With the biggest urban population in Nigeria, its Nollywood film industry, and local celebrities such as Grammy-award winner Wizkid, Lagos is typically the Nigerian city that receives the most global attention.
However, with a new generation of creative entrepreneurs returning to Abuja, Nigeria’s capital, the spotlight is starting to widen. At the centre of this change is Dolly Kola-Balogun, co-founder and creative director of Retro Africa gallery and Atelier Hotels.
Retro Africa originally launched in 2015 as an online platform that staged pop-up exhibitions in Nigeria, curated shows in New York, London and Athens, and had a presence at international art fairs.
Its permanent space has been in Abuja since 2019, and there is a Russian-doll effect to the enterprise. You must walk through the exhibition spaces to arrive at four beautifully designed hotel rooms that sit within the gallery; The Pavilion, a restaurant co-owned by Kola-Balogun and serving a Nigerian-inspired menu, stands beyond, in a building adjacent to the gallery and hotel; and a large garden open to the public hosts events and film screenings over the weekend. “We wanted a space that was living and breathing,” Kola-Balogun explains. “Our audience in Abuja wanted a home – a place they could congregate, and experience and enjoy art.”
The gallery has a roster of artists from the continent such as Lagos-based painter and sculptor Alimi Adewale and Mali-born Abdoulaye Konaté, who specialises in textile-based installations. “There was a preconceived idea of African art being decorative,” she says of the artists and the soft power that African art exerts on politics, “and it was a false perception.”
Kola-Balogun studied political science, theology and sociology at King’s College London after attending schools in France and the UK, and her international upbringing is evident in her ambition for Retro Africa. Later this year, there are shows planned for New York and London, while a new space in Miami is set to open in 2022. Underpinning all her work is the goal to take the Nigerian art scene beyond Lagos. “We thought it was important to desaturate one city and extend the love for art, exhibitions and ideas,” she says.
Though 2020 was a difficult year for a gallery trying to make its presence known internationally, Kola-Balogun is optimistic about the year to come. “This is the golden age of black contemporary art,” she states. It may also be Abuja’s long-awaited moment in the sun.
“My interest in art arose as a result of the brilliant work I saw coming out of the continent,” says Kola-Balogun from her house in Abuja.
“I saw that the artists were primarily represented by galleries in Europe and the US, and it inspired me to invest and create a platform here that was dedicated to contemporary African art; if African galleries were not at the fairs and the events, we wouldn’t have a say in how the industry was shaped.”