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Art is not only an investment, it’s also beauty – Kavita Chellaram



Wait for it, just four days ago, a piece of art by a Nigerian artist was sold for a whopping N54.05 million. Yes, good things can come with a work of art, and this is how far the Nigerian art market has grown. And, it is poised to grow further, if Kavita Chelleram’s Arthouse Contemporary has anything to do with it. Entrepreneurship is not only by starting up a business or investing in manufacturing, agriculture, banking, oil and gas, stocks; it can come by also helping others to gain prominence and sell their masterpieces. Chelleram tells Clara Nwachukwu and Anote Ajeluorou how she plans to turn more Nigerian international artists like El Anatsui into masters, whose work earns over a million dollars and is invited all over the world to exhibit in the museums.

You have been described as the lady transforming the art market in Nigeria. Tell us how it all started?
I’ve always been interested in art. The story is that we built this house and we had all the blank walls, and we asked, how are we going to fill them up? We first started off with Indian art because I knew something about it; we brought a lot of Indian art here and hung them up here and their prices went up hugely after the introduction of auction. We took the India arts for the auction and they actually increased in value. So, we felt okay, ‘why are we keeping these here, let’s take them back to Nigeria.’ I said let me do the same story as what happened in Indian in Nigeria, because here, there was no transparency of price; artists will bring in works off the back of their cars. Initially, there were really very few collectors; there were only about four to five collectors, those that actively bought; so, artists got whatever they got. This is because the collectors were able to say any price and they (artists) had to sell, and it was very difficult for them (artists) to make a living and earn proper money. So, we wanted to have a platform, which would showcase African art to the world, and for Nigeria to have transparency in price.

We have four missions for what we do. So, we started collecting African art and the first two paintings I bought were from the Osogbo community – Twin Seven Seven. I bought them in 1977, 1978; they were beadworks, and I was totally fascinated by them. After that I went to the Goethe Institut to get the artworks but there were really hardly anything, which made it difficult because there was no gallery, no internet, and no telephone to communicate. In those days, you couldn’t even make a phone call. So, it was very difficult to assess people, assess art works.

I actually started about 15, 20 years ago; we started buying works of art and getting familiar with the artists. A friend of mine said to me: ‘why don’t you do the same as what happened in India?’ I took some artists to India, and we had the first charity auction. But to do an auction now, things have changed so much in the sense that there is internet; there is a lot of press to get things out to the world much easier than it was in those days. So, we were able to do that and our first auction was in April 2008. We went round to studios; we went round to dealers to find old works, and we had our first contemporary and modern art auction. I remember selling one Ben Enwonwu work for N1.5 million; it was lot of money then. But today, that same piece would probably sell for N20 million. So, things have gone up dramatically. After we did our first auction and second auction the following year in 2009, we did the auction again for the Nigeria market. Basically, they had a lot of work in the first auction, which was primarily based for Nigeria collectors and people started actively buying.

It was slow in the beginning because people were just getting used to the fact that there is an auction; the fact that ‘yes, now we have somewhere we can sell our works.’ That was another mission of ours, to create a secondary market, where, if you brought a work, because nobody knew what to do with it because there was nowhere to sell it. So this created a secondary market where people were able to meet. Collectors were able to come in and say, “we have this, we have that to sell,” and also to authenticate the work.

For the authenticity, we gathered a team of experts, who came in and checked every work like they do abroad. We ask for exclusivity; we ask for provenance, how it was bought, how it’s been sold, how it’s been kept, has it moved hands, have you got receipts? So you’re able to authenticate whether it came from the artist directly or whether it came from somewhere else. We have the artist and we have those who will then say, ‘Yes, this is an original or it is not.’


A lot of works have come our way, which are dubious and not original, and we were able to discern that. Luckily, artists are able to make a living today. Sometimes, we have a work of art and when we investigate, the artist will say, ‘no, that is not my work, where did you get it from?’ This works mainly for the contemporary art; for the modern, it’s a little bit more difficult.

Now, having worked in the field in the last 10 years, people working with me, we are also able to identify if this is an original or not, and we have become experts ourselves. So many artists have come our way and we have seen thousands and thousands of works, and it really has been a wonderful journey. I met people I would never have met; I’ve seen all the works that have been created in this country and the amount of talent we have here.

The great part is, we actually have schools that teach art, while in most countries of Africa, you don’t have schools with art departments. There are many universities like Yaba Tech,Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, University of Nigeria, Nsukka, University of Ife, Port Harcourt and now, University of Lagos. We have many schools that do art, but unfortunately, there are no art history classes for children and there are no art organisations; the museums are defunct. We have nowhere to showcase our works of art. So, the auctions are the only ways people can walk in to see the works and talk to the artists. I went to the University of Benin and it’s closed, there is nothing there. Go to the University of Lagos, there is nothing there.

Lagos State Governor has promised to build a new museum; so, we’re hoping that happens, and we can showcase contemporary and modern art and also have evolving shows. Cape Town in South Africa has a new museum; it’s privately owned and that’s opening in September, which is going to be quite amazing because it will transform and showcase our art for people to appreciate the artists. We have to do things ourselves and hopefully, with this new governor, we will be able to have a new museum.

This year is the first year that Nigerians participated in the Venice Biennale, and that was also great because so many people are now taking our art seriously and are actually doing things. Since we started the auction, it has generated a huge amount of interest in this country, and the amount of new galleries that have opened are quite amazing. Before now, there were like two galleries, and now we’ve got 21. We’ve got Red Door, Omenka Gallery, Terra Kulture, and Sandy Obiagu working in contemporary work at Wheatbaker, etc.

Here, we have a proper gallery, which we cut out from the space, which we do with Kia Motors; the works were sold out before we even open our doors. So when people came in to say, ‘we want to buy this,’ and we tell them: ‘it’s sold already’ and they ask, ‘Why then did you invite us?’ we say: ‘we invited you so you can actually see the brilliance of the masters.’ So, most people were very upset about that.

We’re planning to have another show next year, hopefully. For example, we plan to do a show called ‘The Zaria Rebels’, and Demas Nwoko wants to showcase some of his furniture and artwork, because he doesn’t want to have too many. We want to do like a group show and once we can get that, we will have the major shows. We started off with two inaugural auctions – April-May, October-November. Last year, we started the affordable auction; we started in February because we wanted a platform where people wouldn’t be intimidated to walk into where works are being sold for N30 million, N50 million. Last year, half a million was the cap and some of the works went for over N1 million; and we got so many new people. Now, we’re going to have four auctions in the year – two affordable and two rich.

This year’s auction was very successful, even with the economic recession as it is, and we did great figures. We sold N160 million. It’s one of our highest. It could be more; it could be less, but then it depends on the lot. If you have interesting work of high value, you’ll do high numbers. So, the appreciation has been quite amazing.

You’ve travelled quite a bit and all over the world. How would you compare the Nigerian art market with those of others?     
We’re still in the beginning; you know, we are a developing country; people have just started to appreciate art and realising the great value to it. Before, people really didn’t regard art as an investment and as something you could put your money in. Now, they’re beginning to see that it is an investment. What is worth a million today might be worth N50 million tomorrow; so, people are seeing that gain of investing in art.

Also, it’s not only investment; if you invest, you have something beautiful in your house and you walk in and have great pleasure in seeing that work. So, art is not only an investment; it’s also beauty that brings pleasure to your soul, to your environment and make it a better place to live in.

How much would you quantify the art market in Nigeria?
The numbers are so small. If you see, like an auction in the U.S. on contemporary art and a painting of Jean-Michael Basquiat ‘Untitled’ went for about $110.5 million. So, we can’t compete with that because we don’t have anybody close. The only person that we have that is an African, who is achieving over a million, is El Anatsui, who was a professor at University of Nigeria, Nsukka. He is now world-famous and no longer considered an African artist. He is a commercial artist and he is in every single museum in the world. He’s getting commission to do works. He’s done a beautiful commissioning in Venice; he did for the Royal Academy two years ago; he’s done Mexico; he’s done the Paris Biennale. He’s done things in America. So, he’s out there but he’s the only one out there and we’re trying to get more people out there, who can actually showcase what they’re doing and actually be appreciated for it

When you look at the sector, do we have enough players in the Nigerian market?
We’re getting more and more. As I told you, we started out with a trickle of four collectors – Rasheed Gbadamosi and Sam Olagunju, who passed away unfortunately; we have Engineer Omooba Yemisi Shyllon. After them, there was another batch of collectors that came in, and now we have many collectors, who spend large amounts of money, but they’re not enough. The unfortunate situation, as it is today, is that people are not really interested in spending on art. Even travel is difficult; people are worried about school fees. So, art comes in when you have disposable income. Right now the disposable income is not there as it was before, but it will happen again. Nigeria always bounces back. It’s difficult to define but people are always bouncing back. It’s very much in the market. We had an artist last year who showcases African art in the U.K., in New York, and they’re having one in Morocco for the first time. The awareness of African art is growing.

You said you do affordable and auctions for the upper class. Even at that, art is seen as more of a pleasure for the rich, isn’t it?
No, I don’t think so. It’s not only a pleasure for rich; we’ve had very reasonable works of art. Before now, as you know, here, there was no canvas; this has only been around for about 100 years. Abroad, people buy posters; they buy prints and there are a lot of people who started off by buying something quite cheap and carry on to the high prices.

But art is universal. For somebody to spend $120 million on a painting, obviously, you’re talking about the rich. So, art does segregate.

Although you say that awareness is growing as well as the pockets of the artists, but parents wouldn’t ordinarily encourage their children to study art. Is this also changing?
If I realise that my child is truly an artist and have talent, I think today, you could say he will make a good career out of it because he is getting knowledge and getting paid in large sums of money. You can sell a painting for N1 or N2 million; so, it can become something that he can live comfortable on and it becomes a job; he’s earning money and doing something he truly loves doing. So, a parent would look at this and say: ‘my child has a good future and he can survive. In fact, he can become quite famous and a millionaire!’ He doesn’t have to become only a doctor, or a lawyer and an engineer to become one.

But this will only happen if government puts more support into art, as it’s done in England, in America; it’s so important. There, art is so focused that you can choose – you want to become a dancer, you want to become a singer and you will be rewarded for it.

Now, things are happening in this country; music is really being appreciated; dances are happening; theatres are happening and definitely, we are on the way to a better future.

You could easily get lost in the works of art, but who is Kavita Chelleram?
I’m a wife, I’m a mother, and a grandmother, and I’ve had a lot of ties to this country. I came here in the 1960s with my father, who had a textile factory called, Aswani Textiles. I used to go to the factory to see what was going on, and we used to have a lot of people from Yaba Tech to design the Nigerian fabrics. So from that age, I was introduced to Nigerian fabrics and I could see them actually designing it, and go on to the designing loom and actually see them being printed. So, it was fascinating having that exposure, and my tie with this country is really deep. This is like my country because it has helped me, my children and my grand-children.

So, when do you then make out time to be a wife and a mother in the midst of all these art?
I really started working about 10 years ago, when I started Arthouse Contemporary. Before then I was a wife and mother, and it was only after my daughter got married and I said: ‘I’ve got my children educated,’ and my son went away to school and I felt, ‘let me do something for myself now; let me see how I can help African art.’

So, I started Arthouse Foundation, which is the next thing we did, and it’s been running for over a year and a half. Joseph Gergel runs the foundation and we have two resident artists in and we have three sessions a year. This is our second year in operation. On our first year, we had an auction where we had residency show and showcased what all our residents did and now we do collaborations with other museums, we have a collaboration with Matadero, in Madrid. We sent a Nigerian artist, who has never travelled; he has never been abroad. Now, he’s gone abroad and he’s very excited to get that exposure. We’ve sent two artists there and they’re going to be there for about six weeks, and we have two Spanish artists coming here too in September and they will interact with the locals. One is coming in a month’s time, and after six weeks, the second one. This really helps with the awareness and the interaction of artists and of learning from others.

When you see a work of art, what comes to your mind in terms of originality, and what distinguishes one piece of art from the other?
I think there are so many different styles, for a start. Some people are doing sculptures; some are doing painting and then there are so many different schools and so many cultures in Nigeria. You’ve got the Yoruba; you’ve got the Igbo and you’ve got the Hausa. We have cross-cultures and fascinating things are coming out from every region. You see the talent, and it shines out. Having seen so many artworks and you sift through them, you realise the one that is unusually talented. With all the shows happening now, and all the galleries that have started showcasing artists, they’ve become quite promising.

From that we put into auction what have already been filtered based on what people would want; so, what comes to us is really the finest work of every artist.
With some many works coming in, how do you distinguish the originals from the fake copies?
As I’ve said, we have experts coming in and we may have three specialists that act as our eyes. We’re like five, six people to look at them and decide whether it is original or not. Some works that came in the other day, when we first looked at them, they looked genuine and when we started looking at them closely, you realise that they are not possibly original. And sending them to the artist, he said: ‘none of these is mine.’

Even though we are specialists, we still need that extra help and we need to go to the artist to find out for sure, especially the masters, ‘is it really genuine?’ A lot of people are going to pay for them and if a work is now worth N20 million, somebody might try and push a fake to us to earn money. Even in art people try to defraud.

You’ve come a long way in promoting art in Nigeria, and you’ve seen that government is not doing enough to help. Do you plan to do a museum with your foundation?

I think the governor of Lagos is talking about starting one here, and so we definitely want to be instrumental to this, working with him and donating works of art and putting them in a large museum where people can go and see them rather than in private homes. Let’s see what happens with this; he (governor) did launch it last year and we’re hoping that something comes out of it. It’ll be so much better to have that; one central place where we can do things rather than having them in bits.

Our auctions are amazing things to see. We mainly work with Nigerians as in every country; every collector genuinely buys what their country has to offer and we are in a developing country. So, Nigerians are still learning by Nigerian art, but slowly, we are putting in some other West African art, with some East African and southern African art as well.

Your father’s company, Aswani Textiles was a big name when it was still running. Do you plan on bringing it back to life?
Unfortunately, it was really because of the power situation that the textile factory was closed down because it was too expensive to produce in this country. I think if the power situation is properly tackled, maybe people will go back to reviving their industries. Right now, it is still not economical enough to revive an industry with the current power situation when you still have to rely on generators to power your plants. Also, in the last 10 or 15 years, all the textile factories have closed down. Others countries like China, India have economies of scale and they’re able to produce so much cheaper.


Sure, we can produce over here, but it’s going to cost more, and nobody wants to buy the one made locally anymore if they can have the one made in China, for instance, for half the price. It’s very unfortunate that we had to lose all these industries running here before.

You’ve mentioned power, what other challenges face the Nigerian artists?
High cost of living and spaces to exhibit, because there are not enough galleries (for artists) to showcase their works. Everybody wants to have a show; it’s very difficult to get one. There is also the lack of public support because in every country, the government fully supports the art sector. Hopefully, we will continue to grow here. In countries like the U.K., America, Germany, France, and all others, the government fully supports art and they pay for it. But here, nobody helps. I think it is very challenging for an artist to know: ‘I have no support from the government and there are no museums to display my works!’

Just last week, there was an article that Chika Okeke wrote in the New York Times; that in Nigeria, there is absolutely nowhere someone can go and look at a master or any work.

Finally, what are your plans for the future?
To get this museum really up and running is really up on my plan, to possibly have a fourth auction, which we’re trying to do online. We did an online platform last year, but we found it too immature a market. We also want to possibly work with institutions and become more visible abroad.


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