Tiwani Contemporary was founded in 2011. The gallery exhibits and represents international emerging and established artists, focusing on Africa and its diaspora. In addition to its commercial activities, Tiwani Contemporary runs a public programme, Art Connect, supported by the A.G. Leventis Foundation, which provides a platform for discussing contemporary artistic practice through publications, talks and projects. In this interview, Director, Maria Varnava talks about her vision for the gallery, as well as increased visibility for her artists.
Please tell us how you came about the name Tiwani, and how it resonates with the vision of your gallery?
When the gallery was launched in 2011, Bisi Silva (founder and Director of CCA, Lagos) was Tiwani’s Curatorial Advisor. Bisi is a great personal inspiration and the name was the result of lengthy conversations with her. In Yoruba, Tiwani loosely translates as “it belongs to us”, or “it is ours”, which resonated beautifully with the ethos of the gallery; a space that is all encompassing, seeks to engage with a wide audience, supports visibility and looks to support a diversity of voices.
What has been the major challenge in establishing your gallery?
I feel that perhaps the challenges we have encountered are ones that all young galleries come across at some point. For me, building a solid, consistent client base that grows in a stable way was one of my challenges and one that we can never lose sight of. Additionally, building a stable of artists that resonates very much with the gallery ethos and vision, because it takes time, commitment and constant nurture.
One would normally think that with setting up a gallery in London, your focus would be on local artists. Why this interest in African art and how did it come about?
I grew up in Lagos, Nigeria, so for me launching a gallery that focuses on artists from Africa and the diaspora was something that resulted from the visual language I grew up with; work from West Africa and particularly Nigeria. I am infinitely interested in art from Africa and the diaspora so it was the natural direction for the gallery to take. Additionally, I was excited with the prospect of working with some of the most interesting artists from the region, as well as some of the most talented people in the industry, who are now my colleagues.
What makes Tiwani Contemporary different from other international galleries representing art from the African continent?
We are constantly engaging with emerging artists working around the world, and I hope that our commitment to working with artists who haven’t yet been championed sets us apart. Something else that differentiates us is our active public programme, Art Connect, which was launched at the same time as the gallery. Art Connect is completely separate from the gallery and is generously supported by the A.G.Leventis Foundation. The programme includes talks, artists’ visits, screenings, panel discussions, as well as publications.
As a gallerist, how do you choose which artists to exhibit?
I am interested in working with artists who are pushing the boundaries of their chosen media and are engaging with contemporary realities. I work closely with my colleague Eva Langret who is a director at Tiwani, focusing on the gallery’s exhibitions programme.
You have recently increased your participation in international art fairs around the world. How has this contributed to your overall objectives?
Art fairs provide strong opportunities to expand and further develop our client base, which is crucial for the gallery and supporting our artists’ careers. In addition, art fairs support us in developing international visibility for our artists, as they introduce their work to a wider public, as well as an institutional audience. International art fairs contribute to our general objectives of providing additional visibility and possibilities for our artists while expanding our collector base and building new networks in
Which have been some of your most important exhibitions to date?
All our exhibitions are important for their own reason. The two solo exhibitions of Virginia Chihota have been extremely successful with our audience but also gained a lot of institutional support. As a gallery we are committed to supporting the work and practice of our female artists.
We are currently showing a solo presentation by Délio Jasse, an accomplished photographer from Angola who is currently based in Milan. Délio is interested in analogue photographic processes, architecture and notions around memory and displacement among many other things. His show, titled The Lost Chapter, Nampula 1963 is a series of photographic emulsions with screen-printing, on fabriano paper. Délio acquired boxes of unwanted documents in a Lisbon flea market that contained hundreds of photographs, many of which captured the life of a Portuguese family living in Nampula in Mozambique in the ‘60s. While the identity of the family remains unknown, through months of archive work Délio has pieced together fragments of the family’s narrative by cross-referencing the prints against official paperwork such as government letters and personal correspondence, and clues relating to the photographic process so as to shed light on aspects of the family’s identity and their whereabouts.
In closing, please tell us about the exciting prospects that lie ahead in the immediate future for Tiwani?
We have a dynamic 2017 exhibition programme being finalised at the moment. It includes a solo presentation of an artist who has recently joined the gallery, Mimi Cherono Ng’ok, who we are delighted to be working with. Moreover, we have an exciting art fair schedule ahead; we are ending 2016 with a solo presentation by Tiwani artist Robel Temesgen at NADA Miami. In 2017, we will be heading to the Cape Town Art Fair and The Armory Show in New York, amongst others. We have also been invited to participate in the Africa focus section of Art Paris Art Fair.