Over the last decade there has been consistent growth in interest and price for modern and contemporary African artists. While this has largely been true outside of the continent, there is now a growing class of collectors domestically operating in Africa itself. One of these collectors, Rahman Akar, has been doing so for over thirty years.
In 1992 Akar founded Signature African Art, a gallery dedicated to championing and supporting African artists. Since then, Signature has established itself as one of the leading galleries on the African continent and has been pivotal in shaping contemporary West African art, working with leading artists including El-Anatsui, Ablade Glover and Kolade Oshinowo.
Akar’s interest in art began at an early age, born in Sierra Leone in 1954, he grew up among a collection of antiques, primarily African, that his father had amassed during his travels on the continent. After studying chemical engineering at Exeter University in the UK, Akar returned to Sierra Leone in the 1970s and started to collect everything from Ogboni altarpieces to Yoruba masks.
While antiques form a portion of Akar’s collection, it was his interest in modern and contemporary artists that gained momentum, especially when he moved to Nigeria in the early 1980s. Throughout this period Akar, initially focused on older artists such as Ben Enwonwu and Demas Nwoko, then later added emerging contemporary artists, for whom he often provided mentorship and subsequently exhibitions once opening his gallery.
Now, almost three decades after establishing Signature, Akar is opening a new space in London, launching the gallery outside of Africa. Based in Mayfair, the heart of London’s art market, the programme aims to introduce a new generation of African artists to UK and European audiences who have to date been underrepresented in the West. In advance of the inaugural exhibition, a presentation of new paintings by the celebrated Nigerian artist Oluwole Omofemi, I spoke with Akar in more depth about his life as a collector, mentor and gallerist.
The gallery was founded in Lagos, Nigeria in 1992. What prompted you to open the space?
There was a need for it. At the time, there were no good galleries representing contemporary African art in Lagos. I started collecting art because it was my passion. Initially I opened a frame store to properly frame the art that I bought. People started asking me to frame their artwork as well. As I collected more art, I realized the art being created in Nigeria was too important not to be shown in a proper gallery, which is why I opened Signature.
You have been collecting art for over thirty years, which artists do you have in your collection and what are your criteria for buying an artwork?
Initially, I was collecting the older generation of artists such as: Ben Enwonwu, Demas Nwoko, Yusuf Grillo, Dele Jegede, and Kolade Oshinowo. The criteria I use to buy art is not simply aesthetically driven. It must have a really deep message and a style that is distinctive for a particular artist. Often the most important paintings express the passion, pain and hardships of growing up in Africa or a country like Nigeria. It is much more than just craftsmanship and beautiful painting. Those are common. It must be something much more profound.
Contemporary African artists have been gaining ground on the international art market. To what extend is this momentum impacting the domestic African market?
With Art X Lagos, there has been a lot of attention paid to African art, especially of the younger artists. Most of the auction houses are still concerned with the older artists who command high prices. Hopefully the market for younger artists will improve as awareness and stability develops. African Art is currently being viewed as a great investment opportunity and the prices have risen quite a lot over the past decade.
Your contribution to the African, particularly west African, art scene has been and continues to be hugely significant. Are there any career highlights that stand out for you?
The career highlight has been the sustained quality and reputation of the Signature Gallery. The quality of art that we have continues to remain strong and focused, we have been able to survive and gain respect in a very difficult world. I am also proud of the young artists who continue to develop, not just in Nigeria, but all over Africa. In a world that mainly valued antiquities, interest in the younger contemporary artists is starting to gain momentum.
Can you say more about opening a new space in London? Why now? What do you hope to achieve?
The African Art scene is on an exponential upward trend and many of our artists are finally getting global recognition and being both collected and exhibited by significant institutions. Given this changing landscape, we believed it was time for ourselves to not only continue developing the domestic scene but branch out and showcase these artists in London.
The inaugural exhibition will present new works by Nigerian artist Oluwole Omofemi. How would you describe his work?
Femi is an incredible artist and has been excellently received in his past exhibitions with us in Nigeria. His works celebrate afrocentric pride and serve as a reflection on the post-colonial era. It focuses on the need for people to find themselves through their own stories and this new series of paintings explore the connection between hair and identity in Black culture.
The gallery aims to introduce a new generation of African artists to UK and European audiences. Which artists are you most excited about?
We believe that all of the artists that we represent produce important works that need to be seen outside of Africa by an international audience. While the gallery already has many of the older renowned artists in its collection and has helped many of them grow, we believe it is crucial to continue this development with the newer generation who are set to shape contemporary African art in the future.
What are your long term plans for the gallery and are there any future projects you want to share?
We plan to continue a strong curatorial programme at the gallery with a variety of exhibitions at the gallery and to participate in art fairs around the world. Our long-term goal is to increase awareness of contemporary African art and our hope is that collectors will come to recognize that the style and manner of contemporary African art is different than anything they may have seen previously.