top of page

Exonerating the persona of the artist

A comparison between the lifestyle of the artist in Nigeria and the West

In my meandering discovery of art that started as far back as the Golden Age of art production in Ancient Greece and Rome through my study of Classics at Cambridge University up until my culture binging visits to museums and galleries in order to get up to date with the art of more modern and contemporary times, I noticed that there is a trend and a stereotype surrounding the persona of the artist and the way that they create especially around blockbuster artists in the West in more modern times.

Marina Abramovic, left, during her performance ‘The Artist is Present’ (Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images)
Marina Abramovic, left, during her performance ‘The Artist is Present’ (Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images)

This trend amongst artists that reach grand fame and are celebrated for their person just as much as their art have shown artists to be bohemian, less than adult, irresponsible and are considered to lead lives that are less than wholesome, this pigeonhole is even holed up into what lures people to the art of certain artists diminishing from the intrinsic value of art in and of itself. Artists such as Jean Michel Basquiat, Frida Kahlo, Andy Warhol and Marina Abromavich (who have all had blockbuster shows in the past few years: Basquiat: Boom For Real exhibition at the Barbican in London in (2017); Frida Kahlo: Making Herself Up at the V&A in London (2018), Andy Warhol at the Vittoriano Gallery in Rome in (2019) and Marina Abromavich’s most notable blockbuster exhibition was Artist is Present at the MOMA in New York in (2010) although she had an exhibition titled 512 hours at the Serpentine in 2015 which I visited) I will use to exemplify my premise for how their fame is surrounded by their person just as much their art. In the way that art is in some cases a spectacle, the lifestyles and personalities of these artists are just as much a part of the allure as the art. In this way, the extreme, the eccentric and the unwholesome are more interesting and the art itself that ought to be valued is lost amongst the spectacle of the personality of the artist

A theory I have for the allure of the eccentric artistic disposition in the West is because of the centuries of formal artistic practice that were steeped around the classical tradition that simply became too monotonous. With formal art becoming so repetitive because the scope for creativity was so closely linked to how far the artwork was mimicking the intricacies of form through naturalism. Artists began to become more and more eccentric in a bid to be more interesting and more innovative. With Marina Abromavich even resorting to using her own body as a medium and creating her own self-deprecating flagellation in new ways to push the body to new boundaries as a way to be innovative in the medium of performance art. Basquiat was boundary pushing in his artworks as well with primitive scribblings that were just as discontented as his lifestyle in which he started out homeless and entered into the circles of Andy Warhol who in turn was leading an unconventional lifestyle. It may be presumptuous to say that the allure for the spectator for these artists was the story behind the artists just as much as the art work themselves, I know this much because in the exhibitions that show the collective works of these artists tend to be curated around the story of their lives.

When I visited Boom For Real at the Barbican in 2018 the footage that was collected was revealing of the character of Basquiat just as much as the art. In the exhibition surrounding Frida Kahlo’s photography and sartorial style at the V&A, we can surely be transported into the personality of Kahlo through her clothes. Artists that create in the traditional way of simply creating portraits or naturalistic paintings are yet still going out of the box, with the portraits of Michael Jackson “Wacko Jacko” show at the National Portrait Gallery which is the location that is usually reserved for more traditional styles and more poignantly more traditional subjects. My point is that the unorthodox is being celebrated in the mainstream blockbuster line up because the traditional and wholesome is now boring to those in the West.

Great to see a non-white person in an equestrian portrait. This was his last commissioned work. Copyright Kehinde Wiley. (“Wacko Jacko” show at the National Portrait Gallery)
Great to see a non-white person in an equestrian portrait. This was his last commissioned work. Copyright Kehinde Wiley. (“Wacko Jacko” show at the National Portrait Gallery)

With my move to Nigeria and working in the Nigerian art scene for over 5 years I noticed that the way that artists have been perceived and the artists that reach notoriety in Nigeria do so through more academic routes and this is what is celebrated. Much like other fields, Nigerians celebrate education. Education in arts is necessary just like any other field and education is more than celebrated and revered by Nigerians which lends its way to more wholesome and orthodox types of artists. Their way of expression which leaves less room for the eccentricity of the artist because of the apprenticeship, teaching and understudy cycles of training.

Nigerian art history is relatively young. Artists creating art for art's sake does not go as far back as the Western canon. The artist persona is less about the lifestyle of the artist but more about the artist using their medium as a livelihood which automatically means that the general persona of an artist is not that of an eccentric rebelling against years of tradition in the canon but of a calculated career choice.

Ben Enwonwu working on the bronze sculpture of the queen | Courtesy Oliver Enwonwu/The Ben Enwonwu Foundation
Ben Enwonwu working on the bronze sculpture of the queen | Courtesy Oliver Enwonwu/The Ben Enwonwu Foundation

However, not disregarding the artists that are undertaking apprenticeships and university degrees in order to embark upon the career of artistry, in order to draw a fair comparison to the blockbusters of the West I will use examples of the Nigerian artists that have received acclaim internationally and look at the trend in what brought them acclaim: Ben Enwonwu, El Anatsui and Yusuf Grillo. A uniting factor for the careers of these artists is the practice they upheld that was steeped in academicism: Ben Enwonwu inherited the career of art from his father and studied art at Slade School of Fine Art, University College, London and in 1945, the Ruskin School, Ashmolean, Oxford University; El Anatsui trained at College of Art, University of Science and Technology, in Kumasi, in central Ghana and then began teaching at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka and Yusuf Grillo infused Western and Yoruba tradition into adire like blue hues in his paintings after studying at the university of Cambridge.

Do you think the persona of the Nigerian artist will evolve like that of the Western artist or do you think the Nigerian culture is too conservative to allow an artist that was born and trained in Nigeria to have the eccentric and untoward persona of a rebellious bohemian artist?



Portrait of Abe Odedina

Hannah Remi Okoja studied Classics at Cambridge University and Arts Administration at Columbia University in the City of New York.

Hannah Okoja interned at Saatchi Gallery in 2014 during the Pangaea exhibition on African and South American Art. In 2018 Hannah Okoja was the Gallery Manager of Mydrim Gallery established in 1992. Hannah Okoja has experience in fundraising for arts and education having been Development Assistant at African Artists Foundation and Advancement Officer at Lagos Business School. She has curated over 20 exhibitions in her 9 years of experience in the arts.


21 views0 comments