I spent an afternoon combing through the Abuja Art Market with my best friend in the city. There was just so much to see and talk about.
The Abuja Sheraton Hotel and Towers looms over the Art Market which happens to be just a stone’s throw from the four star hotel. I am picked up from my hotel by an old friend who has lived in Nigeria for almost forty years. Her name is Lubica and she comes from Slovakia. Marriage to a Nigerian man brought Lubica from then Czechoslovakia to Nigeria. Although now a businesswoman, she used to work as an administrative staff at her birth country’s embassy. Her passion for all things Nigerian has grown over the many decades.
When it comes to shopping for Nigerian art, you cannot get a much better guide than Lubica. She knows Nigerian art and Nigerian artists.
A generous car park space welcomes us as we drive into the premises of the Art Market. At the entrance also sits Madiba Antique, one of the loveliest and coziest art cafés that I have ever had the pleasure of experiencing. At the café I can order a sumptuous plate of local delicacies such as the famous Nigerian jollof rice, and a tumbler of cold natural palm wine. An assortment of juices, coffee and soda drinks are also available.
Having spent two hours conversing with Lubica and sipping palm wine, I came to the conclusion that an entire afternoon can easily slip away as I pore through a book, converse with a friend or get lost in Social Media in this art laden space. It is definitely one of the most serene, and perhaps the coziest restaurant experiences I have ever had in Abuja.
Leaving the restaurant behind, we head towards the rows of African thatch roof huts that can be spotted behind the line of trees marking the driveway into the market.
We are immediately greeted by rows of quaint little huts laden with an overwhelming array of paintings, pots, baskets, masks, calabashes, leather crafts, sculpture, ethnic jewelry, hand-made accessories, and various other crafts that will compel me to make an enquiry to get to know what they.
The market is moderately large. The Abuja sun is not moderately hot; especially during what is commonly known as the Harmattan or dry season. Temperatures can soar over 30 degrees towards 40 degrees. I highly recommend a face cap, a sun hat, and a good sun block of at least 30 SPF to escape sun burn. Also consider being well moisturized both topically and internally (I mean drink water) to avoid getting dehydrated by the Harmattan wind and the sun. A visit to the Art Market is an outdoor experience as this is an open air market.
The Harmattan season brings with it dusty and dry winds which emanate from the Sahara Desert. It blows across most of West Africa preventing rain, and dropping humidity levels to below 10%. These conditions give the locals a small taste of Sahara Desert weather conditions.
As we sauntered through the market, feeding our eyes on the endless rows of art work, the artists and traders call out to Lubica and I, inviting us to take a closer look at their colorful displays. We oblige after about six or seven calls and step up to a set of surprisingly engaging paintings lined up at the entrance of a hut.
The attendant, Ogo, also happens to be the artist. He gives us a quick summary of the types of paintings on display: from abstract paintings to pointillism paintings, and jute bag artwork. His enthusiasm and excitement over his creations are obvious. At the side of the hut, I spot a series of canvasses that are at various stages of completion. Paint brushes litter the ground and a large plastic box cut out of a water gallon holds an assortment of oil paints with which he has created the rather fascinating array of artwork.
Lubica commends the artist on his fine display and prolific collection and quickly beckons me towards the next hut. This particular hut is filled with art work made out of metal. The owner is nowhere in sight so I and Lubica took our time to look at the intricate details of the metal works that line the walls and entrance of the hut. This is serious eye candy. Understandably these items, which have been labeled, cost a little bit more than the paintings we had just seen. Forming metal into human, plant, and animal shapes cannot be easy work.
My favorite among the metal works is a metal work depicting two farmers digging with their hoes under a tree. There are also metal works of huts on stilts, women carrying calabashes, and a rider on a horse. However, the hut owner or attendant was nowhere to be seen.
Our next stop brings us to an African mask shop. Large ebony painted mask, featuring prominent foreheads and tribal marks, stare with their hollow eyes at me as I scan the many items at the entrance of the hut-shop. Some of the masks have been painted over with local paints in lovely bright colors. The large foreheads of the mask act as a canvas for drawings of exotic birds, animals and fishes. Wooden carvings of giraffes, zebras, and East African Masai figures line the walls of the inside of the hut.
Ishaka is the owner of this particular hut. Ishaka comes from the northern part of Edo State called Auchi. He tells me that he gets his mask carvings from Benin which is an ancient kingdom that is closely tied with the Yoruba kingdoms. Benin is well known for bronze cast artifacts and mask carvings.
My favorite hut belongs to a man in his fifties by the name of Adekunle. His hut is cluttered with medium-sized paintings lined up against one wall while the other wall supports about twenty large size oil on canvas paintings. Each painting is about the size of a window.
The first painting depicts a group of Eastern Nigerian women in full traditional attire dancing together. You can almost feel the movement of their body and hear the music as you stare at the joyful scene before you. Behind that painting, is a painting of a turbaned man on horseback, galloping towards you. The flared nostrils of the horse and the wind in the flowing robes of the rider give you the sense that they are charging towards you, and out of the canvas.
Lubica and I end up spending considerable amount of time with Adekunle, going through all the giant paintings and haggling over the price of two items that each of us had decided we just had to have. I choose a scene painted from the lagoons of Lagos, where a mother and a child are pushing at a log in the waters of a timber community. The huts in the painting are built on stilts that have been anchored into the shallow waters. Little canoes float beside rows after rows of logs that have been submerged in the water by timber merchants. I remember, having passed on several occasions, a similar scene in Lagos when traversing a bridge in Lagos Island. The amount of work that went into producing the particular masterpiece is enthralling.
Lubica settles for the horse and its rider. Adekunle wraps up our pricey choices while we continue to meander our way through the market having agreed to return to his stall later in the day to pick our purchases as we bade farewell to the art filled market.