Interview:Meet The Gallerist Helping To Shine A Light On Accra's Thriving Contemporary Art Scene

Five years ago, Beirut born, Accra resident Marwan Zakhem was in the middle of building the Kempinski Hotel Gold Coast City (the capital's first and only five star hotel) when an empty mechanical room on site struck him as the perfect space to display his beloved collection of regional art. Soon, however, an even grander vision followed – a place where Zakhem could both represent the West African artists he loved and bring attention to their work on a global scale. By 2016, the construction company owner had opened the doors to Gallery 1957 – named for the year in which Ghana gained independence – which now stages as many as 12 exhibitions in Accra and eight exhibitions abroad each year. Below, we catches up with the visionary Zakhem about all that he has achieved to date and what's next for West African art.

When did you first start collecting art?

When I moved to Dakar about 20 years ago after stints in Beirut, London, Cairo, and Houston. I had never really been interested in it at all until that point. There was something specifically about the West African aesthetic – the visual arts, the music, the culture, how people dressed – that was stimulating, and my appreciation led me to start buying. In the beginning, I was only spending around $30 or less on each work and would give them away to friends or relatives who admired them. It was only when I moved to Accra in 2003 that I started properly collecting, mainly because I became friendly with the local creatives. When I stayed at the Golden Tulip Hotel for six months, I met one of my favourite artists, Krotei Tetteh, aged 84 at the time, who had a stunning exhibition there – paintings of the marketplace and fishing. He was a recluse, but we connected, and from then on, I became focussed on getting to know artists more, learning about their stories and practices.

Why is Ghana a particularly special country for you?

After being here for the last 15 years or so, I consider Ghana home. It's become a part of me. I appreciate the warmth and hospitality of the people. Lots of visitors who come here temporarily end up falling in love and staying. There's such a rich history. When it came to naming the gallery, I chose Gallery 1957 because it evokes strong emotions – and a sense of pride – among Ghanaians. Of course, there's no comparing the events of 1957 with what we're doing at the gallery, but I do believe that there's a revolution of sorts happening within the contemporary art scene here. As long as nobody assumes it's my birth year, I'm happy with it!

How would you describe the focus of Gallery 1957?

It struck me that there were so many Ghanaian artists producing incredible work that nobody was seeing – not in Ghana, not on the international stage... I decided to start a gallery that would provide them with the infrastructure and resources to show abroad. I'm also trying to establish a collector base here, which is harder in an up-and-coming market than in London, New York, or Paris for example, but it's growing, and that inspires people to become artists. Beforehand I think most used art as a hobby or second job, especially female artists; the percentage who are full-time artists is still very small. So, we try to attract the international crowd to come to Accra. Once a year we do a cultural week where we host curators, directors, and gallerists from around the world at the hotel – then do a series of workshops, studio visits, and talks about West African art in general. Every single exhibition has grown, and we now expect about 700 to a thousand people per opening.


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