Sunday, 10th December 2023

Expatriates revitalising Nigeria’s art space

By Gregory Austin Nwakunor
10 October 2022   |   2:31 am
Aside from Varnava, Kavita Chellaram, Patty Chidiac-Mastrogiannis, Caline Chagoury Moudaber and Rahman Akar are revitalising Nigeria’s art space and ushering what has been described


Aside from Varnava, Kavita Chellaram, Patty Chidiac-Mastrogiannis, Caline Chagoury Moudaber and Rahman Akar are revitalising Nigeria’s art space and ushering what has been described as a ‘curatorial marvel’ on the continent such that in the last decade, there has been a consistent growth in interest and contemporary African arts. These expatriates are engaging in gallery space with greater intention and imagination.

They have exposed Nigerian artists to a new roster of clients and the visual landscape to new talents and brought more Nigerian artists to foreign audiences and collectors.

AKAR has consistently promoted art in Nigeria for over 30 years.

In 1992, he founded Signature African Art, a gallery dedicated to championing and supporting African artists.

Since then, Signature has established itself as one of the leading galleries on the continent and has been pivotal in shaping contemporary West African art, working with leading artists including, El-Anatsui, Ablade Glover and Kolade Oshinowo.

Akar’s Sogal Art auction made its debut on Monday, October 20, 2014, at Porsche Centre, Victoria Island, Lagos. The secondary art market is now a major window for the best of modern and contemporary art of Africa.

Born in Sierra Leone in 1954, Akar’s interest in art began at an early age. He grew up among a collection of antiques, primarily African, that his father had amassed during his travels on the continent.

After studying chemical engineering at Exeter University in the UK, Akar returned to Sierra Leone in the 1970s and started to collect everything from Ogboni altarpieces to Yoruba masks.

While antiques form a portion of Akar’s collection, it was his interest in modern and contemporary artists that gained momentum, especially, when he moved to Nigeria in the early 1980s.

Almost three decades after establishing Signature, Akar opened a new space in London. Based in Mayfair, the heart of London’s art market, the gallery aims to introduce a new generation of African artists to the UK and European audiences who have to date been underrepresented in the West.

There was a need for it. At the time, there were no good galleries representing contemporary African art in Lagos.

“We have been able to survive and gain respect in a very difficult world. I am also proud of the young artists who continue to develop, not just in Nigeria, but also, all over Africa. In a world that mainly valued antiquities, interest in the younger contemporary artists is starting to gain momentum,” he had surmised.

The gallery’s dream is to introduce a new generation of African artists to the UK and European audiences. “We plan to continue a strong curatorial programme with a variety of exhibitions at the gallery and to participate in art fairs around the world. Our long-term goal is to increase awareness of contemporary African art and our hope is that collectors will come to recognise that the style and manner of contemporary African art are different than anything they may have seen previously.”

Kavita Chellaram
KAVITA is one of the biggest promoters of Nigerian art. Over the years, she has taken her passion for collecting the country’s art into projects that have significantly impacted the local scene.


Being an avid collector, her meticulous research in art auction houses has led to the global recognition of numerous modern African masters, including Ben Enwonwu, Oshinowo, Bruce Onobrakpeya, Ablade Glover, Yusuf Grillo and Uche Okeke.

“I originally started collecting art for a very simple reason – because I wanted to fill the walls in my house. I came from a family that collected art and had an understanding from a young age about the value and importance of art. I also started collecting, as an extension of my own heritage and experiences, first collecting Indian art and then moving to Nigerian art,” she explained.

The trustee of Prince’s School of Traditional Arts and member of the African Acquisition Art Fund of Tate Modern in the United Kingdom founded Arthouse Contemporary, an international auction house that specialises in modern and contemporary art from West Africa, in 2007.

Since 2007, it has hosted two auctions a year in Lagos, in May and November, respectively. Each edition of the auction features both masterworks from the modern period and cutting-edge contemporary art from the region’s most celebrated artists.

Arthouse Contemporary events attract a distinguished group of collectors, entrepreneurs and corporate scions that have intimately invested in the development of the arts community in Nigeria.

The first works of Nigerian art she bought were at an exhibition in Lagos, in 1977. She had bought works of Twins Seven Seven and Jimoh Buraimoh. At that time, the art market in Lagos was almost non-existent.

Her collection covers both modern and contemporary works of art. She is equally interested in both emerging artists at the beginning of their careers, as well as modern masters, who have influenced a new generation. In that sense, her collection is, more or less, a comprehensive survey of modern African art, from works in the 1950s and 1960s to works made today.

Her experience at an art auction held back in India inspired Chellarams’ resolve to replicate the idea in Lagos. This was how the Arthouse Contemporary was established in 2007.


Patty Chidiac-Mastrogiannis
WITH a little over a decade existence, Alexis Galleries has become an institution in Nigeria, which helps to build relationships, convey messages and bridge gap between artists and collectors both local and international.

Born in Cotonou, in 1966, Patty Chidiac-Mastrogiannis, against all odds, came to Nigeria on January 21, 1975, at the age of nine.

Chidiac-Mastrogiannis is passionate about arts and dedicated her gallery space and studio to the development of growing Nigerian visual artists.

When she founded Alexis Galleries in 2011, the lady, through determination and commitment, has grown the facility from nothing to an enviable gallery in Nigeria.

She has also gone the extra mile to donate part of the proceeds from her exhibitions to charity. Since opening the gallery, she has had enough to show for the 11 years she has been in the business of art.

According to the lady, who grew up in Kano State, she is a Nigerian at heart. Chidiac-Mastrogiannis says her journey in the art sector as a gallery owner and curator started 11 years ago. The name Alexis Galleries was, in fact, coined from her daughter’s name, Alexandra.

She said the gallery business started like a joke. “It was a small gallery, but very effective. It had about eight exhibitions in a year, and 25 exhibitions were hosted in the year 2019. The gallery has rapidly grown to be one of the best in Nigeria and a meeting place for artists, collectors and enthusiasts of art,” she said.

She has hosted more than 60 exhibitions. At the moment, she is promoting about 13 Nigerian artists and pushing their works to art lovers and collectors across the country and worldwide.

Being the founder and director of Homestores and Alexis Galleries, Chidiac-Mastrogiannis is also an avid art collector and activist for artists.

“I started collecting with two paintings I bought from an artist in Cotonou when I was 19. Then, I acquired two more paintings at the age of 26. And the next one I bought was a painting of El Anatsui,” she revealed.

Chidiac-Mastrogiannis said: “We have supported artists to organise and showcase their works and talents through numerous exhibitions, as we desire to take the Nigeria artists to greater heights in strengthening the ever-vibrant Nigeria art circle.”


Caline Chagoury Moudaber
LOCATED at the Eko Hotel & Suites, the 600sqm space called Art Twenty One was founded to solidify the growing art scene in Lagos, as well as position the city as a major force in the international art world.

Founded in 2013 by Caline Chagoury Moudaber to contribute to the consolidation of the growing art scene in Lagos, which in recent years has become an important centre of cultural reference for the African continent.

The gallery presents and promotes contemporary art, functioning as a catalyst for new projects, supporting the growth of local artists, and encouraging interaction with international cultural realities.

“I wanted to take things one step further in the quest to continue offering artists a platform, while celebrating the city I call home, Lagos,” said Caline.

“I’ve been in love with this city my whole life,” declared the Lebanese-Nigerian arts pioneer, who co-founded the LagosPhoto Festival, in 2010.

Three years later, a dearth of exhibition space led her to open the Art Twenty One gallery on Victoria Island, where she showcased the work of creatives from across the continent.


Maria Varnava
MARIA Varnava,is a member of the team of art practitioners, curators, artists and gallerists, who have ushered in a new trend in visual landscaping in Nigeria.

Her encounter with the late Nigerian curator, founder and director of Centre for Contemporary Arts (CCA), Bisi Silva, in 2008, influenced the birth of the Tiwani brand.

“She was instrumental to the development of Tiwani as a whole. She was a great friend and mentor and helped me set up Tiwani in London. And throughout the process of the last 10 years, it was always an open conversation with Bisi when she was still with us and also with my colleagues,’’ she recalled.

Like other galleries established by expatriates, Tiwani is helping to revitalise the contemporary art scene in the world’s most populous black nation.

She believes that patronage from a pan-African collector base ought to be cultivated, including individuals and organisations.

“I really think we’re navigating through an interesting moment at the time,” Varnava told The Guardian. “There is such excitement and support around art from Africa and the Diaspora. It is also a time of great speculation.”

The lady, who grew up in Lagos, was, however, born in Cyprus. When she was 40 days old, she came to Lagos to live. She lived here until the age of 11. She grew up around works by Suzanne Wenger, Twin Seven Seven, Bruce Onabrakpeya, Ben Osagie and the like.

Upon the completion of her master’s degree in African Studies with a focus on African art at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), she set up her gallery in Fitzrovia, central London.

“For me, I thought commercially, it would have made sense to establish this in New York or Paris. But then, I feel very close to my Nigerian upbringing. I feel very passionate about the artists I work with and the themes that I want to explore. I feel that if we want to be part of the movement of Africa globally, then we need to be here, talking to local artists and also engaging with local patrons. Basically, I would love to see more works of Nigerian artists.’’

Hana Omilani
WITH a true knack for perfection, Omilani, the founder of Lasmara, is an Eritrean, who has wormed her way into Nigeria’s art scene.

It wasn’t until she returned to London to study art business at Christie’s that she realised that her career should be in the arts. The long-term master plan was the African art consultancy she wanted to launch.

It was 2013 and that was the year she decided to focus on Lasmara, a word she coined by merging Lagos and Asmara (the capital of Eritrea). She wanted to focus on the whole of African art, rather than on just one area. She wanted to represent the East and West, and it was important for her to learn a lot about African art. She started working with galleries, connecting artists to residencies and various projects.

Following her interest in art, she was appointed the art director at Alára, the high luxury concept store in Lagos. Six months into her appointment, she left to focus on her art projects.

In 2019, she organised an art fair, which brought a lot of artists from Nigeria and outside. Titled, Impart Artists Fair, it was a platform designed to promote African art, and the artists, as well as, to raise the value of African art.

According to her, “we thought of a platform where artists can exhibit themselves, and where they will not be paying for the exhibition boots because we cannot be talking about promoting African art if you are going to have fees that artists cannot afford. At Impact Artists Fair, all that the artists need is to commit themselves to participate at the fair; at no boot cost, bring your artworks, and we will do our best to promote the works and bring the audience (buyers) to the artists, which is one aspect, and for exposure and sales, which is another aspect.”

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