Kavita Chellaram: the story of an art collector from three cities
“Yes, it’s still a fight!” says Kavita Chellaram, an Indian-born, British-educated collector, when I ask her how she balances the three aspects of her life: collecting, selling and auctioning works by Nigerian and West African artists. “When you have an auction house, you have to have works to sell. So I had to make sometimes difficult choices when I was offered really significant works!
Chellaram speaks from his London home, which is full of art that reflects his triple heritage: India, the United Kingdom and Nigeria. Her family, and that of her husband Suresh, were originally from Sindh province in Pakistan, but moved to Mumbai after partition. “They were refugees; my grandfather had to leave everything behind and moved to Mumbai, Maharashtra. But we were among the lucky few, as both families had business ventures overseas,” she explains.
Collecting art was also in their blood, and Chellaram grew up surrounded by Indian painting – she mentions MF Husain, sometimes dubbed “the Picasso of India” – as well as Gandhara sculpture and European art (“like everyone was doing it back then, paintings with elaborate gold frames…” she notes with a smile).
Educated in the UK from the age of 10, Chellaram married young and immediately moved to Lagos, where her husband’s business is based. Thus began his love affair with the country, its art and its artists.
“When we moved to Lagos, we built a house with lots of blind walls. Initially, we filled it with contemporary Indian art, but then we rolled it all up, sent it home to Mumbai and decided to start collecting Nigerian art,” she says. “At the time, there was hardly any market, no galleries, few places where artists could exhibit – they just came to sell from their cars. I was lucky enough to be able to buy magnificent pieces .
The first works she purchased were from Twins Seven Seven and Jimoh Buraimoh, both from the famed Oshogbo School, a series of workshops started by artist and teacher Georgina Beier.
“My aesthetic feelings changed – what I saw was quite incredible, but this art had absolutely no visibility, when Indian art was already known and had a market”, she says, “And then a friend said that I should introduce African art to the world,” she continues. “I became fascinated with the modernists, especially Ben Enwonwu and members of the Zaria school, who produced artists making modern art but who also carried on their own indigenous artistic traditions, including Yusuf Grillo, Uche Okeke, Simon Okeke, Bruce Onobrakpeya, Demas Nwoko, Jimo Akolo, Oseloka Osadebe and Emmanuel Odita.
“Through their work, I was able to visualize Africa, the colors, the features of African women, the scenes in Nigeria. You will learn more about the traditions of the tribes, their fables and proverbs, the meaning of everything they say and do. Living in Lagos made me realize what Africa had to offer.
A personal friend of Chellaram’s is the Ghanaian sculptor El Anatsui, and hanging in his London home is one of his spectacular ‘tapestries’, titled ‘Yet Mankind Sink’, made from metal bottle caps, in shimmering reds and golds, from 2010 Another earlier work by Anatsui, made from burnt and woven wood, hangs around the corner.
Reflecting Chellaram’s multiculturalism, its living room is dominated by a large, soft-toned abstract work by Indian artist, Paris Viswanathan. It also has sculptures by Nigerian-born British artist Sokari Douglas Camp and Enwonwu, as well as two paintings by Enwonwu, including a portrait of a dancer, Agbogho Mmuo (1977). Chellaram explains that her Lagos home only has West African artists and she has mainly Indian art in Mumbai.
The decision to set up his own auction house, ArtHouse, in Lagos in 2007 was made in part because, according to Chellaram, “the problem in Nigeria was the lack of curators, restorers, people to write about the art It was so hard to access information, to learn about art there.
“At first we were ahead of the game, then Bonhams came along, and for years we were on par with them. Sotheby’s then came along, but after the naira devaluation in 2018-19, people preferred sell in sterling. Last year we held three auctions, two of which were online due to the pandemic. This year we will be holding two more auctions online,” she says.
Then, last August, Chellaram also founded a gallery in Lagos which she named Kó, mainly devoted to the modernist artists she loves.
Hardly the best time to launch a commercial gallery. “It was difficult,” she admits. “We were to hold our first exhibition at Frieze Masters, featuring Ben Enwonwu, the first time an African master was going to be there.” She grimaces. “Everything had to be online, and it’s just not the same thing. You can’t connect with customers, the artist isn’t there. . . nevertheless, I was surprised by the feedback we received, from all over the world.
Chellaram has been on the Tate Modern’s African Art Acquisitions Committee since 2011, having also served as a trustee of the Prince’s Foundation School of Traditional Arts. “The Tate has really been at the forefront of the art collection of the [African] continent,” she said.
We’re talking about the currently skyrocketing prices for artists of color, not necessarily from Africa – Tschabalala Self, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Amoako Boafo, Njideka Akunyili Crosby, among others. “There is no doubt that the exposure of life abroad facilitates the capture by a Western gallery,” she says. “With Boafo, there was also the Dior collaboration. The African continent is difficult to access and access, and there is inevitably a price disparity: that is why we try to promote artists from the continent, we want to have them comparable to those who live abroad. And selling in Nigeria, often when you have a price increase, you have a devaluation, and we were fighting that as well.
The Chellarams have two adult children, both based in Lagos and both collectors. “They grew up surrounded by art. I started the art space with my daughter, and they’re both involved. So I know they will continue with the legacy,” she says. In the meantime, she is waiting for a good time to return home to Lagos: “I love Africa, I love its madness, its dynamism and yet at the same time there is a serenity among the people. They have patience.