October Gallery was founded in 1979 and was the first gallery in the UK to present contemporary art from all around the world. Over the years, it has supported some of the most innovative and exciting artists from the Middle East, Oceania, Asia and Africa, where it has built a reputation for bringing to international attention many of the continent’s leading artists like El Anatsui, Romuald Hazoume, Rachid Koraichi, Julien Sinzogan, Nnenna Okore and Gerard Quenum. As a registered charity, October Gallery also runs a significant educational programme, while maintaining a cultural hub in central London, hosting talks, performances and seminars for poets, writers, artists and intellectuals.
Recently, Omenka got a hold of its directors to share how they have inspired the growth of contemporary African art.
OM: Who is Chili Hawes and how did you get involved with art?
I am the director and a trustee of October Gallery. As a student at the Sorbonne in Paris in the early sixties, I went frequently to the Jeu de Paume, which at that time housed the most famous works of Monet, Gauguin and Van Gogh. Looking at those works for the first time effected such a dramatic chemical change within me that I began to study art in earnest. (Chili Hawes)
OM: What is your role as director of October Gallery?
I am responsible for all the operations of the gallery, the building that we lease and the financial and legal operations. I work closely with the artistic director, Elisabeth Lalouschek. I am also interested in generating a creative group of people working together to make a cultural oasis, an artistic caravanserai. (Chili Hawes)
OM: The October Gallery is one of the older and best-known galleries in the world, how was it started and what was the initial vision?
The initial vision was the Transvangarde, the exhibition of work from around the planet. We opened in February 1979 with the exhibition of Gerald Wilde, a British artist, a genius, an outstanding painter who had been neglected. Championed by Roland Penrose, Tambimuttu, David Sylvester, John Berger and a few critics who understood his art, Wilde needed to be re-introduced. His work would be our key-stone for what we wished to accomplish. He was a dynamic painter, a magnificent colourist, and he painted ideas. Intelligence, intuition, action the structures of man’s hope.
OM: Who were the founders and have there been structural modifications since its establishment?
The founders were directors of the Institute of Ecotechnics, also a registered UK charity, which had set up ecological projects around the world. This was the first project to be in the heart of a world city. The founders purchased the building in the summer of 1978. The building was very run down, one fourth of the building had dry rot and the interior was bleak. I came at that time to refurbish the building, create an art gallery and restaurant on the ground floor, build apartments on the first floor, and a clubroom and a theatre on the second floor. This was a hands-on project like all the other projects the institute has catalysed. All the building work was done with much good will from the start-up gang, artists and friends who shared a vision. After an intense refurbishment period accomplished with very little money, we opened October Gallery to the public in February 1979 with the work of Gerald Wilde. The gallery became a registered charity in 1986 because of its educational work.
OM: The October Gallery prides itself on the promotion of the Transvangarde. What exactly does this concept mean and how successful have you been in realizing it?
The word Transvangarde was coined by one of the founders and current trustee, John Allen. Wishing to go beyond the monopoly of the Western avant-garde, the gallery reached out to artists around the world working in new innovative ways. The Transvangarde has now become the way forward but when we first started, we were the only gallery to exhibit artists outside the Western canon.
OM: In 34 years of its existence, what have been the major challenges and how has the gallery been able to sustain and build on its successes for this long?
The major challenge at the beginning was to stay afloat. I think a large part of our process was perseverance with aim. We were exhibiting artists that no one in Europe had ever heard of. Neither were they used to the values of these artists. Overall, we have exhibited works of artists from over 80 different countries and many different cultures within those countries. We held the first one-man shows in the UK of the work of the now well known Brion Gysin, Kenji Yoshida, William Burroughs, Ira Cohen, El Anatsui, Romuald Hazoume and Rachid Koraichi. In order to survive, we cut costs to the bone and had several streams of income: renting our spaces for meetings, events; hosting concerts, dance performances, poetry readings, seminars and lectures; selling books, catalogues; and selling art. The education department which was formed in the nineties did get some funding from grant-making bodies for workshops given in the gallery and in schools. Luckily the perseverance paid off and now our income is mainly from art sales around the world. However, now that the art world has caught on to the Transvangarde, we are no longer unique in operating in this area, so our new challenge has been to raise the ante to create a special vision within that arena.
OM: The October Gallery is known as one of the earliest promoters of contemporary African art in London, what is unique about art from the continent, and what in your view is attributable to its increasing visibility with rising values at major auction houses, and the inclusion of African artists in international fairs and major museum collections?
We have been promoting contemporary art for 34 years. With the arrival of the internet and easy worldwide connections, the landscape started to shift. Initially more slowly, but rapidly in the last 5-7 years. The receptivity for and interest in contemporary art from all around the world increased. Contemporary African art became part of this phenomenon. We have been intensely promoting contemporary African artists for many years, through exhibitions, publications, collaborations with many international museums and participation in art fairs, and have therefore been able to greatly increase visibility.
OM: How easy was it to get works of the African artists you represent to be generally accepted in London?
Initially the interest was limited to a network of academics, collectors, publications and museums with a particular interest in African art. This has increased dramatically over the last few years to include contemporary art museums, international collectors and many publications and newspapers.
OM: Please tell us about some of your most remarkable collaborations with major international museums.
This summer we collaborated with the Royal Academy of Arts in London, where El Anatsui clad the façade of the academy with his largest bottle-top work to date, a project which received much attention from the press and the public. Another rewarding collaboration was the presentation by the British Museum of La Bouche du Roi by Romuald Hazoumè. The museum presented the large installation in a specially made setting in a prominent gallery space in the centre of the museum, and subsequently toured this exhibition to several museums in the United Kingdom.
OM: From September 12 to October 26 this year, you will be presenting the work of Kenyan artist Naomi Wanjiku Gakinja Gakunga. How do you select artists you represent?
We select artists based on the power and energy of their work. In Naomi Wanjiku Gakunga’s case, We are interested in her use of oxidised metal and the way she uses the creative potential of this chemical process in the making of her work. We are also intrigued by the way coloured lines run through and interact with space in her installation, Folkclorico.
OM: Several initiatives like the Own Art Scheme encourage people to buy art, what in your opinion inspires them to collect art?
A work of art is unique with inherent powers. A collector is establishing a relationship between him/herself and another singular object in this world, thus increasing individuality.
OM: Your gallery runs several educational and charitable programmes, can you tell us more about them and how effective they have been in shaping society.
October Gallery’s Education Department aims to communicate the rich, stylistic diversity of contemporary art from around the world through workshops and outreach projects. We welcome participants of all ages and abilities.
Our education programme is split into three strands: Family Learning, Schools and Community. Family Learning focuses on how we can encourage families to learn together. We run several Family Art Days a month onsite and offsite. We also run a monthly session at local prisons during family visits.
The Schools and Early Years gallery programme provides 1½ to 2-hour, artist-led workshops, held in the gallery. Workshop content is related to the work of our exhibiting artist. Using observation, discussion, a variety of practical and artistic techniques, sessions are taught in the context of the art on display. Our workshops are tailored to suit children of all ages, from Early Years, through Key Stages 1 to 5. We welcome special schools andEAL groups. We also run longer, artist-led projects, which take place both in the gallery and at schools/centres over a period of days or weeks, usually leading to a permanent artwork.
October Gallery’s artist-led community outreach programme emphasises collaborative and diverse partnership work; from Early Years’ centres to elders’ groups. Projects take place both on-site at October Gallery and at partner venues. Our community projects range from working with disabled artists, women who have been trafficked, refugees and people suffering mental health issues. We also maintain our visibility in the local area by participating in the Bloomsbury Festival.
OM: October Gallery has increased its participation in international fairs, how rewarding have they been and what in your view is the overall contribution of art fairs to contemporary discourse, amidst criticisms of the commercialization of art?
Participation in art fairs in different parts of the world allows us to increase the collector base as well as introduce artists to new regions. For example, October Gallery introduced contemporary African artists to Dubai beginning in 2008.
OM: What are October Gallery’s future plans?
To continue to show and promote exceptional artists internationally.