Kavita Chellaram has, over the years, transmuted her passion for collecting Nigerian art into projects that have significantly impacted the local art scene. Okechukwu Uwaezuoke reports

South South Veza looms. For this South South’s inaugural event, kó features a solo presentation by Peju Alatise, one of Africa’s leading female contemporary artists. Through the event, South South (a gallery-led online community, anthology, live resource and aggregator dedicated to art from the so-called Global South and its diaspora) hosts over 50 other galleries “from more than 40 cities spread across 30 countries and five continents” from Tuesday, February 23 to Sunday, March 7.

At kó’s formal launch on Friday, September 25, its visionary founder Kavita Chellaram – hitherto renowned in the Lagos art circles for her trailblazing auction house Arthouse Contemporary and its satellite projects (Arthouse -The Space and Arthouse Foundation) – enthused about her creating “a separate and unique gallery entity”.

Hence, the conception of this art space, tucked away somewhere in the leafy upmarket Lagos neighbourhood of Ikoyi, offers her an opportunity to organise “focused exhibitions on a regular basis, delve more deeply into artists and art historical topics, generate research and publications, and continue to promote Nigerian art on the global stage.”

Hasn’t indeed the promotion of Nigerian art been the matriarch of the renowned Chellaram family business dynasty’s stock-in-trade? From initially collecting bead paintings by the informally-trained Osogbo artist Twins Seven Seven in 1977 and 1978, she has since added many more works by Nigerian artists to her collection. Thus, the contemporary Nigerian art won a new devotee, who had previously been a keen collector of Indian art.

Her experience at an art auction held back in India, Mrs Chellaram inspired her resolve to replicate the idea in Lagos. This was how the Arthouse Contemporary was established in late 2007. The auction house engraved its name in the industry’s consciousness after its first auction in April 2008, which turned out to be very successful. Thus, she managed to streamline an art market, which though awash with talents, was reeling from by the arbitrary fixing of prices by collectors.
True, Arthouse Contemporary may not have been the first to hold auctions in Nigeria. It, nonetheless, takes the first prize for its consistency, which has seen it add an “affordable” version to its biannual auctions. Soon, two other reputable auction houses, which were inspired by its success, emerged.

Before that historic inaugural auction, Mrs Chellaram had taken a coterie of Nigerian artists to India for a charity auction. Could that explain the recurring inclusion of charity segments in all the Arthouse Contemporary auctions?
Yet, if after over 13 years in existence, the auction house still defies the narrative arc that decrees a high mortality rate for such ambitious endeavours, it is because it must have properly done its homework. Its auctions, which have earned their slots among the art community’s A-list events, have regularly featured such acknowledged masters and industry leaders of the local art scene as Ben Enwonwu, El Anatsui, Bruce Onobrakpeya, Uche Okeke, Demas Nwoko, Ben Osawe, Kolade Oshinowo, Ablade Glover, Chuks Anyanwu, David Dale, Ato Delaquis, Jimoh Buraimoh, Solomon Wangboje, Dele Jegede, Obiora Udechukwu, Ben Osaghae, Rom Isichei, Mavua Lessor, Uzo Egonu, Obi Enkwenchi, Okpu Eze, Lamidi Fakeye, Tayo Adenaike, Amos Odion, Abiodun Olaku, Muraina Oyelami, Jacob Afolabi, Susanne Wenger, Sam Ovraiti, Nike Davies-Okundaye, Peju Alatise, Ndidi Emefiele, Lemi Ghariokwu, Alimi Adewale, Duke Asidere, Chike Obeagu, Uche Okpa-Iroha, Gerald Chukwuma, Lemi Ghariokwu, Reuben Ugbine, and Uchay Joel Chima among others as well as such celebrated Nigerian artists in the diaspora as Sokari Douglas-Camp, Chidi Kwubiri, Victor Ekpuk and Emeka Udemba.

From holding its earlier editions at the Civic Centre in Victoria Island, Lagos, the auctions were later moved to The Wheatbaker Hotel and subsequently, the Kia Showroom in Victoria Island, Lagos. Consistently conducted by the English-born auctioneer, John Dabney, the three auctions have relied on the sponsorships of such organisations as Access Bank, Kia Motors, Veuve Clicquot, 7UP, Le Connaisseur, and Shiro as well as the support of the media partners.

Both Arthouse -The Space and the Arthouse Foundation, the Arthouse Contemporary complements, have also significantly impacted the Nigerian art scene with their programmes. While the former has, among other landmark activities, featured its artists at such international art fairs as Art 14 in London and Art X Lagos, the latter, which offers artist residencies in three-month sessions in Lagos, has in recent memory partnered with international art institutions to offer residency exchanges, including an exchange with the Matadero Museum in Madrid for Nigerian and Spanish artists and another with the Goethe-Institut in Berlin for Nigerian and German artists.

It was hardly surprising, therefore, that Arthouse Contemporary remarkably muddled through the doldrums caused by the ravages of the coronavirus pandemic on the economy last year.

Even more remarkable was the fact that its latest baby, kó, was inaugurated last year when the Lagos art scene was still reeling from the aftermath of the pandemic-induced lockdowns. “kó’s focus is two-fold, in championing Nigeria’s leading artists from the modern period and celebrating emerging and established contemporary artists across Africa and the Diaspora,” Mrs Chellaram explained before its inauguration. “Throughout my career, I have had the honour of developing projects with numerous modern African masters, including Ben Enwonwu, Yusuf Grillo, Bruce Onobrakpeya, Demas Nwoko, Uche Okeke, Simon Okeke, Emmanuel Odita and Oseloka Osadebe, among many others.”

It was after hosting the retrospective exhibition, Zaria Art Society: Celebration of Legacies, in 2019 that she began to mull the idea of establishing a gallery to promote these titanic figures of the contemporary Nigerian art scene. Then, there was also the insight she gained working with wave-making contemporary Nigerian artists. “I have also been able to develop relationships with several emerging artists over the years through our artist residency programme, and I am eager to work alongside many of these artists as a gallerist,” she said.

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