Tucked away in Marylebone on 16 Little Portland Street is an art gallery that has for its mission a desire to give the contemporary art of Africa and its diaspora increased visibility. Maria Varnava, the gallery’s founder and director, grew up in Lagos, Nigeria. While of Greek heritage, the visual language she was exposed to growing up was of an African, predominantly Nigerian, aesthetic. “It seemed instinctive to set up a gallery focused on artists based in Africa and its diaspora,” she says. “I felt that a space like Tiwani would be a positive addition to the London art scene where at the time before I began the gallery I wasn’t seeing enough work or exhibitions about contemporary African or diaspora artists."
Tiwani, now seven years old, features an enterprising roster of contemporary artists. This includes Zimbabwean painter Virginia Chihota and her rich abstract oeuvre deeply influenced by personal everyday encounters; British-Ethiopian multimedia artist Theo Eshetu; Angolan photographer Délio Jasse; painter Thierry Oussou from Benin and his socio-archaeological renderings; Eritrean photographer Dawit L Petros, who delves into a critical rereading of the relationship between African histories and European modernism, and Nigerian artist Zina Saro-Wiwa, who works in video, photography and installation exploring the relationship between self and environment as well as the between performance and emotion. Saro-Wiwa is the subject of Tiwani’s solo presentation at the gallery’s first presentation at Art Basel Miami this year—an artist known for her multimedia works examining notions of catharsis, praying and mourning rituals as well as her highly personal explorations of cultural notions of love.
An exterior view of Tiwani Contemporary
“I was also keen to be part of the bigger, global picture of giving contemporary art of Africa and its diaspora the necessary visibility and platform it deserved,” says Varnava. The decision to start Tiwani Contemporary was the result of a number of factors. Varnava and her team are constantly on the lookout for artists whose work push the limits of contemporary media and engage in a promising narrative. “We look closely at an artist’s practice and see how they push the boundaries of their chosen media,” she adds. “That is our focus. It’s worth also noting that we really do like to champion the work of women artists.”
Tiwani participates in close to 10 fairs per year, including the Armory, Art Brussels, 1:54, Cape Town and Art X Lagos, and for the first time this year, Miami Art Basel. “Art fairs allow us to introduce our artists to a wider audience and collector base,” says Varnava. “Throughout the years, we have seen that participating in art fairs has allowed the gallery to continue its strategy of supporting the practice of our artists commercially and intellectually. That is a key goal for the gallery.”
Manuel Mathieu. Jacques Stephen Alexis. 2016. Acrylic on canvas. Private Collection
Varnava, who has an MA in African Studies from SOAS (School of Oriental and African Studies), an M Litt in History of Art and Connoisseurship, Modern & Contemporary Art: 1860 to the Present Day from Christie’s Education in London and a Post-Graduate degree in Fine and Decorative Art from the Renaissance to 1960, also from Christie’s Education, emphasises the multi-faceted nature of an art dealer today. “When I started the gallery I was trying to figure out how does one become the “perfect gallerist,” she says. “I realised there is no such thing so I started thinking maybe what should be considered is how to be a good enough gallerist. I’m always thinking how I can help an artist and their practice. That is my role.”
At the end of the day, Tiwani is about serving its artists and maintaining growth. It’s about expanding the gallery’s roster of artists and placing the work of its artists into prestigious public and private collections. “Additionally, part of my vision is to see my team further grow in their chosen areas—that is vital to the success of a gallery,” says Varnava. But there’s more. There is a continental connection to Africa that sets Tiwani apart from the rest. Varnava dreams to one day have a gallery in Lagos. “That would be a dream come true in terms of my personal journey coming full circle,” she smiles. “A space in Nigeria would offer a platform to local artists, cultivate a local collector base and contribute to the arts ecosystem on the continent. I see Tiwani Contemporary as a Nigerian initiative—after all our name in Yoruba means ‘it is ours.’”
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