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October 26 2019
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Nigerian entrepreneur Tokini Peterside founded Art X Lagos, the first international art fair in West Africa, in 2016. The 2019 edition takes place this weekend.

Tokini Peterside didn’t set out to become one of the most important figures in the world of contemporary African art. Nor was she looking to create West Africa’s pre-eminent art fair when she launched Art X Lagos nearly three years ago. “I wanted Nigeria and the international art world to come out and play,” Peterside says during a rare moment of downtime ahead of the fair’s fourth edition. “I wanted a genuine exchange, not just of business opportunities—I wanted an exchange of intellectual ideals.” And, she adds, “I wanted to help people to experience just how dynamic Lagos is.”

Celebrated Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie recently called Lagos “the aspirational axis where dreams will live or die.” And while a large percentage of its population exists well below the poverty line, private jets, Veuve Clicquot–soaked polo matches, and lavish weddings with guest lists that run into the thousands are also far from uncommon in this town. A socialite’s Insta-boasts about a day trip to Italy for gelato with her billionaire father went viral this summer and spawned the perfectly titled hit song “Gelato.” It’s a clientele Peterside knows all too well.

Bridging Divides

Prior to launching Art X, Peterside spent more than a decade working as a marketing-and-strategy consultant in the Nigerian luxury sector, advising Moët Hennessy, boutique owners (she helped launch Alara, Africa’s answer to 10 Corso Como), and fashion labels such as Maki Oh, a Michelle Obama favorite. “I quickly became that go-to friend for the creatives who wanted to make something substantial of themselves,” she explains. “I have spent most of my career being a bridge between artists and the business world.”

Visitors take in an exhibition at Art X Lagos.

Growing up in Lagos’s affluent Victoria Island enclave, Peterside, the daughter of a prominent banker and a psychologist, had hoped to become an artist of some kind. “I painted and drew a lot as a child, but I quickly realized that I wasn’t going to be the next Njideka [Akunyili Crosby],” she says, referring to the Nigerian MacArthur Fellow whose paintings have fetched as much as $3 million at auction. She went on to study law at the London School of Economics and formulated her business plan for Art X while earning an M.B.A. at INSEAD, in Paris, in 2015. Her inaugural fair launched within a year and a half. Investors who once questioned Peterside’s art-world gamble are now clamoring to support her mission.

This all, of course, is also helped by the fact that Lagos has morphed into Africa’s leading cultural capital in the last decade. The sprawling city hosted two competing fashion weeks last year, “Nollywood” is the globe’s second-largest movie industry in terms of production, and Nigerian pop stars like Burna Boy and Wizkid are currently selling out European stadiums and reigning on the music charts. Spurred by deep-pocketed collectors and a burgeoning middle class, the local art scene is also ablaze: cutting-edge galleries such as Rele, SMO Contemporary Art, Signature Beyond, and Red Door are doing brisk business; the Lagos Biennial is back for its second year, while the Lagos Photo Festival celebrates its 10th anniversary; and artists of Nigerian descent (from Kehinde Wiley and Victor Ehikhamenor to Alimi Adewale, Ndidi Emefiele, Modupeola Fadugba, and Toyin Ojih Odutola) are enjoying unprecedented levels of success and global visibility.

“I wanted Nigeria and the international art world to come out and play.”

It’s against this backdrop that Art X Lagos took form. Since its launch, in 2016, the fair has nearly doubled in size—this year, around two dozen galleries and more than 90 artists from across the continent and diaspora will be featured—and has quickly emerged as a destination on the international art calendar: representatives from the Tate Modern, Smithsonian, and Centre Pompidou will be present for the event, opening November 1 at Lagos’s Federal Palace, in Victoria Island. The Kenyan visual artist Wangechi Mutu will deliver the keynote address on day 2 of the fair. Renowned Nigerian sound artist Emeka Ogboh, a finalist for the Guggenheim Museum’s 2018 Hugo Boss Prize, has created a custom soundscape for the three-day festival—“Visitors can tour the entire fair listening to the backdrop of the city,” Peterside says giddily. “It’s quite cool.” Interactive exhibitions, panel discussions, and a Saturday night concert featuring live collaborations with visual artists and underground musicians will also be in the mix.

The DNA of Art X, Peterside explains, is heavily influenced by the “uniqueness” of Lagos (Africa’s most populous city) and the kinetic energy of its nearly 20 million citizens. “I didn’t just take the art-fair model from Basel or New York or London and copy and paste,” she says. “Lagosians are not bystanders. They’re not very good at just walking past something or pointing and moving on. They’re not passive at all. In building this fair, I was pushing the model to be more relevant to the people that we’re trying to speak to.”

Peterside is already contemplating the future of her fair and the role she knows it will play in redefining the image of her homeland. She’s also looking forward to the day when she won’t have to be so hands-on. “Like all parents, I want my child to become a fully self-sustaining adult that doesn’t require me to feed it and change its diaper,” she says, sounding every bit the proud and sleep-deprived mother. “My dream for Art X Lagos is that it goes on to outlive me.”

Lola Ogunnaike is a culture reporter and an Editor at Large for Air Mail

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