Visual arts

Repositioning African art on the world stage


Maria Varnana

Maria Varnana, founder and director of Tiwani Contemporary, opens up to Yinka Olatunbosun during a recent encounter on his journey of promoting contemporary African art to the world which started 10 years ago in London and now with a new gallery in Lagos

The expansive view of Tiwani Contemporary in Lagos is like a spreadsheet – showing off the centerpieces of its assortment of African artists, from the region and the diaspora. At the reception sat Maria Varnana with an inviting smile and intent eyes on every gallery visitor. With someone like her, you don’t need to introduce yourself twice.

Born with a photographic memory, Lagos will always be her home even though she left town at 11. The Greek Cypriot told her story in an exclusive chat during the premiere of the group show called ‘The Company She Keeps’.

“I grew up in Lagos,” she began. “I moved to Lagos from Cyprus when I was 40 days old. I lived here until I was 11. I grew up around the works of Suzanne Wenger, Twin Seven Seven, Bruce Onabrakpeya, Ben Osagia, etc.”

After completing her MA in African Studies with a focus on African Art at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), she established her gallery in Fitzrovia, central London. For her, the location of the gallery was important for the message she had to convey. Having previously worked with an international auction house, she discovered a weakness in the international visual arts scene.

“I thought there wasn’t enough engagement with contemporary material from Nigeria and Africa at the time. I started researching and talking to people who were interested in publishing or exhibiting just to introduce London to some kind of extra ‘vibe’ on the art scene,” she said.

Perhaps his meeting with the Nigerian curator, founder and director of the Center for Contemporary Arts (CCA) Bisi Silva in 2008, will remain the most profound in the decision to create the Tiwani Contemporary gallery.

“She was instrumental in the development of Tiwani as a whole. She was a great friend and mentor and helped me set up Tiwani in London. And throughout the process of the last 10 years, it was always an open conversation with Bisi when she was still with us and also with my colleagues,” she recalls with misty eyes.

Silva passed away in 2019 but had managed to sow the seed of a fierce passion for contemporary African art in Varnana.

“Once Tiwani got firmly established in London, we started to think constructively. We promised ourselves to launch Tiwani in Lagos,” she said.

Tiwani Contemporary finally arrived in Nigeria around February 2022. The purpose-built 2,000 square foot gallery on Victoria Island, Lagos, is something of a homecoming for Varnana who has a deep interest in untapped areas of the industry. visual arts. Since its opening, Tiwani Contemporary Arts has opened its doors wide for female voices from Africa and the Diaspora to be seen and heard, although the gallery is not driven by an agenda.

“For me, I thought commercially it would have made sense to establish this in New York or Paris. But then I feel very close to my Nigerian upbringing. I feel very passionate about the artists I work with and themes I want to explore. I think if we want to be part of the Africa movement globally, we have to be here, talk to local artists and also engage with local patrons. Basically, I would like to see more works by Nigerian artists,” she said.

The name of the gallery “Tiwani” is derived from the Yoruba language after researching how to connect the gallery with the people it represents.

“It’s a beautiful name and I spoke with Bisi about having a name that speaks to the spirit of the gallery and she explained to me that Tiwani loosely translates to ‘it belongs to us’ or ‘it’s ours.’ And I just loved it. It was what I was hoping to explore and achieve with the gallery.

Thus, Tiwani Contemporary has become an institution in Nigeria to help build relationships, convey messages and bridge the gap between local and international artists and collectors.

“I’m a big believer that if you’re very passionate about something and it really aligns with our true values, the rest will follow. Of course, we don’t see it as something that would bring immediate financial returns. As things stand, we have a track record and a good mindset,” she added.

Reflecting on her debut at Tiwani Contemporary in London, she recalled the obstacles overcome to position contemporary African arts where they are.

“I was an outsider in every way. I was an outsider in the sense that my output was full of artists from Africa and the diaspora. Fantastic galleries were already working with some of them. October went to El Anatsui but I was not part of the gallery system. I was an outsider because of the geography I represented. The only way to overcome that was through the quality of the artists we choose to hire. We have to create the charts through the shows. We had to find the bias and it was a long journey, not easy. We also had shortcomings in the first days of which we learned.

“It was a constant learning process every day, but I think over the last four years or so things started to feel a lot, I don’t want to use the word easier but smoother. Suddenly, we’re looking for customers and now customers are chasing us – so there’s a change and we have a bigger type of movement right now.

Citing the example of the Tate Gallery in London, she admitted that the pressure to acquire works of art from Africa has become less tedious than it was when she was still in a house of art auction.

“If you want to build a truly international collection, we have to include Africa in the conversation. Tiwani started shaping things and this led to the creation of an art fair specifically for African galleries. He corrected the way art from Africa should be valued.

“People had this idea that just because I was working with African artists, the price of art should be cheaper or cheaper. But we helped break down those barriers to trade. Galleries and auction houses aren’t best friends, but suddenly there’s a shift in the market and we can see a synergy between the two,” she said.

Now in Nigeria, Tiwani Contemporary will also contribute to the understanding of contemporary African art through publications and other organized events.

“We published publications and organized conferences on art. We will collaborate with the Guest Artists Space Foundation (GAS) to organize three residencies in Lagos. These are humble beginnings. But we would like to do more as we grow. These are ways to support our artists and give them opportunities to engage,” she said.