ART OF THE MATTER:A competition without integrity

ART OF THE MATTER:A competition without integrity

“Dear Colleagues,
this is a solidarity call to all members to shun the LBHF painting
competition as the organisers are unprofessional and disrespectful to
artists.” That was a snippet of fury from the Lagos State chapter of
the Society of Nigerian Artists to withdraw the entirety of its members
handpicked to participate in the second edition of the much
talked-about Lagos Black Heritage Festival painting competition,
organised on behalf of the Lagos State government by Foluke Michael, a
principal partner of the Caterina de’ Medici of Africa, which organised
a very successful maiden edition last year.

This call,
according to Oliver Enwonwu, chair of SNA Lagos, became the last option
as the competition was found to be fraught with “insincerity and total
disregard to professionalism.” That the participating artists, who are
meant to be key factors in the competition, were not respected by Ms
Michael and her team, easily triggered a wave of raging fury from the
artists and their professional association.

From the start,
all processes preparatory to the organisation of the competition were
set on a wrong footing. The requirements and attached incentives also
run at variance with those of last year’s competition. Competitions of
international standard, after which the LBHF painting competition is
fashioned, are often endowed with adequate publicity that provides a
level playing field to all contestants and participants. All of that
happened last year when the preliminary panelists finally shortlisted
50 participants from over 200 entries. It was the biggest participation
of professional artists in a competition in Nigeria. Out of 50
shortlisted candidates, only 30 were selected for the competition. This
year, instead of publicising the competition to attract many interested
artists, the remaining 20 candidates dropped last year were secretly
handpicked to become competitors!

A letter sent via
internet to each artist and signed by one Kayode Olorunsola reads in
part: “The selection procedure was based on your performance during the
last year’s edition of the LBHF Painting competition selection’s
process.” The third paragraph reads: “The painting competition takes a
new, experimental format, with 20 artists inevitably interpreting – or
maybe none at all – themes that will emerge from the symposium:


Due to the
emergency nature of the letter, only 14 of the invited 20 candidates
could show up at the Vintage Hotel, Lekki, where they were camped for
the competition. According to most of the participants, they waited in
vain for adequate information on the competition vis-à-vis the
procedure and the prize money. Ms Michael, who had the information, was
not willing to meet the artists; nor could her representatives handle
the situation other than taking the participants out for feeding at

The artists
insisted on meeting with Ms Michael, but their request was rebuffed; so
they decided to reach out to the chair of their professional body, Mr
Enwonwu, who immediately sought to iron out issues with the organisers.
The response he got from Ms Michaels, according to him, wasn’t pleasant
to the ear. “That was disrespectful to us and our noble profession,” Mr
Enwonwu fumed.

Ghetto prize

Meanwhile, unknown
to the organisers, some of the artists had logged on to the
competition’s official website where they discovered, to their chagrin,
that the prize money, which they consider “extremely ridiculous,” had
just been posted online. This was coming more than 24 hours after they
had all resumed camp. The prize money was the straw that broke the
camel’s back, and one can only understand better if compared with what
obtained last year. At least there were cash prizes for five winners
last year, in the following order: 1st prize – $20,000, 2nd prize –
$15,000, 3rd prize – $10,000, 4th prize – $7,500, 5th prize – $5,000.
The cash prizes, which attracted such crowded participation last year,
was drastically reduced to scratch this year. It wasn’t surprising that
the organisers had decided to keep it secret until the artists had
resumed camp and discovered it on their own.

For this year’s
cash prizes, check this out: 1st prize – $2,500, 2nd prize – $1,500,
3rd prize – $1,000. While the organisers believed the artists should
appreciate their participation outside of the prize money, the artists,
who are all professionals, believed otherwise. To them, the prize money
was ridiculous as one of their paintings would be worth more than the
1st prize money. “Why can’t I stay in my studio, produce a painting of
the same size and get it sold instead of subjecting myself to this
modern day slavery and monumental fraud?” one of them quipped. The
raging disagreement resulted in the ejection of the artists from their
hotel rooms, while the organisers sought alternative means of carrying
on with the competition.

SNA bites back

This, among other
degenerating issues arising from the “ridiculous” prize money,
compelled SNA Lagos to withdraw its members, and this was communicated
to the media. The press release, signed by the chapter’s public
relations officer, Ola Balogun, reads: “The Society of Nigerian
Artists, Lagos, wishes to express its displeasure with the organisers
of the art competition of the Lagos Black Heritage Festival over their
unprofessionalism and the shoddy treatment of artists, including their
ejection from the hotel accommodation provided for the duration of the
competition, over their agitation for professional management.”

He further states
three reasons for the society’s action: “One, entries for a competition
of this nature should be announced publicly and participants should not
be hand selected; two, criteria and prize money should also be
advertised beforehand; three, non-recourse to the registered
professional body for visual artists in Nigeria.” The release
concludes, “While applauding the efforts of the organisers to promote
the visual arts in Nigeria, we insist on professionalism and the fair
and proper treatment of artists.”

If the competition
had been thrown open and the prize money announced in earnest, there
could have been a different level of participation from interested
artists who may not necessarily be professionals like those
specifically invited. In Nigeria, art competitions are organised with
the notion that the prize money does not matter. Most of the organisers
erroneously regard competitions as a way of helping the artist. They
never see the point of appreciating and rewarding creativity and
originality. It is a similar case with some art patrons who believe the
only reason they buy artwork is to help the artist – as if the art
works in question do not command any value.

Not in Soyinka’s name

Last year’s maiden
competition, greatly influenced by the editions annually organised by
the Caterina de’ Medici of Italy, was roundly applauded. The prize
money had attracted many big names to participate, with many of them
travelling in from outside Lagos. It also resulted in the high quality
of works that won prizes, a few hiccups notwithstanding.

This year, the
organisers tried to blackmail the artists by constantly using the name
of Wole Soyinka, who was instrumental to the grand success of 2010.
Unknown to them, the artists had made their findings and had discovered
that the globally-acclaimed professor, known for his integrity and
credibility, had advised the organisers not to hold the competition
this year, especially due to lack of funds. The reason was corroborated
by Ms Michaels: most of the sponsors are only willing to play ball next

The organisers may look inward and do a better job next year,
bearing in mind that when the integrity of the Nigerian artist is
dragged in the mud, ire is also drawn in the process.

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