IN CONVERSATION WITH MARWAN ZAKHEM
Marwan Zakhem is a member of the board of directions of Zakhem Group, as well as the Managing Director of both Zakhem International Construction Ltd and GCC Resorts Ltd, owners and operators of the Kempinski Gold Coast City Accra Hotel. He has a Bachelors degree in Civil Engineering from Imperial College, London and is a member of the Institute of Civil Engineers (MICE).
You are a board member of the Zakhem Group and also manage Zakhem How are you able to balance these duties with managing Gallery 1957?
With great difficulty and without getting much sleep. Out of my three full time day jobs, running the gallery is the one that I enjoy most. I am both fascinated and passionate about the art world and in particular the West African market. There is something special happening right now in Ghana and West Africa and I feel privileged to be a part of it.
What informs your interest in West African art?
I started buying art when I moved to Africa 15 years ago for my work. My initial interest was identity and I was taken by the ability of art to embrace a freedom of self-expression whilst reflecting the society of our time. The work being created in the region is very exciting, emotive and often experimental. Beyond that we are seeing young artists use their art as a platform to raise public awareness of social and political issues that currently exist in their communities. I meet a lot of artists and do many studio visits; I am also always interested in hearing the perspective of curators and professors from the region.
You were described in an article as British-Lebanese, how did you make the decision to live and work in Ghana and not Lebanon or Britain?
I was born in Lebanon but was brought up in London from the age of three. After graduating from Imperial College, London, I worked and lived in Cairo, Beirut, Houston, Dakar, and for the last 13 years in Accra. There is not one single decision that has led me to where I am –just life and its different twists and turns.
You are often described as an art collector, what challenges have you faced in taking up curating as well?
I am first and foremost a collector and at that a very simple one. As a collector if I like the piece and can afford it, I will not hesitate to buy it. I am not a collector who needs to know what biennales or museums the artist has shown in or what collections his works can be found, nor do I need to meet the artist and visit his studio before making a purchase. I am a purist and collect for the here and now.
Once I make a purchase, which usually leads to other acquisitions by the same artist, I then like to learn more about their narratives, career and practices. I personally know most of the artists I collect, and have commissioned works from them. This “collaboration” of sorts allowed me to study and to understand the creative process involved in making art.
It was through these relationships that the idea of opening a gallery took root. There are incredible challenges inherent in running a commercial gallery, which I underestimated when I started. However, none of these difficulties, which are inherent in all new businesses have dulled my curiosity and passion. The excitement of a meeting a young artist and developing an exhibition or installation that the audience takes to is a powerful, emotional journey and I enjoy getting involved in the process as much as I can, without getting in the way of course!
Your private collection took 15 years to assemble and is currently displayed at Kempinski Hotel, Ghana. In your opinion what is the most significant piece and what habits/patterns inform your collection?
It’s impossible to single out one piece. However, I am very proud of the collection that is currently in display throughout the Kempinski Accra Hotel, especially those that adorn the walls on the first floor, where the best of young Ghanaian talent, such as Serge Attukwei Clottey, Ibrahim Mahama, Zohra Opoku, Jeremiah Quarshie and Yaw Owusu are on display. Many of the works are original and powerful installations that will certainly inspire you.
Do you think that you will eventually turn your full focus to art?
I would like to think so, eventually – maybe, but for the foreseeable future it is not an option.
How often does the gallery hold exhibitions?
Since we opened in March we have held exhibitions by Serge Attukwei Clottey, Zohra Opoku and Jeremiah Quarshie, and also participated in two international fairs, 1:54 London and Art X Lagos. With our existing gallery in Accra, we intend to hold 5 – 6 exhibitions annually and continue to participate in several international fairs.
There are not many galleries in Ghana, how does Gallery 1957 perform with respect to its competition?
There are not many commercial galleries in Ghana, maybe around 5 maybe, so there is definitely room for more competition. The arts community in Accra is very unique in that it has several innovative organisations like Nubuke Foundation, Accra dot Alt, ANO and KNUST, which are supporting artists. Most of these organisations do run commercial programme alongside their non-profit ones. ANO for instance recently participated in the inaugural Art X in Lagos this year.
What’s the curatorial thrust of your gallery and are the works you display limited to Ghana?
We are currently supporting established and emerging artists working across diverse media who often explore socio-political themes. One of the gallery’s main aims is to foster a deeper understanding of Ghana’s contemporary art and support international exchange between West Africa and the rest of the world through the visual arts. We have an initial curatorial focus on artists from Ghana and other West African countries, but we are open to expanding our reach to include artists from further afield as the gallery grows. We want to be able to work with a select number of artists that we can comfortably provide with the necessary support to ensure successful, sustainable careers.
How does the gallery manage it’s expenses, do you have access to government funding or sponsorship?
The gallery is currently privately owned by me. By operating as a commercial gallery selling work, we are able to focus on long-term career development and provide security to artists so they can continue to produce work and don’t have to move abroad to make a living. We don’t receive public funding or sponsorship at the moment – maybe this will change in the future as the government starts to realise the worth of cultural tourism and the growth of the creative economy.
Do you collaborate on exhibitions with other galleries; is this a future possibility for Gallery 1957?
We are very open to our artist collaborating with other galleries. This year, Serge Attukwei Clottey has held solo shows in San Francisco with Ever Gold [Projects] and in Berlin with Marta Gnyp. Another artist who we work with is Zohra Opoku. She also collaborates with the Seattle-based Marianne Ibrahim Gallery. I think it is important that artists working on the continent reach new markets and the key way to do that (alongside social media) is to exhibit internationally.
You have recently turned your attention to international fairs having participated at 1:54 in London and recently, Art X in Lagos. What impact has this had on your gallery and are there plans to sustain or increase this development?
Both 1:54 and Art X Lagos were hugely successful for us. Not only were our sales stronger than expected but we met an incredible range of museum directors, curators, collectors and art lovers. Both fairs have inspiring founders behind them in Touria el Glaoui and Tokini Peterside who have supported our gallery. I was suitably impressed with the art scene in Nigeria, from the quality of work being created to the sheer depth and vision of the collectors. The Nigerian art market I believe is a sleeping giant, insular and for now undervalued in comparison to other markets.
Fairs provide an opportunity for us to reach new audiences and our positive experience of them so far means we are considering others for the future. Especially as a new gallery, fairs allow us to understand better the different markets, which tend to differ widely from country to country and at the same time introduce our represented artists.
What is the vision behind Gallery 1957 and to what extent has this been accomplished?
We set out to foster relationships between Ghanaian artists and international art institutions, as well as to promote discourse and new narratives. We have had a wide breadth of people come to Accra to explore the scene here including international arts organisations like Sotheby’s, Ikon, Tate, Documenta, the Harn Museum of Art and media from all over. We have organised residencies for our artists and sold work to private and public museum collections internationally. We have brought new audiences to the visual arts in Ghana through our public programme and off-site events. We are proud of what we’ve managed to achieve so far, but we are still at the very beginning of our journey.
You mentioned in an interview that Gallery 1957 will work closely with independent organisations in Ghana; can you give examples of the organisations and what value they will add to the Gallery?
We have supported Asa Baako Music Festival in Takoradi and Accra [dot] Alt’s Chale Wote Festival in Jamestown, and hosted off-site projects, performances and talks by Ibrahim Mahama (artist), Mantse Aryeequaye (Accra [dot] Alt), Ablade Glover (artist and Artists’ Alliance), Touria el Glaoui (1:54), Kerryn Greenberg (Tate) and Tutu Agyare (Nubuke Foundation). ANO curated our first two exhibitions by Serge Attukwei and Zohra Opoku, and Robin Riskin (a curator at BLAXtarlines in Kumasi) curated Jeremiah Quarshie’s show. Working collaboratively allows us to draw on the diverse experiences and different perspectives of others; there is an immense amount of creativity in the region. We will always try to collaborate with independent organisations within Ghana and the sub-region.
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