Signature African Art, one of Nigeria’s leading contemporary art galleries, opened its first European location in Mayfair, London in March this year and is now hosting a group exhibition entitled Say My Name in collaboration with award-winning writer and film director Ava DuVernay. Ahead of the show’s public opening tomorrow, we speak to the gallery’s director and curator Khalil Akar about the Black Lives Matter movement and power of visual art
1. What influenced the gallery’s decision to expand internationally, and why London in particular?
We have been supporting the work of African artists for the past 30 years, since opening the gallery in Lagos. We have been waiting for the right opportunity and the right time to open a space outside of the continent. Over the past few years, African art has become increasingly popular and having assessed the global art market, we felt this was the best time to open in London. We chose London as it is one of the art hubs of the world. We wanted to give our artists a platform to showcase their talent to the European market and we felt the UK was the best place in which to do so.
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2. How have global attitudes towards African art changed in recent years?
The global art market has finally started to recognise the contemporary talent that exists within the continent, outside of traditional art forms. We have seen increased sales of African art at auction houses, and fairs like 1-54 Contemporary African Art have helped to encourage a greater interest in art from Africa. The next step for the market would be to have a larger presence of African galleries in household fairs such as Art Basel.
3. The timing of the gallery opening was rather unfortunate, how has the pandemic impacted business?
We opened a solo show by Nigerian artist Oluwole Omofemi just before lockdown, which was very popular by collectors and sold out. We have worked hard to adapt to the current circumstances and challenges, increasing our digital networking and outreach to collectors and providing virtual tours of our exhibitions to our audiences. The additional digital approach has allowed us to reach more collectors and increase sales.
4. What was your curation process for the upcoming group show Say My Name and how did the collaboration with Ava DuVernay come about?
The curatorial process was rooted in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. The vision was to shine a light on things that need to change in society including how Black people are perceived and treated in the global community. Ava and I discussed this theme at length for Say My Name, which also aligned with the topics raised in her 13th documentary for Netflix. The collaboration also focused on raising awareness of police brutality following Ava’s announcement of her LEAP (Law Enforcement Accountability Project) initiative, which aims to hold police in the US accountable through artistic storytelling. We’re planning to donate 40% of proceeds from the sales of both the London and LA shows to the fund. In terms of the artists selected, we have worked with them in the past and knew that they would feel strongly about paying tribute to these figures and histories in the UK and US. We wanted to connect the continent with the deep experiences of the diaspora.
5. Many of the works celebrate key figures and moments in Black history, is it important that viewers recognise and understand these specific references?
It is hugely important that everyone knows the correct history and understands the references in the show. We hope that visitors to Say My Name will learn more about Black history in the US and UK and leave the gallery with food for thought on what part they can play in improving the current world system.
6. In a more general sense, how do you see visual art participating in wider contemporary discourse?
Visual art plays a key role in wider contemporary discourse and has the power to influence the status quo. As Say My Name opens in London, Americans continue to protest on the streets every day since the murder of George Floyd in May. On the continent, young Nigerians are now protesting and advocating for the #EndSARS movement. As an art gallery, we feel it is our responsibility to use our voice to continue and support these conversations to help the creation of a better world.
‘Say My Name’ runs until 28 November 2020 at Signature Art London, and will open in in Los Angeles in February 2021. For more information visit: signatureafricanart.com