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Kavita Chellarams on the business of visual art

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Kavita Chellarams on the business of visual art

Mrs Kavita Chellarams with famous artist, Professor Grillo

Mrs Kavita Chellarams with famous artist, Professor Grillo

Soft-spoken KAVITA CHELLARAMS has been a pacesetter in the Nigerian Auction market. In this interview she tells FUNKE OSAE-BROWN how she has been bringing the world’s attention to African art.

Dressed in a white top on a smart pair of jeans, Kavita Chellarams did not look her age. Her slim frame belies her true age as a mother and grandmother. The arrangement of her Ikoyi office tells of her love for art. Stack of newly consigned works for the Arthouse Contemporary April auction that was underway adorned the ground floor of the office. She ushered me to the top floor as she sunk into the soft sofa while I took the seat next to her.

As the CEO of Arthouse, Chellarams has brought the world’s attention to the Nigerian art market as the organisation has sold more than N1 billion worth of artworks in the last eight years. It is not an easy task to achieve this figure in a country where more than half of its population lives on less than two dollars a day.

Her journey into art collection began as a hobby in 1977 shortly before she got married. She went for an exhibition and she was awed by the sheer beauty of the pieces she saw. Thereafter, her taste for art collection grew till she had more than a handful of artworks from different artists.

“It has been a journey,” she tells me. “We had built this wall and we have had to fill it up with paintings and that is how the whole thing started. We first started by bringing it here. Then when the values went up. We started collecting after that. In those days, we went to shows, artist studios, they had exhibitions and we brought works straight from the studios. At the time, there wasn’t enough showcasing of arts in Nigeria. So, that was how it came about setting up an art house.”

The vision behind the establishment of Arthouse Contemporary Art is to have a platform where African arts can be seen worldwide

The vision behind the establishment of Arthouse Contemporary Art is to have a platform where African arts can be seen worldwide

The issues she had with different prices of the works she wanted to acquire led her into starting a pioneer auction house in Nigeria.

“You go to one gallery, there is a different price from the other. They didn’t really know what the value was. What the auction did was to establish a value for each artist. The catalogues that we produce are like a journey which has the estimated price of the artist. The auction determines what the true value is depending on how many you want to build, what they feel the value is. So, there is a bench mark now. So, now you can confidently tell someone what your price is. It encourages the artist to work harder, to do better works and to achieve better prices.”

She says the vision behind the establishment of Arthouse Contemporary Art is to have a platform where African arts can be seen worldwide.

“We have the internet, the computer, where we can expose African art to the world, which has not been done before. So, it is really the first time that Nigerian art was put in an international platform and offered to an international audience. Also, a transparency price and getting artist aware that there is a medium that they can sell through. We originally started off with a very small secondary market but with the added interest of prices going up. The secondary market woke up and said I have got some value for my work and there was a platform where you can sell it. I have discovered over the years that when you have a work or you have bought but once you do not like it anymore and you want to buy something else and dispose what you have. You need only to go to the gallery where you can buy modern art and there was no platform where you could sell it. So, this is creating a platform, where there is value to a work and you could sell it. What you bought for N500 is now worth a million naira or more.”

Her interest is in modern and contemporary African art. “Modern basically because the art scene has only been in this country for about a 100years, otherwise art was basically tribal, sculptures. Paintings were done on wall dwelling of homes. This was the first time that they used canvass as a medium, which was broadened by the British. There is authenticity, in the sense that you always know somebody who knew the artist. We located an old artist, his families, his immediate families; they can say what their father did and what he didn’t do. We can get authentication from the family. You know that you don’t have fake and have a lot of people that can assist you. It is more international for tribal art, am not a professional but I love it and am buying a lot of it now.”

Chellaram’s private collection boast of more than four hundred works and she says there are many people who have thousands.

“Among the collection, my favourite are many. The modern artists have been doing good jobs. For modern, it is Chris Anyanwu, for contemporary, Professor Kolade Oshinowo. We are having a show in February next year that will include Uche Okeke, Kolade Oshinowo. I have had great times with them. We represent African artist in diaspora at Arthouse.”

Her interest is in modern and contemporary African art.

Her interest is in modern and contemporary African art.

In addition she says sourcing for art consignments for the auction has not been easy. “We like to have a nice mix between modern and contemporary. We always look at the best work of every artist. A lot come through the selection process. We have a jury who sit down and choose for the next auction. If we don’t have the right missing, we know we have to look for a better one or an old artist. We get the few master pieces of 10, 15, 20 of master pieces and get the rest of the works. Now, artists want them resold by collectors. There are a lot of works that are coming to us to be resold. Works of 1950s, 2960s, 1980s are recycled. Some people have not heard of the collection. It could be that the value of the works has gone up and so, people get tempted by the money. The artists also come with their bet works to show. So, we are really getting a lot more.”

Chellarams was truthful enough to say that her organisation has been lucky with payments of works sold. “The challenges have been finding the right location, traffic, especially as you want to start on time and you find it difficult because of traffic. Otherwise everyone has been very helpful. Everyone has been very active. They have been able to find us works, show us works. We are really lucky in this. I have had wonderful assistant right from the beginning. We work a lot as a team and we have team efforts. We are all dedicated to the work and it is exciting.”

She says expansion may not be in the picture for her auction house as the market has been in the bustling city of Lagos.

“Lagos is a medium,” she explains. “A lot of people are here and more of the collectors are here a as well than in Port Harcourt or Abuja. We have been thinking of Abuja. Maybe next year, we can do it. We get across to people interested in the works online. We are on a lot of sites. We sent catalogues to our clients. So, it is open. We go to organizations that do advertisements for people. You can do it through telephones. We are thinking of going online. Next auction we will go online and it will give us a larger audience. So, that people can open the computer anywhere and see it. We have a lot of our clients abroad and we send.”

More people are stepping into the Nigerian art space which makes it better for more interesting exhibitions to hold

More people are stepping into the Nigerian art space which makes it better for more interesting exhibitions to hold

According to her, more people are stepping into the Nigerian art space which makes it better for more interesting exhibitions to hold. “It is just an idea that we have to showcase artist and there wasn’t many spaces but now, a lot of people have opened up. There were five shows that opened on a single Friday last year. I can’t believe Lagos has such incredible, vibrant art spaces. The more people are growing into it, the better. I think this is a way and a means of showcasing one artist. In the auction we have so many that we do. This way we have various works and we are going to be representing them. Our first is George Oshodi, who is a very renowned photographer. Here we show 5 or 6 of his works, so that people can get to see and understand the kind of works that he does. This is to show we have done in Lagos, Calabar. We had huge turnout, we had many people at the exhibition. We have 3 prints and it’s a photograph, an edition of 3, 5 or 10. One of them, we sold all 3 and all 5. After this, there can’t be another one. If he does, it’s a different angle and a different work. We don’t have a permanent space. We use a pop up space, which are large show rooms with a lot of spaces. A lot of people stop to see the works.

“People are used to buying painting. There are so many African photographers and it Ojekure is one of the old photographers people know who we featured, who just died last year and Malik. It is quite a recognized medium abroad and we are showcasing work of art and make people this is a medium that is used now and people are valuing it much as the others.”

In addition to auction, Arthouse organises period exhibition through its Arthouse- The Space arm. It is currently preparing for a solo exhibition of renowned visual artist Yusuf Grillo, entitled Igi Araba, from October 10-31, 2015, at the Kia Showroom, 308 Adeola Odeku Street, Victoria Island, Lagos, Nigeria). “The opening reception for the exhibition will take place October 10, 2015, 4-8 PM. An artist talk will take place October 25, 2015, 4 PM. Widely regarded as one of Nigeria’s most celebrated contemporary artists, Yussuf Grillo has led a prolific career that has shaped the discourse of modern art in the country. It is for this reason we are celebrating him at the forthcoming exhibition.”


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