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Adora Mba – On her new art gallery, ADA \ contemporary art gallery, in Accra, Ghana

ADA \ contemporary art gallery is the latest exciting art gallery opening this October in Accra, Ghana. Located in Accra’s residential and commercial hotspot Villagio in Airport Residential Area, the opening couldn’t come at a more exciting time. African art is on the rise and the Director and Founder of ADA, Adora Mba, tells The Sybarite about the importance of raising artists profiles in Ghana, trends in African art and why she is championing female artists in her first year as gallerist. 

On her love for art. 

My dad is an art collector. As a young girl, I always wanted to become an artist, and I loved going to museums and galleries. But, as is quite common in a typical traditional African family, pursuing art as a career was not an option. 

I was a journalist for years – I wrote culture segments for Arise News as their junior producer, and I featured many African culture stories. This was at a time when African art was on the rise in London, African art galleries started popping up in Mayfair. Through my work as a journalist, I had the opportunity to meet some amazing up-and-coming contemporary African artists. I was able to spend more and more time in the art space, meeting gallery owners and artists, interviewing and filming them. I also freelanced for a bit for BBC Africa. 

That’s when I started my blog, The Afropolitan… back when blogs were a thing! This allowed me to collate all the content I had on African artists, as well as information I had from covering African art shows in London. Through Instagram and the blog, a lot of people began asking me about the art market. This is when the blog naturally progressed into a business through which I was buying and selling art. In this way, I became an art dealer, promoting, buying and selling art for family friends and those who had clocked onto my expertise. Thus was born The Afropolitan Collector. 

On why now is the time. 

I was constantly travelling between London, South Africa, Nigeria and Ghana – it became undoable to not be in the actual hub which was the source of the pieces I was selling.  

The presence of Gallery 1957 really changed things in Accra and made everyone slightly more aware that there is a space for artists of a certain level in Ghana, alongside government schemes to boost the art industry. But still, art in Ghana is not seen as an interesting industry to be in – art lessons in schools have been stopped and the university that Amoako Boafo and Serge Attukwei Clottey attended, closed down. I am doing everything I can think of to keep the art market alive, which is why I could not think of a better time than now to open ADA \ contemporary art gallery.

The dream of having a gallery was actually about five years away in my mind, I considered building one myself, as I knew it was in my future but I just did not know when. And things in life always happen by chances coming your way, and at a birthday party I happened to be sat next to someone which then evolved into me getting this beautiful gallery in a fantastic location in Villagio. I am ecstatic about the positioning, I literally could not be happier. 

On why, in West Africa, she chose Accra.

Lagos has a prominent art scene, so there is a lot more competition there. London has quite a saturated art market, and now galleries that never even represented African or black artists, suddenly are, and I was keen to go somewhere where I could have a real impact.  But Ghana was interesting to me – there is a lot of talent in Ghana, but Ghanaian artists tend to leave and take their art to London or the states because there just wasn’t the opportunity for progression within their home country.

Nigerians are the second biggest buyers of African art after South Africans. Ghana will give me the opportunity to be more of a trailblazer, I wanted to be the first to do a lot of things so that I could be a significant part of growing the art market itself. I felt Ghana was also the next art hub – there are so many fantastic artists but not a lot of infrastructure to support them. Our museums aren’t up to par and so much could be done with them. Popular festivals like Chale Wote attract such a big art community, this is the place to be! Besides, Lagos is wayyyy too stressful, I much prefer the pace of life in Accra.

On African Art

My focus and the focus of ADA \ contemporary art gallery, is contemporary art from African descent, so Africa and the Diaspora. African art is finally having its moment – the world has seen that there are some excellent and viable proper artists coming from this continent that are worth investing in. There was a misconception that African art must always be landscapes and tribal things and touristic knick knacks but that there is actually some real work coming from the continent that is doing very well internationally. African art has become an investment piece and is finally being placed in museums more.

Although becoming an artist by profession was previously not seen as a viable profession in Ghana, this has completely changed. This change is one strongly aided by the digital age and thereby artists’ ability to expose themselves by putting their works online without needing formal representation. With what is going on in the world with race tensions, people have reshifted to black artists and art coming from Africa. We don’t have many galleries in Africa that contend on a global scale – at Frieze or Art Basel. But I would like to contend internationally with my HQ in Accra. This is another reason why it is important for me to be so careful in selecting artists who are investment artists and who are creating portfolios, as well as carefully choosing galleries to collaborate with who will aid in increasing the value of my artists’ works. 

On Ghana’s art buyers market

Ghana is late to the game here, as we don’t really have a buyers market, unlike countries like Nigeria, South Africa and even East Africa, where there is a large community of collectors. But there has definitely been a rise in buyers in Ghana. Ghanaian artists are doing very well internationally, so that has opened the eyes of Ghanaian collectors to see and appreciate his fellow country man’s success. It is so lovely to see that where most of my client base was previously foreign, now a lot of my friends in Ghana are asking me about getting a nice piece of art. And I am all about promoting Ghanaian art, so any chance to do  this I grab, even if it involves directing them towards artists I don’t represent. Big corporations and banks are looking for Ghanaian art to acquire for their offices, and I would love to be instrumental in providing this space for African art to be promoted amongst its people. A lot of the younger generation, those who are coming back home to Ghana from the UK and the States, they know how big art is and really appreciate it. Black celebrities have also started to collect art and have helped in making it really trendy to be in the art industry now. I believe Ghana will get there, and the dream is to really grow the local collecting base. 

On her first show at ADA \ contemporary art gallery

I am opening the gallery with a solo show by Collins Obijiaku. I was the first to bring him to market, I initially found him on Instagram and started selling his work to friends. When I first spot new talent, I like to see what people around me think of the work, how he sells to close family and friends. Everyone said he was very special. Portraiture has become a real thing with African artists, the market is ready for it following Amoako Boafo’s success. Collins is a Nigerian young kid, self taught and his work is quite exquisite. I met him in January and since then he has done so well for himself, he has been in three group shows, two of which I put him in, and he has sold works privately to some very big collectors. At the height of the black portraiture craze, he is absolutely the right artist to open my gallery with. 

On trends.

I think the trend of black portraiture will disappear, trends will come and go as they do in all other industries. This trend won’t be long term, although I always hope it will be, but I already sense the swings of change. Which I suppose is nice because it does bring variation. A lot of the big collectors are now looking towards surrealism within portraiture. The popularity of black portraiture will move down from mega collectors, till it simply becomes mainstream. Work from artists like Michael Armitage and Tunji Adeniyi-Jones is a lot more surrealist and their success seems to indicate that this is where the market is shifting

On the effects that Covid has had on her work and the art industry.

The art industry was not as badly affected, in my opinion. We had a couple of quiet months in March and April. Asia had their lockdowns earlier and therefore started recovering earlier, so by early summer my clients from Hong Kong, Korea and China were ready to start buying again. In general, everyone was either selling and auction houses were selling privately, or there were many new buyers. This is when Amoako Boafo’s work really shot up due to the private auctions and sales. I also think people finally had the time, being stuck at home, to do a bit more research into the art market and what they would like to buy and spend their money on. Even though many galleries in London and New York sadly had to shut down, in Africa the art market was absolutely booming. 

On the subjects of African art changing.

African art, like most art, will follow trends. I believe this has both a positive and negative effect. The positive is that the artists now feel that they really have the chance to explore art, whereas African artists were previously led a certain way, as that was the only way they thought they could be successful. Freedom of expression in art is encouraged now. Also, seeing African artists thriving, making money from their talent, has allowed them to feel they can explore a bit more. However, the negative, and my biggest problem with the market, is that artists copy each other. The reason why black portraiture is so big is because Amoako did well and then everyone started copying him. So if you look at African art right now, it will drive you mad, it is literally all portraiture. Similarly, El Anatsui became popular by building and draping things, so everybody copied his style. So with this new found freedom, I encourage artists to create what you enjoy, what you excel in, and not feel that you must copy what others are doing. I try to get my artists to be very unique, and I feel that I do have very unique artists. I also try to look for artists and not painters. I think a painter is looking for sales and his moment of fame, they don’t see long term. A true artist is trying to tell you a story or archive time and it is a very personal thing for them. So I try to find just artists, someone that really loves and cherishes what they do.

On championing female artists.

In Ghana, there are hardly any female artists. It is not encouraged amongst women, even if they did study art at KNUST. It is encouraged amongst the men, but in typical traditional Ghana style, the women are encouraged to have children and become a wife. 

Right now I represent 4 girls and 4 guys, but I am definitely going to be championing and searching for more female artists – mainly because females are not as well represented, not just in Africa but even in the international art market. At the moment, I am finding more female artists in the States, where it seems African American women are encouraged to follow this path more. There are of course absolutely break out stars like Efua Sutherland and Zohra Opoku. I will keep looking for Ghanaian female artists, but at the moment I am finding more in Nigeria and Uganda. They will all come over for solo exhibitions which I am really looking forward to, so they can all experience Ghana. The girls are basically taking over from next year, watch this space! I feel like female artists are a lot braver – they are like this is my style, my aesthetic and I am not changing it for anyone. 

On her residency program.

I really want all my artists to experience Ghana even if they aren’t from here. I am therefore hoping to set up a residency next year – I have a family member who has a really cool, kooky, old, colonial mansion in East Legon. The idea is to have multiple artists in residence there at the same time, which they can use as a base and then travel to Tamale to see Ibrahim and see more of Ghana. The hope is to do a big group show at the beginning of September when art season begins. What I love is that absolutely everyone says yes to coming to Ghana for a residency, as after the Year of Return program we had last year, Ghana is so popular and everyone wants to come see it. It would be amazing to get quite an established artist from abroad and pair them with some younger less established artists in Ghana, so there can be cross cultural learning from each other. 

On where she sees herself in 5-10 years time.

I want to open in more locations. I would love to open next in London, then in Nigeria, then in Paris and New York. I would like to become a big gallery, so that I can make the artists’ dreams come true in partnering with the big guys, which will both raise my credit as a great eye for early talent but it will also raise the artists profile. And it is so important to me to raise the bar and promote the names of my artists. The big, big, BIG dream is to open a modern museum in Accra that will have all important Ghanaian works, not just the household names but also artifacts – a beautiful museum with a cafe and a water feature where schools come for field trips.

ADA \ contemporary art gallery opens on the 15th of October at Villagio Alto in Accra, Ghana. The gallery will be opening with Nigerian artist Collins Obijiaku with his solo exhibition named “Gidin Mangoro: Under the Mango Tree”.

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