| Florentine Maats

Dolly Kola-Balogun, the Abuja-based young Nigerian gallerist

Dolly Kola-Balogun, although only 27 years old, is an impressive person from the second we speak to her. A gallerist, hotelier and entrepreneur, she describes herself as always having been the youngest person in the room, but not in a negative way. Calling in from Abidjan, Ivory Coast, she tells The Sybarite all about her quest to scout the African continent for artistic talent, the importance position art has in social movements worldwide and the advice she has for young people trying to make it on their own. 

What brings you to Abidjan?

I’m here for work. One of my gallery partners is a gallery based in Bamako and we are doing a lot of collaborations together. We’ve done previous ones, but now we are starting to do more to ensure that there’s more artistic exchange between the Francophone and Anglophone world. So I came from an exploratory visit. I was in Bamako just a week ago and now I’m in Abidjan for a series of meetings. Abidjan reminds me of a smaller, Francophone Lagos.

Tell our readers a little bit about yourself. 

I am the Founder and Creative Director of Retro Africa, which is a contemporary art gallery and platform based in Abuja, Nigeria. We represent primarily contemporary African art and artists within the diaspora. Our focus really is elevating contemporary African stories to a global audience. We are young people who really believe in African culture. 

The creation of Retro Africa was essentially spurred by, at least for me at the time five years ago, the need to see more African galleries representing Africa artists on an international stage. African art was gaining a lot of prominence and interest. However, the vast majority then and still today of representing galleries were Western. We thought it was important for us to have a seat at the table so that we can have a say in the narrative that was being told and crafting our own path and ensuring that we’re not left behind, that we are not an audience to what we saw as a phenomenal rise and the golden age of African art.

How has this initial concept of Retro Africa progressed over the years?

We started five years ago and actually, it has been great. It has been a series of events, projects, travel plans, as well as exhibitions, fairs, a lot of a lot of ups and downs. I think that it’s gone phenomenally well. We have built a community and a platform for ourselves in Abuja, we intentionally built our gallery in Abuja and not in Lagos. We eventually decided to do this because while Lagos is the centre for contemporary art, and the vast majority of our artists were based in Lagos, there’s a need to extend the industry. That means that diversity of locations, not just diversity in artists representation. 

The only way we can have a robust foundation is by creating art scenes in different parts of the country. So obviously, by virtue of the fact that I am in art, I am intrinsically tied to Lagos in every meaningful way – most of my artists are based in Lagos, Lagos is where I do fairs and where I do certain exhibitions. At the same time, my headquarters is in Abuja. And in that I’m able to essentially test and navigate, in my own way, and touch upon things previously unspoken. 

You should also note that Abuja is also a very culturally different place than Lagos, in the sense that it is in the Northern part of Nigeria, and so there’s a very different ethnic composition, cultural background, religious mixture. And so there’s a different response and a different way of viewing arts. They’re also not particularly familiar with contemporary African art in Abuja because we don’t have Art X and we don’t have Lagos Photo here. But as Abuja is the capital of the country, it is important to have cultural institutions and spaces in the capital. So that was our justification and our reasoning,

What’s your background? What got you into the art world?

My background is not in art ironically. I studied political science, theology and sociology, at Kings College in London, which is completely different. Actually, on the surface, it’s completely different from art but in essence, it’s not, in the sense that art is a vehicle and a means of communication and expression. And most of the topics and subject matters that are touched upon in the art world, are very overtly political, religious, sociological, in the same way that literature, music and any of the means of communication can convey these ideas.

And so I fell in love with art for it’s visual means of conversing. It’s a point of reference in order to continue the dialogue, while observing the piece but then afterwards as well I mean, I believe that good art should have social impact. So to me, going from my background and my education into the art world was a natural progression, and not a completely unconventional or unrelated jump.

Since you’ve opened Retro Africa, you’ve attended multiple art fairs like 154, Art X and Cape Town Art Fair. 

Yes and we love doing that. More importantly, we have plans to expand that. The ambition is to be present in the major fairs, not just fairs that are dedicated or reserved for African artists, which is great, but we want to get to the point where we can participate in major international shows, Art Basel even, and not just shows appointed to African art.

Which is why we tend to grow and expand, to make our presence known on an international stage, and we hope to open a new space in Miami by the end of next year.

That’s so exciting. Why Miami?

Miami, for me, seemed ideal for a variety of reasons. Firstly, the US I think, is an ideal location for extending our reach and our influence. The US is currently primed, I think, for diversity when it comes to art. And more importantly it is an extensively large market where African art is still just scratching the surface. I think Europe is overly saturated. There are a lot of amazing European galleries doing great things that already have their focus on contemporary African art. 

As someone who is extremely linked to London and Europe, I grew up and went to school in Paris, London and Europe will always be an important space for me to participate, exhibit and build relationships. But again, we need to extend our reach above where we are familiar where we’re familiar. So the US is a perfect space. I think that Miami even more so, because it’s the second largest city for art in the US, after New York. It is also culturally familiar somewhat to me, or at least it has a sense of resonance that is familiar, not just because of the weather and the beachfront, which actually reminds me a little bit of Lagos, but it’s culturally diverse. It has one of the largest Hispanic populations in the US. It is a space in which I feel we can have a voice in a way that’s meaningful. 

How do you choose which artists to work with?

It always firstly depends on if they are established or emerging. As a gallery, we focus on the artist’s aesthetic, but also the relationship we build with them and if we share the same ideology. It is important for us to have good rapport with the artists that we work with to be able to understand them and relate with them. And for us, it’s really an instinctive thing. We work with artists whose work we think is compelling, visually, but also narrative wise. But then it doesn’t end there. I think it’s important to also have a sense of relationship, because we’re on a journey together, and yes it is a fast moving train, but it’s a collaborative process. We really feel that, you know, interpersonal relationships are a very integral, focal point for us in choosing artists who we work with. There are of course a lot of brilliant artists from all over the world – photographers, sculptors, painters, of African descent, that we will continue to work with and that we would love to work with. 

Do you see art as a vehicle for larger social change? Does art have the ability to bring about that change?

Yeah, definitely, I totally believe that. In fact, I think that good art should aspire to do that. I think words can be violent and words can be contentious. I think words, when poorly expressed, can rile up and create a lot more turmoil, in a way that art does not. Not that art cannot rile up, but it is far more subtle, the more subtle means of expression.  And I think that some of the most contentious issues were best conveyed in arts, at least in Nigeria. 

So during the End SARS protests, one of my artists  was very involved on the streets, very involved in the protests, in rallying and a lot of his work that he is currently exhibited at Think Space in LA, is inspired by End Sars. A lot of the conversations that I had with many people was spurred on by his pieces that he posted on his social media. I feel like art, as a social dialogue, is a common denominator for people from different backgrounds, it brings us into the same space. Oftentimes with dialogue, we have a preconceived notion of what the person stands for. And on top of that there’s often a pre-dialogue that happened in our heads prior to even engaging, which can be discouraging for exchange.

I think that art certainly can be a means to assemble and to debate, it has the power to inspire social change, to be a part of social change. Photography is art, and some of the images captured during the End SARS protests, for example, were done by great and amazing photographers and videographers. So art is important in documenting history as well, in telling the future generations what occurred, you know, what the feeling was at the time and to largely ensure that we try not to replicate the same mistakes again, if we can.

You are also a co-owner of Atelier Hotels, tell our readers a bit more about that. 

Atelier is a boutique hotel in Abuja that is intertwined with my curatorial work, in the sense that it was a collaboration between myself and two of my sisters, one of whom heads operations and the other is an architect who designed the space, the interiors, as well as the gallery itself. Atelier is laid out that one must pass through the gallery in order to get to your room. We thought that it would be a great means of bringing together and assembling people from different backgrounds. So there are a lot of people that travel to Abuja for work, and they don’t know anything about art necessary. However, by virtue of staying in our hotel, they discover art in the process. Art is a common reference point in the entire space. 

Atelier also has a restaurant called the Pavillion, which is a very popular hangout space, restaurant and bar. Art is a common theme everywhere you go in the space. We wanted to really create a hub community and not just the gallery And so we have different elements in the space that brings people together. Whether you’re a traveller, or you’re someone coming for a date, or for lunch, or dinner in our space, art will be discovered in the process, the moment you enter our gates. 

How has Covid affected your businesses? Both in hospitality and in the art world?

So it’s a mixed bag. Art wise, it wasn’t as bad as we thought, in the sense that it allowed us to recalibrate, refocus, and strategize. And at the same time we got a lot more online inquiries than we normally do. We got a lot of solicitations and messages sent through artsy during lockdown. I think this whole time has been a moment of discovery for a lot of collectors. A lot of our new collectors were based in the US and Europe. And perhaps because of lockdown, they were able to explore more online, discover new artists and discover new galleries. 

On the other hand, we did have a pretty long lockdown in Nigeria, it lasted for about two and half months. And then after that there were restrictions on gatherings that were very extensive and restaurants were still closed for a very long time. So in terms of the hotel, Atelier was shut down for a very long time, until almost August.  So this obviously impacted the physical gallery and the hotel. For the hotel it was a very rough year for us. The industry heavily relies on seasonal travellers, business travellers, those looking for an escape. By virtue of the position of the gallery within the hotel, both had to shut down. Online sales were really a lifesaver for us. 

And where do you see both industries heading now that restrictions are slowly being lifted?

Things ramped up the moment restrictions were lifted. It was like a sigh of relief, not just for businesses but likewise for consumers. Everybody felt the need to go out to patronise spaces, to escape, to visit art. Because we all felt caged, you know, so there certainly was a rush almost. 

However, there was a lot of devastation in the wake of what occurred. Thankfully, we were able to resuscitate ourselves. But many, many businesses, many friends that I know, in hospitality, the food and beverage industry, as well as galleries, had to lay off people and had to shut down.  Because while perhaps businesses had the luxury of say, you know, closing down for a while and we had savings, our workers have to find other means of sustaining themselves, because the government didn’t provide any financial assistance. And so for that reason, your waiters, your cleaners, your drivers, your gate man, your security, you help etc. couldn’t afford to spend three, four months in lockdown, without jobs. So they had to find odd jobs here and there, in different businesses that were still open. Obviously, when you reopen, you lose half of your entire staff and you have to start all over again. 

You are also setting up an institution of contemporary art and film. Will you tell us a bit more about that?

It’s a state government project, being funded by the Kwara state government, which is a state in Nigeria. We worked as consultants and advisors on the project to conceive the idea to the point of execution. It was a collaboration between myself and my sister again, who is the architect on this project as well. So, what we intend for the liberal arts space and centre in Ilorin in the Kwara state, is for it to be an Institute of Contemporary Art, and Film. It comprises gallery spaces for the museum, post-production facilities for the film industry, with the intention of essentially building the first purpose built nonprofit space within the region, and for it to serve as a catalyst for further industry growth in that city. 

So the intention is not for the building to not be an oasis in the middle of the desert, but to then have a variety of different projects that occur around it so that our satellite projects such as festivals, festival biennale, of arts and film. Ilorin is ideally positioned in the sense that it’s a gateway between northern Nigeria and southern Nigeria – the vast majority of cultural and creative activity occurs in southern Nigeria. So we thought that this was an opportunity also, to essentially especially position a different city for culture activation in the different contexts. So that is the vision for this project. We hope for it to be open by the end of this year, we are currently already five months on site. 

What are some places that you’re looking forward to visiting post-pandemic?

Oh, I’m trying to travel as much as I can already. I’m not going to allow another year to be wasted if I can! One of things we really want to do is travel more within the continent. But I will also be travelling to East Asia, to Shanghai, to South Korea to New York, but I really want to travel within Africa. The places I’m looking forward to most is Angola for the first time, Cape Verde for the first time, if possible, Nairobi as well, Mozambique, if I can. Ethiopia as well, discovering all these different places in Africa

Can you tell us some of your favourite places in Abuja and Lagos?

Obviously Retro Africa in Abuja! But, you know, there are lots of great other places as well. You know, there’s the Discovery Museum, which is a tech museum that is somewhat new in Abuja. There is Zuma rock, which is a famous rock in the region that has hills and hiking points, as well as a great bicycle path and some restaurants there, which is a bit on the outskirts of the city. There is 4Guys, which is an Afro-fusion, Japanese restaurant, which is pretty cool.

In Lagos, there are so many places. There’s Alara, which I love to visit, with Nok by Alara, the restaurant right next to it. There’s Rele Gallery which is a gallery that I admire, and I respect them enormously. There are lots of amazing restaurants and sights. The beach is wonderful in Lagos too. 

As a woman in business, what advice would you give to other women trying to start their business?

The art world in Nigeria is primarily run by women. One of the pioneers of the art world in Nigeria, Bisi Silva, passed away recently and so many other women in Nigeria run and own the biggest institutions and platforms and are some of the most well known curators in the area. Which is great. And fascinatingly enough, the artists are mainly men. But the business side, the curatorial side, the creative side, the industry side, is primarily run by women. And I happen to be the youngest of them all. I come with young energy! I started my gallery at 21, and I am and have always been the youngest person in the room, which is only a good thing! 

In terms of advice, I say, go for it, you know, definitely go for it. No one should be afraid of their own ambition, and their own drive, because people will look at you with apprehension, but will respect you once you execute. I think there are more roles and opportunities ready to be taken on by women. I love the fact that I was always the youngest person in the room, despite the condescension and times, or the scepticism or the infantilization. It’s always great to be given a challenge, and to watch yourself overcome that year after year, and build something sustainable and lasting, and that is meaningful. I really would encourage more people, more young people and more women in particular, to explore. There will be difficulties along the way, financially and logistically, but aspire for excellence and the opportunities will come to you. 

Art Images Credits to Williams Chechet

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