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Ajueshi… From underdog to mainstream art business

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Thought Pyramid Art Centre, with the owner, Ajueshi (inset)

…The Risks, Gains, Pains In Art Investment, Passion
What started as a small and unknown effort in the business of selling art 10 years ago has produced two expansive gallery facilities in Abuja and Lagos. It is the story of Thought Pyramid Art Centre.

In 2007, 29-year-old Jeff Ajueshi’s efforts was an inconsequential one when his Thought Pyramid Gallery opened in the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), Abuja, as an art space in a one-room shop along Aminu Kano, Wuse 2. Apart from a few improvised galleries inside some hotels in Abuja, there seemed to be no properly set up gallery facility then. But Thought Pyramid quietly and gradually changed the narrative of art appreciation in the city.

For Ajueshi to have taken the risk of going to Abuja – believed to be a non-art hub – got observers scratching their heads: ‘art gallery in Abuja?’ With a background in art management such as working with Chike Nwagbogu at Nimbus Gallery, Ikoyi, Lagos, Ajueshi had something to propel his confidence and vision. One recalls how the young Turk strayed into the art market scene, as an independent promoter, when he had something to do with Henrimoweta Gallery, Anthony Village, Lagos, in 2008. He had come to promote post-Ben Osawe activities, a year after the sculptor died. There was no doubt then that Ajueshi showed signs of someone doing guerrilla-style of selling art. Today, the underdog art gallery of Ajueshi has grown into two expansive facilities in Lagos and Abuja.

Art Gallery business in Nigeria has a story of bloom and drought, depending on when and where a gallerist operates from. For example, the art gallery space of Lagos in the 1970s to 80s has experienced differences in operators from the 1990s till date. The Gong and Fenchurch Galleries, among others of the 1980s and 1990s Lagos Islands, have been left the ongoing art market scene.

Given the obvious fact that Lagos has been the hub of art in Nigeria, why would anyone choose to set up a gallery in Abuja?

“We left Lagos for Abuja where we saw a yawning gap in the art community that was in need of quality artistic representation,” Ajueshi, 39, stated ahead of receiving a visitor at the Ikoyi, Lagos, branch of Thought Pyramid. The gallery just opened a few months into the year. “Being in a good location is key because commercial galleries are for public activities.”

For Ajueshi, the content of a gallery makes the difference. Thought Pyramid galleries, he said as he received his guest, “are enlivened by splendid and impressive works of art with thematic displays that are complemented by the settings, with some socially-conscious dimensions to the creative impetus of the respective artists with whom we have strong business relationship.”

Ajueshi further boasted about the Ikoyi branch of the gallery: “Apart from the fact that the galleries are devoted to varied themes with exhibits, including some of the best artworks to be found in Nigeria, it is obvious that every bit of the imagination we put into the arrangement is to ensure that the direction and standards are maintained to enhance a glorious array of the beautiful artworks often on display.”

The passion to spread art appreciation, he recalled – and not necessarily the commercial aspect – was pushed forward in Abuja when Thought Pyramid arrived 10 years ago. The Abuja gallery was elevated to a purpose-built facility in 2014, housing a gallery, conference room, arts and craft shop, and lounge/restaurant. The centre has been described as a convergence for art enthusiasts: writers, artists and poets.

“We are in business because we love art, and we love sharing our passion and knowledge about art, welcoming people into the realm of art and putting art into the hands of people who genuinely appreciate it.”

That humble beginning, he argued, has changed the face of art appreciation in the FCT. As wide as the gap between Lagos and Abuja is, Ajueshi believes in some kind of surprise. “Abuja gradually is becoming a vibrant art city, and I can assure you that in a very short while, the city would give Lagos a very stiff competition, in terms of art patronage.”

Staying afloat in Abuja – when the economy was down – required that the gallery identified its key strength. “We had to look at the other side of risk in the art market, which was part of our survival plans.”

Back in Lagos as an expansive facility, sharing Norman Williams Street with Mydrim, the oldest gallery in Lagos, Thought Pyramid is no doubt a stranger here. But the business of art has strong ties in artist-gallery relationship, particularly in Lagos. As a gallery in Abuja, Thought Pyramid has shown quite a number of Lagos-based artists since its establishment 10 years ago.

According to him, “We started this art business in Lagos before we left for Abuja. Now, we have brought a blend of our Lagos and Abuja experiences back to Lagos.”

A two-floor facility next to the office of one of the leading legal firms in Nigeria, the new facility was a self-gift as part of activities to mark the 10th anniversary of Thought Pyramid Art Centre. A few months after opening, it has already filled with works of art from across generations and periods of Nigerian art trajectory. From metal foil pieces by the master printmaker, Dr. Bruce Onobrakpeya, wood sculptures of Osawe, extensively promoted by Ajueshi, to paintings of old masters like Muraina Oyelami, Jimoh Buraimoh, as well as younger artists like Nelson Okoh, among others, Thought Pyramid appears set to take Lagos on in the city’s tradition of modernist and conservative texture. In fact, the curatorial content of the displays has each of the masters in separate spaces or rooms.

It is not surprising that Ajueshi’s approach to the business of art sticks to the Lagos’ ‘conservative’ content as against the ‘contemporary’ trend, which some new gallery spaces have been projecting in the last few years. Not exactly opposed to change, but Ajueshi would rather blend modern with his idea of ‘contemporary’ art. Perhaps, there is something to learn in a Lagos art hub, where contemporaneity has suddenly become so contentious.

Either as passion or investment, collectors can’t go wrong with art. But the people selling art are not always fortunate, Ajueshi noted. The breakthrough of a gallery is as much equal the risk taken, he argued, saying, “Art is like the stock market, where prices go up, and some prices come down.”

But art, unlike the stock market, has double dividends that either come together or one after the other. As he noted, “The ‘dividend’ art pays is your own pleasure in owning and admiring a collection” but added that as either an investor or art promoter, risk-taking is unavoidable. Ajueshi has a ready analogy of risk-taking in art market: “When you cross the street, you risk being hit by a car.”

Managing the risk is the real challenge, adding, “You look both ways as you cross the walkway and take other expert advice to reduce the risk as much as possible,” pointing out that, however, none can be too careful.  “A speeding, reckless driver could still hit you in spite of your expert precautions” and insisted that “looking before you cross is not the same as just walking across without looking.”

If the name of a business has anything – spiritual or myth – to do with success, Ajueshi took a historical approach and said in setting up the gallery, he revisited the first civilization, Egypt and her culture of pyramids. He disclosed how the name of the gallery was derived from what he described as the “thought’ of a symbol that could be identified with Egypt, as the cradle of civilization.”

As Ajueshi’s Thought Pyramid took part of its identity from another land, some other Nigerians also have penchants for imported values. This time, it’s on the unpleasant side of art business.

Art appreciation is not exactly uncommon among Nigerians as widely thought, with issues that make art appreciation less visible on the commercial space being lack of knowledge of what to buy. For example, there are some ‘collectors’ who spend so much on importing prints of unknown foreign artists into Nigeria. Ajueshi expressed worries with such taste.

For such people, art is mere decorative items. Ajueshi captured such uninformed collectors among the challenges of art business.

As he explained, “Being in full-time art business comes with the pressure of competing with cheaply made art from other countries.”

The uninformed importer of foreign art and several challenges not withstanding, for Ajueshi, art business is still worth the pains, noting, “Art is a good investment, arguably.”

He noted that art as an investment adds to “our quality of life; it pays dividends when it comes to enriching and beautifying our environment.”

Beyond the financial attachments to art, he said, the joy of art is more important, adding, “I have over the years realised that while some art go up in value over time, financial considerations should not be your sole justification for buying art.”

From a green-thinking angle to art collecting, the thought of take-off point could be misty: “The question of how much money should one consider setting aside to start a proper art collection is not necessary,” Ajueshi stated. “Experience has shown that you can collect art on any budget if you do not have that much money to spend” and recommended “buying art by younger artists, who are just beginning their careers” as the right take-off point.

And some other tips to watch out for or demystify, he added “is not the medium that really matters; it is the artist” and sometimes, the artist “becomes as crucial as the medium applies.”

Between the art, artist and other factors, the most important factor when buying art is the provenance of a piece of art, so most experts in art market would argue. But Ajueshi insists the artist is more important, noting, “Read the artists’ resume, make sure that they are serious about their art, whether they exhibit regularly and are recognised in the arts community.”

However, there would always be the experimental factors to challenge the known rules, he said, adding, “If you are looking at experimental or non-traditional mediums, then one wants some insurance that such art will last.”

Perhaps, the most crucial aspect of art market is pricing, he said and noted that “the price of art, which some people consider to be so arbitrary” is usually based on such factors as “time, efforts of the artist and the cost of materials.”

Between investing in art and real estate, the line of profit margin is similar, Ajueshi confirmed the similarity, “For example, how much do similar houses in the same neighbourhood cost? Is the art you are interested in buying priced comparably to art by similar artists with identical accomplishments, who live or work in the same region or geographical area, etc?”

The business is not all about selling art, Ajueshi noted, saying that there are also other ways to invest in the socio-economic future of the environment.

As a curator and gallerist, Ajueshi established the Foundation for Arts and Creative Talents (FACT) – an artists and writers residency programme – in Oghara, Delta State. The foundation’s programmes aim to “positively impact the unemployed youths in the Niger Delta, hitherto know for their restiveness and militancy.”

Other projects include Children Art Club, Catch Them Young Initiative, Life Drawing Platform, among others.



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