From fashion to art, Tokini Peterside is one of Africa’s most successful business women. Smart, ballsy and unafraid to take risks, the Nigerian strategist has helped nurture some of Africa’s most beloved and innovative brands including Maki Oh, Alara and the LVMH group in Africa. These days, she’s turned her attention to Nigeria’s burgeoning arts sector with the aim of bridging the gap between artists, galleries and buyers. Here, she tells us how Art X Lagos– an art fair she founded in 2016, is putting the Nigerian art scene firmly on the international art and cultural map.
NL: The First ever Art X Lagos art fair, received raving reviews. On a personal, level, would you say the event achieved what you set out to do?
Tokini Peterside: Yes, I would say we achieved everything we set out to achieve and more. We had an objective with the first one to put out a world-class Art Fair something that hadn’t happened in Nigeria before. The fact that we were able to get such a great line up of artists also contributed to the success of the event. The next success factor was whether the artists and galleries would perform well in terms of sales at the event and this was also achieved. The third objective was to invite a very diverse audience. Art X Lagos was created to make art accessible to everyone. To challenge the notion that art was this exclusive, elitist preserve of only the very affluent which is why we reached out to people as wide as possible. Five thousand visitors came out over 3 days, which was a pretty impressive turnout considering most art events pull in hundreds.
NL: The Art scene in Nigeria has seen tremendous growth. Where does Art X Lagos fit in this transformation?
Tokini Peterside: The art scene in Nigeria has really grown. In fact it’s the reason why we could take the gamble and launch something as audacious as Art X Lagos. What we created the event for was to create a nucleus and core for arts activities in Lagos. In a typical weekend in Lagos, there’s likely to be 2 or 3 Art exhibitions going on. There are a number of art dealers and auction houses holding events around the city, but these events all happen in isolation and mainly in Victoria Island and Ikoyi. That has been a trend that has really grown in the last 3 or 4 years. Now a number of key incidents have boosted the industry. For example, ten years ago, the very first art auction house (Art House) launched- organising the most prestigious art auctions twice a year in Lagos. I would say this marked a momentous change in the industry because like Art X Lagos, it created a public, open platform for artists and collectors not only to sell their work, but also for price transparency to start to matter. It’s not as though Art X Lagos has appeared from nowhere to revolutionise the art industry- far from it. We have come into the system to provide a focus for the industry. There has been a lot of tremendous activities with artists, galleries and auction houses all doing great work. What we’re coming to do is to provide a platform that can help consolidate all of that. That expands the local audience and market local artists and galleries in order to give them more exposure and also connect the local market with an international market as well.
NL: Your background is very diverse, from law to marketing and fashion. Why Arts now?
Tokini Peterside: It’s actually very interesting, because if you had told me 10 years ago that I would hold the first Art fair in West Africa, I would have said no way! In the last 10 years, I first worked as head of marketing for the LVMH group in Nigeria. My inspiration for doing that was because I wanted to contribute to the development of the luxury sector in Nigeria and to do with African culture what the LVMH group had done with French craftsmanship. From then, I launched my strategy consultancy firm which worked on the development of Alara– the first luxury concept store designed by Sir David Adjaye. In the course of developing the various aspects for Alara; the fashion, restaurant and art gallery, I was travelling the continent from Nigeria to Senegal with Reni Folawiyo the owner of Alara. We did a lot of research into the kind of artists that would work with the brand and it was in the course of doing that I was able to add many more artists to my circle of friends. I already had contacts with several artists, but I started to hear a bit more from the artists about some of the challenges they faced in the industry. To go from being that talented child who was drawing every minute, to studying art in university and then making a living off their passion and how difficult the system was in Nigeria. So when my contract with Alara was coming to an end I did an MBA at the INSEAD business school in Singapore. Whilst I was there, I was nursing the idea of a contemporary art fair in Nigeria, because I felt like while the other aspects of the creative sector were really starting to grow and now had champions to do things in very large-scale projects, I thought contemporary art didn’t enjoy such exposure, so I developed an idea, which I developed after seeing what the Nigerian-born writer, editor and curator Okwui Enwezor curated for the Venice Biennale in 2015. This made me even more inspired.
NL: Art or fashion, which would you choose?
Tokini Peterside: Fashion is a great love of mine, but I have chosen for now to focus on Art. Because that’s where I see that I can have the most impact. It’s where there are more problems to solve and there is something about the intellectual nature of contemporary art that really appeals to me. I love the fact that these contemporary artists, especially the ones in Nigeria today- they are documenters, telling the stories of our time. I long for a time when 40 to 50 years from now, generations will look back at this age and see how we lived, and be able get a sense of what the topical issues were. There’s something about the longevity of art that really inspires me. Where fashion is very much fleeting- it’s more about the here and now and what’s on trend. The historical significance of contemporary art really appeals to me as a person.
NL: Can you share some of the challenges you feel contemporary artists in Nigeria are encountering?
Tokini Peterside: If we walk through the life of an Artist from birth to becoming a professional artist. Most artists typically start out being a talented child who loves to draw and create ideas. If you’re thinking about becoming an artist full-time, your parents out of fear for you may discourage you because they haven’t seen many people follow that career path successfully. If we assume you’re one of the lucky few whose parents were open enough to let you try to study art. If you’re in Lagos, your options are the University of Lagos or Yaba College of Technology- both of which will not necessarily give you the best education in art like what your contemporaries abroad may be getting. Young artists aren’t necessarily allowed to flourish and aren’t nurtured enough in Nigerian Tertiary Institutions. If you’ve got a fresh, new voice or perspective that isn’t seem as ‘the norm’, you may feel a little stifled in the Nigerian educational system and this is a story that many now successful young artists have shared with me. In international art schools, you’re sort of broken down and reconstructed again, so you can find your own unique style. You’re encouraged to find your own unique style and think of what newness you’ll be bringing to the art world. Then you graduate (we still have young artists whose families don’t realise that they are studying art until they’ve graduated). Then galleries may not take you seriously because you’re a fresh new graduate, and a lot of them end up in the creative industry and marketing, because there’s no support for exhibitions etc. What then happens is they start to look abroad for support, put their work online and an international collector or gallery will contact them offering a residency in countries like Berlin and that’s how we lose our artistic talents. But Art is catching up slowly. It’s important to bear in mind that the successful artists of now were in University at a time when cultural perceptions of art were slightly different. I think younger generations of artists will have a much easier ride. That’s where events like Art X comes in as well, parents will be able to see that art can be a successful career and will be more likely to support budding artists. We want to reverse the trend of artists leaving our shores, to find support and success abroad. We want to bring investors over here rather than the other way round, so there’s more patronage for artists and galleries so they don’t feel that they have to flee.
Tokini The woman
NL: You strike me as a person who isn’t afraid to try new and daring things that haven’t really been done or tried and tested before? Are you ever worried or afraid that any these new projects won’t be successful?
Tokini Peterside: (Laughs) I seem to have a calling (or problem if you like) and passion for innovation and new ideas, especially new ideas in the creative and cultural sector that have not been done before. As an individual, I find that the projects and businesses that call out to me the most are ideas that have not been created in our environment, and therefore require a strategic and innovative approach for them to succeed. You’re right to say sometimes these projects could be daunting in a challenging environment like Nigeria. But for me, that’s what motivates me; the fact that something has never been done before, the fact that I’m starting a new path that others would then follow. I much prefer that to being third or being the one who follows the trend and then start looking for innovation.
When I joined Moét Hennessy 5 years ago, I was the first head of marketing in the company in Nigeria. I was building the marketing team from scratch, teaching agencies how to develop luxury brands in Nigeria at a time when no luxury brand had ever marketed in Nigeria in that kind of way. Every template we set is now being replicated in the industry now. I think what helped me make my mark in the industry was choosing to work for a company that was an innovator. I remember this quote from the founder of the brand who said that in life “You have a 15 minute lead,” and if you remember that as a trailblazer and pioneer- that others are coming after you in 15 minutes to copy what you’ve done, then you’ve got to be many miles ahead of your competitors. That’s an approach that I’ve taken in my career.
When I was planning art x, people kept telling me that it wouldn’t work. That Nigerians don’t really like art or would pay good money to buy art. 85% to 90% of our audience last year were Nigerians. The whole point was getting Nigerians to be more educated about contemporary art and find areas within contemporary art that they can like and enjoy. Nigerians love food, fashion and these expressions of life and culture, so if art can be presented in a way that is relatable, fun, exciting and dynamic, I truly believe that Nigerians would buy into it and I was proven right.
NL: You’ve worked with a lot of creative people. How hard is it to manage such creative people without stifling their talents?
Tokini Peterside: I thoroughly enjoy it and love working with these amazing minds that think in the way that I don’t. I found that one of the strengths that I have is straddling the world of business and creativity. I can help the business world navigate the artistic world and vice versa. Some challenges that I have encountered- I mean working with creatives you have to display an incredible amount of flexibility, be open to them pursuing new directions and changing directions a lot, be able to provide a framework that doesn’t stifle their creativity. That’s something I had to learn over the years, and I think I’ve just about nailed that now. You also have to know when to be encouraging and when to draw the line, but I think another big challenge working in the creative sector has been working with people with brilliant ideas that are really deserving of funding and support that could transform them into successful ventures. One of the big issues in the sector in Nigeria is a lack of investment in the creative sector. I think the sector is a challenge for investors anywhere in the world. There isn’t always the data to back it up that you can point to, to show that the venture would be successful. If you can prove that your idea is world-class and you can deliver to the standard expected by your sponsors, then finding sponsorship would be much easier.
NL: Whats new in Art X Lagos this year?
Tokini Peterside: We’ve introduced a number of new concepts this year. There’s a life art and music show which was popular last year and this year, we’re really evolving that this year, featuring up and coming musicians and artists. We have also involved a number of artists in our curated projects bringing artists from Ghana, Angola and other countries as well as a video art room which will be the first time that video art will be played to such a huge audience in Nigeria.
There would also be masterclasses and workshops for younger artists to draw from the knowledge of more experienced artists to encourage a lot more knowledge sharing.
ART X Lagos takes place at the Civic Centre in Lagos, Nigeria from 3rd November – 5th November.