Samallie Kiyingi is a lawyer by training and an art collector by passion. Her collection focuses on elevating the work of African artists, which she achieves not only through her support for institutions but by directly supporting the artists themselves. As the managing director and founder of Artnaka, a private members’ platform focused on art from Africa and its diasporas, and a founding member of Tate Modern’s African Art Acquisition Committee, Samallie demonstrates her firm commitment to progressing the rapidly growing field of contemporary art from the continent. In this Collector Q&A, she shares her perspective on the convening power of art fairs, the ways in which collectors can contribute to creating sustainable careers for artists, and the universal language of contemporary art that (re)connects us with our common humanity.
Reflecting on the 2021 curatorial theme for ART X Lagos, ‘The restful ones are not yet born’, what role do you believe art fairs — and the galleries, collectors, and visitors that participate in them — play in (re)imagining a future for the continent?
The thing I love the most about art fairs is that they are amazing spaces for learning and discovery. While probably not the best place to experience art, fairs provide a unique setting that brings together artists, curators, historians, gallerists, and art enthusiasts to engage with, learn about, and support art. It is this convening power that makes art fairs such a significant part of the art ecosystem.
This is particularly important in the African context, where critical art infrastructure such as gallery networks and museums are sometimes lacking. Not only do art fairs make art more accessible to the general public, they are also at the forefront of driving much-needed conversations across the continent around art, culture, history, and identity.
How will you be engaging and participating in this year’s hybrid offering at ART X Lagos?
Sadly, I won’t be able to attend in person this year, but the ART X team has done an amazing job of developing their online profile, not just in terms of promoting the fair, but promoting the artists as well. That is something that I have noticed is core to the ART X approach; it is very much artist-centric, which I appreciate.
While physical events are always better — there’s nothing like seeing artwork in person — having a digital program is phenomenal. I live in Cairo and there are often international art events I want to go to that I am unable to attend due to work commitments or travel restrictions. Having the ability to engage digitally has been fantastic. I didn’t attend ART X Lagos last year because of COVID, but I was able to participate virtually, which was the next best thing. I believe hybrid programming is the future and I hope that ART X Lagos will continue with their digital offering, even when things go back to “normal.”
To borrow from the theme of ‘The Collector as Catalyst’, a talk moderated by Tokini Peterside at ART X Lagos this year, how do you believe art collectors contribute to progressing the rapidly growing field of contemporary art from Africa and its diasporas?
I’ve never been entirely comfortable with the word ‘collector’ in the art context as it seems to only focus on one side of the equation. For me, it’s all about the artists. I see the process of collecting as one of facilitating the development of an artist and their practice. The concept of the collector as catalyst is important because one of the things that I’ve observed is that, for quite some time, the vast majority of collectors of contemporary African art weren’t from the continent. Prices were skyrocketing and, as a result, many African collectors were unable to purchase work by some artists that was affordable to them five years ago.
While it is fantastic that there is an increasing amount of international interest in African artists, it is so important that we grow the number of collectors from Africa and its diasporas, because I would like to think that what is happening in the global market is not a fad. In order to ensure that it’s not, there is a critical role that collectors must play in continuing to support these artists, even when the market moves on, as this will help secure sustainable careers for even more artists from the continent.
Prior to moving to Cairo, I ran Artnaka, a platform designed — among other things — to encourage more individuals from Africa to collect and support African artists. It feeds into that narrative of making artists’ careers sustainable by ensuring that we don’t just support them when the world pays attention, but on an ongoing basis. The idea for the members’ platform was born I lived in London. I would travel to art events across Europe and, over the course of time, you come to meet a lot of people. I found it easy to integrate at exhibition openings and art fairs as result, but many of my friends who were interested in contemporary art and what artists were producing didn’t know anyone in those spaces.
The art world can be quite intimidating from that perspective, which is why I decided to start Artnaka. The idea was to make that environment far more accessible and, by making it accessible, make it easier for people who had the means and the ability to collect art to start collecting. We organized intimate dinners or lunches and invited artists like Yinka Shonibare to talk or host. We also organized out-of-hours exhibition tours led by curators and artists. Ibrahim Mahama very graciously led one such tour for his first exhibition at the White Cube.
It was important to me to demystify the art world and ensure that people had access to curators, artists, and gallerists so that it would become easier over time for them to build a collection. Again, I strongly believe that increasing the number of collectors from Africa and the diaspora is critical for the sustainability of artists’ careers.
How do your law and finance careers inform your decisions as an art collector?
Law and finance are what I do but not who I am. My passion for art (and music) predates my professional career. Contemporary art is a universal language that allows me to reflect on issues beyond the everyday and, in a strange way, (re)connect with our common humanity. While I am drawn to artists who in some way touch on the issue of justice, my decisions are very much informed by my engagement with artists and curators.
Who, in your opinion, are the artists to watch in 2022?
Three amazing artists from East Africa: Phoebe Boswell, Leilah Babirye, and Everlyn Nicodemus. I’m a huge fan of Phoebe Boswell, and I’ve been following her work for quite a while. The works that I tend to collect are works on paper and her pencil drawings, which capture raw emotion in such a visceral way.
Leilah Babirye is an artist who I met in 2014. She has a very distinctive aesthetic language that she developed very early on in her career. She wasn’t afraid to take risks. I have one of her works on paper, a painting, and a sculpture. Her work deals with identity and her position as a lesbian within the Ugandan context and how that relates to history, culture, and belonging. Her work is defiant but beautiful, while also actively reclaiming space, which I really admire.
Everlyn Nicodemus is an artist who I actually only came across this year. She is in her late sixties and has been producing work for decades. She is not only an accomplished artist but also an historian who takes a feminist approach to both her writings and her artwork.
Can you tell us about your move to support artists more directly, in addition to the ways in which you support art institutions like Gasworks or the Ugandan Arts Trust?
Artists need so much support before their work even reaches the market, which is why I believe that it’s important that art institutions are supported. Sometimes, they fall under the radar but, without these institutions, you wouldn’t have many of the artists that have become big names today. That remains something that I’m passionate about, but I’ve also recognized that there is an incredible need to support artists more directly.
I won’t say that Leilah Babirye was the catalyst for this decision, but her work forms part of the story. As I mentioned, I’ve been following her work for some time. I first saw her work many years ago, and I knew she had done an artists’ residency at 32° East, the Ugandans Arts Trust, an organization that I support, but I had never actively collected her work. When I bought the first work that I have of hers, I reconnected with her and she told me that I was her first Ugandan collector. I couldn’t believe that was true. It made me think about the role that I play, particularly as an African woman collector, in supporting the practices of contemporary African artists first hand.
An interview by The Art Momentum Editorial Team for the ART X Lagos 2021 artpaper