Written by us, Not about us

Reclaiming Art Histories & Developing Critical Discourse in Northern Ireland and Nigeria

September 2022 - December 2023

'Written by us, Not about us: Reclaiming Art Histories & Developing Critical Discourse in Northern Ireland and Nigeria' aims to address a particular challenge in relation to the lack of critical discourse surrounding the arts, particularly the visual arts, in Northern Ireland and Nigeria. While both countries have a strong literary tradition, this has not translated to an equally strong practice of criticism, analysis or discourse in relation to the visual arts. As a result, there is an inadequate record of our art histories and little international recognition given to contemporary art practice in each country. What does exist has too often been written about, not by us, and in most cases the vibrant and urgent work emerging from these non-arts-epicentre countries often goes unseen. This has amplified the sense of a ‘voicelessness’ often experienced by the people of colonised nations; a sense that their perspective, knowledge and cultural offering is not of significance. This project aims to rectify that by bringing together the two dominant artist support organisations of each country to deliver a collaborative programme of mentoring, commissioning and advocacy work. Embedding artist support and institutional learning at its core, over the course of a year, NIAN
Northern Irish Art Network
and AAF African Artists' Foundation will work together to identify four emerging arts writers/critics from each country (eight in total); commission new writing; create platforms for the publication of work; and lobby the national and international arts press to better represent the art scenes of Nigeria and Northern Ireland.

Primary activities/outputs include:

  • Newly commissioned work by the eight writers/thinkers/bloggers/podcasters, produced with guidance and support from NIAN, AAF and selected mentors
  • Connecting writers from each country to editors of major arts publications (eg. Art Monthly, Art Forum) and initiate working relationships between writers and publishers
  • An online platform for critical writing from NI and Nigeria
  • A collaborative podcast episode as part of AFF’s ‘Speaking Truth’ series
  • A publication/suite of writings to be published collectively in English, Hausa/Yoruba and Irish Gaelic
  • Physical publication launch event at Ulster Museum, Belfast and AFF, Lagos
  • Possible public online event/symposium on Northern Irish and Nigeria Art Histories, in collaboration with TATE
  • Knowledge exchange between NIAN and AFF.

About NIAN

Northern Irish Art Network (NIAN) is curatorial, research and commissioning platform aimed at supporting the development of art practice, critical discourse and scholarship within, and related to, the North of Ireland. Based in Belfast, we are the resident programmers for critical writing at PS². The organisation is focused on identifying, sharing and connecting multiple strands of research on contemporary and historical Northern Irish art and making that research accessible to the public through exhibitions, publications and events. We aim to develop the international profile of Northern Irish art practice and scholarship, in addition to creating opportunities for curators, artists and researchers.

Initiated as a research platform as part of the British Art Network (supported by Tate and Paul Mellon), NIAN was born out of a frustration at the lack of critical attention and recognition given to Northern Irish art.

Positioning the organisation as a critical friend, an agitator, and vehicle for new ways of working, our role as an independent organisation now extends to commissioning new research, consultation/advisory services, arts programming and advocating for the arts in Northern Ireland.

A contested term in itself, ‘Northern Irish’ Art is often found on the periphery of wider national discussions on Irish or British art. However, with Brexit, the centenary of the partition of Ireland, the approaching 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, and continued debates around national identity, (de)colonisation and borders, there has never been a more important time to address this rich and complex subject area.

Largely, but incorrectly, viewed as a place of simplistic binaries, NIAN works to actively to disrupt this notion of Northern Ireland by creating space for conversations around overlooked practices (eg., queer Northern Irish art; feminist practices, art by BAME artists; pre-/and/post- conflict practices) as well as political and Troubles related art.

Working in a highly responsive, collaborative manner, we conduct much of our work through partnership with artists, arts organisations and universities. We have developed projects with institutions including The Courtauld, Tate, Golden Thread Gallery, Ulster Museum, Gallery of Photography Dublin, and Belfast Photo Festival. These have included talks, online event programmes, tours, networking sessions, and commissioned films. We have upcoming projects with Imperial War Museum and The Getty LA, and a major symposium with The Courtauld in 2022 on ‘Northern Ireland’s Feminist and Queer Art Histories’.

Through this work we aim to

  • Foster cross-institutional partnerships
  • Elevate the national and international reputation of art from Northern Ireland
  • Give voice to the complexities and nuances of Northern Irish art and culture
  • Encourage wider public recognition and discussion of Northern Irish art
  • Advance critical discourse through commissioning scholarly writing/research on Northern Irish art
  • Make art discourse more publicly accessible and understandable through partnered events/tours/workshops
  •  Encourage curiosity and educate publics about the place, politics and art of Northern Ireland, introducing them to our rich, but complex history through the work of artists
  • Enhance institutional capabilities and willingness to exhibit and interpret art from the North of Ireland by working in an advisory capacity with curators/museums/galleries.

About AAF

  • African Artists’ Foundation is a cultural safety zone and catalyst for social change. Founded in 2007 in Lagos by Azu Nwagbogu, AAF:
  • serves as a platform for the arts in Africa
  •  unearths and develops talents
  • creates societal awareness
  • contributes to a strong cultural landscape in Africa as a transformative element in driving social change.

What we do

  • Community outreach through monthly exhibitions, workshops, library, artist talks and film screenings
  • LagosPhoto Festival (since 2010)
  • Youth Empowerment Programs (YECA)
  • Artist and Curators-in-Residence
  • National Art Competition
  • Female Artists’ Platform Talk Your Own (Spoken Word Platform)
  • The Maker Lab: New Contemporaries

 Community engagement through educational workshops, lectures and events through

  • Monthly exhibitions featuring local and international artists with socially engaging work
  • Artists’ talks and film screenings
  • Collaboration with local and regional actors and stakeholders to strengthen and increase our reach.

 Female Empowerment: A Read Thread in AAF’s Programming

  •  AAF is committed to female empowerment which has been reflected in the organisation’s programming since 2007: including a strong presentation of female artists as well as a consistent enthusiasm in promoting art works that give women a voice and broach issues of gender equality. 50 percent of our staff members are female and represent diverse backgrounds.
  • Our exhibitions frequently include female artists who portray women whose stories have not been told yet. In one of our recent shows in August 2018 the lives and stories of families and children in Benue State, Nigeria, were given a platform. In a panel discussion, issues of prosecution and climate change were discussed.

 AFF Library

  • Creating a library at AAF stems from recognising an important social responsibility towards enabling artists and students with the necessary tools to facilitate the comprehension of artistic context and partake in the wider contemporary art dialogue. We continue to invest in our modest yet dedicated contemporary art library with two computers, books and art journals open to students, artists and similar, accessible with yearly membership. With a focus on sustainability our intention is to create documentation of projects, to continue engagement.

The LagosPhoto Festival

  • Launched in 2010, first and only international festival of photography in Nigeria with worldwide recognition, organised by AAF
  •  Month long festival of events including exhibitions, workshops, artist presentations, discussions, screenings and large outdoor exhibitions displayed around the city of Lagos
  •  Engagement of over 2 million people in Lagos through satellite exhibitions, events and outdoor exhibitions in the public space
  •  LagosPhoto aims to establish a community for contemporary photography which unites national and international artists through images that encapsulate individual experiences and identities from across the African continent.
  • Engaging a diverse audience through outdoor exhibitions across town, brings art to disadvantaged areas of the community and to those without the means to visit gallery shows.

'Written by us, Not about us: Reclaiming Art Histories & Developing Critical Discourse in Northern Ireland and Nigeria' is funded by the British Council’s International Collaboration Grants, which are designed to support UK and overseas organisations to collaborate on international arts projects.