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Trailblazing October Gallery chops down obstacles for contemporary African artists

Their mission was to ‘give value to artists from everywhere in the world’. Now one of October Gallery’s directors reflects on how their early ambitions helped propel a global art movement.

Author Will McBain Mon 12th Oct 2020
El Anatsui in front of his brilliant tapestry "Skylines", 2017.

When Elisabeth Lalouschek first watched a VHS of a Ghanaian artist tearing into a block of wood with a chainsaw, it signaled a shot in the arm for London’s stagnating and parochial art scene. That video, and the artist whose work it captured in the early 1990s, would form a partnership that made October Gallery one of the main points of reference for art from Africa in the world.

El Anatsui was the man with the chainsaw, and he went on to lead the vanguard of a new generation of world-class artists from Africa to walk through the Victorian-era doors of October Gallery in central London, and progressively showcase to the world.

The internationally focused October Gallery was founded in 1979 with the vision to exhibit artists of all cultures, via their London base. Back then the UK’s capital wasn’t the global art scene that it is today, as it was dominated by British and a few European and American artists. The mission was instead to ‘give value to artists from everywhere in the world’.

“The gallery’s team has championed some of the finest Transvangarde artists globally.”

Lalouschek, October Gallery’s artistic director since 1987, told Turbare that she was instantly captured by the energetic power of Anatsui’s chainsaw-birthed sculpture – an energy instrumental in advancing the Transvangarde movement – which gives space to artists from outside the perimeters of the well-trodden Western art world.

“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 direct contact. 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’.”

A working relationship developed, with the gallery representing Anatsui since 1993, and they went on not only to publish the first feature book of his work, El Anatsui: A Sculpted History of Africa in 1998, but in summer 2013, collaborated with the Royal Academy of Arts in London where the Ghanaian clad the façade of the academy with his largest bottle-top work to date; a project receiving many accolades from the public and international press.

The success and critical acclaim of that project was a testament to the impressive team Lalouschek formed with October Gallery’s director, Chili Hawes, who’s been at the gallery from the start.

October Gallery's Elisabeth Lalouschek
Elisabeth Lalouschek
Artistic-Director October Gallery.
Photo by Jonathan Greetartwork

October Gallery would also hold the first one-man show in the UK of Kenji Yoshida, the late Japanese artist selected for training as a kamikaze pilot in World War II, but whose suicide mission was narrowly averted by Japan’s surrender in 1945. Yoshida would move to Paris in the 1960s before his collaborations with October Gallery, and the Japanese artist would sign his works with ‘Sei-Mei – La Vie – Life’.

Romuald Hazoumè, Rachid Koraichi, and the Afro-Cuban painter Manuel Mendive, would all exhibit first time in London at October Gallery, and go on to achieve international recognition thanks in part to the vision of the gallery’s founders.

Hawes and Lalouschek have built a thriving cultural hub, an oasis in the city’s beating heart, for international writers, poets, intellectuals, and artists, at the same time as running a valuable education and outreach programme for schools, families, and the community, which continues to this day.

After decades of displaying the works of many of the world’s finest artists and playing a prominent role in building the thriving contemporary African art market, October Gallery celebrated its 40th birthday last year.

With a programme of events and exhibitions exploring its ethos and celebrating its history, it was a far cry from the gallery’s humble origins which began when renovating a semi-rotten former school during the dreich 1979 autumn in London.

Chili Hawes helped renovate the space with her own hands, scrubbing, plastering, and building with friends, having herself fallen in love with art following a Damascene-like moment gazing at works by Monet, Gauguin, and Van Gogh at the Jeu de Paume Gallery during her studies as a student at the Sorbonne in the 1960s. The artworks ‘produced a dramatic physio-chemical change’ in Hawes, who originally hailed from the Rocky Mountains.

“I’m most proud that we’ve survived for so long, but not only survived, but also thrived for so long,” said Lalouschek in conversation with Turbare, months into the strictest lockdown experienced in the UK for centuries.

“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!”

“London is the perfect nexus for the internationally represented African art market.”

Now, in 2020, London is one of the key drivers in the internationally represented African art market, being as it is positioned in what Lalouschek describes as the perfect nexus between east, south, and west due to the huge number of flights coming in and out of the capital. In addition, the city as centre of finance, and home to many from the African diaspora who are well established in artistic and cultural initiatives and institutions – and therefore reaching out to African creators and investors – places London in the epicentre of a burgeoning art market.

Lalouschek predicts, however, that there will be increasing cross-fertilisation between the global west and south, with artists from the diaspora – such as Alexis Peskine, whom the gallery represents and who recently traveled to 27 different African countries – progressively returning to their cultural roots.

Peskine was born in Paris in 1979, and early on in his life was exposed to questions of identity because of his international heritage: one grandfather, a Jewish engineer who survived a concentration camp, and the other, an Afro-Brazilian carpenter who raised his family in the inner city of Salvador, Bahia.

The artist is one of many French speakers October Gallery represents: part of a clear strategy to address the previous imbalance and bias for English-speaking artists in African Art auctions.

Peskine’s work is thematically linked to the ‘Black Experience’, and through multiple residencies in Africa, he has explored photography as a way of connecting himself to the continent. This, envisages Lalouschek, will be mirrored by institutions opening up galleries in Africa, inviting artists over from Europe, America, and other places to propel a new artistic renaissance, all enhanced by the internet increasing how connected we are.

Romauld Hazoume
Artist Romuald Hazoumè next to his plastic and raffia mask art piece. 

With fervent cross-pollination, opportunities for new collectors are more numerous now than ever before, as increasing numbers of African artists are brought into the limelight, meaning this is a good time to invest, says Lalouschek. There’s a price range for everybody interested in the scene, especially with schemes like ‘Own Art’ providing helpful loans for first-time investors in the UK.

In this current situation, however, with large parts of the world re-emerging from a state of lockdown due to the global Covid-19 pandemic, familiar networks and physical exhibitions in the global arts calendar have come to a grinding halt, forcing more people in the art ecosystem to live in the present moment. This instead gives an opportunity to reflect on the instrumental impact that October Gallery has had on the art world over the last forty years, as once restrictions are fully lifted, the landscape will have likely shifted in the direction of an even more global scene, one that has been favoured by Lalouschek and her team for the past four decades.

This more globally accessible art world is currently propelled forward by the digital realm which has been rapidly advanced during the pandemic, with galleries opening up showrooms to the public online.

Now, Lalouschek tells us, many of the artists the gallery works with are enjoying a time to meditate and be in the present, finding a means to focus away from the noise and relentless pressures of the normal state of things.

It will be the artist’s solo debut there, and his astonishing self-portrait photographs, imbued with a sense of drama in their gravity-defying marvel, will explore issues surrounding mental health, fatherhood, and the complexities of living life as an outsider. His work as a Choreo-Photolist – a term which he coined, and which draws on his 30 years as a performer and key contributor to the Black Physical Theatre canon – is astonishing in its hyper-reality, depicting intensely realised moments, frozen in time.

Once again, October Gallery will exhibit an artist whose work they feel is under-represented, and in so doing will give him the exposure he rightfully deserves. As Lalouschek says, it will be interesting to see what the reaction will be. But until then, we must simply wait.

“I thank you, October Gallery, because without you we don’t exist. With galleries such as this one, we come into existence, and together we are all better off. We manifest, become powerful, and can work relaxed and at peace in those other places we call home.”

-Romuald Hazoumè, the Yoruba artist from Bénin, at October Gallery’s 40th Opening.

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