In Nigeria, art boom feeds a revival of interest in traditional animist art

The haunting stone sculptures have stretched bodies with enlarged heads, mask-like faces and elongated chests – the kind of sharp, geometric qualities that inspired the works of Pablo Picasso and the Cubist movement in the 1920s.

Displayed at a Lagos gallery alongside colourful paintings of domestic scenes, they represent a revival of ancient art forms in Nigeria, rooted in traditional spirituality, that Christian missionaries tried to banish a century ago.

That revival coincides with a turn by the country’s super rich elite and small but growing middle class towards art as a store of wealth.

An art investment boom is under way across emerging markets, but it has been seen as largely centred on China, India and Gulf Arab countries. The planet’s poorest continent is still widely viewed in art circles more as a source of fine art for auctions in the developed world rather than a market in itself.

That may be slowly changing. Artist and designer Nike Davies-Okundaye sees growing interest by local as well as foreign collectors in the Nigerian art in her four-storey Lagos gallery, part of which is given over to traditional work: wood carvings of priests and stone statues of Yoruba deities.

A growing number of wealthy Nigerians are adding such pieces to their collections. Yet for many Christian or Muslim Nigerians, traditional African art, because of its link with animist religion, is still viewed as taboo – an invitation to dangerous black magic or idolatry.

That is a hurdle for artists trying resurrect their suppressed culture. But local interest in art is growing.