From the beginning what provoked your interest and set your passion for the art business?
There is no doubt that art business in Nigeria is currently gaining traction with enormous economic promise. In this interview, Jeff Omatite Ajueshi, the Curator and Art Director of Thought Pyramid Art Centre, tells Enam Obiosio, Editor-in-Chief, Investor Relations (IR) Magazine Nigeria, of the huge outcome of his exploit and the need to essentially shine more light on the business, among others. Excerpt:
Answer: This question, for me, is just like asking me why I like the art. From when I was younger, I have always been very fascinated and almost obsessed with visual images and bright colours. Naturally, art for me is often like refined nature that capitalizes on my obsessions with colours, shapes, and causal chains. What actually drives my passion is that I see art beyond money making; I view it as a way of life which should be sustained, for my survival and my pleasure. In order to survive, I realise that we need to be able to tell the difference between different objects. If apples are good for us, we will crave them. And if an artist can create a sort of hyper apple — an apple that is especially round and especially red, we will obsess over it. We need water to survive, so we are attracted to anything water-like. An artist can engage our obsession and cause it to go into overdrive by abstracting and accentuating qualities of water. We are rigged to get pleasure from detecting patterns, because we need to detect patterns in order to survive. Narrative art, and probably some other forms, help us simulate the world, and by doing so, we can learn about it without risk. Listening to a story or watching a movie is like being in a flight simulator. Stories allow us to experience all sorts of events without actually creating problems for ourselves. Art unarguably is functionality with aesthetics.
Lagos is more of art city than Abuja. Why did you decide to set up first in Abuja?
Answer: Of course, we knew that Abuja was not a city in which people were so much interested in the art. But, do not forget that it was not as if the Abuja people had an offer for visual art interface that they turned down, in terms of where they could have a good place to see and appreciate art. It may be because Abuja residents then used to be uncomfortable or insecure around the art that they could not instantly and easily understand and identify with. We as a gallery are not in business to demean people who do not understand the art. Rather, we are in business because we love art, and we love sharing our love and knowledge about art, welcoming people into the realm of art, and putting art into the hands of people who genuinely appreciate it. We have patiently been doing this in Abuja, and it is paying off. So, gradually, Abuja is becoming a vibrant art city, and I can assure you that in a very short while, Abuja would give Lagos a very stiff competition, in terms of art patronage. Having said that, you may recall that we started this art business in Lagos before we left for Abuja. Now, we have brought a blend of our Lagos and Abuja experience back to Lagos. Thought Pyramid Art Centre is now on Norman Williams Street, the belly of Ikoyi, which is a Lagos city known in the art circle with a good number of established art galleries. Thought Pyramid Art Centre has come to Lagos, and is even now formally opened for business and by this feat you will agree with me that we have, with all sense of modesty, courageously altered the course of visual art business in Nigeria.
What were you doing before you ventured into art business?
Answer: It will interest you to know that ever since I left school, it is this business of art that I have found myself indulgingly engaged in; I have been involved in extending the frontiers of art in this country in my little way, and I have also been living by and of it, in economic terms. That is why it could only be worth the while partnering us in any practical area of art to give more creative and economic value to everyone who wishes to appreciate it.
How did Thought Pyramid come about and why the name?
Answer: Thought Pyramid Art Centre was established to meet a need. Obviously, it is to meet the need for the art to be professionally housed and managed with the needed expertise, as it is done in the developed world. If you visit a gallery outside of Nigeria, you will attest to the fact that a gallery is where art finds its bearing, and the artist bears his or her muse. The name of the gallery was derived from a ‘thought’ of a symbol that can be identified with the cradle of civilisation, which historically can be found in Egypt. And it is in Egypt that you can find ‘Pyramid’. Hence, the name, Thought pyramid Art Centre.
You started promoting art at a time when economy was looking down and art was hardly appreciated in Abuja. Could you share with us what those early days were like?
Answer: So, you want to know how we were able to manoeuvre what could have killed us from the onset (laughs). Of course, we were able to do that because we were conscious and knew that there were a handful of risks ahead of us. What we did was to identify and as well mitigate those risks. Just as you mentioned in the question, we started promoting art in this Abuja when the economy was seriously looking down. Although such a period was unforeseen for us, we had already taught about that from the beginning. That period came as a disaster; it was rough just like with plummeting home values, sinking stock prices, and frozen credit markets. So, we had to pay more heed to our peculiar risk management principle which I hold dearly to heart. We were able to spot the flip side of risk which is an opportunity for survival. Of course, you know that there is a direct relationship between risk and reward: the greater the potential upside, the greater the risks involved, though not in all cases. We then tried to avoid perfection because it became obvious to us that it would be stupid for us to think that any product, especially artwork, will ever be ‘finished’ in the sense that it will make all users completely happy. But, something was going for us – our environment which exudes the lovely ambience and the cosy location. We left Lagos for Abuja where we saw a yawning gap in the arts community that was yearning for quality artistic representation; our gallery is obviously in the trendy district. Being in a good location is key for a commercial gallery because commercial galleries are for very public activities. You are dealing with the whole public. I have the understanding that gallery is for everyone, and that for me is a great thing because now I can speak to the whole world as an art promoter. We opened to cater for the art lovers here in Abuja and even beyond. And that is the reason the gallery was opened, and that is what we have been doing.
What gave you the breakthrough in the art business?
Answer: Art is like the stock market in that some prices go up, and some prices come down. In the long view, most will go up somewhat, but some also use to sink but not completely. Unlike the stock market, art business may not generate quarterly earnings or outlook forecast to give you an indication of which way they will move. The ‘dividend’ it pays is your own pleasure in owning and admiring it. Yet many investors and art promoters like us are very willing to take some risks. However, I also come to realise that risk does not equal gambling. When you cross the street, you risk being hit by a car. Most people manage the risk. You look both ways, as you cross the walk way and take other expert advice to reduce the risk as much as possible. A speeding reckless driver could still hit you, in spite of your expert precautions. The managed risk – looking before you cross – is not the same as just walking across without looking. I have always understood that I am not blindly gambling. I saw the risk clearly. But, I was very interested in knowing how the risk is being handled, and how we the art promoters, even the artwork, and artists provided good value. I know that if you have a few success stories – it means that the risks have paid off – even better. In the light of all this, I think what has given us the breakthrough is the value and the contribution and how well our art contributes to our life and the lives of artists, our patrons, and the lives of the buyers.
How does it feel being in the art business?
Answer: I cannot say I had just made any switch into art business. It has rather been looking to an avalanche of challenges at different points. I think that one of the biggest challenges of my continuing on full scale, and of my being in a full-time art business now is the pressure of competing with the cheaply made items brought in from other countries. Unfortunately, too many people have not developed an appreciation for handmade artistic creations. Meanwhile, they tend to do comparison shopping between factory-made and frankly, inferior works and those created one at a time by an artist who adds touches that no manufacturing process could hope to capture. Another challenge for me is reserving uninterrupted creative time as the cornerstone of growth and success for my business, since the vibrant nature of art is what differentiates art from other things. I see that unfortunately, this knowledge and practice can get lost in the hectic times of making, marketing and customer service. At the same time, I am happy to see that it is important to be creative in finding non-conventional ways to keep my artworks visible to the public. I also think that with the way marketing is trending, it is wise for us to make a constant effort to stay on top of traditional as well as social and digital strategies to broaden our audience. Change for me is intensely personal. I knew that for change to occur in any organization, each individual must think, feel, or do something different. So, I had to manage the change myself in a way that it was not like operating a machine or treating the human body of one ailment at a time. I realised that engaging in activities involved working with a fixed set of relationships. For me, the proper metaphor for managing change is balancing everything.
What has been the motivation for the business?
Answer: Nothing can touch us more deeply or say so much to us in so many different ways like art. Art can be a personal expression, a transference of energy or a reflection of what is happening in society at the time. The motivating factor for us is that art can break cultural and language barriers, provoke thought, elicit emotion and lift us to a higher plane. Art is what separates man from the animals. People are often attracted to the art world, experiencing the pristine calm and refinement of gallery settings like ours or festive art parties and show openings. Owning artwork has numerous benefits, of course, but the benefits are not necessarily obvious or easy to explain. Art is an investment, necessarily from a monetary perspective, and more so investment relating to your quality of life. As to whether it will go up in value over time, some art does and some art does not. What always appreciates in value, though, is the satisfaction and enjoyment that you will take in owning it, assuming you did not buy it for investment purposes only. The creation of art is an endeavour that survives and in fact thrives on innovation, imagination, discovery, investigation, diversity, acceptance, tolerance, unconventionality, exploration, inquiry, contemplation, reflection, understanding, open-mindedness, freedom of expression, freedom to experiment etc. Being exposed to the realm and results of pure creativity can seriously have positive effects on the rest of your life. Art has the potential to elevate and even transform the way you think, see and relate to the world… if you let it. Art is also a lot like real estate in terms of liquidity. In the same way that you put your house on the market, you put your art on the market and hope that at some point the perfect person comes along and buys it. We feature art that we believe the public deserves to see and that people will hopefully be interested in owning. We are not about turnover, even though turnover keeps us in business; we are about art. As with real estate, sometimes our art sells instantly; sometimes it languishes unsold for months. And that is just like any other business because we believe in it. We consider art as an asset class. We also belong to enterprising gallery group that prefers to refer to art as an investment. We have upped the ante and christened art an asset class.
Can you share with us your journey into the art business?
Answer: I wish to respond to this question from the perspective of my very personal experience. The how far I have come in this business has to do with so much experience that has helped us in this business of art. Generally speaking, art is a good investment, arguably though. For me, art is a good investment in our quality of life; it always pays dividends when it comes to enriching and beautifying our environment. I have over the years realised that while some art does go up in value over time, financial considerations should not be your sole justification for buying art. Do you want to look on your walls or your pedestals and wonder whether your art is up or down in value today? I don’t think so. There is the question of how much money should one consider setting aside to start a proper art collection. From my experience, you can collect art on any budget. If you do not have that much money to spend, you can buy art by younger artists who are just beginning their careers.
In my opinion, it is not the medium that really matters in this sense. It is the artist. Although artist can also be seen as a medium in a way. It is advisable that you learn about the artists whose art you are interested in buying. Learn about their careers. Read their resumes. Make sure that they are serious about their art, that they exhibit regularly, that they are recognised in the arts community. However, this is not without the caveat – if you are looking at experimental or non-traditional mediums, you want some insurance that the art will last. If you want to poke into the issue of the price of art, which some people consider to be so arbitrary, it is determined by concrete factors such as time, labour and the cost of materials. But, from my experience, the real determinant of price is an artist’s resume. Typically, the better the resume, the higher the price – depending on variables like the number of exhibitions, awards, distinctions, reviews, inclusions in significant books, catalogues or surveys, etc. Also, art is priced similarly to real estate. In other words, the question, for example, is how much does a similar house in the same neighbourhood cost? Is the art you are interested in buying priced comparably to art by similar artists with similar accomplishments, who live or work in the same region or geographical area, etc.? You have to determine what the ‘going rate’ is for the type of art you want to collect.
What has been the most difficult part of the journey?
Answer: Now is a difficult time for many people in the world. The current economic trends have not bode well for the art market. Selling art is never easy, even in the most robust of economies, and at times like this, it can seem nearly impossible. But confronting adversities is a fact of life. Therefore, we have adjusted to prevailing conditions in order to survive. We are very flexible, particularly with respect to selling prices, realizing that art prices fluctuate according to supply and demand market forces just like those of auto gas, stocks, electricity, and other commodities. Of course, we cannot expect our price structure to stay the same when people all around are taking salary cuts, losing their jobs, watching their stock portfolios deteriorate, or worrying about their security. This does not mean that we immediately announce to the world that we are having a 70 percent off sale, but rather that we monitor the health of the art market on an ongoing basis in order to respond appropriately to changes as they occur.
What does the art business mean to you?
Answer: Putting arts in business or vice versa means more than hanging pictures on the wall. When we think about creativity, we need to think of it as something we do every day – like thinking. We cannot avoid thinking, and creativity is the same. We cannot avoid being creative. So when we ask the question: How does the corporate world value creativity?, our focus should not be creativity but something else. Culture. Organisations need the arts. They need culture in their business. We are living in a transition time and this time calls for new models, a new management mind set and new management tools. Today’s organisations need new competencies because they are dealing with new challenges as could be depicted in art and culture.
How do you go about acquiring your artworks?
Answer: Opening an art gallery is a difficult task. It is meant for people who love art and the art world. We have been sustained by the continuous sale of quality artworks to our loyal collectors and our friends, along with an infusion of new clientele. Often, we retain a portion of the sale and the remaining portion goes to our artists from whom we get our works. We have cultivated friendships and contacts amongst investors, artists, collectors, the media, and beyond and we have been doing this like a social, independent and business-minded people who are ready to carve out a place in an already bustling Nigerian art market. This is couple with the fact that we have been completely committed to art business and being consistent, with some months providing almost no income and others providing a considerable lot. We have decided what type of art to sell and who our clientele is. For example, we have contemporary, abstract, sculptures, prints, furniture or a mixture of different types. Our artworks are varied, and we also have thriving and driving themes behind our choice of artistic decisions that attract people to be our repeat customers.
Which ones are your fastest selling artworks?
Answer: Our fastest selling artworks are works that can help you to understand who you are. They are artworks which enhance an aspect of culture as a simple act of individual expression that fills the need to connect people across time and space. For us such works are the ones that evoke ideas and memories of our own experiences of love and perhaps our own experiences with the creativity itself. We are talking about artworks that fit into the most commonly-experienced, although not-quite-primitive, and the problem-solving aspect of the brain; we are also talking about artworks that express our imaginations; that connect and speak to people as a group and as individual… the artworks that give people what they want.
Who is your favourite artist?
Answer: I have several favourite contemporary artists. I look for artists who are doing something that is unique – that has a singular voice – and also has technical excellence. My choice of very favourite artist may seem somewhat self-serving, but it really is not. The choice derives from a number of years of watching these artists persevere and accomplish. These artists offer solution that could be installed or hung on walls … and then persist in learning and growing artistically and creatively from every single work day after day and year after year. I see them as expressionist for their carved lines. Looking at their works, you can see that it has been a real process to get to where they are now. Their works are so well structured, yet they have an ethereal quality. When I look at their paintings, or their installation art, I can understand the underlying muscles, and there is so much beauty in the way they couch their interests. They are masters of their mediums and you get the sense that their patterns and their brushstrokes are near perfection. They typify free spirits always experimenting with new techniques. Their art has spiritual beauty and happiness. They have an amazing sense of colour proportion and movement that conveys a lot of subtle and raw emotions. The favourite artists, for me, are those that touch profound and personal chords: beauty, trust, clarity, mastery, harmony, authenticity and sincerity.
What is the most interesting part of running your gallery?
Answer: The most interesting in what we do is that we sell trust, creatively-visual solution and a white canvas, and the promise of a titillating and scintillating experience – an uplifting spirit captured in images. It is also interesting for us getting exposure and getting exposure in front of the right people who will appreciate our style and have the money to buy a piece of artwork to help us remain full-time in business. For us, it is reserving uninterrupted creative time.
Where do you see yourself in another couple of years?
Answer: I am always very conscious of the saying that “Man proposes, and God disposes.” As a Christian, I want to live that entirely to God who is to determine for us in His own time. Though it does not mean that we as human beings do not have plans for the future. But, ours is subservient to God’s plans for us.