I enjoyed the inaugural conference of the Association of Women in the Arts (Awita). The theme was vague but intriguing: Build Your Own Art World. The venue was central: Phillips London, near Bond Street. The goodie bags were amazing: complimentary products from Dr Barbara Sturm (!). An entire day spent with women who were passionate about art. What was not to love?
I did love it, but I also noticed that the first three speakers were white and blonde. When a brunette took to the stage, I heaved a sigh of relief. Finally, a win for diversity.
The narrative was that women working in the arts could burst through barriers, smash through ceilings, and build their own art world. The women featured were major players in global auction houses and international art fairs. They were top curators and senior gallerists and most of them were white.
I was inspired by their stories. They worked hard to reach their senior positions but where were their equally hardworking Black and Brown female counterparts? How come they hadn’t risen to the top of art world institutions?
A few were represented at the conference. Touria El Glaoui spoke about founding the 1-54 art fair and bringing African art to an international audience. Charlene Prempeh, the founder of A Vibe Called Tech, spoke about the need for sustained efforts in making the art world more diverse.
Also on the roster, was a brilliant conversation between the artist, writer and curator Everlyn Nicodemus and the journalist Farah Nayeri. Incidentally, Nicodemus is the first black female artist to be included in the National Portrait Gallery’s collection. As I joined the applause for this feat, I wondered if it would take another 167 years to get the next Black female artist in.
One of my favourite speakers was Sarah Munro, the irector of the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art. She championed another aspect of diversity that is also overlooked in the art world: diversity of class. Art is for everyone, not just the rich.
I enjoyed the Awita conference, but the experiences of Black and Brown women often felt on the periphery. I wanted to hear from gallerists like Oyinkansola Dada of Dada, Sadie Sherman of Tafeta Gallery and Ipshita Sen of Indigo + Madder. I wanted to hear from independent curators like Bolanle Tajudeen and Lisa Anderson. How were they navigating the art world and finding success? Sadly, the strategies that work for white women may not work for women that look like me.
A few days after the Awita conference, I attended the opening of Lagos Peckham Repeat at the South London Gallery (until 29 October). If my experience felt on the periphery at Awita, at the South London Gallery, I felt centred. On approaching the building, Emeka Ogboh’s Lagos Soundscapes (2023), played into the street, filling my ears with the hustle and bustle of my birth city. I was home.
Although it had taken me quite a journey to get there. I crossed London first by bus, then tube, then a final bus to get to the South London Gallery. Now obviously, an exhibition called Lagos, Peckham, Repeat, can only be held in Peckham. Peckham, where the South London Gallery is based, is a long-established hub for the Nigerian diaspora in the UK. If I wasn’t attending a chi-chi art event, I might have hopped off my bus and bought some plantain.
Yet, I find that events that centre the Black experience, often require a bit of travel. You’re not going to wander into them in a central London space. Or if you do, it’s a once in a year event. Miss it, and you’ll have to wait another year or two or five.
Travel gripes aside, the exhibition was worth the journey. Victor Ehikhamenor’s installation, Cathedral of the Mind (2023) was a monumental reflection on spirituality in Nigeria. Viewed one way, the rosary beads bring to mind Christian religious practices. Viewed from the other direction, a row of wooden ibeji statuettes stand guard. It is a visual representation of syncretism and the ways in which traditional religious practices and Christianity mingle in some Nigerian households.
Temitayo Shonibare’s film, I’d rather not go blind (2023), is subversive, surreal and humorous. In the performance, Shonibare sits on the overground train line between Dalston Junction and Peckham Rye, with a strawberry blonde wig obscuring her face. Anyone who has ever adjusted their wig on public transport (guilty), will crack a smile.
Seyi Adelekun’s, Àdìrẹ Wata (2023), also deserves mention. I’m always inspired by artists who transform the detritus of modern life into work that is beautiful. Recycled clear plastic bottles hang suspended from the ceiling. In some bottles, water, indigo pigment and natural dye have been poured and allowed to settle to the bottom. Looking at the installation from below, you are reminded of the tranquillity of the ocean but also the man-made plastic that is choking it.
In one week, I attended two very different art events in two very different parts of London. It’s early days for Awita. This was their first conference and perhaps next year’s roster will look different. This summer they hosted a cocktail to celebrate the Black Venus exhibition at Somerset House (until 24 September), curated by Aindrea Emelife , who is also curating the Nigerian pavilion at Venice 2024.
Nevertheless, Awita’s premise has some truth to it. Maybe I just have to build my own art world instead of waiting for someone to include me in their own. My art world may not be in central London and the champagne may not be freely flowing. It may take me over an hour to get there, but it will be worth the journey.