Adora Mba: 'African artists should do what they want, and not what they think is popular'

·5-min read

Trust Adora Mba to push the boundaries of the art world. After opening her first gallery in Ghana last year, the art advisor is collaborating with London-based HOFA Gallery for the all-female group exhibition, "Mother of Mankind." We spoke to Adora Mba about her life-long commitment towards the new generation of African artists and why collectors are so interested in their artworks.

When Adora Mba started her career in the art industry, female curators were a rarity. Female curators bringing attention to contemporary African art were even more so. She is now one of them, as her latest exhibition, "Mother of Mankind," on view until August 31 at HOFA Gallery in London, testifies.

The show features the works of 16 artists from Africa and its diaspora, including well-known names like Emma Prempeh, Jamilla Okubo and Adebunmi Gbadebo. They collectively challenge and deconstruct art-historical canons of representation, especially when it comes to black femininity.

For Mba, it is crucial for art galleries to showcase this new generation of female African artists, some of whom are in the early days of their careers. "ADA and HOFA are instituting a space for their, for our, voices to be heard; our stories to be told; our creative spirits to conceive, unbound, forging our own narrative," she explained.

From niche market to hot commodity

Promoting Africa's creative scene has long been Mba's mission. While working as a journalist in London, she chronicled how demand and prices for contemporary African art rose during the past decade. Artists hailing from the continent like Ben Enwonwu and Amoako Boafo are getting long-overdue recognition from collectors, who see their works as a hot commodity on the secondary market .

"They are now seeing the commercial value of African art. A lot of people used to think that we did lovely, pretty pictures, but now they believe that they are worth something. African artists are now worth investing in," Mba told ETX Daily Up.

Although African artists and dealers welcome this influx of investment, they are also aware of the need to develop local markets on the continent. That's why Mba decided to move to Accra, Ghana, where she opened her first gallery, ADA\Contemporary , last October. Some might have expected her to pick her father's motherland, Nigeria, where the art scene has gained international recognition these past few years. But she was drawn to the West African country for several reasons.

"My father is Nigerian and my mum is Ghanaian, so I'm actually half-half [laughs]. I chose Ghana because I wanted to be a pioneer there. I saw so much potential and talented artists in this country, but nothing was happening. I thought I could be quite instrumental in jumpstarting that industry. And look at Ghana now, it's more talked about than Nigeria," she said.

Turning Ghanaians into "art people"

But it was not an easy task. Mba faced multiple logistical challenges before opening ADA\Contemporary in late October, from covid-related delays to the lack of art infrastructure in Ghana. "We didn't have things that one will take for granted in London. We lacked glass and materials that are used to frame artworks," she recalled. "However we do have amazing artisans so I asked local carpenters to build frames. I turned everyone into art people!"

But the biggest challenge of all was to assemble a team. If Ghana is a breeding ground for talents, few art students are willing to work in commercial galleries and understand their role in the art ecosystem. "Art schools don't teach them that. They teach them to be artists or teachers," Mba said. "A few years ago, most Ghanaian artists weren't very successful. But now they see that Amoako Boafo has collaborated with Dior and they think that they are going to be rockstars! They all want to be artists now, and not teachers anymore."

Things have changed since the launch of ADA\Contemporary, and Mba is receiving more and more CVs to intern in her art gallery. Her clientele has evolved as well, and is becoming younger and more international. "I am enjoying the younger ones because their choices are bolder than seasoned collectors. They are mostly from the United States and Europe, but I've been getting more buyers from Asia. And Canada. It all started with this one collector, who told all his friends about us. I know they are not newbies when they tell me all the amazing artists that they have in their collections," she said.

Creating a sustainable market

African collectors are not as engaged as their foreign counterparts, but the gallerist hopes that it will change soon. Several signs are pointing in this direction: Sotheby's reported in April that buyers from the continent accounted for a significant portion of sales in its four-year-old, bi-annual Modern & Contemporary African Art auction.

But with increased attention comes growing concern that the sector will reach bubble territory and ultimately burst. Nevertheless, Mba is bullish on the long-term prospects of the contemporary African art market. "If our artists continue to produce the same type of work, of course, it's going to bubble and pop," she said.

"I know that we will last the distance. However our local buyer base has to grow. It's taking a bit of time but we are getting there. It's already happening in Nigeria, which encourages local artists to try different things and be bolder in their artistic choices. We need to support talents throughout the continent to give them the confidence to do the type of art they want to do, rather than what they think is popular."

Caroline Drzewinski

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