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Meet Dolly Kola-Balogun, The Powerhouse Behind Retro Africa
The woman at the forefront of the Nigerian art scene
Fempire 13 Apr 2021

Founder and creative director of Retro Africa, a gallery in Abuja, Nigeria, Dolly Kola-Balogun is also a hotelier and a champion of artists from across Africa. Working with those at the forefront of art across the continent, Dolly is working as a consultant for the Kwara State government too, helping to create a new contemporary art institution that will open at the end of this year and which is set to be on par with Zeitz MOCAA. Passionate about promoting art from across Africa, Dolly is working to bridge the curatorial divide between Anglophone and Francophone West Africa and has worked on exhibitions that took place at Documenta 14 in Kassel and Germany, and is present at fairs internationally. We spoke to Dolly about founding her gallery, art as a cultural investment and the artists we should have on our radar.

Dolly Kola-Balogun

When did you first know you wanted to have a career in the art world?

My first foray into the art world was in early 2015, while I was still living in London and in my final year at King’s College. I had a series of discussions with someone I considered a mentor of sorts, the late Bisi Silva (the former Director and Founder of CCA Lagos), as well as my cousin Oyinda and good friend Abdullahi Umar, who at one point was my partner during our early years as a pop-up gallery. 1-54 Art Fair, still nascent, was held at Somerset House, adjacent to my college campus, and was featuring some of the best in contemporary art that Africa had to offer. This intrigued me and I fell in love with art, which I came to see as a vehicle for ideas and a soft power for cultural expression. Beneath the aesthetic lies narrative, conversation, debate and opinions. My conversations with Bisi led me to understand the importance of cultural preservation but also of cultural expression. She introduced me to Igo Diarra, Director of Galerie Medina, a gallery in Bamako, Mali, who has since become my closest ally and regional partner in our collective journey. I was offered the distinguished opportunity to curate a special project and show with him during Documenta 14 in Kassel and Athens, and along the way saw that there was a vacuum that needed to be filled in the domestic Nigerian and African art scene. My alliance with Igo gave me an opportunity to view the West African art scene in particular from dual vantage points, notably the francophone and anglophone perspective. I saw a noticeable gap there and an absence in much needed regional dialogue. To know a person is to respect and understand a unique outlook that differs from one’s own. I thought it unfortunate that African art was only being elevated and given consideration because Western galleries and Museums made it so. It inspired me to want to build my own platform, develop my own ecosystem, consolidate our own market and lay the foundation for African institutions to thrive. So here I am, on that journey.

What is the art scene like in Abuja?

The Abuja art scene is still growing, and we see ourselves as pioneers of sorts in the emergence of a cultural scene in the capital. Our vision has always been to diversify, to go where others are not. To help build a future and lay the foundation and infrastructure for others to build upon and improve. In Abuja you have the privileged position of curating art through fresh eyes and presenting storylines and modes of expression unheard of to a captive audience, who is ever curious, authentic and eager for more content. It’s a humbling experience. There are a few small spaces in the city, led by artists, enthusiasts and entrepreneurs. There are those looking to build ambitious museum projects and others creating mini ecosystems within their preferred medium and space. It’s very much youth led, and passion driven. Abuja also has the unique vantage point of being in proximity to the North of the country. So, our audience is very different from that in Lagos. It’s a true representation of the diversity of our nation, and as such is able to cater to voices often overlooked or unheard of down south. There is an interesting set of photographers and short filmmakers from Northern Nigeria that I hope to explore and find opportunities to highlight within their own context and social milieu, while also having the privilege of bringing some of the best in contemporary art from the South and the continent at large to the Capital city. Of course, we are very much a part of and tied to the Lagos art scene, by virtue of the fact that most of our artists, many of collectors, the fairs and projects are situated in the economic capital of Nigeria. I am in Lagos every other week. But I am pleased to be able to both belong and be apart from. To contribute but also help build new directions, new spaces and expand the reach of Contemporary African art across the country. 

Williams Chechet: Hyperflux at Retro Africa

Can you tell us about Retro Africa?

Retro Africa is a contemporary art gallery and platform, that seeks to highlight and elevate African art and narratives to a global audience. We specialize in Contemporary African Art of all mediums. We are Pan-African in our outlook and are bridge between the Francophone art scene and Nigeria’s cultural space, by virtue of my bilingual upbringing and partnership with Galerie Medina in Bamako, Mali. We have young energy and certainly are one of the only galleries if not the only gallery in Nigeria that intentionally tries to seek out African art not just Nigerian art. Retro equally sees itself as a platform, because our scope extends beyond the commercial space. We work as partners to the CCA, the Centre For Contemporary Art Lagos, and also serve as cultural advisors to champion and advocate for the creation of institutions in West Africa and Nigeria in particular. Notably as Art consultants for Kwara State, where a new contemporary art Museum is currently being built (tentatively dubbed ICAAF, Institute of Contemporary Art and Film Ilorin). Africa has a lot to say, and we would like to be a part of the regional and global conversation.

How do you select the artists you work with?

I do a lot of studio visits during my trips. I also encounter artists either through recommendations, portfolios sent to my e-mail, social media or by intentionally seeking out people that I would like to work with. I look for compelling narratives and interesting storylines. I also like to work with artists who are like-minded and fit into our space in a natural way. Gallery-Artist relations can be difficult, and we like to work with people with whom we can build as we grow and who have the passion that we feel in the contemporary art space. Compatibility is a very key component in that regard 

Dolly Kola-Balogun

You’re also a consultant for the Kwara State government for the creation of a new institution of contemporary art. How has your experience been like working to promote the arts in Nigeria?

It has been exciting. The advantage of being in a developing country is that there is still so much to develop! We have a passion for building in my family, whether it’s real estate, projects, people or cultural spaces. I see every gap as an opportunity to create, to fill, to teach and to learn. My work with the current governor of Kwara State (Abdulrahman Abdulrazaq) is a passion project. He is an ambitious and visionary individual, much unlike many in the political space and thus was able to understand and value the importance of diversifying economies through cultural investment. As an art collector himself, he saw the future and chose to be a part of the solution by building and funding the construction of a Museum (the first of its kind in the country) to help solve our cultural infrastructure deficit. He came to us at Retro Africa, as we were already active in the visual arts scene, sought out our advice to help him conceive of the idea and realize the project. We gladly accepted and are privileged to be working on this alongside Studio Contra, a young Nigerian architecture firm led by my sister Olayinka Dosekun-Adjei. It’s rare to find political will to invest in the arts in Nigeria, even rarer to have funding and see that project actually realised (we are already several months into construction). So, I give kudos and credit where it’s due and I am excited to ensure it succeeds where I am able. The Institute will be in Ilorin, the capital of Kwara State, and will give us the opportunity to further our mission of growing art scenes beyond Abuja and Lagos. Kwara serves as a gateway of sorts between the North and the South. Culturally linked to both, ethnically and regionally. It is well situated and easily accessible. I see this a catalyst for further growth, the possibilities are endless, with future Biennials and Film festivals potentially on the horizon. We hope to develop a comprehensive strategy that will extend beyond just a building but that will engulf and involve a population, expand across a city and region.

On top of all that, you are the co-owner of Atelier Hotels. How do you go about selecting art for the hotel?

Well, my gallery is inside the hotel. You are literally and figuratively immersed in art from the moment you step foot on the grounds and in the building. It is designed in such a way that one must walk through the gallery in order to enter one’s hotel room. So, I curate with the gallery schedule in mind and those who stay in the Hotel experience an ever-shifting curatorial program along the way every few months. We very much wanted to insert art into everything we did and that includes both hospitality and Restaurant industries that we operate. This of course couldn’t be done without the adept operations skills handled by sister and hotel co-owner Keji, or the foresight in design that was handled by my eldest sister Olayinka from Studio Contra. It was and is a team effort. But we hope that whenever you visit our personal art hub, either to stay at the hotel, to visit the gallery during the day or to have lunch, breakfast or dinner at the cafe, that you will experience and submerge yourself in the glory of art, both consciously and subconsciously. 

Retro Africa

Which Nigerian artists should we have on our radar?

There are so many but I would specifically highlight one of our national contemporary icons Victor Ehikhamenor whose work continues the great legacy and art tradition from Benin through a contemporary lens, or emerging female artist Tyna Adebowale, who was recently selected for this year’s Kehinde Wiley Black Rock Residency and is Rijksakademie fellow exploring questions on gender, sexuality, queerness and the African identity in the modern world; or Ken Nwadiogbu, a young, self-taught activist artist whose work speaks to the social and political concerns we face as Nigeria today, in the face of police brutality, economic turmoil, social unrest and youth agitation. Williams Chechet is another brilliant young mind who is paving the way in the young pop art space, but there are even more cerebral and forward-thinking artists from Nigeria that I work with (and have not yet worked with yet) creating brilliant work such as Modupe Fadugba, or Berlin based sound artist Emeka Ogboh and much more.

What are your plans for the future of Retro Africa?

We intend to expand. African art and African voices can only be heard and understood if you go to spaces unexplored and take your place and seat at the table. We hope to open a new space in Miami next year and present our own African perspective in what is currently a historic Black art movement. We also hope to eventually foster stronger ties and relations between the African and East Asian art scene, and who knows perhaps even open a space in Seoul or Hong Kong eventually. This is an important extension of the global dialogue and my intention is for Europe and the West to not always serve as intermediaries or mediators between Asia and Africa. Europe is a region that I consider a second home and is of course an important part of the conversation, but we will always do projects in Europe, always partake in fairs in London or Paris, or curate shows in Venice (we have a show coming up next year during the Biennale). But what about the rest of the world? Contemporary African is just starting to be given due consideration and we have so much further to go. I intend to be a part of the global conversation and help open as many doors as possible, along with my colleagues in the region and the diaspora.

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