Kavita Chellaram, owner of Arthouse Contemporary, a leading auction house in Lagos, is conceivably more Nigerian than is thought, given her family’s century-long ties with Nigeria. She attributes her love for art and Africa to the beautiful colours and patterns of the fabrics produced by her father’s famous company, Aswani. In this interview, she shares the inspiration behind the establishment of Arthouse with record sales of works by Nigerian artists, and her partnerships with prestigious corporate organizations including Standard Chartered, Access banks and Renaissance Capital.
Who is Kavita Chellaram?
I am a wife, mother, daughter and a great patron of the arts. I will like to talk a bit about my family who have been here since 1917 for over 90 years. I just want to say that I love this country.
I have lived here with my husband since 1977 for 35 years in a property we owned since 1960. So this is home for us, where we live and work. It is not a question of being a foreigner. People talk about me and say “This foreigner”. I am not a foreigner. Some people writing a book about 50 Nigerian women said to me “I want to interview you”, another said, “She is not a Nigerian, she is Indian.” The first one said, “But she is not, they have lived in this country for so long how can you say that they are nobody, they are Nigerians”. Why Nigerian art? That is where I am from.
Your family has strong ties with Nigeria leading to the establishment of the famous Aswani Textiles. What was growing up like would you say your background influenced your interest in art?
My father set up Aswani in the early 1960s. I only visited here for the first time in 1970. I grew up in India. After Aswani was established, we used to come here regularly. I only came to live here after I got married in 1977. When I came, I would visit the factory to see the printing and my father would take me round. He was passionate about textiles. We had a textile factory in India, that is why he set up one here. He loved printing.
We had many people working for us, who specialized in textile design and came all the way from India. I remember especially the office where they designed African fabrics. There were several bales of different coloured weaves. We had clients who came in to specify what they needed. Huge orders were made. Being surrounded by colours and prints, I fell in love with art and everything African.
Knowing all the different fabric and learning about Nigerian and wax fabrics was the precursor that pushed me into design.
You own the leading art auction in Nigeria, and perhaps in West Africa. How would you describe yourself; a curator, manager or consultant?
I think I am more of a curator as I try to include a comprehensive selection of artworks within a limited number of auction lots. Our auction house does not really run like those abroad, where everything comes from the secondary market. Here we also get work from the primary market; directly from artists. We often include some young and new artists and for them this is great exposure, it is a type of promotion for them.
Did you have any prior experience as an art dealer?
No! But I have always wanted to do something in the arts. I own a large collection of Indian art and so I thought of opening a gallery that would deal in that, but then I thought no. There is very little happening in Nigeria, and no way we can neglect that. There has not been a proper auction and enough galleries. Before I went into auctions, there was no transparency in pricing. People had works to sell but there was nowhere they could go. Go to a dealer and he might say X, but there was no reference point to say this is the correct price. Now people can look up on artist in our catalogues or the top 50 artists in the country and check why Ben Enwonwu should be worth so much. So there is a guiding line today. Now I see a lot of collectors, who can sell works they no longer require or swap them and buy something else. I know someone who asked, “Why don’t you come to Kenya and start what you have done here because we have no secondary market?” That is exactly what we needed to establish here.
OM: You are reputed to own one of the finest collections of art in Nigeria. How long have you been collecting works, and which are your most treasured?
I started buying Nigerian art about 12 years ago. The first two works I bought were from the Osogbo school; one was a Twins Seven Seven and the other was a Jimoh Buraimoh. One work which I treasure is a Grillo. I purchased it at the Living Masters exhibition held at Terra Kulture in 2007. That show was where my eyes opened and I saw many other artists I had never seen before. Other works I treasure indeed are by Ben Enwonwu, Uche Okeke, Bruce Onobrakpeya, Ben Osawe and Osahenye Kainebi. From then on, I started buying more art including wood works.
What is your assessment of art on the local scene; what inspired you to start an auction in Nigeria?
I think the main reason was to have a platform where there could be transparency in pricing. The second was to promote Nigerian artists, to bring them to the forefront and out internationally. Arthouse has many clients abroad. We sell our catalogues abroad and do a lot of advertising to have them come in. I think people are realizing there is something going on in Nigeria. I also think all this happened after the start of Arthouse. Now we can look up artists and find them on the internet.
Are there plans to set up similar auction houses in India or any other West African country?
I have learned so much in the last years that yes, I would like to use my skills in other African countries. I wish we can get the whole of Africa with one voice, saying, “This is Africa”. Of course, Arthouse will always specialize in West African art because this is where we are based. It will be interesting to bring others across to Nigeria and make them more aware of what we are doing as well as to get Nigerians familiar with what is happening in countries like Ghana, the Congo, Senegal, Kenya, Ethiopia and South Africa. There are not enough exhibitions for artists in other parts of Africa. I think Nigeria, being an oil producing country where people have so much money, should try to help other African countries.
Briefly explain how you source your works and the process involved in selecting for your auction?
When we finish an auction, we start working on the next by looking around, going to artists’ studios to see what they have done and asking them to submit work. We also get works from collectors and dealers by putting in calls to consign.
Normally, anywhere else in the world, the older, established artists have their contemporary works in a separate kind of bracket, but we are not mature enough to do that. There is a need to blend the two. This way, people can see the different works of different periods. I think it is a bit of a history lesson, people will be aware of what we have. Unfortunately, in schools there are not many lessons on art history and there is very little contemporary art shown in museums.
I had a few lessons to learn – there was nowhere to learn about the business of art or see examples of work by Ben Enwonwu or Yusuf Grillo. I had to learn by looking and talking to people like Oliver Enwonwu and Olasehinde Odimayo, who has been a source of inspiration and help to me in learning about African art. Of course, Nike has also been amazing in teaching me about Osogbo. She has done relentless work in promoting art in every way; fabric making, printing, tie-and-dye and all those wonderful things. I have been present at her courses on how to do tie-and-dye and all that. It is amazing — everybody along the way being a source of inspiration. It has been incredible.
Do you consider it a risk including work by young artists who may not have sustained practices?
I think for them it is incredible to be put into a show with masters; they get so excited. People come in to buy at the auction, so it is not a question of a person being a younger or older artist. Genuinely people walk in and say, “I love this painting, I think it is amazing and I am going to buy it”. Every time we put in someone new, I would say 8 or 9 times out of ten, we succeed in selling his works and have people come back saying “Oh! We love this artist, can you source me some more of his works.” This gives the artist the confidence to say “I was good enough to be put into Arthouse. Well I can do it, paint again, come back to show works.
A lot of artists come in; everyone has credentials and been to art school. There are a few young artists who walk in and have not had a show. Sometimes we go to shows by young artists who may not be able to approach us. For example, I saw Victor Ehikhamenor at a show at Bisi Silva’s. I also saw Victor Ekpuk, Ndidi Dike and George Osodi. A lot of people we put in are good and have been around for a long time. It is just that we may not have come across them. It is difficult because there are not enough galleries showing them. People have shows
that are for only a week. If you happen not to be here that week, you kind of lose out on the artist. I think in last 5 or 6 years there have been many art shows compared with 35 years ago.
In fact, artists are showing at least once a year, having salons and being supported by galleries. One of our main ways is going to the galleries to see what they have. Most of the galleries only have artists who are already established. They do not just wake up and put somebody new. For example, we wanted to have a show with Jerry Buhari last year. If you think about it, Lagos has not been exposed to Buhari in many years. I do not know when his last exhibition was. Our auction is also a way of bringing artists that are established but do not have a way of showing their works in Lagos.
I think about 80% to 90% of the artists we auction are established, but we also go to universities to find others. For example Eva Obodo was given to us by El Anatsui. I call people to ask, “Tell us who their professors are because they have not had a show in Lagos.” It is difficult to find artists, we get names from senior professors and artists in universities to help us in our selection.
From records, photography seems the least represented genre of visual art on your auctions. Is there a reason for that?
I think there is. Nigerians are still not completely sold to it, but they are getting there. In my last auction, we had lots of photography. I think 70% to 80% of them did not sell, so we reduced them and kept 3 or 4 we knew would sell. They did and are; George Osodi, Adekola Adeleke, Yetunde Babaeko and Victor Ehikamenor. We have also tried artists who are quite famous abroad but I think Nigerians are not aware that photography is art and have not got to that stage of collecting it. The young people that come to the auction, like photography. It took America and Europe a long time to get photography at the same level as art but what we are trying to do is put everything all at one time, so it is not going to be that easy. When we do every auction, we slip in a new artist that we think is good. We started off with Ojeikere and sold two of his works. I think we are going back to works of the old photographers like Don Barber. We will bring in a couple of old and a few new names. I think photography is an incredible medium of art and we definitely want to do as much as we can.
George Osodi recorded N1m for one of his works, does this in essence signal the beginning of a new trend in the sale of photography in Nigeria, or do you think the breakthrough owed more to the pedigree of George Osodi himself or is this just a one-off sale, which is not likely to be sustained as long as one would expect?
George Osodi is world-acclaimed, but I feel we are still not used to the idea of collecting photography. I think people are becoming aware of what is going on with all the TV and internet. There is so much information. I am sure Nigerian photography has to be one of the best in the world.
How do you obtain provenance or manage issues arising from its inaccessibility?
We had a couple of issues I think everybody has, but when work comes in, we first find out from whom it has come; if there is a dispute on it or if it has been stolen. So many works here are stolen. So if somebody says buy this, we show it to our specialists. If they say no, there is a dispute on the work, we do not put it in auction. All the works we get
come from the collectors who say they have bought it directly from artists. Most of the works we get come from the person who first bought them. It is the first time work has been sold here generally. Normally it is from the artist to the collector, who comes himself to us. Sometimes of course, the work goes back to the dealers who brings it in then says I bought it from the collector. We can always verify from the collector who bought from the artist or perhaps a dealer. I think we are lucky here in Nigeria because we are not talking about a hundred years just 50 or 60years. It is only in the last 10 or 20 years people started reselling works.
How do you deal with issues of authentication?
If an Enwonwu comes in for instance, I will call two or three people I know who dealt with him and knew him. So for each work that comes to our door, we have to call on specialists that know the artist. We talk to the artist’s families or contemporaries. So for example with Gani Odutokun, Simon Okeke or Okhai Ojeikere, we identify their contemporaries. Basically families come into this in a big way because children grew up with the art, they know the art. For example, Isaac Emokpae grew up with two
works that I have here, because they were in the house all the time and then got sold. So we are very lucky that it’s not the 16th or 17th century.
Art is fast emerging as an alternative investment globally; how do you think Nigerian and African art has fared in this context; and is there any room for improvement?
I think it has fared quite well, today people buy art. They are spending large amounts of money, which they never did before, because they realize there is value in the works. If I go out to buy 5 Ben Enwonwus for N6m, I know there is a resale value in them. May be in 2 years, I’ll be able to sell them for more. We have had works that we resold at auction. Being our 10th auction, works normally come back. They say it takes between 3-5 years for them to resurface in the market. A lot of works we sold at first, doubled or tripled in value in later auctions. So where we sold an Enwonwu in the first auction, a torso for N1.5m, I will value that today for at least N6 or N7m. That is an appreciation of 3 to 4 times. We have brought in quite a few works we resold in this auction. People realize that in our archives, they would see what came up before and that the price has changed and moved up. I think as far as investment is concerned, people are aware art is valuable and they can always sell if they want. Everyone recognizes that there are opportunities that were initially not there.
I went to someone’s house recently, a collector. He had some works of art he bought from me. Of course, you recognize all the works you have sold and then all their other work and you realize how passionate people are, how much they love the art and how happy they are. So it is not only the question of art as an investment, you have to buy something you really love because you have to live with it for the rest of your life, unless you sell it.
Suddenly you wake up and say, “Oh my God! This is so beautiful, I am living with beauty.” It is investment as well as beauty. You should never really look at art as just investment, you have to love it! That should be the first thing, then investment comes second. Africa is no longer the lost or dark continent. Everyone is turning to Africa for everything, including opportunities. Art is another thing and people are asking, “What can we find over there?” Some wonder what Africa has to offer until they become exposed to African art and realize they love it. Many people who come from abroad, view our artwork with passion. They buy to take back with them. It is so amazing how art is going across borders.
How do you establish or estimate value for Nigerian art, considering the non-standardised value system and mechanism for pricing artwork on the Nigerian art market?
I think an auction gives you a great guide. We put an estimate on a work, then it goes into the auction, and the audience determines the price. They may take the value as double of what I said because they feel it’s worth that much. It does not mean at the next auction, the artist’s work will double in price. When it comes back, we still put it where we think it belongs.
Before, people gave us prices. Now we do a lot of research based on other auctions. Works by Ben Enwonwu for example, were sold for years at international auctions with topographical drawings not necessarily African, before African art sales started. His works have been taken out of those because there is more value. Africans are the ones buying the works at high value. In fact, these international auctions determine values based on our auctions here. We both rely on each other for valuation and that is quite nice because we have a guideline.
Lack of proper gallery representation and arbitrary hiking of prices of artworks by galleries and dealers are just some of the problems of our poorly structured primary market. These, coupled with others earlier highlighted, hardly form a good foundation to build a secondary market. Do you think the auctions are further complications?
New galleries are opening up. I think there is more representation out there; galleries are getting better and being more selective. I feel having artists in the auction house is just more exposure for them, because the galleries may be drawing a different pool of people. The great part is the concerted effort in bringing new people into the art world. We are trying to create a stable art market in this country and anything that goes towards this is a great help. Galleries have longer exhibitions where people are able to become more acquainted with the artist.
Nigerian art fetches relatively lower prices than South African art on the international market. What do you think are the reasons for this?
South Africa has always had an established art market way before we started. Unfortunately, we have a smaller collector base. For example, El Anatsui is worldacclaimed but still under appreciated on the domestic market. I foresee a situation where prices for his work begin to rise in this country.
What is your relationship with other major international auction houses like Bonhams?
What kind of competition exists, and are there concerted efforts from Arthouse and other auctioneers to promote Nigerian and African art?
We have a good rapport, we talk to each other, and send each other our catalogues for research. I think it is great that there is another auction house doing similar work, so it is quite comparable the kind of artwork we have and those they put up. It helps, it is amazing because not only one person is putting us on the map. Who knows who is coming up next to learn more about not only Nigerian, but African art. That is why I went all the way to open up here to make it African, more global. The whole point was to get Nigerians to know what they have before they go out to bring other works. We are going out now to look for artists like Gary Stephens, who has been well received. I think people buy what they want and it is about time we bring in a few more reputable artists from Senegal, Mali, Congo and South Africa.
Who are your major clients; expatriates or Nigerians?
We definitely have both. The expatriates are always the ones who come first to appreciate the art before the others. Everywhere in the world, even in India, the first people who collected works were the Americans, more so than the Indians. It took them a longer time to appreciate what they had. In every auction, we get about 5 or 10 big clients unknown to us. They just walk in, I do not even know if they are Nigerian or the exact ratio. I do not have the figures, but it is about equal, though more Nigerians are buying now. It’s a bug, you get addicted to what you see.
Arthouse has forged partnerships with financial institutions such as Access Bank, Standard Chartered Bank, and Renaissance Capital. Can you expatiate on these partnerships?
Access was the first to collaborate with me. We have had quite a few auctions with them. They are veterans of the arts and in essence, they have been there for us. That was just for one year, a memorable one. Since then, we have had different partners, like Standard Chartered. There is a foundation we support by donating four works. They are happy with the partnership we have with Standard Chartered, an annual charity, Seeing is Believing. Standard Chartered matches whatever way we sponsor. All the money is used in Nigeria for their operations. Last year, the money we collected was $150,000. Standard Chartered matched what we got from the auction, and it was all used to help cataract patients and fight blindness. Again this year we are giving $42,000. They will get another $42,000. So about $80- 90,000 is going into the account, which is fabulous. We are both excited by this. We also have a partnership with Renaissance Capital.
Are you involved in any such scheme which explores the potentials of artwork as collateral for obtaining financial support for artists and collectors alike?
Not all art work is collateral. I spoke to Engineer Shyllon about setting up a health foundation with Oyerinde Olotu being sick and David Dale having a stroke. We want to do a kind of fund for artists where there is health insurance. I do not want to be quoted yet saying what it would entail but we might retain a bit of the profit that the artist makes for the fund. We may add some money to make it corporate and then have all the artists do a group policy. A group is cheaper than one person getting an insurance policy, and would be 4 or 5 artists with their wives and up to 4 children. Each artist will give so much per year to this fund and so their check – up at the hospital and medical attention will be taken good care of rather than sending a message, “Oh my God! A certain person is sick, we need money” Basically we want to do these things where you help yourself, and everyone gets a good price and a good deal. That is definitely one of the things I have come across – an artist dies or is sick and needing some medical care and attention. The other thing Arthouse is planning to do this year is a charity, where we will educate art students in the universities and give out scholarships. We are going to work out some money for 2 or 4 students a year from each of the universities. Eventually when they come out, help them through residencies where they are able to paint and have shows. The charity begins when they go back to school next semester. We want to start with Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria.
What has been your experience with Nigerian artists in general?
I think I have made many friends. It is a whole new world I have come across, which I would never have.
Besides organizing auctions, do you plan to set up an art gallery in Nigeria, India or elsewhere to manage the careers of artists, and provide works which may be put up for auction?
No! There’s a difference between an auction house and a gallery and we do not want that to conflict. We do not want people to feel that we are encroaching on every business. I think there are enough galleries to deal with artists here.
GT Bank’s recent partnership with Tate to acquire Nigerian and African artworks for the Tate abroad has generated a lot of debate as to what benefits are accruable to Nigeria, particularly in the absence of a national gallery. What is your opinion on that?
It was misrepresented. The people who came here were not the Tate; they were the African Acquisition Fund that buys artwork for the Tate. The Tate has many funds; they have the Russian, Asian, American photography, Chinese photography and so on. These people give donations to the Tate, and with that money, they buy works of art. GT Bank has given money to the Tate. They do not necessarily buy only Nigerian but works from all over Africa. At least they are going to be shown. There is nowhere in Nigeria you can tell me you have a national gallery where you can see works from everywhere. Everyone has works from all over the world; Indian works go abroad and English works go to museums in America. How will people get to appreciate the works if they do not go across borders? The whole point is that the world has become so borderless, why do we want to keep everything for ourselves? We go for a show in England because Tate has taken the effort. Then you are able to see works by Richter or different artists who are not necessarily from the UK. The same way here, it would be wonderful if someone came and said I would like to do a show on this artist from Nigeria and then we have a marvelous show from the Tate with what we have. GT Bank has done a big thing for Nigerian art. There are so many shows they have sponsored; without them they would not have held. It has been a great partnership with the arts, and we are so lucky to have GT Bank as a great sponsor, without them, we would not have had a show at the Tate with Adolphus Opara participating. Having a Nigerian contemporary photographer at the Tate for the first time would not have been possible. So I think we have to commend them for what they have done for art and on their collaboration with the Tate.
What is your projection for Nigerian art in the next decade?
I think by saying across borders, I hope that in 10 years, the kind of work we do now will be seen everywhere in the world and Nigerian artists will be as famous as Damian Hirst.