The Power of the Pan-African Artistic Exchange

In celebration of Tiwani Contemporary’s new Lagos outpost, director Maria Varnava reflects on the inaugural show and Joy Labinjo’s Nigerian homecoming

BY Vanessa Peterson AND Maria Varnava in Interviews , Opinion | 07 MAR 22

Vanessa Peterson: Tiwani Contemporary recently celebrated its tenth anniversary. Can you tell me how it all began?

Maria Varnava: When I told my late mentor and friend Bisi Silva – the founder and director of the Centre of Contemporary Art, Lagos – I wanted to do something I was passionate about that would also make a real impact, she insisted I needed to set up a contemporary art gallery – and she was right! Bisi was also instrumental in coining the name of the gallery, which loosely translates from Yoruba as: ‘It belongs to us.’ I loved that because it encapsulates the entire ethos of the gallery. Tiwani is a safe space for artists to express and challenge themselves in their chosen media, thinking about the African continent.

VP: In 2013, you showed works by Simone Leigh and Njideka Akunyili-Crosby in ‘I Always Face You, Even When It Seems Otherwise’ – an exhibition curated by Bisi. Now, Leigh is representing the US at the Venice Biennale and both artists’ works are in numerous institutional collections. Do you view the gallery as something of an incubator for emerging artists from Africa and the diaspora?

MV: Obviously, it’s fantastic to see these kinds of changes happening for artists that have long been marginalized. However, I have never been interested in developing a programme that continues to exoticize or put parameters on the work of artists from Africa or the diaspora, and I’m concerned there’s a danger of some artists being subsumed by this moment of great market speculation. It’s crucial for artists to think in terms of longevity, of their work remaining relevant in the future.

Nude painting self-portrait of the artist next to a plant
Joy Labinjo, Terra Firma III, 2022, oil on canvas, 250 × 180 cm. Courtesy: Tiwani Contemporary 

VP: How have you seen the landscape of contemporary art from Africa and the diaspora change in the decade since you opened the gallery?

MV: If a collection wants to be truly global now, then it needs to include artists from Africa and the diaspora. As a gallerist, I feel a responsibility towards my artists; I’m interested in nurturing their careers for the long term. Artists shouldn’t feel like they need to work in a particular style because the market favours it. They should be dictating the market, not the other way around.

VP: It’s vital, in that sense, to have critical discourse: theorists, scholars and artists producing publications that discuss artistic practices. A great example of this is Àsìkò, the pan-African art school, workshop and residency that Silva founded in 2010 in Lagos which has become part of a wider ecosystem and has produced publications such as Àsìkò: On the Future of Artistic and Curatorial Pedagogies in Africa (2018).

MV: Yes, contextualizing the work is essential. From the outset, I’ve always made a point of working with an in-house curator. In fact, I hired a curator ahead of a salesperson because I felt it was crucial for us to contextualize the practices of our artists with an in-house essay or publication. That is something I’ve always actively pursued at the gallery – and still do. I’m very grateful to have had the opportunity to collaborate with some incredible people, including Stephanie Baptist, Eva Langret and Portia Malatjie. I’m currently working with Adelaide Bannerman.

Nude painting self-portrait of the artist lying down
Joy Labinjo, Terra Firma VI, 2022, oil on canvas, 180 × 250 cm. Courtesy: Tiwani Contemporary 

VP: What were your reasons for opening another outpost of Tiwani Contemporary in Lagos?

MV: Lagos was always part of the dream: my formative years were spent there; I need to be on the continent, since I work with artists from Africa and the diaspora; and the gallery’s focus on longevity means we need to do more things locally. I’m keen for my artists to spend time on the African continent, with initiatives like Kehinde Wiley’s Black Rock residency in Senegal, Koyo Kouoh’s RAW Material Company in Dakar, Yinka Shonibare’s recently launched Guest Artists Space Foundation in Lagos and Ijebu, or the upcoming Biennale de Internationale Casablanca, curated by Christine Eyene, who originally introduced me to Bisi. Christine also recently opened an institute, Bikoka Art Project, in Cameroon. There are so many incredible initiatives across the continent now, but we need to build more bridges and more pan-African exchange – both intellectual and commercial. In Lagos, I’m interested in working with and learning from a local audience and collector base.

VP: ‘Full Ground’, the inaugural show at Tiwani Contemporary Lagos, presents a new body of work by Joy Labinjo consisting of nude self-portraits. The paintings allude to the ways in which Nigerian women used their naked bodies as an act of protest in colonial Nigeria, for instance during the Aba Women’s Protest of 1929.

MV: Yes, it was a homecoming for both of us. Joy was born and raised in the UK, but she spends a lot of time in Nigeria, and it was meaningful to me that the first show at the Lagos space would be by an artist with links to Nigeria. Joy has created a seismic body of work – monumental and inspiring. It takes a lot of courage to make yourself vulnerable in the way she does. I always stand by what feels right to my artists.

Joy Labinjo’s ‘Full Ground’ is on view at Tiwani Contemporary, Lagos, until 7 May 2022.

Main image: Joy Labinjo, Terra Firma VIII, 2022, oil on canvas, 80 × 60 cm. Courtesy: Tiwani Contemporary 

Vanessa Peterson is associate editor of frieze. She lives in London, UK. 

Maria Varnava is the founder and director of Tiwani Contemporary. She is based in London, UK.