Adenrele Sonariwo: Changing The Art Narrative
Walking into Rele Gallery is a breath of fresh air from its bustling surrounding in the heart of Lagos Island. Since its launch, the unconventional space has offered a perfect environment for Instagram-ready pictures and first-rate art for public consumption. Considered to be one of the best contemporary art spaces in Nigeria, Rele has put up exhibitions for artists like Victor Ehikhamenor, Isaac Emokpae and Ibe Ananaba amongst others.
When founder Adenrele Sonariwo returned to Nigeria in 2010, her mind was set on revving up the Nigerian art scene. Her accounting background notwithstanding, Sonariwo made personal sacrifices to achieve that aim. A few years down the line, Rele has become a fixture in the Nigerian art scene, becoming a go-to place for top-of-the-range exhibitions in the process. Sonariwo has gone on to curate and oversee several commercially and critically successful and high-profile art exhibitions by artists who challenged the boundaries of art and engaged in provocative subjects and techniques, within and outside Lagos.
Developing the art
Sonariwo started off as an accountant, immersing herself in her job, though she always wanted to do something creative. After getting an accounting degree from Howard University, she spent four years working for one of the largest audit firms in the United States, PricewaterhouseCoopers. She eventually quit her job and took a course in Curating Contemporary Art at the University of the Arts in London and also got a Masters of Fine Arts in Multimedia Communication from the Academy of Art University, San Francisco.
“I remember the day I quit. I was a bit scared and fearful. I was working with this job that provided security, but I just felt very uncomfortable in that situation and I knew that it was something inside of me. Obviously, I had thought about it very carefully. I always say that when you know, you know. Nobody has to tell you, nobody has to convince you.”
She returned to Nigeria after studying and, five years later, Rele Gallery was launched in February 2015 with a mission to trigger a new wave of engagement and appreciation of the arts, and connect a larger, global audience to contemporary African art.
“We want to trigger a new appreciation for the art here in Nigeria,” she said. “Before opening the space, it was about five years of just doing different things—pop up exhibitions, small classes and artsy, art-related [media relations]—testing the waters and seeing what was going on. I did one last exhibition where I turned my house into an exhibition space before I decided to take a curating course. I was just convinced that this was what I was going to do; something that I wanted to do for a very long time.”
Although she does not create art herself, Sonariwo has a good eye for art, which she attributes to her experience, which comes with extended periods of relating with art and knowing what it truly represents. “I’m able to gauge, advise and provide counsel to artists. I think it’s a combination of having been exposed to a lot of art.”
Due to its limited capacity and need for quality artworks, only a few exhibitions are held every year at Rele. But Sonariwo would love to showcase more artists. “There are a lot more people that we can reach solely by them walking into the space and social media gives us that access,” she explained.
“There’s no shortage of how we are able to discover the artists. We get other artists that refer, we get a lot from social media and they email us proposals. We get people that walk in here. But the ones that we’re choosing to show are supposed to have something special in terms of their technique, themes or what the narrative is.”
“The Phoenix must burn to emerge.” – Janet Fitch
If there’s one thing we take away from Sonariwo’s journey, it is that we must never give up on what our hearts are set on. Challenges to Sonariwo are a learning process; setbacks add extra fuel to her drive to make an impact.
When she moved back to Nigeria, she founded an art academy, the Modern Day School of the Arts. However, the school came to a screeching stop after two and a half years, owing to the paucity of funds.
Relentless, Sonariwo sold her car to fund a project. In the end, her sacrifices resulted in the conversation that birthed what we now know as the Rele Gallery.
“I think a big part of it was obviously not being able to secure the funding for it. It was a very ambitious project. At that point, I was so eager and really wanted to get it off the ground that I didn’t realise that I didn’t have a lot of credibilities. It was important that I was able to start doing other smaller things that will eventually lead to it. I saw it as a learning project, to go back and do smaller initiatives that will get me off to that big part.” She plans to relaunch the art school sometime in the future.
To Sonariwo, it’s exciting working with artists, although that has its own challenges. “My interaction with artists comes from a place of respect and love. When I see some people’s works and how they’re able to [combine] different sort of materials and narratives, it’s really special. We have a good working relationship with our artists. Before we sign any artist or decide to work with any full time, we establish a relationship, [asking] ‘Where do you see your career going? How can we support you? What are your expectations?’ It’s open as well. If they’re feeling that the gallery isn’t doing much for them, we can also come together and say it’s not working. There are [challenging] times when it’s going to be very painful or times where I’m going to be very excited, but, at the end of the day, it’s still a joyful experience.”
Sonariwo handles challenges she has different mediums of handling it. She either tries to leverage relationships with other people, waits it out or finds something to distract her from the situation. “In that process of reading or even watching something, an idea comes to me. Sometimes, it’s about stepping away from the situation a bit and seeing it from another point of view.”
Sonariwo has continued to make a name for herself on the art scene. In 2016, she won The Future Awards Africa Prize For Arts and Culture. She also made history with Nigeria’s debut appearance in the Venice Biennale’s 57th edition, themed Viva Arte Viva (Long Live Art) as lead curator. Nigeria’s Pavilion, tagged “How About Now?” showcased three contemporary Nigerian artists: Victor Ehikamenor, Peju Alatise and Qudus Onikeku. “I got to work with three very spectacular artists that I admire a lot and I respect their work. For them to be able to trust that process and trust me as their curator was definitely a highlight of my career.”
Young Contemporaries is a yearly project she developed to aid young artists. It identifies five talented young artists who are doing spectacular things in various mediums. “We know it’s a very difficult environment to work as an artist—one of the things that they struggle with is funding.” The grant provides the artist, for a period of one year, the support for services, resources, skills development and equipment to help develop a sustainable career in the arts.
“I wanted to give young artists opportunities and to see more people engaging in the art space. There’s so much to be done within the space in terms of educating people about the art and the artists. I’m really grateful that people are accepting of what we do. Even the artists are able to trust us with their works to exhibit and to display and collectors trust us. We are grateful that they are paying attention to us and the work that we are doing.”
And in spite of the odds, Rele Gallery has remained in business for almost three years. It found a way to create a niche and stay consistent. “There are so many businesses that don’t survive their first year. That we can celebrate three years of consistency, love and support, it’s definitely a highlight for me. We don’t make a lot of money in this business because of so many different factors, but we have broken even. We are able to, from the business, pay all our expenses and pay our salaries.”
Breaking into the creative industry and making a name can be daunting. But that should not deter aspiring artists, she says. “There are challenges everywhere in life. Think of why you’re doing it. If you’re working hard and being consistent with what you’re doing, you have to keep going. I don’t talk about some of the struggles I had before [and after] I started the gallery. Just be patient and enjoy the process. A lot of interesting things are born from uncomfortable situations; you learn newer things and start thinking about how to approach a situation or challenge differently.”