A gallery for “the multitude of identities we have as Africans”

Dada Gallery is everything the art world is often accused of not being: youth-led, accessible, affordable, geared towards minorities. It focuses on the works of young African artists both on the continent and in the Diaspora who explore issues affecting their generation – identity, sexuality, politics, displacement – with a new focus.

Its founder is Oyinkansola Dada, a 25-year-old trainee lawyer and gallery owner with bases in Lagos and London. She entered the art world without any relationship or previous experience, having studied law and politics in London. Here the doors to the art scene seemed firmly closed, but in the Nigerian town where she was born, they started to open. “I took a year of study to go home and explore the creative scene there, and I started doing an internship at the Art X Lagos fair,” she explains to Zoom from her home. Londoner.

His foray into art came from an interest in works that merge his passions: political and creative exploration within African culture. She started a blog to engage young audiences in African art, culture, literature and politics, which has evolved into a pop-up and digital gallery. “Working at Art X Lagos helped me get in touch with a lot of young artists and I started organizing exhibitions for them and showcasing their work online,” she says. “It’s an idea I’ve always had, to launch an online platform for affordable African art.

‘Looking Within What Lies’ (2021) by Tobi Alexandra Falade © Courtesy of the artist

Painting of a woman's head and shoulders in front of a larger woman's head

‘Old Life Past Life’ (2021) by Tobi Alexandra Falade © Courtesy of the artist

In no time – the gallery launched in digital form in 2018 – she built a roster of African artists, many of whom she discovered online. She has exhibited digitally and across the continent, as well as in Paris, New York and London; rented a space to exhibit works of art in the latter city; and will present works by two experimental artists at 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair in London this month.

They are British-Nigerian Tobi Alexandra Falade and Bunmi Agusto, both of whom address themes of immigration, heritage and identity through surreal self-portraits. Their works feed into the gallery’s philosophy of representing “the multitude of identities that we have as Africans, as blacks,” says Dada. Falade’s compositions imagine many versions of herself, reflecting on her ancestors and merging contemporary and traditional materials to connect past and present. Agusto’s paintings create migrating figures in fantastic realms as symbols of hybridity and cultural displacement.

Painting of three figures standing against a black background

‘Lead The Way Out’ (2021) by Bunmi Agusto © Courtesy of the artist

“There is a synergy between the works of these women as they both explore fantastic worlds that we don’t often see with black artists,” says Dada. “African art tends to get bogged down in reality, but there is an element of escape in these pieces that I find very fresh.

Dada is as intriguing and versatile as its artists. I ask him if there is a tension between the balance between the world of the company and that of creation. “People often think they can’t coexist, but I don’t agree – they feed off each other. Being a lawyer helps me see things in a practical way. When you work with artists, there are a lot of great ideas, but my role as a gallery owner requires me to make sure that my artists can make them come true. It helps me understand what makes business sense.

Finding its place as a digital platform meant the pandemic had had the opposite effect on Dada than it did for most galleries – it turned out to be successful. As the rest of the art market caught up and created virtual spaces to exhibit her works, “we were already there,” she says. “It had a positive impact on us because we were on an equal footing with everyone.”

Tobi Alexandra Falade in her studio, 2019 © Courtesy of Michelle Leaño

But there were still lessons to be learned. “We were ignoring the success of traditional galleries,” she admits. “The kind of art we sell is not the kind that collectors will just click online and buy. They will find him online but they still want to see the work and have a conversation about it, a personal connection with him.

However, digital technology has other merits. With one click, art becomes more accessible, galleries are more accessible, artist portfolios and prices are visible. This barrier-breaking method is vital, Dada argues, especially for young collectors of color art who may feel the market has largely ignored them.

“It’s a lot easier to approach art when you feel like artists are your age, they’re saying something that speaks to you, maybe you’re already following them on Instagram. We like to keep this open door approach – you can contact us; we post our prices and try to make sure [the art] is affordable for our buyers.

Painting of a head with an extremely elongated neck against red stripes

‘Long Throat I’ (2021) by Bunmi Agusto © Courtesy of the artist

Painting of a head with an extremely elongated neck against red stripes

‘Long Throat II’ (2021) by Bunmi Agusto © Courtesy of the artist

Social networks are an obvious gateway for Dada customers to discover African artists and an “essential” channel, she argues, for forging a community. “Each gallery should make it a key part of its activity; I don’t think there is another way to do it. But with the reopening of physical spaces and in-person events, Dada fears the online bubble will burst soon. “I don’t know if the art world will continue to be as accessible as it was last year now that things are back to ‘normal’.”

Yet, she recognizes that for her gallery to thrive, it must adapt to all platforms. Dada is an example of a gallery modernizing the sector with a hybrid approach. Instead of opening up a financially unsustainable space in London, his gallery joined Cromwell Place this summer, a new art center in South Kensington that allows galleries to rent spaces to display and store works. “Because we’re not tied to one physical place that we have to maintain and fund, we can go anywhere and engage. You can be in Dakar, Abidjan, Lagos and do exhibitions. We are hybrids in terms of format but also geography, with very flexible programming, ”she says.

Reflecting the youthful exuberance of her community, Dada is able to wander and fulfill her mission of putting African art before more eyes, whether on screen or in the flesh. “We need this flexibility,” she says. “We must keep this spirit of freedom. “

October 14-17, www.1-54.com

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About Margaret L. Portillo

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