Maria Varnava, founder of Tiwani Contemporary, a London gallery specializing in artists from Africa and the Diaspora, has long feared financial speculation and bubbles in the art market.
Working in business development at Christie’s in her twenties gave her an “education on how markets can be built” but also illustrated how a specific market can collapse as quickly as it is created. a very dangerous way, especially for young artists. “She was at Christie’s when” the Indian market went crazy – they were selling things for millions, and then suddenly you couldn’t get those prices anymore. So I was very aware of the danger of speculation and of the need to navigate cautiously in a purely speculative moment environment, which, in fact, I think, is what I see as an organization right now ”.
This concern was a founding principle of Tiwani Contemporary (Tiwani means ‘ours’ or ‘it belongs to us’ in Yoruba) when Varnava established it in London in 2011. “I was thinking about how I would manage the careers of the artists I was working on. i work with on the commercial side.
Having left Christie’s after four years, Varnava was studying for a Masters in African Studies, with a specialization in African Art, at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) when she started to set up her own gallery. She had been strongly encouraged by the late Nigerian curator Bisi Silva, a pivotal figure in Varnava’s career: “I was a big fan of the work of Bisi Silva, who was the founder and director of the Center for Contemporary Art in Lagos. She was an amazing woman and really empowered artists locally, but unfortunately we lost her to cancer a few years ago. Varnava went to see her in her office in Lagos, asked her advice, explaining that she would like to do a pop-up exhibition of African artists or “a really solid publication”. Silva looked her straight in the eye and said, “You want to do something, Maria, you have to do it until the end.” All the. You need to create a gallery and you need to do it right. “
So, with financial support from her family, Varnava took the plunge by opening a gallery in Fitzrovia, an expensive neighborhood in central London, and opening just before her 30th birthday. It was bold, to say the least, given the high rent that would have to be paid through the sale of “emerging artists that no one has heard of,” says Varnava. “But I needed to prove myself, to put pressure. I thought, I’m going to have to make it work. It was, she said, difficult for a few years, not least because she was showing a list of artists who “Shattered any sort of expectation that people might have of what African art would look like – for example in my first exhibition I had a video piece and I think some people were expecting representations of the black body. We have never responded to an exotic idea of what African art is. “Artists who have worked with the gallery since the beginning include Mary Evans, Virginia Chihota, Andrew Esiebo, Theo Eshetu, Dawit L. Petros and Délio Jasse.
Contemporary African art has, of course, seen a huge boom in interest over the past five years or so, and while such belated recognition is a good thing, it comes with its fair share of speculators with intentions. less than honorable.
Things were very different in 2011, when African artists were still seen as a niche interest. Where once the difficulty was to get collectors to seriously examine the work of artists like Simone Leigh (hard to believe now), today there is pressure to protect desirable artists from speculators and pinball machines. In March of this year, No Wahala (2019) by Anglo-Nigerian painter Joy Labinjo, one of Tiwani’s members, was returned at a Christie’s auction in London, where it sold for £ 150,000. Varnava is clear that the person who bought this work, in Tiwani, will never again be sold a painting by the gallery. “[Flipping] is a problem and Joy was my first experience and it was really disheartening as you do all your due diligence [on the buyer], you talk to other galleries, you do your research, but human beings are unpredictable. There isn’t much you can do. She adds: “I know that money is money, but any collector who has placed a work that I bought at auction will certainly no longer be a client of mine. And they have been sensitized. I work with clients who support my program, who support my artists. I must have had difficult conversations with Joy because I feel extremely responsible for what happened. Labinjo, says Varnava, is a philosopher and “understands [flipping] it’s not something that happens to him, it’s a moment. This unfortunately happens to a lot of young, mid-career and established artists right now.
Most important for Varnava is the “sustainability” of markets and artists’ careers: “It’s a marathon, not a sprint, so I do my research and I am conservative with awards to protect everyone’s position. Tiwani’s sales contracts include a standard 36-month first-refusal clause to try to prevent customers from auctioning new works, but these are difficult to enforce.
Poaching of artists is also a challenge Varnava faces as its artists become more desirable and are courted by larger galleries, eager to quickly diversify their rosters. “It’s a shame that artists don’t understand the strength they have with a gallery, especially when – I’m thinking of one artist in particular – they might leave you because they think they could do better financially with a gallery. other organization… they don’t necessarily have to be part of a massive machine, you can get lost.
Varnava’s love for Africa and its culture began very early on: she is Greek Cypriot and, although born in Cyprus, from 40 days to 11 years old, she grew up in Lagos, Nigeria, where her father still has a construction company. “I spent my formative years in Nigeria and, now having young children [Varnava has three under six], I realize that it really shapes you, that time in your life, ”she says. “The people I grew up with, the art, the visual language I grew up with and was exposed to was that of Nigeria.”
And so, in February 2022, Tiwani Contemporary will be opening a specially constructed 2,000 square foot gallery on Victoria Island, Lagos. Varnava had always planned to open the gallery’s tenth year in Nigeria. “It’s like coming back to my roots, to a place I love, where I had the most incredible childhood,” says Varnava. “I’m very excited about the number of galleries opening in Nigeria, the number of artist-led initiatives like residencies. What I have noticed in recent years is that young Nigerian entrepreneurs who are motivated by entrepreneurship choose to return home while in my parents’ time most of them chose to go home. stay in the US or UK or wherever they were studying. So I think the energy is electrifying and super exciting.
Working with artists from Africa and the Diaspora means that Tiwani has to be on the continent, says Varnava: “Especially in the beginning I was selling a lot to some amazing European and American collectors. It’s great, but it’s also problematic for me because I would like to see more African, Pan-African and Continental collectors supporting African artists in the Diaspora. I think it would make the market more sustainable, if there was more local sponsorship.
While the Lagos exhibition program will focus mainly on Tiwani’s own artists (“It means a lot for our artists to show their work on the mainland”), Varnava also wants to show a broader mix, “bringing to Lagos international artists, so that students of the local art school will be able to see, in person, international contemporary art. The space will open with a personal exhibition of Labinjo’s work, as she “has ties to Nigeria and feels, like me, the feeling of returning to her roots”.
Next week, Tiwani will be exhibiting at Frieze London with a solo booth of paintings, sound pieces, drawings and textual works by London artist Andrew Pierre-Hart, whose work is currently on display at Mix things up: paint today at the Hayward Gallery in London. Meanwhile at Cromwell Place during Frieze week, the gallery will host an exhibition of the work of Congolese-Australian artist Pierre Mukeba and, in November, plans a first solo exhibition of a new series of drawings by the London artist. Charmaine Watkiss, titled The seed keepers, which according to a declaration “merge the interests of Watkiss for botany, herbalism, ecology, history and Afrofuturism”.
Over the past three years, says Varnava, the gallery has grown in confidence, things have gotten easier as its reputation has matured and expanded. “When I created the gallery, it was at the very beginning of the incredible energy that we see now – it was before the 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair started, before the Tate had its committee. acquisitions for Africa – and I was doing something pretty daring. I wanted to be in central London, I didn’t want this African-led initiative to be on the periphery. Sometimes I thought, is it worth it. But luckily, the hard work and resilience paid off.
Perceptions and reputations can change quickly and, as Varnava puts it: “It’s funny to think that in 2013 I was working with Simone [Leigh] and Njideka [Akunyili Crosby] and I had to persuade people to watch them. Now watch them! “.