ArtLabAfrica is a latter day version of the classical literary salon: it is a place where ideas that emerge from conversation inspire and take form in art works. ArtLabAfrica was founded in 2013 by Lavinia Calza when she discovered Nairobi’s artists and their works. ArtLabAfrica was also the natural outcome of her own long-standing work as a gallerist, in researching and marketing art. This is what she told us.
Can you please introduce ArtLabAfrica, what made you open a gallery?
ArtLabAfrica is the natural continuation of the work I started twenty years ago in London and New York, first as a specialist in 20th century art at Sotheby’s and then as a gallerist and advisor to collectors. In 2012 my family and I moved to Nairobi, a city we’d been coming to for years and I immediately realized, after a quick survey, that part of the local art scene was ready for this and that there was a lot of potential.
But, as is often the case, they had little opportunity to emerge?
In a way, yes. Some Kenyan artists are in fact internationally known, and their works are often included in group shows; or they have a priviledged relatoinship with certain kinds of institutions, like resident artists in museums or foundations. For example, Peterson Kamwathi, who has exibited at the Frost Museum in Miami, at the KunstHaus in Bregenz, at the Marte Museum in San Salvador, at the Biennal in Dakar and at Kouvola Museum in Finlandia. Or Gor Soudan, who’s just got back from a residence in Japan. What they were missing was contact with the international market.
There aren’t many galleries in Nairobi, they don’t have connections with the international market, and they tend to favour a traditional style of painting. Artists whose work was close to contemporary concepts and aesthetics, who had contact with global themes and who used media other than painting, got little attention. But what was mostly missing for them was the market, if you know what I mean.
Sure. And it all started with 1:54…
Taking part in 1:54 was crucial. I met curators and museum directors I could show the work of the Kenyan artists, many of whom hadn’t been seen before. Eastern Africa isn’t very connected to the international cultural milieu. Many of the African curators come from Western Africa, and in a sense they priviledge that part of Africa. Kenya is somewhat left out. The fair was an essential first step in getting their work known.
How did you get into 1:54?
We have to go back a few years. While Touria was organizing the first edition of 1:54 she told me she didn’t have anyone from East Africa, and because she knew about the work I’d done previously and my experience, she asked me if I wanted to partecipate. So I gathered my artists together and asked if they wanted to take part, and that if they did they’d have to produce some works. And that’s how it started.
The difficulties you’ve encountered in your work as a gallerist?
First and foremost, practical difficulties. Organization as we mean it in the West doesn’t exist, you have to be very good at improvising. Nairobi is a city whose economy is growing very fast, but whose public infrastructure is far behind. Internet is available only in very few places. Most of the artists don’t have access to it in their studios. They have to come to my studio or go to cybercafes to navigate.
And what is the art scene in Nairobi like, now?
It’s changed a lot in the last four years, it’s become dynamic. A lot of small spaces, artists’ collectives are coming up all over the place. There’s a new generation of artists who produce work that doesn’t reflect African aesthetics but looks towards global issues. Artists like Gor Soudan, a young conceptual artist whose work is deeply embedded in urban culture and often subtly engaged with contemporary political and social practice. Or Paul Onditi, who uses filmstrips, prints, transferred images, pared-down layers of pigment and caustic acid and patches them together in a meticulous way to map a rapidly urbanising city, with its look-alike contemporary buildings, loss of green space and increasingly polluted air. Syowia Kyambi, who is a performance artist much more interested in issues of identity, history and gender context. All of them are urban artists and they’re totally global in terms of concepts. And this is what I’m interested in, the work of this type of artist. The artists who show at 1:54 and who I’ve shown at Volta in New York deserve to be thought of as international, not just African. There’s obviously still something that identifies their work as African and that makes it special, in my opinion, like the use of colour, for example.
Can you give us an idea of the range of prices of the artists you represent as a gallerist?
For photography, they go from two to three thousand euros. Large pieces and installations, from ten to fifteen thousand. This is for the emerging artists.
How do you choose the artists you represent? And what about the work of women artists?
I choose them instinctively and I only represent a few.
As far as women artists go, It’s not easy for a woman to be an artist in Africa. Gender is definitely an issue. Four of the ten artists that I represent are women. Syowia Kyambi, who is half African half German, does a lot of work on the concept of identity, and one of the works she has here that is very well known – an installation called My Mother’s Mother – and that has been shown at the Iwalewahaus, is a reflection on the Kenyan middle class female model and the corresponding German model.
I will be taking Beatrice Wanjiku to 1:54 New York. She debuted at the London edition last year, and it went very well. We will be presenting her latest series of paintings, entitled “Straitjacket”. It’s powerful work, representational if you like, a narration of the social limits we often find ourselves physically and mentally constrained by as human beings.
Can you tell us something about your collectors?
They’re mainly international collectors, that’s my market, I don’t work at the local level.
Are there any of your artists’ work in public or private museums?
Not in museums, although they’ve been shown in a lot of collective exhibitions. There are a lot of them in the large private collections in Europe and the USA. The attention that’s been focused on Africa recently, both by investors and economic players but also in terms of culture, is catalyzing the interest of collectors, advisors and curators.