Missla Libsekal: A Global Ambassador for African Contemporary Art

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Missla Libsekal has been promoting African art for over 13 years. Organisers of Art X Lagos, one of the continent's premier art events, enlisted her expertise and insight for the 2023 showcase. Libsekal is passionate about using her platform to give African artists a voice in the global creative economy.

Missla Libsekal is a global ambassador for African contemporary art [Graphics:Hope Mukami]

Esther Musembi and Fiske Nyirongo, bird story agency

Dressed in two shades of black and flipping through Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina’s How To Write About Africa; Ethiopian writer, curator, researcher and activist Missla Libsekal was in her element as she took a break from her work on Art X Lagos, one of the continent's premier art events.

"These kinds of events offer Africans on the continent and in the diaspora to be in dialogue with each other. ART X really does provide a space for that to actually happen, for somebody like myself to be invited and participate in the conversation," Libsekal shared.

Libeskal has been working to draw attention to Africa's artistic and cultural landscape for over 13 years. She was born in Ethiopia, grew up in Eswatini and Canada, and has lived in Japan and the USA. This eclectic upbringing has aided her passion for contemporary African art.

Libsekal started Another Africa in 2010. This digital platform helps artists, collectors, and enthusiasts connect with each other and learn more about the latest trends in the African art sector.

"One of the things that we certainly have across our continent is so many young and senior artists, so when you are thinking about a program such as what we do in ART X, it’s thinking about what is the most important conversation to be having. And from a curatorial point of view, how do we gather artists around that to make it a dynamic conversation," she said.

As people slowly moved from one art piece to the next around her, Libsekal mulled on the significance of ART X.

"I think for Africans on the continent and in the Diaspora, they are deeply interested in being in dialogue with each other, and what ART X really provides is space for that to actually happen. For somebody like myself, that space is provided to participate in the conversation," she added.

Libsekal's personal experiences with diverse cultures and social fabrics mean she pays close attention to inclusion and collaboration in her projects.

"Thinking about the visibility of women in the art sector is an important conversation, it never really actually goes away, but one of the things that I think is good is that at the upcoming Venice Pavilion, we have two very important Nigerian women artists that are going to be presenting, Fatima Tuggar and Ndidi Dike. So I think when we have these positions and opportunities and we put forward women artists on equal standing as men, we are moving the register forward," she said.

Libsekal curated the installation for this year's Art X headliner, Bruce Onobrakpeya. The Nigerian sculptor, painter and printmaker is celebrated internationally for his drive to give African contemporary art significance and viability in the global creative economy.

Onobrakpeya pioneered innovative techniques such as bronzed lino relief and metal foil deep etching. He has used these methods to explore themes from Nigerian folklore and socio-political events and collaborated with the likes of Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka.

“The art which was in fact not even anything important, has become very, very great in our developmental process. We are talking about education, we are talking about the economy, and we are talking about developing the personalities here in Nigeria and abroad, and my work has made it possible for us as a people to have a voice in the global mix…the world is a global village now, but the art I produced is helping us to have a voice in that global village,” the 91-year-old artist said.

Libsekal says Onobrakpeya's presence at Art X this year was linked to its theme – 'The Dialogue' – which emphasises the power of storytelling to encourage individuals to perceive themselves from a fresh perspective, and invites them to reflect on the world and their role in it in the present moment.

Libsekal reflected on Onobrakpeya’s art and what it represents especially with his connection to the Zaria Art Society.

“Someone like Bruce is connected to a very important period in time in contemporary African and modern artistic space,” she said.

She added that Onobrakpeya was part of a group of artists that were very important to what has come to be known as contemporary art in Nigeria.

“I’m a curator, so for me, one of the most important things is the relationship with the artists. One of the things that felt so successful was bringing Bruce to the fair and having him sit here, and seeing his universe and seeing how we were able to animate it with ART X, and seeing the general joy, that that produced for him and also seeing other people coming to the fair seeing this quality of work, that has not been shown in quite some time and for them to enjoy and turn to that universe,” she added.

Since its debut in 2016, Art X's organisers say they have welcomed over 30,000 international and local visitors to see the works of 300 of Africa’s leading and emerging artists, and that enlisting the support of insiders of Libsekal's calibre is key.

In support of women artists, ART X also paid tribute to Olabisi Silva posthumously, a Nigerian curator who initiated a library project in Yaba, Lagos, providing artists, researchers, and art historians with essential resources to enrich their projects and critical perspectives.

Toyin Peterside is the founder of the Art X Collective company. She also handles strategic and creative direction for the annual event.

"When I invite and select curators to work with us, I do this on the basis of not just their track record or their interest, but individuals who passionately believe about the message that we wish to send in that particular year. This year we have a group of exceptional curators, Missla Libsekal, she is not Nigerian, she is Ethiopian by origin, but look at what she has done with professor Bruce Onobrakpeya’s work, a Nigerian icon," Peterside said.

Libsekal, curated a second exhibition titled ‘Graphic Stories’, which offered a retrospective look at illustrations in mass media from their earliest appearance in Nigeria during the 1940s and spanning to the 1980s. The exhibition aimed to reveal the ingenuity and approaches used by cartoonists to produce social commentary and critique on everyday life in Nigeria.

With Art X Lagos 2023 under their belt, Libsekal and Peterside are now looking to spotlight some of the pieces and artists that will represent Africa at the Venice Biennale – an international art exhibition that takes place every two years in Venice, Italy – in 2024.

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