New York Times: From Africa to Hong Kong, a Gallery’s Influence Grows

London: The dusting of charcoal still on her hands hinted that the Kenyan British artist Phoebe Boswell had just finished putting the final touches on the trees she had created in the entry hallway of the London outpost of Ghana’s Gallery 1957.

With the show “Constellations, Part 1: Figures on Earth & Beyond” set to open in a few days, Ms. Boswell, who is “extremely” afraid of heights, had spent a week climbing up a ladder to draw the tall, ominous black trees, which served as a backdrop to three of her charcoal and pastel works of art that were being shown in the exhibition.

“It’s a joy to be given a massive wall,” said Ms. Boswell, who is also featured in a show at London’s Dulwich Picture Gallery. “Since I was a kid, I loved drawing on a wall.”

This is the first time Ms. Boswell has collaborated with Gallery 1957, but she said it was a treat to be a part of the group show, which opened on March 14. “I like the idea that a version of this will traverse” to Africa in a second, expanded “Constellations, Part 2” that will open in Accra (the capital of Ghana) in August, she added.

Since its founding eight years ago this month, Gallery 1957 — named after the year the West African country of Ghana gained independence — has become an integral player in the African contemporary art landscape.

That is not only because it has some of Ghana’s — and the continent’s — most exciting contemporary artists on its roster, but also because the gallery has been increasing its presence at global exhibitions and art fairs, including making its debut at Art Basel Hong Kong this week. Its group show there will highlight some of the gallery’s freshest talent — eight artists from across the African continent and its diaspora.

Among them are the British Ghanaian artist Godfried Donkor, who is also in the Ekow Eshun-curated group show “The Time is Always Now: Artists Reframe the Black Figure” at London’s National Portrait Gallery; the Ghanaian American artist Rita Benissan, who will have a solo show at Cape Town’s Zeitz MOCAA in November; Kenya’s Kaloki Nyamai; and the French Congolese mixed-media artist Tiffanie Delune.

“Gallery 1957 has thrived commercially and has also become a catalyst for the development and promotion of Ghanaian and West African art internationally,” Touria El Glaoui, the founding director of 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair, wrote in an email. “Its contributions have significantly enriched the cultural landscape of Accra and beyond, and has become the leading player in the region.”
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That it has become such a big player so quickly is in some ways surprising, given that Gallery 1957’s founder, Marwan Zakhem, a Lebanese-born, British-trained engineer and entrepreneur, readily admits he has no background in art. “It’s quite embarrassing to say, but I probably had not been to an art fair before I started the gallery,” said Mr. Zakhem, who owns the Kempinski Hotel Gold Coast in Accra. The hotel was the site of the first of now four Gallery 1957 spaces across Accra. “In general, I wasn’t interested in art,” he continued.

But during his years working in Ghana, Senegal and Nigeria in civil engineering, he said he became enthused by the general aesthetic of the region, from the fashion to the markets and the culture of the streets.

“There is access to artists; you don’t have pretenses or formalities,” he said of the country’s art scene. “You can visit them in their studios, you get to know them and buy directly from them.” Some of those artists, including Serge Attukwei Clottey, Zohra Opoku and Ibrahim Mahama, were working with materials like plastic, steel and jute, something that appealed to Mr. Zakhem.

“They were using mixed media, and honestly that medium was something that me, as an engineer, could understand,” he said, adding that a number of the artists were using those materials to engage in social commentaries on issues including poverty alleviation and climate change. “They made me see that material in a different light, and they were concerned about the here and now.”

It was only after opening his hotel in 2015 — where he hung large works that he had collected from the artists Mr. Attukwei Clottey, Mr. Mahama and Yaw Owusu — that Mr. Zakhem got the idea to open a gallery to help promote the artists he had grown to know.

“I was the first artist the gallery signed,” Mr. Owusu, a Ghanaian artist in New York whose mixed media work has been exhibited there and in Paris and Lagos, Nigeria, wrote in an email. “The gallery had ambitious programming and was committed to supporting my growth as a young artist. That made me excited to work with them.”

Ms. Delune agreed that the gallery — and Mr. Zakhem — has an approach that is growing and pushing artists’ limits, something that appealed to her. “Marwan is a disrupter, and I like that because sometimes I think it’s a bit all the same and a bit predictable,” she said in a video interview from her studio in Lisbon. “I wanted to feel that I am a part of something where he has a vision, I have a vision and we are growing together rather than some short-term plan or effect.”

Although he was advised by friends and colleagues to open something instead in London or New York because that is “where the collectors are,” he felt it was important to help grow the local artistic ecosystem.

(He does hope to expand someday to the United States and also somewhere on the African continent). That is in large part, he said he believed, because of the lack of a strong cultural infrastructure in Ghana.

“I thought if we build something great here,” Mr. Zakhem said, “people will come and see it.” Mr. Eshun, the chairman of London’s Fourth Plinth Commissioning Group who has curated a number of Gallery 1957 shows, said one of the things that first intrigued him about the gallery was that it spent “a lot of time nurturing and developing” younger artists.

“Very early on, Marwan realized that if you want to be a gallery in a place like that, you have to really contribute back into the culture, back into the society,” Mr. Eshun said in a video interview. “You can’t just have a strictly commercial relationship when you’re trying to make money out of the scene; you actually have to invest into it, and invest into the people.”

Part of that investment was creating a residency program that has hosted local artists and those from across the continent and diaspora. For Ms. Benissan, who founded the Si Hene Foundation that works to preserve Ghana’s chieftaincy and traditional culture, that residency led to her first solo show last May at Gallery 1957’s Gallery II space in Accra.

Although her show was curated by Mr. Eshun, she said Mr. Zakhem was very involved in decisions, from where pieces should be placed to what should be in the texts.

“He was very hands-on and very invested in those things,” said Ms. Benissan, whose work re-examines Ghana’s culture of ceremonial umbrellas “and making sure that the vision I had came to be.”

Two years ago, Gallery 1957 also started the Yaa Asantewaa Art Prize, focused on highlighting underrepresented women in the art scene in Ghana. The winner receives a cash prize, a residency and a solo exhibition.

“It’s amazing that they have started something where women can also feel like the main presence,” said Ms. Benissan, “because a lot of times the art scene is very male-dominated.”

Katherine Finerty, co-curator of the Constellations show, agreed that having a strong collaborative approach with its artists was important to its success. “Their innovative ethos of combining the critical and commercial is something I’m especially drawn to, not only as a curator but also as a collector,” Ms. Finerty, who is a project curator at London’s Tate, wrote in an email. “Once you visit or work with Gallery 1957, you know it’s the start of something much more sustainable.”

Photo credits: 1) “Responsible woman” by Kwesi Botchway will be among the works displayed by Gallery 1957 at Art Basel Hong Kong.Credit…The artist and Gallery 1957; 2) Marwan Zakhem, right, speaking at Gallery 1957’s Cultural Week last September.Credit…Nii Odzenma, via Gallery 1957; 3) Tiffanie Delune’s “Epiphanies” will be at Art Basel Hong Kong.Credit…The artist and Gallery 1957