Saturday 4 May 2013

From textile to canvas, Chellaram dreams high value for Nigerian art

By Tajudeen Sowole
 When auction returned to the Nigerian art market in 2008, it unearthed the high value of modern and contemporary African art; not only that, it spurred a chain of reaction in the local and Diaspora art scenes. The lady behind the initiative, Kavita Chellaram, recently revealed how she saw the prospects in art auctioning in the country two decades ago.

AHEAD of the 10th Arthouse Contemporary art auction, which holds on Monday, May 13, with previews on Saturday (May 11) and Sunday (May 12) at The Wheatbaker Hotel, Ikoyi, Lagos, Kavita Chellaram, the lady behind the event is positive about the outcome.

Though Chellaram Arthouse-led contemporary art auction of 2008 was not the first in the country, suffice it to say, that it elicited positive development on the scene. Hitherto, there had been Nimbus Gallery organised auction in 2001, which observers described as ‘informal art auction’.

Aside from seeing her supervise proceedings, twice a year at the auctions, little is known about Chelleram and her steady journey towards giving the Nigerian art a secondary market that is fast becoming attraction to artists, even from other countries in the continent.

This morning, Chelleram is brimming with excitements, as she took her guest through nearly 40 years of her passion for Nigerian art. The 10th edition is land marking, isn’t it?  “Yes, 10th auction in a developing economy such as Nigeria has a landmark. It also serves as an opportunity to share my passion for Nigerian art,” she agrees.

The begininng
The collector recalls that it started from her passion as a young woman growing up in Lagos, in the 1970s. Coming from a family of textile industrialist, her first love of African art started with the native Yoruba fabric, adire. “My father’s factory, the Aswani Textile, on Oshodi-Apapa Expressway (now rested), used to make African fabrics in the early 1970s. As a young girl, I used to go to the factory and noticed that the designers who were mostly hired from Yaba College of Technology (Yabatech) and other universities produced non-wax prints adire. So, my interest in African art started from then” she discloses.
Kavita Chellram (right) during one of the nine art auctions of Arthouse Contemporary in Lagos.
Her interest in African art must have kept growing as she looked forward to owning a piece. So, after a brief visit to India, for her wedding, she returned to Nigeria and started building up collection.

Her love for native African aesthetic, which she started from adire, seemed to have influenced the tone of her collection. So, who was the first artist Chellaram collected? “I remember going to a show held by Violet Gallery, in Lagos, which sells mostly Osogbo artists. There, I bought my first two paintings: a Twin Seven Seven and Jimoh Buraimoh, in 1977,” she quips.

At the same time, she also started collecting some Indian works. However, she noticed that the Nigerian collections she had, did not appreciate, market-wise, several years after, while the former, to her surprise, increased in price value. She cites the example of an Indian work bought for $100 or $200, going up to as much as $50, 000 or $100, 000 in almost 15 years after, at auctions in Indian art market. “But in Nigeria, the work you bought for $1, 000, about 20 years ago, remained the same in value,” she painfully explains. “So, you could not resell a work you bought several years ago; no secondary market.”

Dissatisfied, she went about looking for reason for this and what was wrong in the art market. Nigerian artists, she discovered, were devaluing their work, “despite having such a wonderful pool of creativity, doing fantastic works.” In fact, she disclosed that then, all sort of barter arrangements were going on such as ‘bring five or 10 works and get a used-car.”

“The story has changed now,” she says, confidently. “Art auctions come with documentation of who sold what and for what price. An artist can say, ‘my price is N1.5m. check the art auction catalogues. So, between the first auction and the ninth, consistency has been established as some artists’ prices have gone up because of popularity over the years.”

FIVE years after the debut auction produced a record sale of N9.2million for Bruce Onobrakpeya’s panel work titled, Greater Nigeria, with another record added in 2012 when Ben Enwonwu’s bronze, Anyanwu, sold for N28 million (hammer price), the tempo is still going strong, and it does appear that there is no going back.

One of the works for the tenth art auction, Victoria Udondian’s Table Cloth Series.

Following the track of Arthouse, there have been over 10 similar events organised by other art auction houses, old and new, in Nigeria, UK and the US, focusing on African art, all building on the 2008 debut of Nigeria’s premiere auction house.

In Nigeria, the secondary art market is currently a N250 million business, yearly, spread across three auctions: two from Arthouse and one courtesy of the joint effort of Terra Kulture-Mydrim auction house. And quite of note is that over 70 per cent or more of the revenue generated from these auctions go to the artists or consignees, who submit works for the auctions, a clear indication that art is quietly becoming a powerhouse in Nigerian economy.
Chellaram says going into the 10th auction, “we can say that we have been able to raise the value of the Nigerian artist.”

Maintaining standard
As nearly every artist and other consignees wants to test the strength of their work at Arthouse’s auction, merit, has been a watchword, Chellaram stresses. And there has been the ripple effect on the entire art scene, particularly in Lagos. The new vibrancy has come with increase in art shows. More importantly, the rise in value, she argues. “It has given the artists confidence to create their own art, not what the collectors wanted to buy,” she says.

With about 16 or 17 art auctions, including sales from non-Arthouse art auctioneers, in five years, it is not yet a well-guided art market, as there is still fear that some artists may wind the clock back by devaluing their work outside the secondary and informal market.

Monitoring artists’ behaviour to sustain the current increase in value, she argues is a complex task. “It is bad for the market for artists to devalue their work,” she says. To avoid this, Chellaram says it goes beyond the control of auction houses. She recommends what obtains in other countries where artists don’t sell directly to buyers, but through galleries. “I think artists, by now, should be represented by the galleries as it is done in Europe, U.S and India. You don’t go directly to the artist and buy. If the artists here want to keep selling on their own, then the art market scene is not going to improve. And it could set the Nigerian art back to where we started from.”

Art should change hands regularly
The flexibility of collectors to allow art change hands and move from one owner to another, at auctions, has been noted as the core heart of the secondary market. In Nigeria, how far has collectors succumbed to releasing some of the big works in their collection in exchange for new or older works? Complex a task, so to say.
But Chellaram points to a way out. She advises collectors to test the value of what they have as the platform for such exchange is now real in Nigeria, unlike the pre-2008 years.
“Circumstantially now, you want to resell a work in Nigeria. Five years ago, you couldn’t do that because nobody wanted to pay; it was difficult to place a value on old work. Now the prices are documented in the catalogues to guide you about the worth of an artist.”
CEO, Arthouse Contemporary, Lagos, Kavita Chellaram.

Can the Nigerian economy sustain the ongoing growth in art appreciation?
Chelleram, who comes from a business class family about three generations in Nigeria, assures that the country’s economy can sustain the improvement in the art market. “I think the economy can. A lot of corporate groups have collections, they are building more, a lot of CEOs of companies too have started collecting; the market is growing,” she notes.

In addition to economic perspective, she points out that the awareness of art, as a necessity in the environment is also an advantage. “All over the world, art is getting more awareness as we feel it in our surroundings. Even in Lagos, our surroundings are changing with aesthetics. Governor Raji Fashola has amazingly changed the environment, giving creative value to our surroundings. So, visually, a common man is beginning to get closer to art,” she concludes.

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