An Experience So Marvellous…

With its bi-annual art fairs in an Abuja highbrow hotel, Marvel Arts has carved a niche through availing the society’s bigwigs with the works of struggling artists. Okechukwu Uwaezuoke reports.

Two suitors for the same bride! Isn’t this an apt metaphor for the interesting scenario playing itself out here? Here, by the way, refers to the lobby of the Abuja’s Transcorp Hilton Hotel. And the bride?, Fidel Oyiogu’s painting, titled Expectation!, depicting a female dancer performing an erotic dance.

None of the two admirers transfixed by this artwork seem prepared to concede to the other. An informal auction flags off as each one attempts to outbid the other. This is the moment Chukwudi Onwudiwe chooses to step into the row. It’s only fair that the first to indicate his interest in the work gets it!

Onwudiwe, Marvel Arts managing director, is here for his outfit’s second art fair for the year. A pall of uncertainty had shrouded the opening day of the event. Anxiety was etched on the faces of the new hostesses, simply known as Tolu, Tomi and Linda.

A slow day? Apparently, but then the attendance soon swells as interested passers-by saunter for a closer look at the paintings displayed on easels. The events’ guest of honour, it turns out, is Donald Kaberuka, the African Development Bank (ADB) president. Onwudiwe describes him as a friend and patron of Marvel Arts.

According to Mr Kaberuka, he was introduced to the outfit by another friend: Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala. This was when both were the finance ministers of their respective countries in Nigeria and Rwanda. Kaberuka was attending a meeting of African finance ministers in Abuja and Dr Okonjo-Iweala led the ministers en masse to view the Marvel Arts exhibition at the hotel lobby. This was in 2004.

An obviously impressed Kaberuka consequently bought a few works, which were eventually delivered to him in the Rwandan capital, Kigali. In an email sent to me on December 21, 2004, he wrote: Congratulations again for the incredibly beautiful paintings at the exhibition. I will be back to your gallery one day. And that one day came sooner than anyone thought!

Marvel Arts, in May 2005, became the finance ministry’s official gallery for the 40th ADB annual general meeting in Abuja. Its brief was to hold an exhibition at the venue. This incidentally was the year Kaberuka defeated Nigeria’s candidate, Olabisi Ogunjobi, to clinch the bank’s presidency.

Kaberuka stopped by at the exhibition stand and critically scanned the exhibits. He eventually selected four paintings, which were delivered to the country office of ADB. It was from here that they were eventually shipped to the bank’s Addis Ababa office headquarters.

A quick dissolve to the present. An impressive throng of dignitaries are sauntering into the venue of the art fair. They are: Bolanle Onagoruwa, the BPE (Bureau for Public Enterprises) director general; Hajiya Ladi Katagum, a director (industrial relations) at the Nigerian Investment Promotion Commission; Justice R. N. Ofili-Ajumogobia, a justice of the Federal High Court of Nigeria; Frank Nweke Jr, the Nigerian Economic Summit Group director general; Charles Itse Momoh, Atlantic Meridians managing director; Chike Obi, the Asset Management Company of Nigeria (AMCON) managing director; Dr Aloy Chife, SW Global Limited president/CEO; Asishana Bayo Okauru, the Nigeria Governors’ Forum director general and his wife, Ifueko Okauru, the FIRS (Federal Inland Revenue Service) chairman.

There are other distinctive works at the art fair. Some of them earn commendations of visitors to the venue. If the University of Nigeria, Nsukka-trained Okey Ibeabuchi’s Heritage series seem well appreciated, it is thanks to his immense talent and draughtsmanship. Damola Adepoju And Co is a celebration of life by young, hardworking friends, who have chosen yellow lace caftans as their uniform dress for a friend’s party. This is also a spotlight on the rich Yoruba sartorial and cultural heritage.

Flipping through the guest book, a visitor is assailed by the following comments: “The paintings are alive”;   “They take you on a journey”; “Interesting use of colours”; “”Brilliant craftsmen”;  “They are not masters, why are they expensive?”; “”They are maturing in skills”;  “Great stuff”, among others.

Bi-annual art fairs cum exhibitions have become synonymous with Marvel Arts. Not only have the events been consistent in the federal capital since 2002, they have also been held at the same venue since inception.

Onwudiwe calls his outfit an art-promotion endeavour. As he once told me in an interview: “Our constructive engagement with art and artist would reveal that the young emerging artists are continually in search of new themes, styles, approaches to rendering their concepts, ideas, vision and images, figurative or abstract. They achieve [this] via collaborative effort with other artists, and seek inspiration from their environment and from the spectacle of success of achieving artistry.”

Among the raw talents it has unearthed so far are: Awoyemi Ajibade, Damola Adepoju, Okey Ibeabuchi Ogunwo Bolaji, Moses Zibbor and Okoh Nelson. And if it has been able to come this far, it is thanks to Onwudiwe’s tenacity.

It all began as a vision. Just fresh from his NYSC (National Youth Service Corps) programme in Benin City, the University of Ibadan graduate of English lunged headlong into art collection. He was soon plodding Lagos streets in search of buyers for his mostly unwanted wares. He has since grown to become a friend of Tate Britain and Tate Modern as well as of the UK Royal Academy of Arts.

Even with a law degree in addition to his first degree, peddling art has remained his only vocation.