Kavita Chellarams


• I Was Very Excited to Become a Grandmother
• I Started Arts Collection as a Hobby in 1977

As the CEO of Arthouse, what is one of your main achievements?
We have brought the world’s attention to the Nigerian art market and as an organisation we have sold more than N1 billion worth of artworks in the last eight years. It is not an easy task to achieve this figure in a country where more than half of its population lives on less than two dollars a day.

Your journey into art collection, can it be described as a happenstance?
Not exactly; it started as a hobby in 1977 shortly before I got married. I went for an exhibition and was awed by the sheer beauty of the pieces she saw. Thereafter, my taste for art collection grew till I had more than a handful of artworks from different artists. Yes, it has been a journey. We had built this wall and we have had to fill it up with paintings and that is how the whole thing started. We first started by bringing it here, then when the values went up we started collecting after that. In those days, we went to shows, artist’s studios; they had exhibitions and we brought works straight from the studios. At the time, there wasn’t enough showcasing of arts in Nigeria. So, that was how it came about setting up an art house.

So issues you had with different prices of the works you wanted to acquire led you to start a pioneer auction house in Nigeria?
You go to one gallery; there is a different price from the other. They didn’t really know what the value was. What the auction did was to establish a value for each artist. The catalogues that we produce are like a journey which has the estimated price of the artist. The auction determines what the true value is, depending on how many you want to build; what they feel the value is. So, there is a benchmark now. Now you can confidently tell someone what your price is. It encourages the artist to work harder, to do better works and to achieve better prices.

What’s the vision behind the establishment of Arthouse?
Contemporary art is to have a platform where African arts can be seen worldwide. We have the Internet, the computer, where we can expose African art to the world, which has not been done before. So, it is really the first time that Nigerian art was put on an international platform and offered to an international audience. Also, a transparency price and getting artists aware that there is a medium they can sell through. We originally started off with a very small secondary market but with the added interest of prices going up. The secondary market woke up and said I have got some value for my work and there was a platform where you can sell it. I have discovered over the years that when you have a work and you do not like it anymore (want to dispose it) and want to buy something else you need only to go to the gallery where you can buy modern art and there was no platform where you could sell it. So, this is creating a platform where there is value to a work and you could sell it. What you bought for N500 is now worth a million Naira or more.

Is it safe to describe your interest in African art as modern and contemporary?
Modern, basically, because the art scene has only been in this country for about 100 years; otherwise art was basically tribal, sculptures. Paintings were done on wall dwelling of homes. This was the first time that they used canvas as a medium, which was broadened by the British. Art especially in auctions thrive on authenticity.

Is it practised here?
There is authenticity, in the sense that you always know somebody who knows the artist. We located an old artist, his families, his immediate families; they can say what their father did and what he didn’t do. We can get authentication from the family. You know that you don’t have fake and have a lot of people that can assist you. It is more international for tribal art, am not a professional but I love it and am buying a lot of it now.

Your private collection boasts of more than 400 works; do you have any favourites?
Among the collection, my favourites are many. The modern artists have been doing good jobs. For modern, it is Chris Anyanwu; for contemporary, Professor Kolade Oshinowo. We are having a show in February next year that will include Uche Okeke and Kolade Oshinowo. I have had great times with them. We represent African artists in diaspora at Arthouse.

How easy is it sourcing for art consignments for the auction?
It has not been easy. We like to have a nice mix between modern and contemporary. We always look at the best work of every artist. A lot come through the selection process. We have a jury who sit down and choose for the next auction. If we don’t have the right mix, we know we have to look for a better one or an old artist. We get few masterpieces: 10, 15 or 20 and get the rest of the works. Now, artists want them resold by collectors. There are a lot of works that are coming to us to be resold. Works of 1950s, 1960s and 1980s are recycled. Some people have not heard of the collection. It could be that the value of the works has gone up and so, people get tempted by the money. The artists also come with their bet works to show. So, we are really getting a lot more.

What are the challenges?
The challenges have been finding the right location, traffic, especially modern and contemporary as you want to start on time and you find it difficult because of traffic. Otherwise, everyone has been very helpful. Everyone has been very active. They have been able to find us works, show us works. We are really lucky in this. I have had wonderful assistance right from the beginning. We work a lot as a team and we have team efforts. We are all dedicated to the work and it is exciting.

Do you have any expansion for now?
Lagos is a medium. A lot of people are here and more of the collectors are here as well than in Port Harcourt or Abuja. We have been thinking of Abuja. Maybe next year, we can do it. We get across to people interested in the works online. We are on a lot of websites. We send catalogues to our clients. So, it is open. We go to organisations that do advertisements for people. You can do it through telephones. We are thinking of going online. Next auction we will go online and it will give us a larger audience. So that people can open the computer anywhere and see it. We have a lot of our clients abroad.

So more people are coming into the Nigerian art space, making it possible for more interesting exhibitions to hold?
It is just an idea that we have to showcase artists and there weren’t many spaces. But now, a lot of people have opened up. There were five shows that opened on a single Friday last year. I couldn’t believe Lagos had such incredible, vibrant art spaces. The more people are growing into it, the better. I think this is a way and a means of showcasing one artist. In the auction we have so many that we do. This way we have various works and we are going to be representing them. Our first is George Oshodi, who is a very renowned photographer. Here we show five or six of his works, so that people can get to see and understand the kind of works that he does. This is to show (what) we had done in Lagos, Calabar. We had huge turnout, we had many people at the exhibition. We had three prints and it’s a photograph; an edition of three, five or 10.
One of them, we sold all three and all five. After this, there can’t be another one. If he does, it’s a different angle and a different work. We don’t have a permanent space. We use a pop-up space, which are large showrooms with a lot of spaces. A lot of people stop to see the works. People are used to buying painting. There are so many African photographers and Ojekure is one of the old photographers we featured; he died last year and Malik. It is quite a recognised medium abroad and we are showcasing work of art and make people know this is a medium that is used now and people are valuing it much as the others.

What is the next step for Arthouse?
We did Art 14 this year. Next year we plan to do it (again) but we are not sure where we want to do it. Most probably in the UK. We have got a line-up of shows. A documentary, we have got many artists to do that. It is important to first brand oneself here and have the market here. We need to grow and expand here before going abroad.

Are you looking at increasing the frequency and why is it twice a year?
No. It is six months’ gaps and it takes us that long to find the works. It is a way to prepare for it. We do write-ups and we do the catalogues. All works must have come to us a month before the auction. We have the time to get the catalogues.

How is the local market?
Every month we get a lot. Some old ones cleave and new ones come. There are a lot of people that now realise that art is an investment. You can buy works and three to five years later and the value can double. It gives you joy as it is increasing in value. So, it is an investment. You can sell it when you want to and get a large price. You can keep it for years. You can see your money growing.

Using the works as collateral to get loans from banks is not something done. So, with your relationship with Standard Chartered Bank, do you intend to educate them?
No, we haven’t looked at that as being collateral. Health insurance scheme is what we are trying to do, which has been on in Nigeria today. We are looking at selling works and putting some of the proceeds into health insurance scheme. We have a couple of meetings and it is in progress. So, next year, we hope this comes to light.

Do you think collectors can use their collections as collateral to get loans?
I think you can do it abroad but here, what you can do is collecting and selling. I am not sure what the banks will feel on that angle. Maybe in the future, it could be done.

What is the secret behind your ageless look?
Being happy; keeping busy; working hard and living healthy. I drink juice every day, which gives me all the vegetables I need.

How are you faring with your grandchildren?
It has been fantastic. I don’t have to wake up in the morning, worrying about school and looking after them. This is a job that’s pleasurable and seeing them gives me that joy. Also, spending time with them gives me joy and hope that what I give them are words of wisdom, love and confidence.

How did you feel when you heard news of the birth of your first grandchild?
I was in London and I felt very excited. I was there with her. She was about 35 or 34 years old. It is a new dimension but I realise how one’s roles in life change but one remains the same person. First, one is a girl; one grows up to become a woman and then a wife; a mother and then a grandmother, then a great-grandmother. The role changes each time but one remains the same person.

How do you relax?
I read; I go to the beach and I rest my body. I love listening to music, reading and exercising. Being with my family and children are the most pleasurable time I spend. Eating good food too is very relaxing for me.