Chinelo Chikelu reviews a year of digital programming/exhibitions amid a pandemic with retro Africa’s media communications officer and curator, Joshua Jonathan and its plans for the year 2021.
Following an eventful year of two months of a national lockdown, several more months before the lifting of the ban on recreational spaces to operate and with barely four months of operations throughout the year, art spaces such as Retro Gallery have had to adjust to the demands of the present times – which includes the transition from physical to digital space for survival and continued operation.
While the virtual world has had its impact ‘resetting’ every imaginable workspace in today’s world both positively and negatively, Retro Gallery still leans towards the physical exhibition space, despite testimonials on the benefits of both for the following reasons.
Personal interaction with works of art and artists in a physical art space
While one can zoom in and out on artworks, depending on the quality of images, Jonathan said the crucial one-on-one interaction between viewers and artworks, and viewers and the artists is absent in a virtual exhibition.
Physical exhibitions, he said, holds more water for art collectors and art lovers who want to see the work in person and understand them better. Likewise, response is immediate in a physical exhibition space in contrast to a virtual exhibit where response is delayed, and could take as much as 20 minutes to 24 hours, depending on how busy a gallery is.
In smaller galleries with less hands-on deck, responses tend to be slower. Retro Africa is looking to expand by taking on more staff in other states across the country next year.
“Retro Africa leans towards the physical more than virtual exhibitions. Apart from international art events like the Prism Art Fair, 154 Contemporary Art Fair and others where we had artists like Paul Onditi and William Chetchet, we believe in physical more than virtual exhibitions, but both works. We don’t discredit online exhibitions, both are beneficial in different aspects,” he said.
Digital exhibitions are cost-effective
An instance of the benefits of virtual exhibitions, Jonathan said, is its exhibition of popular Kenyan artist, Paul Onditi, at the 2020 Prism Art Fair. The Prism fair, as a lot of other art fairs, witnessed their first all virtual exhibitions last year. It was cost-effective to exhibit the artist’s work while he remained in Nairobi, but featuring high resolutions of his work saving the gallery, the added expenses of packaging and transporting the art pieces and artist for a physical exhibition.
While happy with the new possibilities, new spaces and new audience opened to galleries by the virtual art space, Jonathan acknowledged that it was a difficult act translating virtual databases and ‘views’ into money and a physical patronage of the gallery.
Converting databases to finances and a physical audience
To transform its virtual databases to finances and a live audience, Retro Africa deploys the fear of ‘missing out’ to entice visitors to the gallery’s physical space.
“We try as much as possible not to give away too much information to try to get people to the actual physical space, unless there is no physical presence of that given exhibition. For instance, there was no physical Prism Art Fair this year. It was all online. In that case you just put all your eggs in one basket and promote everything online,” said Jonathan.
On translating digital databases into finances, he said, “A chunk of sales has come from online views for many galleries, not just Retro Africa. It has definitely hindered possible transactions that would have happened if it was in the physical setting, but it hasn’t halted sales completely. In some instances, it has even yielded better results than expected,’’ Jonathan noted.
This year, the gallery is looking to expand nationally and abroad through staff addition and partnerships.
“We will be looking to get more hands in different states in the country in the arts, and looking to opening museum spaces or partnering with different states to open arts-based cultural centers. That’s definitely a number one goal for 2021. We are also looking to invest in more artists and to expand to other cities across the world beyond Africa such as in Europe and North Africa,’’ he said.
Jonathan, who acknowledged that the early period of the lockdown following the pandemic had impacted its traditional painters artists than its photography and digital artists, said the former were deflated by the event, as they were unable to acquire working materials but also lacked a platform for exhibition. But not so for photography and graphic-based artists like William Chetchet who had his first large solo Hyperflux at the gallery in Abuja recently.
Although the gallery is cautious to avoid representing too many artists than it can handle, part of its 2021 goal is to invest in more artists.
‘‘Because our aim is to create awareness of African artists, and in this sense Nigerian artists that don’t have a platform to express themselves or their art in good exhibitions, we look around for artists who have a lot of talents but not much exposure, because social media can’t do everything.
‘’People go to look at pictures online and then like them, but you need an art gallery to take you through and expose you to the art world and to collectors, and to be there as your support and backbone. Apart from sales and all else, it is important that an artist has that kind of support so as to lead you to the next stage because that is the best means of growth for an artist,” said Jonathan.
With the onslaught of the second wave of COVID-19 returning more western states to near-lockdowns and the discovery of a new strain of the virus in UK now present in the country leading to partial lockdown in the capital cities and the re-shutting down of recreational spaces, the future of physical exhibition space is uncertain. At present, digital exhibition seems to be the safest alternative for art spaces.