Gallery 1957 Heralds a New Era for West African Artists on Their Own Terms

Charlotte Jansen
Dec 15, 2020 8:39PM

Kwesi Botchway, installation view of “Becoming as well as Being,” 2020, at Gallery 1957, London. Courtesy of the artist and Gallery 1957.

How do you segue from a career managing a champion boxer to running a successful art gallery? Until a few years ago, Marwan Zakhem, the founder of Gallery 1957—located in Accra and now London—was part of British-Ghanaian WBO Junior Featherweight champion Isaac Dogboe’s team.

“I may have led a less conventional path here, but I have always had a passion for art,” Zakhem explained in a recent interview. In an art world still guarded by gatekeepers, he has managed to forge his own path for representing emerging West African artists both in Ghana and abroad.

Joana Choumali
Dream Leftovers, 2019
Gallery 1957

Born in Beirut, Zakhem, who owns a construction company, first moved to Dakar two decades ago. It was around that time that he began investing in art, though it was only later that he began to build a collection; most of his early purchases were for as little as $30 and were given away as gifts. In 2003, Zakhem moved to Accra, a place he now considers home. Ghana remains at the center of Gallery 1957, which he founded in 2016. The first exhibition opened on Ghanaian Independence Day, March 6th, and 1957 is the year the country became an independent nation.

Gallery 1957 was initially intended to house Zakhem’s collection and make it available to the public. However, through conversations over the years, “the feedback I kept getting from artists is that there needed to be more of a market infrastructure,” Zakhem recalled. Though he observed talent thriving across Ghana and especially in Accra, there were few platforms to support the scene commercially, which meant artists needed to go elsewhere to sustain themselves. “If art collecting locally could grow,” he said, “then artists could live and flourish in their careers here, rather than being represented elsewhere.”

Serge Attukwei Clottey and GoLokal, performance at Chale Wote, 2016. Photo by Ofoe Amegavie. Courtesy of the artists and Gallery 1957.

Ultimately, a visit to artist Serge Attukwei Clottey’s studio cemented the idea of Gallery 1957. “Serge’s work completely opened my eyes to what contemporary art really meant,” Zakhem recalled. “His innovative use of material, the sociopolitical messaging, it just really struck a chord with me. It was then that I decided that I wanted to open the gallery, and that it would be this cutting-edge contemporary scene in Ghana that the gallery would champion.”

On opening night in March 2016, Clottey and his performance collective GoLokal led an audience from his township, Labadi, to the gallery, situated within the five-star Kempinski Hotel Gold Coast City complex. With each member of the group dressed in their mother’s clothing, the emotive performance work was intended to explore “gender and the value of material as a tangible experience of loss, but it also offered a process of invitation into the gallery space,” Zakhem said. “We wanted local audiences to know the gallery doors were open to all, with Serge leading the way.” It set the stage for Gallery 1957’s future: to be driven by artists and their ideas, and to be dedicated to telling their histories and heritage on their own terms.

Gallery 1957 has since exhibited a pioneering group of Ghanaian artists working in various media, among them Jeremiah Quarshie, Gideon Appah, Florine Demosthene, Yaw Owusu, and Zohra Opoku. It’s these artists that have earned the gallery a reputation as tastemakers in a relatively short time: Next year marks its fifth anniversary, and it’s already expanded into two spaces in Accra as well as an outpost in London, which was inaugurated in October with an exhibition by the rising young Accra-born figurative painter Kwesi Botchway. The gallery also runs a residency program, which recently hosted Botchway; in 2019, it hosted Amoako Boafo.

Accra has also become known in recent years as a place where new models for presenting and “consuming” art might prosper and steer away from Western capitalism and the white cube, such as Nana Oforiatta Ayim’s movable museums. “From the beginning, we’ve always been focused on building appreciation for collecting from local audiences, which at the start was quite a nascent collector base,” Zakhem asserted. Some of the gallery’s decisions have been emphatic in their aim for inclusivity—such as opening its first space in a hotel, arguably a little more accessible than a white cube, and jettisoning elitist terms like “private view” in favor of “opening party.”

Gideon Appah, Day, 2017. Courtesy of the artist and Gallery 1957.

Ideas for how to present the works have often come from audience responses, and of course, from the artists: Modupeola Fadugba built a swimming pool for her exhibition in 2018 and Gideon Appah reconstructed an immersive set for 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair in New York in 2018, far from the traditional fair booth. “By keeping these decisions artistic-centric, we can work in the most authentic way to their voice as possible,” Zakhem said.

At the same time, Zakhem is quick to note the importance of a strong commercial infrastructure for art in the context of Africa, where it has been absent and exploited by the West: “We are passionate about our work beyond the commercial realm, yes, but it is also important to highlight that the commercial gallery model here has offered our artists an opportunity to build robust international careers from their work, without needing to leave Ghana—a deep source of inspiration to many,” he said.

Zakhem sees this commercial model as part of a larger ecosystem in Africa that includes art fairs such as Art X Lagos and 1-54 Marrakech. It is these market-oriented events that can allow nonprofits and educational institutions across the continent to flourish, such as Ibrahim Mahama’s Savannah Centre for Contemporary Art, Kehinde Wiley’s Black Rock Senegal, or Yinka Shonibare CBE’s G.A.S. Foundation in Lagos (due to open next year).

Raphael Adjetey Mayne
Saturday Visit, 2019
Gallery 1957

Yet the market appetite for West African artists in the West right now is undeniably voracious—and the younger generation in particular is in the spotlight. Is there a danger that Gallery 1957 is preparing lambs for the slaughter? “Trends come and go, but if we keep an ear to our artists and their wants and needs, then we are remaining true to our guiding interests,” Zakhem said. “Because of this interest, I do worry about artists being bought into the market too quickly, before they’ve really found their feet and had the ability to learn from their mistakes.”

“I have a deep conviction that artists—particularly younger artists—need time to develop without the pressure that the market can place them under,” Zakhem continued. “We try to focus on following our artists’ vision and avoid following art market demands. We allow our artists to tell us the curators, writers, and collaborators they are interested in working with, and we start from there. We’ve seen that working beyond the established ‘art market’ can be hugely fruitful, so we’re comfortable in our own lane. We want to make sure that whoever we work with, we are bringing them to the market when they are ready, and we’re willing to invest in that early stage as much as necessary.”

Modupeola Fadugba, installation view of “Dreams from the Deep End,” 2018, at Gallery 1957, Accra. © Modupeola Fadugba. Photo by Nii Odzenm. Courtesy of the artists and Gallery 1957.

Zakhem noted that the increased attention on both an institutional and market level in the West is long overdue and welcomed. And though the gallery has now expanded to a townhouse on the corner of Hyde Park in London, he insists it remains focused on the original aim to support Ghana’s art scene. “It’s been exciting and hugely rewarding watching both artists and collectors from West Africa, and beyond, affirm the importance of the art landscape here,” he added.

He continued, “In many ways, our vision is fixed: Our artists and local audiences remain at the core of everything we do, and we continue to celebrate new generations of artists here and across West Africa.”

Charlotte Jansen