While the past 10 months saw the world locked in a pandemic-induced paralysis, Azu Nwagbogu, one of Africa’s most influential curators, moved at a breakneck pace. He spent the spring in his hometown of Lagos, Nigeria, planning his annual photo festival, the summer in the U.K. preparing for his exhibition at the Unit London Gallery, and then returned to Lagos for an exhibition which opened this winter.

“This has turned out to be the busiest period of my life,” he says. “It’s great.”

The pandemic and the anti–police brutality protests that engulfed Nigeria in October were challenges for Nwagbogu, but he’s learned to adapt during the course of his two-decades-long career. Living in Lagos, a metropolis with approximately 15 million people and little government oversight, has taught him flexibility.

“There is so little public infrastructure. The creativity of the people becomes vital, not just for the spiritual and emotional but for the practical,” he explains. “You have to be creative to survive.”

Nurturing Talent

Through the African Artists’ Foundation, a nonprofit organization he founded in 2007, he’s nurtured a number of artists, from fashion photographer Stephen Tayo to sound artist Emeka Ogboh, a finalist for the Guggenheim Foundation’s 2018 Hugo Boss Prize.

Wonder Buhle Mbambo’s Umthobisi, 2020, from “The Medium Is the Message,” at Unit London.

“I’ve never been one to work with Nigerian curators and galleries, because they were never there for me,” says Barry Yusufu, a portrait artist Nwagbogu has championed. “I’m self-taught, and they preferred established names. Azu has allowed us to be judged by our talents and not because we have degrees in art or we’re old.”

Celebrated Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls him “a vital part of the art eco-system” in Nigeria. “He is a genuine lover of creativity in all its forms, and he is a lucid thinker with a piercing sliver of skepticism at the heart of his worldview.”

In November, LagosPhoto Festival, another of Nwagbogu’s creations, celebrated its 11th anniversary. The festival, which ran until December, was largely virtual and included workshops and artist presentations.

“Azu has allowed us to be judged by our talents and not because we have degrees in art or because we’re old.”

Says Wunika Mukan, a Nigerian visual-arts curator, “When he began, there was no art season in Nigeria. Now there is. It united the artistic community, invited international artists and professionals into the country to foster cultural exchange, and it motivated the private sector to support the arts.”

Nwagbogu’s Unit London group exhibition, “The Medium Is the Message,” featured emerging art-world darlings such as Wonder Buhle Mbambo, Tiffany Alfonseca, and Collins Obijiaku and sought, he says, “to show Blackness not as in constant tension to exist, not in survival mode, but Blackness in domestic scenarios, in mundane scenarios, Blackness representing a common humanity.”

His newest show, “Liminality in Infinite Space,” which opened on November 28, and features nearly two dozen artists from Nigeria and across the diaspora, is grounded in portraiture but is not overtly political. In a work by Michelle Okpare, a young woman wearing native Ankara prints and oozing swag poses for a selfie. A Yusufu painting features a middle-aged woman with a coiffed Afro perched alongside a telescope.

African art, Nwagbogu argues, should not have to traffic in the four d’s—“disease, displacement, destitution, despair”—to achieve relevance or acclaim.

Sthenjwa Luthuli’s Where Is Me, hand-carved wood and paint.

In many ways, Nwagbogu’s career has been a fight against “Afro-pessimism,” what he calls “this notion that the situation on the continent is hopeless.”

A New Cultural Capital

Because of the pioneering efforts of the likes of Nwagbogu, in the past decade Lagos has morphed into Africa’s leading cultural capital. Afrobeat music by Burna Boy, Wizkid, Rema, Davido, and Tiwa Savage reigns. Nollywood, the globe’s second-largest producer of movies, continues to churn out films, many of which landed on Netflix last year. And African artists now enjoy unprecedented levels of success.

“Representation matters. The majority of the world isn’t white and Jesus isn’t white,” he says half-jokingly. “Black portraiture and painting have been absent from the canon of Western art, so now there’s an urgency to fill in that big gap.”

Nwagbogu was studying epidemiology at the University of Cambridge when he began curating small shows. After receiving his master’s degree in public health, he decided battling infectious diseases wasn’t for him, but he had to break the news to his father. To his shock, his father gave him his blessing. “He said, ‘You’re on the right path.’ I dropped to my knees and punched my hand in the air and said, ‘Yes!’”

African art, Nwagbogu argues, should not have to traffic in the four d’s—“disease, displacement, destitution, despair”—to achieve relevance or acclaim.

When we spoke, restitution was at the top of Nwagbogu’s mind. He had just finished a phone call with David Adjaye, the Ghanaian architect behind the National Museum of African-American History and Culture, and was energized. Adjaye is currently at work on the Edo Museum of West African Art (E.M.O.W.A.A.), in Benin City, Nigeria, that will house works from across the continent as well as plundered artifacts.

Like Adjaye, Nwagbogu has been advocating for the permanent return of the Benin Bronzes, sculptures seized by the British Army during the 1897 raid of Benin City. Many of the pieces were auctioned off to European and U.S. institutions, where they remain. That Africans have to travel abroad to view significant portions of their cultural heritage is a travesty, Adjaye and Nwagbogu believe.

“Because of the colonial displacement of our heritage and the interruption of our culture and history, it’s like we’ve lost an appendage,” Nwagbogu says.

Adjaye took a moment from a day of interviews promoting E.M.O.W.A.A. to speak about Nwagbogu. “Azu is mapping a smart Pan-African narrative about the agenda of arts institutions on the continent,” he says. “Azu is thinking about all that very deeply, and that’s why I’m engaged with him on this.”

Critics have wondered, if the bronzes are returned, whether or not they will be safe. Nwagbogu bristles at the suggestion that the artifacts are more secure in the docent-filled environs of European museums. “These objects were in Nigeria for centuries before they were stolen. There really is no moral ground for colonial institutions to be telling Africans how to store our art.” He hopes that countries across Africa will one day be able to bring home their artifacts.

“A lot of these objects were acquired or stolen before these nation-states that you now call Nigeria, Ghana, or Benin were actually created, so for me it’s a Pan-African movement and this restitution debate has the potential to create a new Pan-African cultural movement, and there really is no better time than now.”

Lola Ogunnaike is a Lagos-based American writer