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.