Why contemporary northern Nigerian art?

I am currently undertaking a PhD at SOAS, London, on the state and development of contemporary arts in northern Nigeria.

My interest in Nigerian contemporary arts goes back to a visit in 2000 when I participated in a Hausa language course organised by the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD).

group photo of us participants of the 2000 DAAD Hausa language course in Azare, Bauchi State, Nigeria, Left: me and my host family in Azare

During my time there I also visited the campus of Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria. There I not only came across the magnificent sculpture garden showcasing works by students of the local arts department but also, together with a friend, got talking to one of the lecturers there who invited us into his studio, showing and discussing some of his works. To my embarrassment I have to admit that, at the time, I was rather baffled by his art: it simply wasn’t what I had expected. I cannot recall what kind of art I had expected him to have produced and show to us, I suspect I even then didn’t know what I anticipated, but somehow something different – the same famous “different,” I guess, that almost everything coming from Africa here in Europe is generally expected to display. By that time I hardly knew anything about so-called traditional African art and still less about contemporary arts from the continent. I was two years into my Magister degree in African Studies at Humboldt University, Berlin, but African arts did not feature in our curriculum. But my studies must already have had transformed my way of looking at things somewhat as somehow this expectation on my part of this (in-) famous “africanity” in his work troubled me – it was quite shocking to discover that not only I knew hardly anything about contemporary African, or more precisely Nigerian, art but even worse: despite two years filled with seminars and lectures about African languages, cultures, literatures I had filled this void with the same blurry stereotypes we were busy criticising and deconstructing in our lectures and seminars. My reaction to this was to try and learn as much as I could about contemporary African arts.

Images of the sculpture garden at ABU

The following summer of 2001 was a good one for everything African in Berlin thanks to The Short Century. It inspired a number of events related to the continent and its cultures, among others a few smaller exhibitions of African arts. In my opinion the most impressive of them was of works by an artists group from Douala, Cercle Kapsiki. Academically, I and some friends used the summer to conduct some research on African artists living and practising in Berlin which we presented in the course of a project seminar. And while slowly learning something about African arts during this summer I discovered artists and artworks I really liked and that really fascinated me. So, when I was offered the opportunity to spend an exchange year at SOAS I took it and attended about every class on African art that was offered. By now completely hooked on the subject I then decided to take a masters degree at SOAS majoring in African arts.

Again I was lucky as 2005 was a particular good year for African arts in London thanks to Africa Remix and the Africa 2005 season organised by the British museum. There were several smaller exhibitions and talks about contemporary African art, which I attended as much as my commitments with the master programme allowed. At the end of the year I wrote my dissertation about Islam and Hausa Material Culture, based upon literature available in London libraries, a topic I partly chose because I was tentatively considering to undertake a PhD on contemporary arts in the northern region of Nigeria at the time, thus taking me back to the place that originally had sparked by interest in contemporary African arts. It, however, took me almost another year to finally make a decision and commit to another three years of study.


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