This is the second of a series of interviews with three of this year’s exhibiting galleries, conducted by Emma Wingfield, a freelance art researcher and writer, with a background in African Art based in NYC. The interviews aim to discuss the galleries themselves, their views on their local and global Contemporary African Art markets, and their artists/involvement with 1:54.
Here we have Elena Micheletti, Gallery Manager Primo Marella Gallery in Milan, Italy.
Primo Marella Gallery has played a pivotal role in bringing the work of international artists into the European Art market. The gallery began with a focus on Asian Art at a time when contemporary Asian Art was relatively un-represented in the international art market. Primo Marella solidified their identity as an international art gallery committed to working with emerging artists who are based in the “emerging” countries of their origin. Micheletti describes “emerging” countries as areas where there is a clear lack of focus on a country’s culture objects and art while the local/international response to its economic identity is growing. For example, in China, there were relatively no commercial art galleries or other artistic platforms through which contemporary artists could exhibit their work. For Primo Marella and their collectors, the art being created by artists coming from China offered a “new language” and a fresh aesthetic. The challenge now was how to successfully exhibit these artists to the gallery’s local European Art market, dominated by modernist and Euro/American Contemporary Art. Micheletti argues that this is where the gallery’s collectors have played a vital role. Primo Marella works closely with collectors globally, in order to cultivate a unique network, both locally and internationally between collector and artist. The clients that seek out Primo Marella Gallery are interested in seeing “new languages” and to engage with artist and society.
This method is applicable to contemporary African Art. When contemporary Asian Art became mainstream (with the introduction of local art galleries) as quickly as it appeared on the international art market, Primo Marella Gallery, together with their collectors, wanted to spread their focus in an attempt to continue working with emerging artists. Africa was an obvious choice. Micheletti argues that at the time, many African countries were still “developing” infrastructure to work with the artistic sectors of their societies. For many countries, this is not high on their agenda, as other political issues muddle movement forward. Although this is changing, many African countries “do not have galleries, museums, or a network of collectors” through which art can be presented. However, the international community is reacting strongly to the art being created as new and engaging, a fresh “language”, offering a different perspective to other forms of contemporary Art on the market today.
Primo Marella Gallery has built networks of artists, collectors, and other art professions to interact with African Art on a local and international level. Beginning with the gallery’s pre-existing collectors (their local network), Micheletti and the rest of the gallery have carefully cultivated relationships with the African Art and artists they represent. They also work closely with specific African countries and artists (their external network), building an archive of local contacts; art writers, curators, artists, and other art professionals. Their first African Art exhibitions was a project called “Africa, Assume Art Position!”, which exhibited 16 artists from 11 countries as an attempt to see how their local and external networks would react. Although the gallery has come a long way since this exhibition in 2010, by exhibiting contemporary African artists in a major Italian city, Prime Marella Gallery helped to start a dialogue and market for such art in the Europe.
Micheletti argues that exhibiting contemporary African Art in Europe still presents a huge challenge. For example, many criticisms of art galleries, fairs, and exhibitions the world over, are the assumed “assimilation” of exhibiting African Art as representative of a single country. The African continent is not a cohesive group of countries. It is a continent with arbitrarily placed boundaries, many of which are creations of colonialism. The galleries are then faced with the question of, how does one present a group of artists with such varied backgrounds and histories? How do you adequately present an artist from North Africa with an artist from South Africa? For Micheletti, the answer is not so simple, but Primo Marella Gallery does keep this issue in mind when putting together exhibitions. They purposefully represent a handful of carefully selected African Artists in order to try and keep their identities as self defined as possible. Primo Marella gallery is not solely an African Art gallery. They are interested in emerging artists coming form emerging territories. This way, as Micheletti states, the individual artists retain their own artistic expressions as reflections of their identity and history, rather than as part of a whole continent.
In today’s global art market, attendance at commercial art galleries is rapidly declining. Micheletti states that there is no longer a need for collectors and clients to physically visit gallery spaces in order to buy art. It is an international market, where an increasing number of sales are handled online. This means, public exhibitions and art-fairs, like 1:54, are incredibly important, especially for increasing Contemporary African Art’s reach. Art-fairs and public exhibitions have an ability to present African Art on a global stage. They also provide a platform for collaboration between private galleries and collectors/public museums, which Micheletti describes as an invaluable connection. Many museums don’t have access to a variety of work, and rely on loans from private collectors for their exhibitions.
This year at 1:54, Primo Marella Gallery will present a series of brand new works by a group of both established and emerging artists from Africa. The artists they will be exhibiting, although drastically different in aesthetic, all engage with interesting contemporary issues, directly affecting their histories. These artists are: Abdoulaye Konaté, Jöel Andrianomeariso, Nidhal Chamekh, Cameron Platter, Soly Cissé, and Vitshois Mwilambwe Bondo. The exhibition aims to showcase “the scope of artistic production in Africa today” rather than attempting to present these artists as part of an assimilated group. The art and artists are discussing issues effecting the societies they live in, and articulating them through a visual language which is solely their own. Instead of continuing the similar themes which manifest themselves in a different form, these artists create a dialogue that can only be produced by the juxtaposition of the works beside one another and the promise that if a different work was there, a different dialogue would ensue.
Interview conducted by Emma Wingfield.