Vanessa Branson: Artist, Muse, Rebel
In an age where cartographers, explorers and discoverers are obsolete, Vanessa Branson’s adventurous spirit can only express itself in art. A pioneer in the British and Moroccan art scene, Vanessa Branson has made a career of doing what she does best: what no one else has ever done before. In 1986, she opened an art gallery in London and was the first to feature African art. In 2004, she co-founded Morocco’s first arts festival the Marrakech Biennale and in 2018, she started an art retreat on an isolated Scottish island.
This year, she is in Nigeria trying to break into the West African Art Scene. The woman unafraid of change speaks to Guardian Life about colonialism, art and society stepping out of its skin.
What do you see in an art piece that makes you want to own it?
I really like buying the work of artists who need my support because you play a bit of a role in the creative process when you buy it. If an artist has a unique voice or if you can see a unique voice emerging, it is very important. I’ve never sold any work I’ve bought and I don’t keep anything in storage so it has to be small enough so it can actually fit into my house.
What started the Marrakech Biennale?
In 2002 I, along with my friend Harold James bought an old crumbling Riad to have a holiday house for ourselves and it became a love project. We started putting a lot into it and the Moroccan people were supportive and very welcoming. So in 2004, when I was listening to George Bush talk about you’re either with us or against us showing the world such a black and white view of the Northern African Muslim world, I was sad and angry because my experience had been so positive. So I thought I would start an arts festival as I know the role arts can play in providing a safe space to talk about difficult topics and ideas and that’s how it started.
In recent years, there has been a conversation around African art in European museums that were taken forcibly during colonisation and whether they should be returned to their original countries. What are your thoughts on the topic?
I have no clear answer. I heard somebody saying they should go back and someone else said if they had been back they wouldn’t have been preserved. You know millions of people around the world see them in the British Museum. If they’re taken back to countries that aren’t so stable, is there any guarantee they’ll be preserved or they’ll be available for everyone to see? It’s not that straightforward a conversation and I need to learn more about it but I don’t think one rule can fit everybody. For example, it can’t be sent back to places where no museums are.
You have a long-standing history with foreign artists. What do you think attracts you to foreign art?
My gallery was one of the first art galleries in London that went international. Nowadays everyone is international but it was quite parochial in the 80s. With artists from abroad, you’re learning about a whole different culture which makes it more interesting and fun. And that is a risk. You know we had the first unofficial showing of contemporary Soviet artists before the wall came down and we showed William Kentridge during the apartheid regime. It made me learn the political nature of art.
What spurred the decision to give up the presidency of the Biennale?
I’ve been doing it for ten years and it is hard work. It was a strictly non-profit event and we had to raise sponsorship and there was a perception that I was underwriting the cost of it which was quite stressful. I also think that it is time for the next generation to step up. There are so many capable younger people who should be driving it with energy and I’m hopeful that is what will happen.
The death of photographer Leila Alaoui was a loss that was felt all over the world. Her sad passing raised a few questions about security in the pursuit of art. Do you genuinely believe there’s a risk in investing in the local art scene of unstable countries like Nigeria? And do you think it’s worth the reward?
I believe that the best time to buy art is during instability. I represented three Apartheid-era South African artists and the reason that they were all interesting in their own way was because you had that clash of artists fighting the political system and having something to say. You also had that amazing confluence of different cultures and all these different pressures coming together and that is what makes art interesting. It is good to buy art when the artists have something to say and are fired up.
Foreign art collectors and curators appear to have minimal interest in the West African art scene. Is that correct and do you know why?
The interest is growing but I don’t think you can suddenly create a market and an interest. A few things need to be in place to get a creative wave. You need a confluence of good teachings in art schools; you need a curious, probably quite angry group of artists with something interesting to say. You need cheap studio space and decent gallerists. Then you need some patrons and finally, museums in public spaces. You can’t just do that, it takes thirty years to build up. And you haven’t had that in West Africa yet, so don’t rush it, there’s plenty of time.
Finally, what’s your favourite colour?