians.

Wednesday, April 25.

There’s a convivial buzz when I arrive at the Terra Kulture gallery on Victoria Island one steamy weeknight. By now this low-wattage hum has become as familiar to me in Lagos as the deep, throaty thrum of the city’s ubiquitous generators – a salubrious din of feminine flattery and real estate tips, punctuated by the guffaws of men with paunches as robust as their portfolios. The scene is virile, expectant; there is a giddy awareness among us that vast sums of money are about to be spent. The view from the far side of the Third Mainland Bridge might be one of squalor, injustice, and unparalleled misery, but at tonight’s art auction, the cream of Lagosian society is prepared to do what it does best: put on a show of conspicuous consumption.

The men are in linens and monogrammed shirts and sport jackets with pocket squares; the women are elaborately made up and accessorized by their men. I suspect the collective cost of the fashionable eyewear in the room rivals the GDP of neighboring Benin. The walls are hung with works by contemporary masters like Ben Enwonmu and Bruce Onobrakpeya, but it’s not a stretch to say that for many in the room, the paintings amount to little more than expensive wallpaper. The action is on the floor, where some complex social pecking order is no doubt being reaffirmed. After a protracted bit of foreplay, the night’s emcee steps to the podium. “Please put your phones on vibrate, so you do not interrupt someone who is going to spend some millions,” he says, to approving laughter.

In 1999 the Nimbus Art Center in Ikoyi held the first auction of contemporary art in Nigeria, bringing in N22 million (around $1 million at the inflated official rate at the time, though closer to $250,000 at the black-market rate). It was a clear indication that a local market for contemporary Nigerian art existed. Nearly a decade later, in April 2008, Arthouse Contemporary Limited held the first of a series of auctions that quickly became de rigueur events for a small but dedicated band of serious collectors. Their first auction netted N76 million ($630,000); just seven months later, a second auction brought in N93 million ($770,000). Arthouse owner Kavita Chellaram told Arise magazine in 2009 that the April auction had a 90 percent success rate. “The second one took place in the thick of the credit crunch when, in auction houses elsewhere in the world, sales had halved,” she said. “We still managed to sell over 80 percent of the lots.”

The auctions were a revelation. The appetite for Nigerian art was ravenous among local collectors. Onobrakpeya’s panel work “Greater Nigeria” sold for a record-setting N9.2 million ($75,000); Yusuf Grillo’s “Blue Moon” for N8.8 million ($72,000). When the London auction house Bonhams held its first “Africa Now” auction in 2009 – a show dominated by Nigerian artists – the country for the first time seemed to be carving out a small but vocal niche in the global art world. Yet the burgeoning scene in Lagos – like so much in this megacity – is largely booming behind closed doors. “How much is known of the local collections being put together now in Lagos?” asks Jess Castellote, in his preface to the gorgeous coffee-table tome, Contemporary Nigerian Art in Lagos Private Collections. “How many people outside a small circle of art enthusiasts in Nigeria are aware that several of the top collectors in Lagos acquire an average of 100 contemporary art works per year and that these works are not kept in New York, London or Brussels, but in Lagos? How many people know that in Lagos alone, there are well over a hundred full time visual artists living off their work?”

Private collectors are driving the market, but even the most avid buyers, like Yemisi Shyllon and Sammy Olagbaju, are relative unknowns to the general public. Clearly the booming art market is benefiting from the broader economic surge across Nigeria, and the emergence of a professional class with the disposable income to nurture it. (Shyllon is an engineer; Olagbaju, a banker.) The fact that many of these collectors spent significant portions of their lives abroad has no doubt helped to import the Western idea of art as a status symbol. It can be a worthwhile investment, too. Peter Areh, owner of Lagos’ Pendulum Art Gallery, told Arise, “Before now, people were looking to stocks and shares [as investment vehicles], but when they began to see that you could buy art for one naira today and sell it for three naira tomorrow, the market expanded.”

The lots at Terra Kulture are moving briskly. My companion Uzo – who was born in Nigeria, but only recently returned after schooling in the States – is busily making notations in the margins of her catalog. She’s just begun to take an interest in the local art scene, dabbling, dipping a toe in, not sure whether her interest is the start of something – collecting? curating? – or a passing phase. Like so many of the restless young returnees I’ve met these past two weeks in Lagos, Uzo is looking for her niche here. You see them in Bogobiri, hunched over their MacBooks, fussing with business plans and proposals. There’s a gold-rush mentality among them, a sense of impending fortunes to be made with the right idea. If not a new app or a VOD platform for Nigerian movies, why not art? Certainly this world has its own aphrodisiac appeal; during a round of fierce bidding for one hotly contested lot, the spiraling figures send a nervous buzz through the crowd. The build-up is excruciating, exquisite. When the hammer drops and the painting finally sells for more than N8 million, the ovation is swift and spontaneous. There is something distinctly Lagosian about our applause at this spirited burst of spending. The effect it has on the room is contagious. When the lot number is called just a few minutes later of a painting Uzo has had her eye on all night, she gets a restless itch. The bidding stalls at N150,000 – just under a thousand bucks, an amount she’s trying to talk herself into. But she’s too slow to decide; the hammer falls. She sighs, scribbles the final bid in her catalog, and dog-ears the page for future reference.

After the last lot is called and the crowd files out, you can feel the high mood of the night beginning to dissipate. A certain uneasiness, an unfulfillment, settles in the bones. Uzo – still readjusting after years in the Pacific Northwest – admits there’s a degree of ennui to the Lagos life. “When you spend some time here, Lagos is so small,” she says. “You can only hear so many times about someone’s big house, their new car, their trips to Ibiza.”

I’m reminded of a conversation I had one morning at Bogobiri, when Chike, the hotel’s charismatic co-owner, was bemoaning the country’s “sleepy middle class,” who spend their days burying their heads in office work and their nights knocking back overpriced drinks at the Radisson Blu. I could picture them, the same Nigerians you see on billboards and in TV ads, cheerful families in bright dresses and polo shirts eating Indomie instant noodles and washing their hands with anti-bacterial soap. It’s hard for me to begrudge them their sanitized, corporate-branded happiness. But Chike was resolute. The long-simmering insurrection in the Delta was still on a low boil, he said; the violence in the north had grown increasingly harder to contain, and was threatening to spread south. Across the country, there were deeply entrenched issues of economic inequality that no one had the courage to address. “We’re a nation at war,” said Chike. “People don’t realize that.”

“The middle classes are looking after themselves,” said John, the publisher of an educational magazine. “That’s the reason there was no African Spring, or Nigerian Spring. Even at the bottom, there’s a greedy spirit. People are just fighting for themselves.”

There is more than a shred of truth to this. Across classes and cultures, Nigerians are famously complacent. What shocked – and heartened – so many about January’s Occupy Nigeria protests was that for the first time, millions of Nigerians were able to cut across class lines and find common cause with one another. (Worth noting is the fact that it took removal of the fuel subsidy – one of the few tangible goods from which all Nigerians benefit – to do it.) Should such unity be so hard? For decades this country was ruled by a succession of military strongmen, followed by elected leaders whose track record has been spotty at best. Corruption, repression, thievery, and brutal thuggery have been systemic and indiscriminate for so long that you’d imagine victimhood alone would serve as a kind of rallying cry. Yet here you run into the curious inverted logic of Nigerian life, where the government’s crimes and failures, coupled with a general malaise, have instead turned the average Nigerian into an island, cut off from his neighbors. The admirable self-reliance you so often find has a darker political dimension: it allows the country’s leaders to – often literally – get away with murder. Without accountable leaders, Nigerians are forced to fend for themselves; and because they’re accustomed to doing so, they end up lacking both the willpower and the political muscle to hold their leaders accountable. “If there’s no water, you go get a bucket,” a man once told me. “If there’s no light, you turn on the generator.”

Speaking with Chike and John that morning, I found myself in the middle of a very Nigerian sort of conversation – one in which political, social and economic decline are directly tied to a general moral waywardness, a straying from Providence and Scripture. “There are no fruits of Christianity in this country,” said Chike. “It doesn’t matter if you are a Christian or a Muslim, because it has no bearings on your day to day life. If you are Christian, you go to church for two hours on a Sunday morning, and that’s it.” The pastors, he said, were a farce: they passed around the collection plate, passed it again, and only after the second offering did they spray the congregation with holy water. The worshippers pushed and shoved, muscling their way forward to receive his blessing. And the country’s leaders were no better, hollowed out by a cancerous moral rot. Someone mentioned in passing that the former military ruler Ibrahim Babangida had recently been seen in a wheelchair; he had a young boyfriend who had “almost tore apart his rectum.” “This is what they’re getting up to,” said Chike. A look of disgust passed across his face. It was as if some Biblical prophecy had come to pass, with even the decrepit infrastructure and the failures of NEPA part of some broader judgment. “The Lord said let there be light, and there is darkness in Nigeria,” he said.

Driving toward the mainland later that week, I notice a government billboard proclaiming, “The sun shines on all Nigerians, no matter who.” This might be true, for the sun does not discriminate; but the fruits of Nigerian life, as Chike pointed out, are more fickle. The shops along Awolowo Road – AV Posh Interiors, Exclusive Lights, The Great Room (“…bespoke interior design”) – are no more meant for all Nigerians than the lunch menu at Chardonnay or the velvet-roped bacchanals of Bacchus. Yet this is true of any society; and, again, it is hard for me to begrudge a man his happiness on the sole basis that he’s managed to succeed in a country where most haven’t. Not all the wealth in Nigeria has been plundered; not every hand has been tainted by some ill-gotten government contract, a 419 scam, a dash. This might seem like an obvious point; yet so much of what seems obvious to me here in Lagos would seem less so if you were reading the morning news in New York, or Sydney, or Berlin.

One afternoon I’m having drinks with a friend in her apartment on V.I. – a beautiful penthouse pad with 180-degree views looking across creeks and mangroves toward the harbor, and the distant blue-gray smudge of the Atlantic. Container ships chug through the narrow channel separating us from a small island dense with coconut palms. The island looks idyllic, untouched. I’ve read of secret hideaways dotting the lagoons surrounding Lagos, playgrounds of the rich and famous: an elite antithesis to the floating slums of Makoro. Late in the day the sun is dipping, the light softening. From the 13th floor of an apartment tower on one of the world’s priciest pieces of real estate, it seems possible to keep Lagos – this manic, unhinged metropolis – at arm’s length. But my friend tells me about the day she saw a bloated corpse drifting along the water below her window. A few days later, another. “That was really sobering, to see that,” she says. “It makes you realize there’s a whole different world out there. We’re so safe and protected here.”

After dinner her housekeeper tells us a popular story that has made the rounds in Lagos. A man is returning to Nigeria after 17 years abroad. His brother, who is a soldier, arrives at Murtala Muhammad to welcome the prodigal home from Germany. But the flight is delayed, and when he returns hours later, there is still no word of the arrival time. After a long wait, the man decides to go home, reasoning that his worldly brother can find a taxi to take him to his house in Ikoyi. It’s late when the flight finally lands, and because the roads are dangerous, there is no taxi driver willing to drive to Ikoyi. The hotels near the airport are booked, so the driver suggests dropping the man at the police station, where he can pass the night safely until the driver returns for him in the morning. The next day, when he arrives at the police station, there’s no sign of the man. The duty officers – who only arrived that morning for the day shift – have heard nothing of this man, who has mysteriously vanished in the night; they were only told of a confrontation with an armed robber, whose bullet-riddled corpse was left in a nearby ditch. Fearing the worst, the driver approaches the ditch and sees the body of the man he had brought there the night before. His heart is racing; he suspects foul play. He goes to the home of the man’s brother in Ikoyi to tell him the horrible news. The soldier accompanies him to the station to make some inquiries, listening impassively to the same denials. But he recognizes his brother’s clothing on one of the off-duty policemen, and the driver spots a suitcase the man was traveling with: it had been full of U.S. dollars, the man had told him, that he was bringing into the country. They say nothing and part outside. The soldier returns to Ikoyi and makes some calls to his army friends. A truck arrives, full of heavily armed soldiers. They return to the police station and begin shooting indiscriminately, killing dozens. “In fact, it was horrible,” says the housekeeper, shaking her head. The bloodbath was total, a purge. To this day, the police station has never reopened. Within weeks, a low-budget movie had hit the streets of Lagos, elevating the story to myth. The housekeeper says I can find the movie at any DVD shop.

“That was this Nigeria at that time,” she says.

A river does not travel a new path for nothing.

Monday, April 9.

Somewhere high over the Gulf of Guinea, the sound of laughter and cutlery from first class.

Just a meager blue curtain separates us, though I feel worlds removed from whatever bacchanal is unfolding on the other side. My stomach is grumbling. Earlier, not long after our Arik Air flight had cleared South African territorial skies and banged a right over Windhoek, I’d passed on the watery scrambled eggs being circulated by the cheerless flight crew. Breakfast at OR Tambo’s News Café sat heavy in my stomach. Now, three hours later, Lagos still a good way off, the steward having handed out hermetically sealed slices of chocolate cake with a sour face and a shrug, the cheerful ruckus in first class – the promise of hot meals and French bubbly – sounds like the Garden of Earthly Delights. I am sure I’m overreacting. As we boarded I noticed just three passengers on the other side of the curtain, an attractive middle-aged woman and her two daughters. I wondered if they were some minor figures in the plutocratic drama of Nigerian life: the family of some plump minister with a second-rate portfolio, perhaps, fresh off a South African shopping spree fueled by ill-gotten petrol dollars. The mother looked handsomely harried, carrying her duty-free bags. Her daughters stood stiffly beside her in their school uniforms, blue blazers buttoned over their unformed breasts, staring wide-eyed at the economy-class pleebs sitting three across in the cheap seats.

The stewardess brought them drinks. They sipped from tumblers of apple juice, or possibly champagne. The little brats.

Hungry, dehydrated, having passed a long, sleepless night consumed by pre-trip jitters, I nod in and out of consciousness, too tired to let my fears get the best of me. Fifty-four minutes from now we’ll be touching down in Lagos, and whatever uncertainty I have about this trip – my first journey into Africa’s most populous and tumultuous nerve center – will dissolve with the first onslaught of sticky-fingered customs officials and tropical heat. I have no idea what to expect once we hit the tarmac. Words of warning, I’ve decided, are best left unheeded. “Only a masochist with an exuberant taste for self-violence will pick Nigeria for a holiday,” wrote Chinua Achebe. “It is dirty, callous, noisy, ostentatious, dishonest, and vulgar. In short, it is among the most unpleasant places on earth!”

I had left one of the pleasant places, my little bourgeois redoubt in Rosebank, the jacaranda-lined street and the windows that flooded the living room with sunlight. Joburg had grown comfortable, like a favorite pair of jeans. I felt my life there taking root, growing, flowering, stripped of whatever ambivalence I’d felt toward the city in the past. The place felt like home. My attachments to the city were deepening; place-names acquired mythic significance, as if sung in Homeric odes. Kitchener’s. Sophiatown. Melville. Yeoville. For the first time in years, my friendships weren’t the transitory bonds of the perpetual traveler; they had strengthened, acquired histories, secret meanings. New faces arrived like portents which I tried to decipher. My last week in Joburg – the start of my 35th year – was like a celebration, a coronation. I had channeled the spirit of Baudelaire: “You have to be always drunk. That’s all there is to it.” Less on virtue than wine and song. We had our feast days. Easter weekend was spent knee-deep in lamb roasts and Cape wines. But the nights were growing longer, the first bite of winter was in the air. Change was on the way. Coming home from a friend’s braai one night, my taxi driver bemoaned the perils of fatherhood, of age, the way the lessons of his childhood in KwaZulu-Natal had been abandoned. Teenagers today would smoke cigarettes in front of their teachers and talk back to their elders. The moral ground had shifted. Change had crept up on him like a thief in the night. “I think this world is going to end,” he said, with a heavy sigh.

“How many times is a man reborn in one life?” asks Azaro’s father in The Famished Road. I’ve given myself a crash course in Nigerian literature these past few weeks, turning the final pages of Ben Okri’s novel in the minutes before our descent into Murtala Mohammed International. Set in the early years of independence, it tells the story of the spirit-boy Azaro and his family through the lens of the turbulent politics of the time. The shifting fortunes of Azaro’s family, the daily struggles of his long-suffering mother and the constant, tragicomic quest of his father for rebirth, give the book its emotional backbone. It is not hard to see why Okri would show such a passionate desire for reinvention. The book was written in the early-‘90s, before the terrible violence of the Abacha regime, but on the heels of more than two decades of military dictatorships and coups. The optimism of the independence era in Nigeria died a swift, brutal death – buried, perhaps, in the killing fields of Biafra. If you were looking for a parable of squandered hope in post-colonial Africa, you would have to look no farther than the kleptocracy that has taken what Achebe called “a nation favored by Providence” and emptied its riches into foreign bank accounts. The prophetic passages toward The Famished Road’s conclusion are told with the grim assurance of hindsight. “Suffering is coming. There will be wars and famine. Terrible things will happen. New diseases, hunger, the rich eating up the earth, people poisoning the sky and the waters, people going mad in the name of history, the clouds will breathe fire, the spirit of things will dry up, laughter will become strange.” The novel groans with the weight of the family’s suffering, yet it sings with hope, too. “A river does not travel a new path for nothing,” says Azaro’s father. This road, these journeys, must mean something.

Coming through a bank of clouds I see the coastline beneath us, then a broad belt of tropical greenery, little homesteads stitched together by dirt roads. I had expected Lagos to be a full frontal assault, a slap in the face, but it appears slowly: a few clusters of zinc-roofed shanties, then a few more, and then, as if some organism had divided and sub-divided, had infinitely replicated itself like the cancerous cells of some tropical disease, the city is there, flat, endless, a sprawl of densely packed houses and rusted rooftops, like playing cards haphazardly tossed to the ground. I remember my arrival in Joburg two years ago, the electric sprawl of the city by night, but this feels like something else entirely. Joburg’s tidy suburbs looked as neatly parceled as a carton of eggs; Lagos, Africa’s maximum city, looks like a human omelet.

The plane touches down, bumps over the tarmac. None of the applause or prayers of thanksgiving I’d heard on arriving in Accra last year. We get up, bundle our things together, hustle out the door. The heat is thick, murky, something you must wade through. Murtala Mohammed International has a drab, bureaucratic air, like the headquarters of the Nigerian revenue authority, some place where government functionaries sit lifelessly counting the hours toward whatever meager pensions await them. The ducts are exposed and the halls are lit by a terrible fluorescence that periodically flickers and dims: Nigeria, Africa’s leading oil producer, can barely pay its own electricity bills. Descending the stairs to immigration, two escalators suddenly thrum to life. At the bottom, the doors are locked; we wait for a man in khaki and epaulets, braids dangling from his shoulders, to arrive with the key. A South African friend once told the story of a terrible crush as dozens of passengers, laden with their much-loved bags of duty-free goods, arrived to the same locked doors, their bodies pressed together as the merciless escalators continued to deposit people behind them. Arik Air flight W3104 from Johannesburg is more fortunate; the doors swing open; we surge forward. As soon as the last of us has arrived the escalators come to a standstill, the airport authorities having no doubt learned to cut corners wherever they can.

Life in South Africa has perhaps infected me in some small ways, poisoned my bloodstream with its fears and paranoias. (Just a few days ago, a man had told me about a colleague who “always traveled to Nigeria with a bodyguard.”) I have been bracing myself for months for just this moment, the expected inquisition at customs, the fearful specter of men in military uniforms and dark sunglasses wanting to ask me a few questions in windowless rooms. I had expected, too, not to make it out of the airport in one piece without paying the required dash. Instead, though, I am subjected to the usual African tedium: the long, snaking queue of sighing passengers; the whites fanning themselves with their passports; the immigration officials interrupting their duties to bicker and flirt with their male and female colleagues, respectively; the authoritatively dressed men with permanent frowns, standing around, doing nothing. No less than three separate officials are required to process my passport – a useful job-creation strategy, if ever I saw one. And yet still, a certain kind of entropy reigns. Two officials are sitting side by side, sharing the same desk. By the time I’ve handed my passport to the first, rejoined a separate queue, and returned to collect it, the second man has a puzzled look on his face. “Who took your passport?” he asks. I point to the man whose elbow is practically touching his. “He did.” Somehow, between the six inches separating them, my passport has vanished. A gruff woman in a khaki uniform arrives, then a regal man in a loose, colorful agbada. They confer. My passport resurfaces. A middle-aged man in uniform supervises with a scowl. “You have to organize yourself,” he says severely to the colleague who lost my passport, shaking his head.

My passport reclaimed, my luggage collected, my crisp American dollars changed into musty naira notes, my Nigerian SIM card registered by a surly youth who barked “Not now” when I interrupted his meal of chicken and foufou (only to add, perhaps ironically, “Come join me”), and my ride having come to retrieve me from the shade outside the arrivals hall, I am at last barreling into the heart of Lagos. Rob, an American entertainment lawyer who I’d met through a mutual friend, and who offered to share his pricey ride from the airport, takes out his Lumix before we’ve even turned onto the airport road. It’s his first visit to Lagos in nearly three years; already he is in the city’s thrall. The city goes and goes: gray apartment blocks hung with laundry; unfinished business centers flanked by rickety scaffolding; squalid shanties pressed wall to wall, their rusted zinc rooftops weighed down by stones. Harried pedestrians dart across the road, dodging the swift okadas and yellow minibus-taxis that barrel perilously from lane to lane, jockeying for some imagined advantage. It is impossible to know how many cars crowd the roads of this city of 10 or 12 or 15 million souls, but Lagos was designed for massive traffic flows: flyovers, six- and eight-lane highways, a vast web of tarmac stitching together a city carved by canals and lagoons. That those roads are still insufficient for the city’s needs is beside the point for me: today the roads are mercifully free of traffic, the city catching its breath for a public holiday on the day after Easter. No doubt there will be plenty of time later to acquaint myself with this city’s notorious “go-slows.”

It takes almost half an hour to reach Ikoyi, an upmarket suburb – once an island itself – that was connected by landfill to the rest of Lagos Island some years ago. Turning off Awolowo Road, the main commercial artery, we are quickly pitched onto a bumpy dirt road. Large homes are set back from the leafy streets, the road shaded by palms and strangler figs, various species of tropical foliage for which I’ll never know the names. Power lines, dozens of sagging cables, are hung above the road like a drooping musical score. As in much of urban Africa, the walls double as classified ads. Be a driver in 10 days. Scaffold 4 hire. The mechanic is here. Varying services offered in black paint alongside a certain entrepreneur’s mobile phone number. (Elsewhere, warnings against the notorious conmen who sell fully lived-in homes to unsuspecting consumers: Cavet emptor – Property not for sale.) When we arrive at the African Artists Foundation, a non-profit arts collective where I’ll be spending these next few weeks, the place is plunged in darkness. “I want to on the gen,” says Amos, the young watchman, his voice rising and falling with a pidgin lilt as he scampers off to the generator. In the distance I hear it coughing and sputtering to life; the lights come on; the place is like a wonderland. Paintings and photographs hang from the walls; the shelves are adorned with tribal masks, sculptures, carvings, pottery. It is like being offered a bed in the Uffizi.

On my way out I bump into a young artist, Uche, who rents a room in the back of the foundation. We had met by email a week ago, when he asked me to bring some art supplies from Joburg that were impossible to find in Lagos. He looks over my purchases with a meticulous eye, appraising, then approving. Despite my fears of a colossal fuck-up over the hot-pressed paper and compressed charcoal sticks, I managed to get it right. It is late in the day as we walk along Raymond Njoku Street, the afternoon heat diminishing but potent, the tropical humidity plastering my shirt to my chest. If anything will defeat my sense of purpose in the weeks ahead, it is the suffocating heat of West African climes. Along the road the neighborhood is stirring from its afternoon torpor, men greeting each other with forceful hugs and declamations, women watching with approving smiles as a young child totters to its feet and staggers like a drunk into the road. It is a scene like dawn, like life’s beginnings. For all the chaos and congestion of Lagos, the constant thrum of generators, the Morse code tapping of car horns signaling to each other across multiple lanes of traffic, life in the city’s margins feels relaxed, almost indulgent. A woman is stacking pots and turning the coals on a fire, preparing her chop stall for the night. An old man cocks his head and tunes his radio. Teenage boys sit in a circle in the shade, hunched over a checkerboard. I could be on a quiet street in Bulawayo, in Blantyre, in Jinja, in Nakuru. Lagos, I suspect, is full of paradoxes and contradictions, a world unto itself. Generators rumble all along the road. The power supply is so erratic that homeowners are forced to fend for themselves. “Each house is like a small city,” says Uche.

We arrive at Bogobiri, a boutique hotel and gallery that, as I’ll soon learn, is the de facto hub for much of Lagos’ vibrant arts community. The furniture is hand-carved. A flat-screen TV on the wall is playing CNN International. The waiter hands us thick, bound menus, everything priced in four figures. Art in Lagos must pay awfully well. We order a round of beers and talk about life in Africa’s hyper-city. Uche moved here from Abuja just seven months ago, drawn to this Nigerian El Dorado like so many of his countrymen. Lagos is a measuring stick, a melting pot, a city steeped in Yoruba tradition and culture that nevertheless gathers the thousands of newcomers who arrive each day into its rough embrace. In a fractured country described as “a mere geographical expression” by Chief Obafemi Awolowo more than 60 years ago, this is no small thing. Success here is measured less by tribal ties than by hustle and perseverance. Though the pace is too hectic for Uche, who comes from a small town in the east, it’s the only place for a young artist to find success in this country. Already he has had some gallery shows. He is tough, hopeful, determined.

“If you come to Lagos and you are strong, you can make it out,” he says.