As the value of the naira keeps depleting, for several art lovers like myself the twenty naira note remains significant. For one, it is one of the few naira notes that bears the picture of a woman in recent Nigerian history. The second thing I love is that the picture evokes a serenity that I find alien in other naira notes. The woman in question is Ladi Kwali, a prominent Nigerian potter and artist. Born in 1925 in Kwali village, Northern Nigeria, the young Kwali took a special interest in pottery and learnt the basics from her aunt. She soon garnered the interest of prominent traditional rulers like the then Emir of Abuja who displayed some of her pots in his palace. This act served as the catalyst for her career. Michael Cardew, a British potter while on a visit to Nigeria took note of them and was sufficiently moved to train her. She was the first female trainee of the Pottery Training Centre which Cardew founded in Abuja in 1952 and Kwali graduated from her training in January 1959.
Amongst the female artists of the older generation in Nigeria, Ladi Kwali shared being a “first” with other prominent women in arts. Two of whom are Afi Ekong and Josephine Ifueko Omigie. Ekong was a very influential artist and arts promoter who was the first woman to hold a solo exhibition in Marina, Lagos in 1958. She was also a founding member of the Society of Nigerian Artists. The Bronze Gallery which she opened with sites in Lagos and Calabar is still in operation even after her passing in 2009. Josephine Ifueko Omigie has sometimes been called “The Invisible Woman” by art researchers due to her erasure from the documentation of the Zaria Art Society. Omigie was also the first woman to attend Nigeria’s earliest modern art school in present-day Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria. She formed part of a collective known as the Zaria Rebels which had in its membership prominent Nigerian male artists like Demas Nwoko and Ben Enwuonwu. Although records show that she was the only woman in it, popular history often erases her from the retelling of the Zaria Rebels.
Due to the advent of social media and technology, it has generally become easier to reduce the barriers to entry for women in most industries. This too includes women in Nigerian art spaces. While women in the older generation of artists would have needed the close support of men in the “boys clubs”, an artist with a good following can make a career as a freelancer for herself by exploiting social media platforms like Twitter and Instagram. With the advent of social media, the art can speak for itself without the influence of gatekeepers and gain credibility based on a democratic framework where its reach can be maximised via retweets. Such has been the case for Nigerian artists like Jekein Lato-Unah and Morenike Olusanya.
Olusanya, a visual illustrator and freelance artist, said that she decided to start freelancing to “save her mental health.” As one of the foremost illustrators on Nigerian Art twitter, she credits her breakthrough in visual art to her work being profiled by Procreate, a prominent art organisation. Speaking to Culture Custodian, she says that through posting her work on Instagram and Twitter, she has gained clients from places that would otherwise have been impossible. Olusanya also attributes the power of social media in building community with other Black women artists who support each other to push for women’s rights through their art. Three names stand out for her. They are Tonia Nneji, Chigozie Obi and Chidinma Nnoli. Chigozie Obi is popular for her art which speaks against sexual violence. Obi was also a key artist who used her art as an avenue to protest against police brutality during the #ENDSARS movement in 2020 and is the most recent winner of the Access Bank Art X prize while Nnoli uses her art to question religious ideas of femininity in Nigerian women.
When asked about what difficulties or inequalities women face in the art space, Olusanya mentions that piracy plays a major hindrance not just to artists but creatives as a whole in Nigeria. For Jekein Lato-Unah who has created artwork of women for an alcoholic brand like Guinness, it is important that the notion of drinking alcohol as an innately masculine attitude is challenged. She also uses her platform to challenge piracy and the theft and misuse of her artwork. In addition to these, Lato-Unah is a perfect example of an artist who does not view art as separate from lived experiences. Lato-Unah has worked as a paralegal for anti-rape organizations like Stand To End Rape and was one of the figures who protested against Pastor Biodun Fatoyinbo of COZA when allegations of rape and sexual assault were made against him. She has also spoken against the denial of abortion rights in Nigeria and was an organizer during the #ENDSARS protests in October 2020.
There, however, remains work to be done to broaden the horizons for women emerging in art spaces in Nigeria. This was made clearer when speaking to Demuren Ruth, an artist who also attests her growth and confidence to the power of social media. That said, Demuren recounts how her work was recreated by a male artist who had expressed shock previously that “she drew well for a woman”. She says that it was a major introduction to the sexism prevalent not just in the art space, but also in any industry that expresses surprise when women are as good as their male counterparts. She maintains that women artists should remember that though not everyone will like or support their work, it should not deter them from creating work that appeals to them and supporting women in the art industry.
The influx of NFTs has also contributed to artists being paid well and although Olusanya seems sceptical of it for ethical reasons, she remains happy that finally, Nigerian artists are able to earn incredibly well for their effort. To give an example of the benefits of the introduction of NFTs, one only has to look at an artist like Chidimma Nwafor who has built a brand as a strong voice in the Nigerian NFT space on Twitter. She advocates that women entering the NFT space utilise both the traditional method of selling art and the process of minting artwork for sale online. She teaches upcoming NFT artists both male and female not to undervalue themselves as artists and to see their art as something that provides value even in the general conversation about social justice and equality. One thing that stands her out is the manner in which she uses her platform to platform mainstream artists trying to learn the ropes and get support from the NFT community. She also uses Twitter Spaces to educate more artists on how to better understand the NFT process, its financial benefits and how to navigate that space as Nigerian artists.
All the aforementioned women however stand on the shoulders of women who created an avenue for artists before the popularity of social media. It is important to celebrate women like Nike Okundaye-Davies who has used her influence as a veteran in the Nigerian art community to provide scholarships and to create space for exhibitions in her gallery. The same also applies to Adenrele Sonariwo of Rele Gallery who is a pioneer voice in the art curation scene in Lagos. Rele Gallery has been home to major exhibitions by some of Nigeria’s foremost artists. It is left to Nigerians to take an active step to not partake in piracy not just of artists but also of any creative product like movies, books and songs. As that is done, women creatives must in the words of Morenike Olusanya, “be intentional about highlighting the positives”.
Angel Nduka-Nwosu is an award-winning Nigerian writer, multimedia journalist, and editor. A graduate of English Studies, she has written, edited and researched for organizations like Document Women, YNaija, The Avalon Daily, Radical Notion and BBC Africa. She currently works as a freelance journalist and editor.