A gallery for ‘the multitude of identities we have as Africans’
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Dada gallery is everything the art world is often accused of not being: youth-led, accessible, affordable, aimed at minorities. It focuses on works by young African artists both on the continent and in the diaspora who are exploring issues affecting their generation — identity, sexuality, politics, displacement — with a fresh lens.
Its founder is Oyinkansola Dada, a 25-year-old trainee solicitor and gallerist who has bases in Lagos and London. She entered the art world with no previous connections or background, having studied law and politics in London. Here, the doors to the art scene seemed firmly closed, but in the Nigerian city where she was born they began to open. “I took a year out from studying to go back home and explore the creative scene there, and I began interning at Art X Lagos fair,” she explains over Zoom from her London home.
Her foray into art came from an interest in works that merged her passions: political and creative exploration within African culture. She started a blog to engage young audiences in African art, culture, literature and politics, which evolved into a pop-up and digital gallery. “Working at Art X Lagos helped me connect with a lot of young artists and I started putting on exhibitions for them and showcasing their work online,” she says. “It’s an idea I’d always had, to launch an online platform for affordable African art.”
In a short time — the gallery launched in its digital guise in 2018 — she has built a roster of African artists, many of whom she discovered online. She has exhibited digitally and across the continent, plus in Paris, New York and London; hired a space to exhibit artworks in the latter city; and will present pieces 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 examine themes of immigration, heritage and identity through surrealist self-portraits. Their works feed into the gallery’s ethos of representing “the multitude of identities we have as Africans, as black people”, Dada says. Falade’s compositions imagine many versions of herself, reflecting on her ancestry and merging contemporary and traditional materials to connect past and present. Agusto’s paintings create migrating characters in fantastical realms as symbols of hybridity and cultural displacement.
“There’s a synergy between these women’s works as they are both exploring fantasy-like worlds that we don’t often see with black artists,” Dada says. “African art tends to be bogged down in reality, but there’s an element of escapism to these pieces that I find very fresh.”
Dada is as intriguing and multi-faceted as her artists. I ask her if there is any tension between balancing the corporate and creative worlds. “People often think they can’t coexist but I disagree — they feed into each other. Being a lawyer helps me see things in a practical way. When you work with artists there are a lot of grand ideas, but my role as a gallerist requires me to make sure my artists can achieve them. It helps me figure out what makes commercial sense.”
Finding its footing as a digital platform meant the pandemic had the opposite effect on Dada than for most galleries — it proved fruitful. While the rest of the art market was catching up and creating virtual spaces to display their works, “we were already there,” she says. “It impacted us in a good way because we were on a level playing field with everybody else.”
But there were still lessons to learn. “We weren’t taking into account how traditional galleries became successful,” she admits. “The kind of art we sell isn’t one that collectors are just going to click online and buy. They will find it online but they still want to see the work and have a conversation about it, a personal connection with it.”
Digital has other merits, however. With a click, art becomes more accessible, galleries are more approachable, artists’ portfolios and prices are visible. This barrier-breaking method is vital, Dada argues, particularly for young people of colour collecting art who may feel the market has largely ignored them.
“It’s a lot easier to approach art when you feel the artists are your age, they’re saying something that resonates with you, maybe you already follow them on Instagram. We like to keep that open-door approach — you can contact us; we display our prices and we try to make sure [the art] is affordable for our buyers.”
Social media is an obvious entry point for Dada’s clientele to discover African artists and a channel that “cannot be overlooked”, she argues, in forging a community. “Every gallery should make it a key part of their business; I don’t think there’s another way to do it.” But with physical spaces and in-person events reopening, Dada fears the online bubble may soon burst. “I’m not sure if the art world will continue to be as accessible as it was last year now that things are returning to ‘normal’.”
Yet she recognises that for her gallery to thrive, it should cater for all platforms. Dada is an example of a gallery modernising the sector with a hybrid approach. Instead of opening a financially unviable space in London, her gallery joined Cromwell Place this summer, a new art hub in South Kensington that allows galleries to hire space to exhibit and store works. “Because we’re not tied down to one physical place that we need to maintain and fund, we can go everywhere and engage. We can be in Dakar, in Abidjan, in Lagos and do exhibitions. We’re hybrid in terms of format but also in geography, with very flexible programming,” she says.
Mirroring the youthful exuberance of her community, Dada is able to roam and to meet her mission of putting African art in front of more eyes, whether on screen or in the flesh. “We need that flexibility,” she asserts. “We need to keep that spirit of being free.”
October 14-17, www.1-54.com