“Yes, it is always a tussle!” says the Indian-born, British-educated collector Kavita Chellaram, when I ask her how she reconciles the three aspects of her life: collecting, selling and auctioning art by Nigerian and west African artists. “When you have an auction house, you have to have works to sell. So, I had to make difficult choices sometimes, when I was offered some really significant works!”
Chellaram is speaking from her London home, which is filled with the art that reflects her triple heritage: India, the UK and Nigeria. Her family, and that of her husband Suresh, were originally from Sindh province in Pakistan, but moved to Mumbai after the partition. “They were refugees; my grandfather had to leave everything behind and moved to Mumbai, Maharashtra. But we were among the fortunate few, as both families had trading businesses abroad,” she explains.
Art collecting was also in their blood, and Chellaram grew up surrounded by Indian painting — she mentions M.F. Husain, sometimes dubbed “the Picasso of India” — as well as Gandhara sculptures and European art (“as everyone did in those days, paintings with elaborate gilt frames . . . ” she notes with a smile).
Educated in the UK from the age of 10, Chellaram married young and immediately moved to Lagos, where her husband’s company is based. And so started her love affair with the country, its art and artists.
“When we moved to Lagos we built a house with a lot of blank walls. Initially we filled it with contemporary Indian art, but then we rolled everything up, shipped it back to our home in Mumbai and decided to start collecting Nigerian art,” she says. “At the time there was virtually no market, no galleries, few places for artists to exhibit — they would just come and sell from their cars. I was lucky to be able to buy some wonderful pieces.”
The first works she bought were by Twins Seven Seven and Jimoh Buraimoh, both from the famed Oshogbo school, a series of workshops started by artist and teacher Georgina Beier.
“My aesthetic feelings changed — what I saw was quite incredible, but this art had absolutely no exposure, whereas Indian art was already known and had a market,” she says, “And then a friend said I should showcase African art to the world,” she continues. “I became fascinated by the modernists, especially Ben Enwonwu and members of the Zaria school, which produced artists making modern art but that also continued their own indigenous art traditions, including Yusuf Grillo, Uche Okeke, Simon Okeke, Bruce Onobrakpeya, Demas Nwoko, Jimo Akolo, Oseloka Osadebe, and Emmanuel Odita.”
“Through their work I could visualise Africa, the colours, the features of African women, the scenes in Nigeria. You learn about traditions of the tribes, their fables and proverbs, the meaning behind everything they say and do. Living in Lagos made me aware of what Africa had to offer.”
A personal friend of Chellaram is the Ghanaian sculptor El Anatsui, and hanging in her London home is one of his spectacular “tapestries”, entitled “Yet humanity flows on”, made from metal bottle tops, in glittering reds and golds, dating from 2010. Another earlier work by Anatsui, made from burnt and woven wood, hangs around the corner.
Reflecting Chellaram’s multiculturalism, her sitting room is dominated by a large abstract work in soft tones by an Indian artist, Paris Viswanathan. It also has sculptures by the Nigerian-born British artist Sokari Douglas Camp and Enwonwu, as well as two of Enwonwu’s paintings, including a portrait of a dancer, Agbogho Mmuo (1977). Chellaram explains that her Lagos home has only west African artists, and she has mainly Indian art in Mumbai.
The decision to start her own auction house, ArtHouse, in Lagos in 2007 came about partly because, Chellaram says, “The problem in Nigeria was the lack of curators, restorers, people to write about the art. It was so difficult to access information, to learn about the art there.
“At first we were ahead of the game, then Bonhams came in, and for years we were on par with them. Sotheby’s then came along, but after the naira devaluation in 2018-19 people preferred to sell in pounds sterling. Last year we held three auctions, two of which were held online due to the pandemic. This year, we will organise two more auctions online,” she says.
Then, last August, Chellaram also founded a gallery in Lagos that she dubbed Kó, mainly devoted to the modernist artists she loves.
Hardly the best time to launch a commercial gallery. “It was challenging,” she admits. “We were due to hold our first exhibition at Frieze Masters, showcasing Ben Enwonwu, the first time an African master was going to be there.” She winces. “It all had to be online, and it’s just not the same. You can’t connect with clients, the artist isn’t there . . . nevertheless, I have been surprised by the feedback we are getting, from all over the world.”
Chellaram has been on the African art acquisition committee of Tate Modern since 2011, having previously also served as a trustee of the Prince’s Foundation School of Traditional Arts. “Tate really has been at the forefront of collecting art from the [African] continent,” she says.
We talk about the currently soaring prices for artists of colour, not necessarily from Africa — Tschabalala Self, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Amoako Boafo, Njideka Akunyili Crosby, among others. “There is little doubt that the exposure of living abroad makes it easier to be picked up by a western gallery,” she says. “With Boafo there was the Dior collaboration as well. The African continent is difficult to reach and access, and there is definitely a disparity in prices: that’s why we are trying to promote artists from the continent, we want to get them comparable to those who live abroad. And selling in Nigeria, often the moment you got a rise in prices you got a devaluation, and we were also battling that.”
The Chellarams have two grown children, both based in Lagos and both collectors. “They grew up surrounded with art. I started the art space with my daughter, and they are both involved. So I know that they will continue with the legacy,” she says. In the meantime, she is waiting for a good moment to return to her Lagos home: “I do love Africa, I love its madness, its vibrancy and yet at the same time there is a calmness about people. They have patience.”