Self-consciousness isn’t something you see much of in Freedom Park, Lagos. Earlier this year, the amphitheatre was choked with bodies, sweat beading on faces, shirts sticking to backs or peeled off entirely, as the crowd thrashed to Afrobeats by Nigerian superstar Sir Shina Peters. Stomping feet sent sand into the air. Beyond the swaying heads, you could make out the bookstalls that line the park’s walkways and the modest red-roofed exhibition hall where debate rages over the merits of the latest film screening. There are few better places than this public park to pulse-check Lagos’s contemporary cultural scene: it is, quite palpably, pounding with creative energy.
Home to an estimated 21 million hustlers, dreamers and innovators, this sprawling port city has long been a magnet for West African creative talent and has well-established literary, music (from Afrobeat to Juju) and film industries (Nollywood is the world’s second-biggest film industry, ahead of Hollywood, behind Bollywood). But, increasingly, Lagos’s swell of cultural talent is bursting the proverbial banks and finding more critical acclaim internationally.
“I feel strongly about film as a means to slowly change society”
It’s being driven by an ambitious young generation, bolstered by social media and online platforms amplifying their work abroad. Isoken Ogiemwonyi of Nigerian fashion channel BellaNaija Style likened it to “London during the Mary Quant youthquake period” in a recent interview with Stylist. It’s certainly an overwhelmingly youthful society: 60 per cent of Nigeria’s population is under 30.
“The creative energy and confidence in this city can’t be rivalled,” says Omoyemi Akerele, founder of Style House Files, a creative development agency for African designers. “It tells a story of the diverse, dynamic culture of the people… of resilience and grit. It’s about trade. It’s about collaborative efforts.”
Lagos’s bulldozing self-confidence has coalesced into a new, rapidly expanding cultural season, which sees high-profile global visitors – curators, publishers, press – jetting in for a six-week series of events. Lagos Photo (25 October – 13 November) unintentionally lit the fuse. When it launched as a stand-alone event in 2010, its line-up of exhibitions and talks attracted international attention, inspiring other cultural organisations to schedule their events simultaneously to get a slice of the limelight.
Now you have Art Summit Nigeria (dates TBC), a knowledge-exchange platform that debuted last year with US artist Kehinde Wiley headlining; Lagos Biennial (26 October – 30 November), which holds its second edition this autumn and digs into the city’s can-do spirit with this year’s theme of “How to Build a Lagoon with Just a Bottle of Wine?”; and Art X Lagos (1–3 November), West Africa’s first commercial fair, attracting 22,000 visitors to date, including a deep-pocketed collector class, to the swanky, seaside Civic Centre. With Nigeria now ranking as Africa’s largest economy, and one of the world’s fastest-growing, the country’s elite increasingly views art as a way to trumpet net worth. Bidding wars are common at Lagos’ auctions, works usually selling well above asking price.
Lagos Fashion Week (23–26 October) will have extra swagger this year, following Nigerian designer Kenneth Ize reaching the final of the LVMH Prize 2019, the first African designer to do so since 2014. Several fashion brands have found heavyweight fans abroad: Maki Oh’s pieces have been worn by Michelle Obama, Lady Gaga and Beyoncé, while Oscar-winner Lupita Nyong’o has sported Orange Culture. Ize’s return to Lagos, his hometown, to launch his label after years in Vienna and New York is testament to this growing confidence, as is designers’ interest in celebrating their indigenous histories and textile-making traditions, fused with influences from Western streetwear and tailoring.
The African International Film Festival (10–16 November) completes the packed autumn calendar. Though the Nollywood behemoth has traditionally been more concerned with quantity than quality, this is changing. Its huge potential has now caught the attention of Netflix, which commissioned its first original Nigerian film in 2018 – the directorial debut of Nollywood actor Genevieve Nnaji. (The same thing is happening in the music industry, with Universal’s newly minted Nigerian division). Along with the emergence of home-grown online distribution platforms like Iroko TV and Ibaka TV, Nigerian film is reaching a global diaspora of 15 million.
“These new events give the unmistakable Lagos energy a certain tangibility,” says Lola Shoneyin, founder of Aké Arts and Book Festival (24–27 October). “It allows for interaction, networking, skill development and exchange. All these make the art scene in Lagos exciting.”
So it’s a great time to be an artist in Nigeria, she adds. “Because there’s hope. Curators, collectors, art promoters, writers and entrepreneurs, as well as, increasingly, galleries and art centres [are] all doing their bit to move the art ecosystem forward.”
Meet the creatives
The Musician: Teni the Entertainer
Who “One thing I think everyone can agree on is that we all like to be happy,” reflects Teniola Apata, better known to fans as Teni. “If there’s anything that can make us forget our worries for a second, we’ll take that any day.” Whereas Fela’s Afrobeat was full of protest and politically provocative lyrics, and Juju and Fuji revolve around praise singing, Tenu is the face of an Afro-pop movement more concerned with a good time than a revolution.
Tell me more Switching between Yoruba, pidgin and English, references to fake Nike jerseys, Arnold Schwarzenegger and “Sugar Mummies” pepper her lyrics, encouraging listeners not to take things too seriously. She certainly doesn’t, with her jokey, no-holds-barred online videos (not to mention out-there style that Vogue describes as “somewhere between streetwise cool kid and soigné West African auntie”) racking up 1.6 million Instagram followers. “I’ve always been that person who wanted to just entertain people and lighten the mood when I entered the room,” she says. “I joked around, I sang. My hobby became my passion and ended up being my destiny.” This focus on feel-good tracks is proving a winning strategy. Most Promising Act to Watch at the 2018 Nigeria Entertainment Awards, Best New Artist at Soundcity MVP Awards Festival, YouTube Music’s Trending Artist on the Rise this year – the accolades are stacking up.
The Filmmaker: Dare Olaitan
Who Nollywood has traditionally given realism short shrift: morality tales of love or religion dominate; characters are rich and beautiful. But a new wave of filmmakers has decided to break away from this – among them, Dare Olaitan. In Olaitan’s movies, characters and stories are altogether grittier. His first film, Ojukokoro (2016), a crime-heist comedy film, drew comparisons to Quentin Tarantino (for the chapter structure and stylised violence) and Guy Ritchie (whip-smart dialogue, frenetic pace). His follow-up was equally well-received: a thriller comedy with timely undertones of the #MeToo era, titled Knock Out Blessing.
Tell me more “I feel strongly about film as a means to slowly change society; I only want to make films that do something to further the narrative,” Olaitan says. “I want to speak to people like me all over the world who grew up in this shared global culture.” While genre filmmaking has to date been an unpopular choice among Nigerian auteurs, glowing praise from international critics is encouraging the new direction. Village Voice, for one, praised how Olatain “artfully plumbs the repercussions of poverty and the extreme decisions to which such disenfranchised circumstances can lead. It’s a perfect film for Nigerians, reflecting Nigerian anxieties.”
The Poet: Wana Udobang
Who Ubobang is at the vanguard of a new wave of performance sweeping Lagos’s literary scene: one that’s unapologetically personal, no subject off limits, with words spare of lofty language or affectation. “I’m mostly writing my way through or out of an experience, and there are also moments where I’m consciously documenting through my poetry,” Udobang explains. “Something that’s always important to me, though, is to use the personal to connect with wider issues.”
Tell me more Udobang says her generation has the benefit of reaching readers through new outlets beyond traditional publishing, namely social media and a growing number of local showcases across the city – like the weekly sessions at Ouida Bookstore. In a city known for producing writers of dramatic fiction and non-fiction, poetry is, finally, taking pride of place. “In the future, I see poetry being a force [for change in Nigeria],” says Udobang.
The Artist: Marcellina Akpojotor
Who Ankara fabric is everywhere in Nigeria: swathes of colourful cotton, vividly patterned with wax print, worn everywhere from weddings to grocery shopping. But for Marcellina Akpojotor they aren’t only clothing but a fine-art medium.
Tell me more Collecting fabric cast-offs from local tailor shops, Akpojotor manipulates them on canvas to create 3D-effect portraits documenting strong female characters from her own personal history. “People are able to relate to the texture and complexity of the fabric,” she says. “I’m using these familiar materials to talk about stories of womanhood.” The technique immediately made her stand out as a young artist, emerging from an Art and Industrial Design course at Lagos State Polytechnic to land a powerful mentor in the form of Bruce Onobrakpeya, one of Nigeria’s most established artists, who’s exhibited at Tate Modern, London, and the Vatican Museum. And in October 2018, Marcella held her first solo show, at Rele Gallery in Lagos; every artwork on display was sold. It’s an exciting time to be in Lagos’ arts scene, she says: “Nigerian artists are pushing the limits.”
The Fashion Designer: Emmanuel Okoro
Who “I wanted to do something different,” says self-taught designer Emmanuel Okoro. Launching his ethical fashion label Emmy Kasbit back in 2014, he found the worldly Lagos market saturated with Western fashion. “So, I did some research, explored my background and found out there are women in Abia [his home state in south-eastern Nigeria] who do something called Akwete, an ancient weaving method belonging to the Igbo tribe.”
Tell me more With these artisan-made textiles, which the brand continues to source from the Abia community, Okoro had found his groove. He landed the Fashion Focus Prize (plus a $13,900 cash grant) at Lagos Fashion Week 2017, propelling him into the sartorial spotlight. When the UK’s then-Prime Minister Theresa May made her first state visit to Nigeria, the British Council called Okoro to design a jacket for her. Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is another high-profile fan. The tradition-steeped prints and popping colours find their perfect foil in clean, architectural cuts, careful tailoring and military detailing. Suits with sashes across the midriff and fringed, cropped tunics in menswear; for women, contrast-tone skirt suits, blazers with tie-front cotton wraps. “I like to see myself as a storyteller,” Okoro says. “I’m trying to put my culture in the forefront of everything I do.”