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In conversation with October Gallery’s Elisabeth Lalouschek

Prior to their reopening after months in lockdown, Turbare spoke to Elisabeth Lalouschek, to find out what drives the pioneering art gallery’s ethos.

Author Will McBain Sun 11th Oct 2020
Panoramic view of October Gallery, London. Photo: October Gallery

WM: What initially motivated October Gallery to champion artists from Africa?

Elisabeth Lalouschek (EL):The gallery was founded in 1978 but opened in London in February 1979, with the idea to show artists from all around the world, and from all cultures. It was something that we called the Transvangarde, the trans-cultural avant-garde.

London at that time was a place where the scene was not a global one, as it was dominated by British and a few European and American artists. So this was an opportunity to look, and give value to artists from everywhere in the world.

Then in the early 1990s, I came across the work of El Anatsui, and at that time we began working with a wide range of artists from Africa, principally because the market started to develop and we were one of a very few galleries to show contemporary African art, so the market started to develop around us, in a sense.

Regarding myself, I had studied at the Royal College of Art, and October Gallery went to the degree show; a colleague saw my paintings and invited me to have an exhibition at the gallery, which I did in 1983. That’s how I had my first contact with October Gallery, and I had another show in 1987. And after that, I became involved in the management and then my attention went towards artists from around the world.

So it was during that time we started showcasing a few excellent artists from the continent, who were being sprinkled into the mix in London.

WM: What was the initial reaction in London at the time, when you showcased art from Africa?

EL: We had a wonderful support group at SOAS (School of Oriental and African Studies), the British Museum to a certain degree, other academics, and a few collectors who were focusing on contemporary African art. And the people came to us because they saw we were showing something new.

Certainly it was a niche market at that time, and there was no wider general interest in contemporary African art, but people came to us because they could see something new, different, exciting, and regardless to which culture artists came from as we also showed artists from around the world. And it was this niche quality that drew people in.

Elisabeth Lalouschek facilitates viewing of El Anatsui's Installation view of Sasa
 Installation view of Sasa (2004) by El Anatsui. Courtesy of October Gallery, London. Photo: Andreas M. Wiese. 

WM: Can you remember the first time an artist from Africa caught your interest?

EL: You know, I like to work with individual artists, and when I came to the gallery at first, I was involved with artists such as Manuel Mendive from Cuba, and Kenji Yoshida – the great Japanese artist – and I worked with these artists because I found their work interesting.

So when I first saw the works of El Anatsui, who I saw on a VHS video, and I loved this particular piece of work where a chainsaw tore into the wood, and the way he burnt it, I found an energy that I found seriously exciting and wonderful.

I tried to contact him but at this time there was no internet, so you couldn’t really find people when you didn’t have a direct contact. So I had to put out a word-of-mouth request, and eventually after some time waiting I found a note stuck on a wall of the gallery saying, ‘Contact me, I’ve worked with El Anatsui.’

And at that time El Anatsui was an architect teaching at the University of Nigeria, but we managed to make contact and begin working together and I included him in an exhibition.

But it was all to do with the quality of his work. I was supremely interested in that, and we choose to work with someone because we’re interested in the energy of their material, primarily.

WM: So this working relationship with El Anatsui started to kick things off in London?

EL: There wasn’t really any point of contact in London where you could go to if you wanted to see artists from Africa, but we became that point of interest and that market place. Naturally I found that during the 1990s a lot of my attention started going toward artists from Africa, and this was when the scene in London started to move.

With a growing market demand we increased our shows especially where we collaborated with other people involved in projects with artists from Africa; for instance, with This Music Village, who brought musicians from all around the world, including two back-to-back shows of South African art and music, and we worked with Robert Loder [the late businessman and African art collector] on these shows.

These back-to-back exhibitions became quite popular. We did conferences of contemporary South African art, and this was followed by two shows on the Yoruba diasporas, where we looked at how Yoruba culture spread across the world, and the more shows you do, the more artists you know, and it snowballed from there.

WM: You’re working as artistic director and in art sales. Can you can you explain a bit about your role?

EL: I work on the coordination, with my other colleagues of course, of exhibitions. I work very closely with the artists, working with them on projects that might be taking place all over the world.

And I also work on sales, which are important! You always have to consider sales if you want to work with artists, because eventually you have to place the works with private collectors, with museums, etc. So I’m covering quite a wide range of activities in that sense, but I have wonderful people that work with me on my team.

WM: When you look back over the last forty years of working at October Gallery, what are you most proud of when you see how the Transvangarde movement has flourished?

EL: I’m most proud that we’ve survived for so long, but not only survived, thrived for so long. I’m proud that we had the vision to know the importance of having a global showing of the Transvangarde, from London, but also showing the people here that the world is global, it’s not just focused on one locality. That we could carry that through and put that into action was a good thing.

I think it’s easy to talk about it now, but I tell you, the ground was extraordinarily hard in the early days. It was like ploughing dry, barren lands. The receptivity was very little, and it was only in, I would say, the early 2000s, that people properly noticed what was going on in Africa, and during that time doors gradually opened, and then they suddenly opened, and then they were flooded wide open and you were completely pushed in!

Before that we were desperately trying to get into the doors of the museums. So just think, we did the first publication on a book called El Anatsui: A Sculpted History of Africa, which I think was the first feature of him and it’s not a huge book. We did this because I saw that a lot of artists in the West are represented in major books or catalogues, but fantastic artists elsewhere didn’t necessarily have that material. So we’re very proud of our long partnerships with artists.

We’ve also always sought to use the gallery as a vehicle for education, and we’ve been heavily involved in charity activities throughout our time, which continues very much.

WM: What kept you going when the ground was hard, was it an ultimate conviction in October Gallery’s vision?

EL: Absolutely. If you can see something that needs to be done, you want to do it and be the pioneer, no matter how hard the ground is. The harder the ground, then sometimes the better! When it becomes difficult is the times when suddenly we had a great receptivity to what we wanted to do.

You seem to have had a bit of a head start on everyone else?
We did. We came to it early. A lot of things have happened around us in contemporary African art, and in my mind, they happened 10 years before they were happening in real-time. But if we look at London, we see how much the scene has changed. And we were ideally placed being situated in London.

El Anatsui in front of his brilliant tapestry “Skylines”, 2017. 

WM: With its historical relationship to Africa, do you think London was always destined to be one of the key drivers in the market?

EL: Of course, it has a historical relationship, but I think when you look at it, it’s a perfect nexus. You can access the east and the west and the south, everywhere you’re operating, as there are so many flights coming through.

It wasn’t like that 40 years ago necessarily, but the entire culture has opened to become more international. I think if you look at food, for example, the food culture has blossomed and is super-international. So that’s a really big thing. But I see three main factors that can explain the attractiveness for modern and contemporary African art: London’s a centre of finance; it has appeal to African creators and investors; and is the home of many established and prosperous people from the African diaspora, who are involved in artistic and cultural initiatives and institutions.

WM: Is there a bias to English-speaking artists from Africa?

EL: I think what we realised was that there was a big divide between francophone and anglophone art from Africa. So we collaborated with Cambridge University, around 1999 to 2000, on a conference called The Power of the Word, looking at francophone and anglophone African literature. At the same time my colleague, Jeff Jarrett Houghton, went to Benin to research artists from the francophone world, and we had an exhibition that followed.

And so we very deliberately, from that time onwards, wanted to be sure we also showed French-speaking artists, but not to just follow those traditional or colonial roots, but really to have a broad spectrum of artists. And I tell you, over the years, my French has become very good! Because 50% of artists from Africa are French speakers of course; Rachid Koraïchi is from Algeria, and has had a very long-standing relationship with some of these big projects we’ve done, with artists from the French-speaking Middle East and Africa, and elsewhere. Alex Peskine and Romuald Hazoumè are two French-speaking artists we’re currently deeply involved with, too.

WM: How do you make the decision on who to exhibit and represent?

EL: I think we connect to a certain inner power of a work. It’s an organic connection and we all recognise it when we see a work of art. So we operate on that level. I think with that kind of vision we were able to carry through the programmes we’ve done, because we coincide on the works of art and artists; for instance we wanted to show that El Anatsui had a certain energetic power and we were in complete agreement. So going from that angle, it’s not necessarily to do with a geographic location, but it’s very much to do with the individual power of the work.

WM: Have you found that there’s general agreement between yourself and everyone else at October Gallery when you feel the energy of a piece?

EL: Certainly between me and Chili, that’s absolute. And also, I think everybody else buys into that idea. But you can sense it. So we regularly do Transvangarde exhibitions, and you juxtapose artists from different parts of the world with their works. And you know, they start speaking to each other, and they create another thing in the room, and another chemistry as something else happens; there is an increase in … in power. And, of course, I come to it as an artist, so I work with a very organic relationship to works of art.

WM: Talking prices now, do you think there are still opportunities for newer collectors who’re looking for relatively affordable, alternative pieces to add to?

EL: I think there’s plenty of opportunity for new collectors, as we can see, the market is increasing. There are many more artists being pushed and coming forward and you can see them in art fairs, which have increased. So I think there’s a price range for everybody, really. You can find a young artist you might be interested in at a reasonable price, or you can find highly established artists at much higher prices, but the market is quite good I would say. I think that when thinking of young artists, who’re building their career, whose work is under or around five thousand pounds, then you will probably see an increase over the next year, but it’s a good time to invest, certainly.

WM: What’s your advice to people thinking of starting a collection?

EL: Well, I will definitely ask them to come and visit us. I’m happy to talk to them. There are other people at the gallery. We’ll be happy to engage in a conversation. I think if you’re a new collector, initially you have to also trust your own assessment. You have to take a certain amount of courage. If there’s a work of art that you’re attracted to, you might just have to take the courage and engage with it because, you know, you’re not necessarily buying for investment, you’re buying because you give value yourself to that work of art by engaging with it.

I think there’s a certain amount of courage involved in that, but I think once you’ve bought your first one, I think then you can go on from there. There’s also schemes available, like ‘Own Art’, that help. You pay off a work of art in instalments, which can particularly benefit a young, new collector.

WM: What needs to be done to make sure up-and-coming artists get the recognition they deserve, and what should these artists do to advance their careers?

EL: I think there’s big potential out there. But I think the danger is that some artists might misread that potential and produce work they think is the work of the moment. Fashionable to produce, a particular type of work, but however hard it is, you have to follow your own path regardless as to whether that’s commercial or not, because what you have to do – you have to bring something new into this world – something that pushes boundaries. So there’s a certain danger that you might get a repetition of certain types of work, but better to get a variation.

But overall I think there’s been quite a strong receptivity for artists from Africa. Of course, publications are probably still lagging behind a little bit, so there could be a stronger push in that direction. It might be difficult for some artists to travel to Europe, because of these visa situations, but equally, there’s a lot of things happening in Africa, as well. You don’t have to just focus on Europe and the West to show your art. I think what might happen is that maybe the focus could shift to Africa as well. A lot of artists, they don’t care as to whether they’re African or not African, they’re artists.

Some artists don’t mind being pigeonholed like that, but I think the time will come when some institutions will have opened up in Africa, galleries, etc., and I think things will change with these institutions starting to host exhibitions of artists from Europe, America and from different places.

I’m talking about the future where you won’t always have African artists traveling to the West to show their work, but have the world traveling to Africa to also show their work, and create a new inspiration there. It’s not now, it might be a little bit though; in some cases there’s some cross-fertilisation already. But I think on a big scale probably in the future.
When you look at how the Nigerian and African film industry, the fashion industry and the music industry is developing, art will be a part of that renaissance as everything becomes much more international in scope, as the internet changes how connected we are.

So I think there can be a reverse movement. I think there’s also a lot of interest from artists from the diaspora, but who want to go back to their roots. Artists like Alexis Peskine, who’s desperate to immerse himself in his cultural heritage, as he’s traveled to 27 African countries recently, doing residencies there, delving into photography, really to connect himself to the continent.

WM: How do you think this current pandemic will change the way people view art, and create further roles for technology?

EL: I’m seeing it on different levels, but it’s hard to assess because it’s been relatively sudden. The one thing I found superbly interesting was that in the first few days or so of isolation, it pushed me, and many people I know, into the present moment. Because working in an exhibition centre and gallery we’re always looking forward, your entire life, at least a year ahead of you.

So I was here, I had an irrelevant past. I didn’t know how that will evolve. What I did have was a present moment. And I was really happy under the circumstances to experience that present moment. It kind of gives you meaning and depth. And I feel that a lot of artists who I speak with, like Alexis Peskine, are using this time to meditate, to enjoy the moment of reflection, of being able to focus. There’s a lot of noise out there to cut out, and it’s really important to understand what is meaningful.

I think the human community is all in the same boat, and so much more visible with the realisation of how important that community is. So I think that on that level a lot of things are changing, and probably will continue to change, because there was so much noise going on.

On the technical side, the digital side has increased enormously; people are putting up viewing rooms and showrooms that are digital, like a parallel world that’s in development. Although it already existed it’s now developing rapidly, much more rapidly around us. I think that’s something that will be useful once we’re back out in the physical world. You’ll have a much more developed digital world as well. We’re looking at that essence.

And we’ll all have come through a major threat together; after a period of major uncertainty, it will be interesting to see how that inspires creativity. Nothing anybody could have predicted, and I think it’s interesting for this younger generation as well, because they wouldn’t have ever had a situation like this.

WM: Staying in the future, is there an artist you’re currently working with, who’s gone under the radar a little bit, that you’re particularly excited to represent?

EL: Yes, Benji Reid. He ran a theatre company before, but went on to develop these super interesting photographic scenes of incredible poses, kind of surreal, anti-gravitational scenes that draw you into a different dimension, and when I saw the first one, I said ‘Oh, not everybody’s fighting and fighting to show him?’ I felt that he was under-represented at that time for sure. So we will be looking forward to opening that show of his work, called Laugh at Gravity, once it’s safe to do so, and the lockdown ends. I’m curious but very positive to see what the reaction is going to be. He was definitely somebody I saw and felt that he should have a much, much wider exposure.

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