The number of art spaces in the service of the Visual art sector in Nigeria’s capital city, Abuja is growing. In the mix are some alternative art spaces where exhibitions occasionally hold. Agwu Enekwachi in this interview, speaks with Danielle Fichter, the French woman who has hosted many art exhibitions at the Bouygues Club House, Life Camp, Abuja.
Agwu Enekwachi: Among artists and art enthusiasts in the city, you have become known due to your work in helping artists realize their exhibitions in the Bouygues Clubhouse, Life-camp Abuja. How did you get involved in art?
Danielle Fichter: I am from a family that is science inclined and my education also followed that line, thus, art was not taken seriously. At the age of 18, the realization that I was not cut out for the sciences hit me. After I got married, my husband’s job entailed that we travelled to different countries of the world. We started out in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in 1982, then to Iraq in 1985 and between 1986 and 1994, we were in Lagos, Nigeria. Then I had with me, my children who schooled in the French school in Lagos. At the age of 27, I fully realized my love for art and that I could have been better as an artist, or an architect. The first place I seriously pursued my passion for the arts was in Indonesia after we left Lagos. There was a lot of freedom in Jakarta and one could go out and interact with the people and their artists. So, I met a good friend, an Indonesian artist named Titis Jabaruddin and through her, I met other artists around and we started to organize exhibitions in my Jakarta house at the time in 1998.
AE: How many exhibitions did you organize in Indonesia?
DF: We organized three exhibitions. You know due to my husband’s job, sometimes we stayed in a country for a few years before we moved on.
AE: You spoke about your visits to Galleries and Museums in Europe as a boost to your artistic sensibilities. Tell us more about that experience.
DF: Most of that experience was before I started my exhibition projects in Indonesia. Each time I planned to travel to France; I would book ahead of time to attend the exhibitions taking place in Paris. Then my mother was living in Paris, so it offered me the opportunities to see the works of artists such as Picabia, Modigliani, Egon Schiepe, Basquiat and Picasso. I also saw the works of Goya, Jawlensky, Lausanne and Mondrian in the city of Rotterdam, Netherlands. What interested me much in some of the solo exhibitions I had attended was having the opportunity to see the beginning of an artist’s career and follow his transitions over time. Some of the artists would start off in classical style their works will begin to get abstract and more abstract until it ends up in abstract shapes or simple lines and dots.
AE: Could you briefly talk about your art experience in the middle east.
FD: The conditions in Saudi Arabia were different at that time due to the laws; Women’s freedom was limited especially outdoors. You could not drive cars for example. In Iraq, an art experience I had was through a Lebanese friend. Her mother’s friend was a fashion designer who occasionally organized modelling shows. At that time, I was slim and youthful (laughter). When I visited, she asked if I would like to model some of their creations. I agreed and modelled Hawaiian couture. That happened to be my last, but a memorable day in Bagdad.
AE: Back to your first stay in Nigeria, what was your art experience like?
DF: At that time, I did not really get involved in art. It was more about discovering the country. But I remember visiting the Quintessence Art Gallery in Ikoyi, Lagos and there were really wonderful art pieces there; I think it is still operating today. I cannot easily remember other galleries now. But the difference between then and now is that there are more art spaces and even more practising artists now. Especially with social media, it has become a lot easier to connect with artists today. That was a major set back for me at that time in exploring the arts in Nigeria. What I lost in being involved with artists then, I compensated for by involving in some adventure. We sometimes visited Fela, the great musician at his place, “The African Shrine” at Awolowo road in Lagos. It was great. At that time, we travelled to many places in Nigeria, such as Bauchi, Enugu and others, but it was in Indonesia, after my stay in Nigeria, that I really got actively involved with the arts.
AE: On your second journey to Nigeria, you have been living in Abuja, how long did it take you to connect with artists especially those that would be the first to exhibit in the Bouygues Club House.
DF: When I arrived Abuja and saw the staff club of Bouygues Nigeria Limited where my husband is the director, and drawing from my experience in Jakarta, I thought the place could serve as an exhibition space for artists, without hindrance to its primary purpose. So, I talked to my husband about it and he said it was okay. So, I started searching for the artists that will exhibit there. I eventually met Paul Tosa at the Arts and Craft Village. I asked him if he is interested in showing his work if given free space and he agreed. I tasked him to get some of his friends who are interested and to handle the organization of the exhibition. The exhibition was a success. I must say that the Arts and Craft Village is a beautiful place where one could easily go to to buy art, artefacts and connect with artists, although I learnt that it is currently closed. The second artist to exhibit with us was Clement Maduakor Nwafor, while the third artist was Ben Ibebe. I met him through a woman, Ifeoma Chinweuba, whom I met at a function at the Ivory Coast Embassy. His exhibition was a good show. The next artist we exhibited was Obi Nwaegbe, between December and January. The next artist was Uzoma Anyanwu in February, and Timmy Kakandar in March, and Sor Sen in April. In May we have Helen Nzete and Millicent Okocha, while in June we will be hosting Abigail Nnaji, and the show goes on.
AE: Let us talk about your art collection. How much art do you have in your collection?
DF: The majority of my collection is in France. I have paintings and batik from Indonesia, some from Vietnam which we bought in a gallery in HoChiMin city. I have also collected a number of art pieces here in Nigeria, especially from the artists who exhibit in our space. I have one by a French artist thought it was a gift from my sons. By the way, my two sons are art-inclined. The first has a strong artistic sensibility while the second started drawing at a very young age. It is their artist friend, a professional artist who has her studio in Lille, a city in the north of France, who did the painting I received from them. She has exhibited in New York and other places. It is an oil painting, and believe me, it is so beautiful. About the number of works in my collection, it is under fifty. We started late but step by step, we hope to improve on what we have.
AE: In the course of working with some of the Nigerian artists, have you come in contact with some of the gallery owners in town? Is there a time you have had intersections with any of them?
DF: I know I have had some gallery managers come to some of our shows. Ikponmwosa Avan-Nomayo from Thought Pyramid came to our show and he liked the work of Helen Nzete. He may have had discussions with her and I will be glad if she strikes a deal with their gallery. Don’t forget that we are not doing the job of a gallery, we are just encouraging artists. My hope is that Nigerian artists get better with our little gestures of friendship.
Agwu Enekwachi (MFA) is an artist and culture writer, he lives in Abuja.