Tiwani Contemporary’s New Lagos Space Celebrates 10 Years of Championing Art of the African Diaspora
Portrait of Maria Varnava by Pantelis Hadjiminas (P Studio), Courtesy of Maria Varnava and Tiwani Contemporary.
In 2011, London was buzzing with excitement over the opening of Tiwani Contemporary, a gallery dedicated entirely to contemporary African art and art from the African diaspora. Roughly translating from Nigerian Yoruba to “it belongs to us,” the word tiwani signals the space’s ethos of reclamation and self-identification. This phrase is what guides the gallery and has grounded its exhibitions, publications, and research programs.
As part of its 10-year anniversary, in February 2022, Tiwani Contemporary will unveil a new exhibition space in Lagos, Nigeria. This homecoming will be a significant addition to the city’s burgeoning art ecosystem. According to the gallery’s press release, the 2,000-square-foot space will include a library and, eventually, a sculpture garden. The gallery’s founder, Maria Varnava, hopes this new expansion evolves as a place for communing, gathering, and connecting to all members of Nigeria’s society. “I am in the process of building a team in Lagos that’s in conversation with all of the wonderful institutions on the ground to provide real and meaningful ways of bringing a diverse group of people to our space,” she said in a recent call.
Greek Cypriot by heritage, Varnava was raised in Lagos and has lived there since she was a baby. She grew up surrounded by Nigerian modern art, including works by Twins Seven-Seven and Tola Wewe. “These were the beginnings of a lifelong appreciation for art coming out of the country,” she explained. In her teens, she moved to Cyprus and eventually wound up in the U.K. All the while, however, Varnava remained rooted to her home country. “My love affair with Nigeria runs deep,” she said. “It is home in many ways.”
Over the course of the past decade, Tiwani Contemporary has secured its position as a leading global contemporary African art gallery. This was made possible not only by Varnava’s deep love for Nigeria, but also by stellar advisors and supporters of the gallery who have supported its mission from the beginning. Among them are curator and scholar Christine Eyene; the late Bisi Silva, founder of the Centre for Contemporary Art, Lagos; Ayo Adeyinka, director of TAFETA; Eva Langret, artistic director of Frieze London; and Adelaide Bannerman, the gallery’s current curator.
Installation view of “The Tie that Binds Us” at Tiwani Contemporary, 2011. Courtesy of Tiwani Contemporary.
“When I decided to set up Tiwani, Christine Eyene introduced me to the late curator Bisi Silva,” said Varnava. “She encouraged taking this up seriously and long-term, so it always made sense that Tiwani began as a Nigerian-led initiative that would extend across the continent and its diaspora.”
Tiwani Contemporary has become renowned for exhibiting artists before they make it big, like Zina Saro-Wiwa, Simone Leigh, Njideka Akunyili Crosby, Ruby Onyinyechi Amanze, Kapwani Kiwanga, Joy Labinjo, Virginia Chihota, and Michaela Yearwood-Dan. The gallery’s booth at this year’s Art Basel in Miami Beach is a solo presentation of vivid works by Umar Rashid (Frohawk Two Feathers).
Installation view of “Njideka Akunyili & Simone Leigh: I Always Face You, Even When it Seems Otherwise” at Tiwani Contemporary, 2013. Courtesy of the artists and Tiwani Contemporary.
“When I think about the early days of Tiwani, ‘innovation’ is a word that keeps coming to mind,” said Stephanie Baptist, director of Medium Tings and one of Tiwani Contemporary’s first employees. “We carried with us a deep understanding that we would contribute greatly to the discourse around contemporary African art. We were emboldened to take risks with artists and to show the complexities and richness of the art landscape. I still carry many of the same principles the gallery was founded on—ownership, ideation, experimentation—into my current practice.”
Eyene remarked, “Tiwani in my view is the image of Maria—a woman who is a quiet force with a sharp and strong vision. This strength in character has meant that she does not rush or jump at any or every opportunity. I got to know a lot of artists through the gallery and their choices are not what one would typically expect of African arts, suggesting that Tiwani is contributing to shaping aspects of the market, rather than catering to it.”
Around the time of Tiwani’s opening, I was working towards an MA in contemporary art curation. As a British-born Nigerian, I recall how exciting it was to be engaging with emerging and established African artists. The gallery’s inaugural exhibition, “The Tie that Binds Us,” introduced me to some familiar and unfamiliar artists including Mary Evans, Lawson Oyekan, Emeka Ogboh, Adolphus Opara, and Ben Osaghae. I distinctly remember Ogboh’s Lagos Soundscapes (2009) reverberating through my psyche to this day from that exhibition. A collection of audio recordings, the work sonically transported listeners right into the metropolitan pulse of the Nigerian megacity.
Ahead of the opening of Tiwani Contemporary’s Lagos space, Varnava voiced a steadfast determination and eagerness to get to work. “We will take our time to get it right and build a strong local team that is reflective of our values and intentions,” she said. “This will not happen overnight, but we remain undeterred because our commitment is long-term. The gallery will serve as another gateway to West Africa introducing other international artists beyond our roster to Lagos and beyond. We will foster an ethos of collaboration with galleries and artists seeking to show work on the continent.”
She added, “Tiwani Contemporary gallery is for everyone.”