Lagos’s Rele Gallery will soon have spaces across three continents, with a new outpost opening in London next month, it has announced. “People always asked me why Los Angeles and not London?” says gallery owner Adenrele Sonariwo who opened her outpost in Los Angeles in 2021. “Even then, we were already looking at London... it was just a matter of timing.”
So far, the gallery—which celebrates its tenth anniversary next year—has based its decision to expand on finding just the right space or location, Sonariwo says. This was the case for the recent move (on 18 January) from the gallery’s smaller Los Angeles location on Melrose Avenue to its new 3,500 sq ft space on N Western Avenue—a newly anointed gallery district in part popularised by mega-dealer David Zwirner. And there were also similar considerations at play in Lagos when, in 2022, the gallery moved from Onikan—a cultural hub home to museums and institutions—to Ikoyi, where many of the city’s commercial galleries are based.
It is not surprising, then, that Rele’s outpost in the city will be in Mayfair, an area marked by its concentration of flagship galleries. The district has also been welcoming an increasing number of smaller galleries, which consider the footfall Mayfair provides to outweigh the high costs of rent. The new space, opening on 22 February on the popular Dover Street, will span approximately 3,000 sq ft over two floors. Alessandra Olivi—a former director at Gallery 1957, further in the west of the capital—has been selected to head up the space.
London has a special resonance for Sonariwo, who has familial ties with the city, like many other people in Nigeria (the UK capital is thought to have the largest diasporic Nigerian population in the world). The UK capital is also important for the contemporary African art trade, with many contemporary African art galleries—for example, Tiwani Contemporary, Ed Cross, Jack Bell, Gallery 1957—established there. The 1-54 Contemporary African fair, meanwhile, which attracts a local collector based of engaged African art buyers, has seen a steady rise in the number of galleries from around the globe attending its London edition, attempting to tap into this pool. Nigerian artists in particular were at the fore at last year's edition.
Sonariwo also says she is undeterred by Brexit: “people are saying if you want to do something in Europe, you should go to Paris but I've never felt that connection to it.”
As someone who has been "involved in the contemporary African art landscape in London for several years", Olivi says she believes “[London] is one of the most vibrant scenes internationally, thanks to the presence of a growing number of dedicated galleries and of course 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair." She adds, "I'm excited to see what contribution Rele can make to this thriving scene."
Indeed, Rele already has a strong engagement with London's collector base, Sonariwo says (although the gallery has not exhibited or show in fairs there). Now, by opening a physical space, she says, she can give collectors a chance to engage with an artist’s work more directly. The success of this approach has been made evident with previous moves: since opening its US space, for example, the gallery can ascribe about 50% of its direct sales to Lagos and 50% to Los Angeles—meaning the US space has effectively doubled the gallery's total sales.
Rele currently represent eight artists, although they are in talks with five others, Sonariwo says. The central strategy is to “present artists in a market they have never really been exposed to at such a large scale“, she adds. The first show in Mayfair will be an exhibition of new works by Peju Alatise, who Sonariwo describes as being “unofficially represented” by Rele and who the gallerist has worked with in other capacities including when curating Alatise’s presentation at the 57th Venice Biennale in 2017. In April, artist Marcellina Akpojotor, who is fully represented by the gallery, will also have a solo show.
While many of Rele's artists are based in Africa, Sonariwo says she is looking forward to putting on shows where artists living on the continent and the diaspora are in conversation with each other. For example, the next show in the US space will show work by artists from Korea, Kenya and Nigeria, and Sonariwo has similar plans for London. “What does it mean to be an African artist working in the UK and what does it mean to be an African artist working in Africa?” she asks.
In addition, since last year, the gallery has been in conversation with “artists based in the UK who are looking to connect back to the [African] continent” Sonariwo says. ”Whether we show them in London or we show them back in Lagos, it's a good opportunity for us to work with them and bridge the gap.”