To mark the 10th anniversary of its founding, London’s Tiwani Contemporary, which has established itself as one of the most influential enterprises showcasing the work of African and African diaspora artists, will open a new location in Lagos, Nigeria, in February 2022.
Tiwani’s Lagos expansion will open in a custom-built 2,000-square-foot space on the city’s Victoria Island, near galleries like Art Twenty One and SMO Contemporary Art. The 2019 edition of the Art X Lagos fair was also staged on the island. Lagos itself is also picking up steam as the cultural capital of Nigeria, with an artist residency, Guest Artists Space Foundation, created by British-Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare, set to launch there later this year.
In an interview, the gallery’s founder and owner, Maria Varnava, said she had always planned to open a space in Nigeria. For Varnava, Nigeria and Lagos hold personal significance, as her Greek Cypriot family migrated to Lagos from Cyprus in 1974, the year of the Turkish invasion of the island.
“From a very young age, I was exposed to the visual language of West Africa, and Nigeria specifically,” Varnava said. “My commitment and vision begins and ends on the African continent—from the artists I want to champion to the audiences I want to cater to, to the collectors I want to nurture.”
Varnava moved to the U.K. in the late ’90s for her university education and eventually worked in business development at Christie’s in the mid-2000s. While doing a master’s thesis in African studies with an emphasis on contemporary African artists at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University London, Varnava began setting up Tiwani, whose name translates from the Yoruba to “it belongs to us” or “it’s ours.” She was spurred to launch the gallery by her friend and mentor, the late curator Bisi Silva, who founded the Center for Contemporary Art, Lagos in 2007.
“Doing the rounds at galleries in London or monitoring the auctions, it was apparent to me that there was a disparity between thinking about the global nature of the arts and African artists’ and diasporic artists’ inclusion in this dialogue,” she said. “That’s why I felt it was important to launch a gallery focusing specifically on African art. I felt that we had to be bold, taking a risk, and making a statement in central London.” Varnava added: “If I’m working with artists in Africa and the diaspora, then I need to have a base there.”
Over the past decade, Tiwani Contemporary has hosted various important exhibitions, including a two-person show of Njideka Akunyili Crosby and Simone Leigh in 2013, as well as solo exhibitions for Rotimi Fani-Kayode, ruby onyinyechi amanze, Dawit L. Petros, Mimi Cherono Ng’ok, Zina Saro-Wiwa, and Joy Labinjo, all of whom have since developed larger followings. Among the 18 artists it currently represents are Mary Evans, Theo Eshetu, Umar Rashid (Frohawk Two Feathers), Alicia Henry, and Andrew Esiebo.
Although supporting her artists remains one of Varnava’s main focuses, the dealer also said she plans to prioritize the community. One such initiative will involve asking international artists to show their work in Nigeria, with the hope of reaching students from local universities, who “might only encounter [this art] in a publication or online,” she said, adding, “This is not new for us, but part of the vision, the strategy, and the dream.”