The first edition of the Lagos Biennial art exhibition, titled “Living on the Edge”, is a deftly created, poignant exhibition. Sharing its title with the 2012 project of Mozambican artist Mário Macilau, exploring the geographical, spiritual, and psychological ramifications of 'living on the edge', it is pointed to the politics of space, commodity and governance in Lagos and Nigeria.
The biennial features works from over 40 artists from Nigeria and over 20 other countries, the majority of which were self-funded.
It is set in one of a number of large, disused railway sheds, abandoned for decades and owned by the government’s National Railway Corporation. It is currently maintained by Legacy, a historical interest group promoting cultural monuments.
Chickens and dogs belonging to squatters and families who've made the compound their home in the decades of inactivity shuttle and stray between and over artwork and installations.
The tops of photographs, such as in the series Bits of Borno by Fati Abubakar, of children who've lived through the Boko Haram insurgency, are stuck on the train carriage windows, so that the drift through the shed make the images feel like an extension of the greenery bristling in and around the open space.
The exhibitions are placed partly with discretion, set to fit seamlessly into a space where the art is not always obvious.
An eeriness and, despite several exhibits, emptiness, dim in places, exposed to the surrounding light in others, give the sense that one is searching for the artwork. Adeola Olagunju's Navigating a Dark Space abstracted images of women holding candles, and appearing in light, hung in the windows, with graffiti sprayed on the walls in between is an example of a piece which relies on the light for a quality that is sensual and moving.
According to Folakunle Oshun, the founder and artistic creator of the biennial, the setting is central to the exhibition's theme. “The space fits with what we are trying to say. Living on the edge is about life in Lagos and about the people who've lived in this space, so that their lives are actually a part of it.”
In the last few years there has been a strengthening of an art industry with fairs, galleries and shows growing in number and prominence. Seeing art has become a stand-alone fixture of Lagos's cultural life.
“Biennials are held all over the world but we wanted to make this one have the character of the space we were using and feel linked to Lagos and what happens here.”
The exhibition's setting, attracting close to two thousand visitors, is emblematic of life on the edge in Africa's most populous city.
The vast, quiet, abandoned railway compound, owned by the Nigeria Railway Corporation, had been out of use since the 1980's. Legacy, a historical and environmental interest group founded in 1995 that campaigns for and looks after historical and abandoned buildings, have kept and maintained much of the huge compound.
Dozens of families that lived there, many of whom had helped and worked with the organisers to make the space fit for the biennial, and whom Oshun had understood would be allowed to stay, were evicted by the police on behalf of the Railway Corporation.
“It is really sad they were made to leave,” he explained. “We fought for it not to happen, but we couldn't stop it.”
According to reports, the remaining families have been given a few months to leave the site. Their eviction in Lagos, where millions of people live in informal housing settlements – and routinely threatened with eviction – are priced out by expensive rents, has a sadly fitting prescience to the biennial's theme.
Akete Art Foundation, the artist collective of 5 including Oshun that coordinated with Legacy to host the first biennial, have the backing of the state government but received no funding, working in a hugely difficult economic climate for art funding to establish the exhibition.
“There have been difficulties and practical issues,” Oshun says. “But in terms of the reaction, the response from people has been overwhelming.”
The Biennial runs until 22 November.
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