Born in Ahoada, River State, Nigeria, Skoto Aghahowa is the founder of New York-based Skoto Gallery. Since 1992, he and his wife, Alix du Serech, have been working consistently to promote the work of artists from Africa, while also opening their space to artists from other cultural backgrounds. During this Zoom conversation, conducted between New York and Amsterdam, Skoto speaks about key moments in the gallery’s history, offers his perspective on what it takes for a gallery to survive in the New York art scene for nearly 30 years, and speaks about their upcoming inaugural participation in ART X Lagos.
As one of the first galleries showing contemporary art from Africa in New York, can you tell us about the representation of African art in the city in the 1990s and how it has evolved since?
I was interested in African art prior to launching the gallery. In 1990-91, I was in Paris, which was the best time for witnessing the rise of what you might call the contemporary African art scene. Nicole Guez aka Madame Nicole had been putting together a guide, l’Art Africain Contemporain, a book that referenced artists, exhibition spaces, and art professionals from Africa. This was all before the internet. It was a very useful guide in which you could look at each artist and which country they came from.
That period in Paris was just the beginning. There was a lot going on before anything happening in the States. Revue Noire, a quarterly magazine dedicated to African contemporary art was first published during that time, there were a few galleries and alternative spaces showing works by mostly Francophone and North African artists, which further broadened my understanding of a larger contemporary African art scene.
Figures like Nicole or George Rodrigue were making things happen. Nicole with her guide and George with dinners, poetry, and conversations to which he would invite artists and writers from Angola, Mozambique, Senegal, and Cameroon, as well as people from different walks of life. They were creating very interesting dynamics, much different than in the US, although the questions asked were the same when people heard about contemporary African art; “Where do they get materials from? Where do they get canvas?” It was very hard for people to get their heads around it. Coming back to New York, when we decided to open the gallery in 1992, I was used to those kinds of questions.
I think the most frustrating thing back then was that those kinds of questions ended up taking away from people actually engaging with the art. They’d come in and ask all kinds of trivial questions that were totally unrelated to the art on display and, by the time they finished, they’d say: “I went to Ghana two years ago. My husband loved it.” That’s not what I’m about.
Those were some of the issues, but it’s interesting though, because even someone like El Anatsui, when we were showing him back then in the 1990s, it was like, “How do you pronounce his name?” Then, all of a sudden, years later, when El Anatsui’s work became valuable, then everybody knew how to pronounce his name. You start realising that it’s actually the value of the work that matters to most of them. In other words, if you are going to spend $500,000 to buy a piece, you’d better know the name of the artist or the joke is on you.
In the end, it’s just self-interest. That’s really the underlying principle in terms of how people understand what art is. We actually ended up going around those issues with various strategies. Our first show was curated by Ornette Coleman. Ornette is a highly regarded avant-garde jazz musician with a strong following. Right away, that made it clear to people that this gallery has set a high standard for itself. This was how we wanted the public to look at the kind of art that we presented.
We could say that you started with an empty canvas – almost to the point that you had to educate people during this very first period of showing African art in New York?
Exactly and, beyond that, we literally had to invent our audience because there was no audience to start with. For our first show, we wanted to send out invites for the reception and then realised that we did not have a mailing list. How do you get a mailing list? Most of the people we knew were artists, but that’s not really what we were looking for. You are looking for support, people that will actually collect art, people that will come in and seriously engage with the work, art critics. We went to Artists’ Space, a non-profit organisation in SoHo, and bought a mailing list from them before we were able to send out about 1,000 mails.
Of course, about 70 percent of those mails were returned to us within a week. It was then that we realised that you have to build your own audience. There’s no easy way around it, and part of building that audience depends on the quality of the shows you put together, especially in New York. There are so many galleries here. If you are not doing something interesting and original, it just doesn’t make sense. At the same time, because of the quality of what we were showing, eventually, some critics took note.
Critics at the New York Times for example. In order to do that, we had to present shows that would attract a broad range of audiences. Sometimes, we did two-person shows, bringing an American artist and an African artist together. The first show we did was with Tom Otterness. He is a New York artist who has done public sculptures around the city. We proposed that he show his work with Bright Bimpong, an artist from Ghana. After that, we approached Sol LeWitt, the American minimalist conceptual artist, and showed his work with El Anatsui’s. At that time, nobody knew who El Anatsui was, but we put those two shows together, well-curated, and drew the attention of the New York Times and Art in America.
We also did several historic shows that focused on earlier generations of African artists, such as Uche Okeke and Ibrahim El Salahi. Too many times, when you ask people who the contemporary African artists are, the most they can tell you is Yinka Shonibare or Chris Ofili. These shows make people realise that contemporary African art has historical roots.
Contemporary African art is what the gallery is known for but, at the same time, when you’re in New York, you invariably have to engage with artists of the African diaspora. There is Africa in the Caribbean, Brazil, and the Americas. Over a period of time, if you follow the exhibition program of the gallery, you see that there’s a clear line that runs through the aesthetics and the art that we present.
Let’s talk about art fairs. How do you position your work and the gallery in this commercial context?
I’m very leery of what I see art fairs doing in the US and in Europe. They do not really suit the kind of programming that we do at the gallery, and oftentimes there is a lack of a discursive framework to engage with aspects of contemporary art that are not readily marketable.
However, art fairs have greatly expanded the audience for contemporary art in recent years. One hopes that museums and cultural institutions will build on this by strengthening their programs to incorporate ground-breaking exhibitions that aim to counter some of the challenges faced by non-Western artists from the diasporas.
What triggered your first-time participation in ART X Lagos this year?
I like what they are doing in terms of situating a fair right there in Lagos, in Africa. I thought it made sense to participate in it. It’s a matter of giving support and seeing what comes of it. I like the spirit of the idea and wish them great success.
What artists and works will you be presenting at the fair?
We are showing five artists. One of them is Wosene Worke Kosrof from Ethiopia. He is a painter. He mainly paints abstract, inventively using the Amharic script, fidel, as a core element in his composition. The second artist is George Afedzi Hughes, also a painter. He teaches at the State University of New York (SUNY), in Buffalo, New York. He is originally from Ghana. We’re also showing work by Afi Nayo from Togo. Very small tableaux, very intense. She uses pyrogravure on board. Her work explores themes of spirituality, cultural syncretism, and humanity’s interconnectedness with nature. She lives in Paris and spends time in Lomé.
We are also showing the work of Uche Okeke, the influential Nigerian modernist. Five of his drawings were recently acquired by the Museum of Modern Art in New York from the gallery when we did his solo show in 2015. Lastly, we are showing portraits by Aimé Mpane from the DR Congo.
What impact do you think an art event like ART X has on the local art scene?
Lagos is a very exciting city, a lot of artists with high energy. I think events like this help us to contextualise the very strong role that cities like Lagos, Dakar, Kinshasa, Nairobi, Cairo, and Johannesburg play in the development of the creative arts in Africa. These are key cities in terms of contemporary African art. Much like the Dakar Biennale in Senegal, ART X is definitely one of the events that one needs in order to build on an increasing global awareness of contemporary African art.
Skoto Gallery will be 30 years old in 2022 — what are the first thoughts that come to your mind, looking back? How will you celebrate this amazing achievement?
This is quite interesting. The thing with time is that it just keeps going on, and there is nothing you can do about it. With a gallery like this, you are more concerned with putting up a show, and then putting up another show. Typically, in a year, we do about six or seven shows. For our 30th anniversary, which is in February next year, we are going to do a solo show by Nigerian sculptor, Olu Amoda. He was a co-winner of the 2014 Grand Prix Léopold Sédar Senghor Prize at the 11th edition of the Dak’Art Biennial. He still deserves wider recognition.
Between then and now, 2021, would you say that there is a different interest from the public for artists from Africa?
The thing with New York is that it’s New York. It is the proverbial belly of the beast with regards to capitalism. Increasingly, there is an investment component to the decision to buy art in the West. Does this work has value? If I buy it now, ten years from now, when my kids are ready to go to college, can I sell it? I think the good thing is that a lot of galleries are looking for artists of colour, mostly African American artists and a growing number of artists from the African diaspora. Now, everybody wants to have Black artists in their collection. Curatorial positions are opening up for curators of colour as well.
It’s a very positive time, but we always need to go back to the quality of the work. That’s a tough challenge because, too many times, artists don’t fully understand the fact that your work has to be strong and original. They’re coming up with repetitive work that does not meet the expectations of a very sophisticated audience. 15, 20 years ago, there were certain types of work that could easily pass for contemporary African art, but now, people have seen a variety of work and they know what quality work looks like. There is competition, especially in New York. It’s not just African artists. Artists from Latin America, from South America, from Europe – everybody wants to have a show in New York.
The longer you stay in this business, the more people take you seriously, the more contacts you make. That is really the dynamics of success, and that’s what we try to explain to the young artists; that they need to stick around.
An interview by Céline Seror for the ART X Lagos 2021 artpaper