Retro Africa: Housing the Future of African Art
Founded by Dolly Kola-Balogun and Abdullahi Umar, Retro Africa has since inception in 2015, become a home for contemporary art from Africa and her related Diaspora, through its representation of emerging and established artists. Through a range of different channels including participation in major art fairs, pop-up exhibitions, intercultural dialogue and online media, the gallery continues to cultivate a growing community of art enthusiasts, curators and collectors. Recently, Retro Africa launched a new space at Asokoro in Abuja, alongside an Atelier, a boutique hotel and a café. In this interview with Omenka, Umar and Kola-Balogun share their vision, thrust and plans for the future.
Retro Africa is now an established gallery on the Nigerian contemporary art scene. What is the inspiration behind its name, your vision for it, and its curatorial thrust?
This is a common one. Everyone seems to enquire about the name. Retro Africa is a contemporary art gallery and platform. It seems sort of contradictory, as “retro” implies something passé or old, perhaps even redefined in a modern way, whereas, “contemporary” suggests forward or future thinking. Retro Africa, being a contemporary art platform, seems somewhat of a misnomer at first, I suppose. We thought it was somewhat ironic, so we kept it. But we soon realised that it was actually perfect. The past constantly influences the future. We are continually evolving and cannot help but be defined by our past. “Retro Africa” ended up being perfectly fitting and contemporary.
Our vision is to become a hub and centre for contemporary art in our city. Abuja is our home and where we first began to invest our time and mind in art. It is where we initiated pop-up exhibitions alongside like-minded individuals, and it is where we chose to build our new permanent gallery space. We hope to be a comfortable space of learning and experience as we seek to share the love of art with our nation’s capital and de-saturate Lagos as the focal point for contemporary art. We have many plans ahead and hope to collaborate with like-minded platforms from Lagos and across both the country and the continent as we go forward.
To what extent have these plans been accomplished?
I think we are moving along, but it’s been very difficult. Abuja is not particularly famous for its culture scene. It is a nascent art scene, emerging from very few foundations. But I’m also excited at the prospects, and I have been pleasantly surprised by the response we’ve been getting. It’s a long-term investment, but we have faith in Abuja and its people. The population may not be as big as other major cities, but it has been experiencing a new wave of young, vibrant energy of late. It has a lot of universities and a very youthful population. I’m excited to continue to learn and grow with our audience.
Congratulations on the recent launch of your space, along with a café and boutique hotel. What would you attribute Retro’s success to, considering the downturn in the global economy and the relatively low level of art appreciation on the continent?
Thank you very much. We’ve been building up to this now for the better part of last year. Retro Africa has a new home, alongside Atelier, our partners and new boutique hotel, run by my sister Keji, and a café called The Pavilion, which were all designed by Studio Contra Mundum, a new architecture and interiors studio started by eldest sister Olayinka, in partnership with some of her fellow Harvard alumni. Ours is simply a classic case of returnee Nigerians who’ve felt that being home and building our success from home is critical to our future growth.
It has been very tough, especially considering the downturns in the global and national economy, as you mentioned. But we are in the golden age of contemporary African art. This is our renaissance, and there’s not a better time to be in this industry than now, and from no better place than here, on this continent. We are seeing enormous appreciation and interest in contemporary African art from around the world, not just within our continent. And if we find ourselves lagging behind, it becomes even more critical for us to have a seat at the table in order to shape our own narratives. We cannot afford to allow our stories to be once again written by others.
Why establish Retro in Abuja and not the country’s cultural and commercial capital, Lagos?
Abuja is the seat of power and the centre of government. It should not lag behind. If anything, we should see ourselves investing in more spaces in Abuja in order to force our arts and culture departments to take the industry more seriously. Abuja is also my home and where I spent critical years of my life. We all share the love for the arts; why not spread that appreciation across the country? I’m happy to work alongside the Lagos art scene and continue to participate in it. But I’d like to spread that love to the rest of the country. I’d like to see that growth spread to Port Harcourt and Kaduna.
It is a very challenging industry to be in, as a commercial gallery. There isn’t sufficient patronage, and I find myself relying very much on maintaining an external and international collector base. But I’d like to see that change. I’m looking forward to when my primary collector base will be local. But until then, it may seem quite challenging as we go forward. But I hope to help transform Nigeria’s economic capital into more of a cultural capital.
E-Commerce is an aspect of the art market that has emerged in recent years. In your opinion, do you think gallerists should adopt this approach to attract patronage?
I definitely think so. A lot of our sales are done through Artsy, and it allows us to extend our audience far beyond our immediate environment. I think e-commerce has been a great way to level the playing field for galleries in developing countries that find themselves at a disadvantage when compared to galleries in the West and Asia.
Major fairs like 1-54 have promoted the works of your artists. How much impact have they had on your gallery and the artists you represent, and how do you decide which artist gets the exposure?
They have been an enormous part of our growth and artist exposure. I’m happy to see more fairs like these investing in contemporary African art.
With the growing proliferation of art fairs, 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?
I’m not sure I foresee them becoming more relevant. They serve different purposes. Exhibitions are made for us to curate and converse with the local population. There are very important cultural and educational purposes to exhibitions that one cannot get in a solely commercial fair.
Fairs are equally important because they allow us to extend the artist’s collector base and influence across geographical zones. They provide an enormous opportunity for investment in our art.
Do you plan to open up more spaces in locations outside Nigeria?
I’d love to partner with local galleries and curators in New York, LA, or London, and potentially open up new spaces outside of Nigeria. But we also have partnerships regionally with galleries like Galerie Medina in Bamako, where we continue to have artist exchanges and Anglophone-Francophone collaborations.
We began doing this last year at Nordic Hotel in partnership with Victims of Violence. We plan to continue this yearly and hope to elaborate more on that in the coming months. This last decade has seen enormous devastation, death, and displacement in our country. An entire generation of people have experienced their formative years in IDP camps. We hope that some of the proceeds of our projects go to helping and alleviating their plight, even in the smallest way, through both donations and spreading awareness.
Please tell us about your major forthcoming projects.
We will be participating in this year’s Cape Town Art Fair, 1-54 Marrakech and 1-54 New York. We have a new exhibition in our gallery every six weeks and look forward to developing our curatorial year. In partnership with our hotel, Atelier, we hope to launch our residency programme this year. I hope to see more growth and opportunities as we go forward.
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