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This Lawyer Champions Contemporary African Art
We speak to the founder of House of African Art
Career 31 Oct 2019

As if being a lawyer weren’t enough, Maryam Lawal decided to add another layer to her career by founding House of African Art (HAART). The platform is a pop-up space dedicated to showcasing artists from Africa and the African diaspora in London. Founded in 2018, HAART provides support and recognition to established and early-career artists, while creating an exciting art environment through exhibitions, performances, talks and events. We spoke to the woman championing contemporary African Art, to learn a little more about the artistic strand to her career.

Maryam Lawal at Seeing Sounds. Image courtesy of HAART

Maryam Lawal at Seeing Sounds. Image courtesy of HAART

Did you experience a lot of competitiveness when breaking into the art world?
I haven’t really viewed it like that to be honest. There are certainly other players in the market with a focus on contemporary art from Africa, however the type of artists that they work with varies and some cover Africa as well as other regions, so in a way I think that each enterprise is unique. I’ve also sought to be very clear about why I believe that HAART is different to what is currently on offer in the art world. At the moment at HAART, we are working hard to try and tackle outdated perceptions, which exist in the general public’s mind about the work which artists of African origin are producing by showcasing work that is truly innovative and bold, and which pushes the boundaries. Further, HAART aims to create a more welcoming, inclusive environment in the visual arts, which I don’t believe is always the case when you enter traditional art galleries. So for these reasons and more, I don’t really think of the other players as competitors as what we are trying to create and achieve at HAART is something unique.
Did you always want to work in the art world and why?
Art has played a role in my life from a very young age. As a child and throughout school and secondary school, I used to make a lot of artwork myself and I studied art until I was around 15/16 years old for GCSE’s. However my professional career took a different turn and so I kept up with the arts over the years by frequently going to art galleries, exhibitions and art fairs, whether that’s here in London, or in New York (where I lived for a period of time) or in Nigeria, where I am originally from. The impetus for making the decision to actually work in the art world was driven by a number of factors: the breadth of the talent and the work which I was seeing out in Nigeria and Ghana; a growing desire to tackle outdated or limited perceptions of what artists of African origin are producing and also to create a platform which aims to create a more welcoming, inclusive environment in the visual arts. So I would say that my desire to work in the art world grew with time, as a result of a number of different factors and situations I’ve experienced over the years.
Do you feel the art world is undergoing lots of changes these days?
Yes I think so. When I read art market reports it’s clear that the large, established galleries continue to do well and show strong growth whilst a lot of small and medium sized galleries are struggling financially and some are having to close down as a result. It’s also interesting to see more and more market activity taking place online and even through social media. I think that the growth of the online art market and the increased willingness for collectors (both old and new) to buy works through online channels will continue to have a big impact on the shape of the market in future. As a gallerist which promotes and sells artwork through online channels and pop-up shows rather than through a permanent physical space for the time being, I support the direction that the market is moving into and recognise the increased importance of generating trust and transparency to meet the needs of buyers.
Portrait of Maryam Lawal. Image courtesy of Luke Walker and HAART
Did you have any mentors?
Not specific individuals. I draw my inspiration and guidance from a number of different sources and people: from members of my family to books to random comments which people say which have stuck with me over the years.

Best career advice you received?
My father once told me that there’s a difference between working hard and working smart. To me, working hard means working long, intense hours without necessarily having a clear idea of what you’re working towards or how all that hard work that you’re doing fits in with your overall plans in life. On the other hand working smart is about having a clear plan or direction and working towards that in a structured, healthy way. Having spent years of my life working hard, I am now finally focused on working smart.

Your words of wisdom for young women?
I think that fear can hold people back from achieving their full potential. Fear of failure, fear of judgment, fear of the unknown and so on. However I really do believe that limiting thoughts limit people. So my advice – which applies to both young women and young men – would be to recognise limiting thoughts when you have them and completely let them go!
Artist(s) we should have on our watch list is/are…
There are so many talented artists making inspiring, thought provoking work at the moment, so it’s hard to name just a few. On my current list of favourites (probably inspired by a few great shows that they currently have on in London), include Bridget Riley and Lina Iris Viktor.
Text Lizzy Vartanian

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