Gallery Profile: Rele Gallery
Adenrele Sonariwo is the curator, founder of Rele Art Gallery and Rele Art Foundation. She holds a Master of Fine Arts degree from Academy of Art University (San Francisco, California), a curating contemporary art certificate from University of the Arts (London), and a BA in business administration/accounting from Howard University (Washington, DC).
Sonariwo has curated and overseen several commercially and critically successful high-profile art exhibitions, such as the Nigerian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2017. She was also a jury member of the 13th edition of the Dakar Biennale in 2018.
She has been featured in global publications such as Financial Times, The Art Review, Forbes Africa, and Vogue. In this interview with Omenka, she discusses her gallery, ongoing projects, and plans for the future.
Congratulations on the fourth anniversary of your gallery. What have been the major challenges in establishing and running a major gallery in Lagos? How useful was your background as an accountant?
There have been quite a number of challenges; the major one that comes to mind is power. This is required and essential for any business to thrive; the lack of it and the expensive nature of alternatives can weigh heavily on any business.
My background has definitely been helpful, as it’s instilled in me the discipline required to run a sustainable business.
Despite these obstacles, Rele has become a firm fixture on the Nigerian art scene. To what can you attribute your success, particularly with downturns in the global economy and the relatively low level of art appreciation on the continent?
Our success is a combination of several factors—passion, dedication, consistency, hard work, and resilience.
Your gallery is focused on representing emerging contemporary artists from Nigeria and her diaspora. How would you describe your curatorial thrust?
Our programming every year is designed well in advance through a group effort. It consists of us asking ourselves certain questions, some of which are: What artists are pushing the boundaries—creating with interesting/cutting edge mediums? How relevant is their work both on the local and the global landscape? How will it contribute to what already exists?
How do you ensure an all-round artist development programme that also aligns with the gallery’s particular focus on the African region?
We are heavily involved in our artists’ development, and we ensure that they are evolving and developing by encouraging them to be constantly in the know and aware of what’s going on around them. We encourage them to read and do research, attend workshops, speak to other professional artists, attend residencies abroad, and so on.
Without a doubt, your programme Young Contemporaries is one of your milestones. This year’s edition explores evolving discourse on cutting-edge artistic practice, art and social activism, as well as critical issues that impact the immediate Nigerian/African and global contexts. Kindly share in detail your process of selecting the six finalists?
Our YC process starts off with us travelling to various regions around the country to get a sense of what young artists are creating. For this edition, we visited Enugu, Benin, Auchi, Yaba Tech, and so on. We review portfolios that have been sent to us over the course of the year and also get recommendations from older artists within the space. We develop a shortlist, which is reviewed by the board of the Rele Arts Foundation, candidates send in their final proposals, and we eventually select six for the programme.
E-commerce is an aspect of the art market that has emerged in recent years. Why do you think many gallerists are unwilling to adopt this approach?
While e-commerce has emerged and is thriving, it just may not fit into some galleries’ plans. E-commerce is not as easy as it seems, and it requires the same amount of focus and strategic planning as you would need running a brick-and-mortar.
There is a growing proliferation of art fairs dedicated to contemporary African art. How would you react to criticism that they “ghettoise” art from the continent?
In my opinion, these fairs are contributing to furthering the industry. There are audiences that will only be interested in collecting African art and will appreciate a fair of this nature, which allows them to focus on their interests.
Do you foresee them gradually becoming more relevant than exhibitions in local galleries, particularly with the advantages of large visitor numbers and increased exposure for the artists?
Not particularly. A fair happens once a year in the region in which it’s held. Galleries open their doors all year round, and with the rotating exhibitions/programming, they become this guaranteed cultural place for art lovers that want to enjoy art at any time.
You were the curator for the first-ever Nigerian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2017. Please enlighten us about the experience.
Curating the Nigerian Pavilion was quite a life-changing experience for me. It was an amazing opportunity to present Nigeria at such an important global platform for the first time ever in the over 100 years of the biennale’s history. The experience taught me about placing oneself in service to the greater good. It taught me that curating is a political act, and, like cultural diplomacy, can be used toward greater political purpose that is not always apparent at first. The entire experience was well worth it.
Kindly tell us about your major forthcoming projects.
We have an art summit, which is a gathering of the art industry’s brightest minds, thinkers, creators, artists, students, collectors, and more! The first edition was great, and we hope it’ll grow to become the most important meeting of minds to attend on the continent.
We also have Art Save, which is geared towards young art collectors—it gives them an opportunity to start saving towards the building of an art collection (www.rele.co/artsave).
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