“We are a space for artists to experiment” – Jumoke Sanwo on Revolving Art Incubator

Speaking with Jumoke Sanwo is often like taking in a very interesting lecture. Sanwo, director and founder of Revolving Art Incubator is one of the people shaping a new phase in the arts and culture scene in Lagos, with an emphasis on pushing a new and braver approach to art. Revolving Art Incubator, (RAI), a multi-use space, which Sanwo established in 2016 describes itself as an alternative art space and gallery. Located in Silverbird Galleria, an upscale mall in Victoria Island, (RAI) has, since its opening made a mark with a number of exhibitions and partnerships with a mix of new and established artists on the Lagos scene. Strikingly though, it aims to be more than a gallery, and since opening, Sanwo has partnered with NGOs and artists groups to hold events, and provided residencies for up and coming artists. Speaking about how the project came about, Sanwo, who is herself an artist, says that while there are an increasing number of galleries in Lagos, she noticed “there were not enough or spaces for artist to meet up, to be able to engage and to have a space where artists can meet up and engage in varied levels, intellectually and talking about sharing ideas, and I felt there was not enough spaces like that around Lagos. most of the places were for showcasing finished works like galleries and hotels and lobbies, and I felt there had to be a space for artists to meet up.” Her idea was initially to set up on the mainland of Lagos but found that price and freedom of movement was a barrier to locating her space there.  She’d been searching for a location for such a space for some time before she got a call from the management of Silverbird Galleria who’d been following her work as an artist and were interested in a collaboration. At the time, Silverbird was under Amcom, the asset management company set up in 2010 to stabilize Nigeria’s banking and financial sector. Sanwo says they had differing ideas about the possibilities of the space, but her idea finally won out. “They wanted me to come and set up a gallery space for them and I just told them that I had a different idea which was like an art incubator, a space for artists to be able to do a myriad of things beyond just showcasing the work….I wasn’t expecting to hear from them again because I thought it would not be of interest to them. I mean I just told them nonetheless. So I was rather surprised when I got a call from them.”

For Sanwo, the relationship to RAI’s current space was a pleasant development from the initial space she was offered and RAI’s location in a spot that was formerly a staff exit, a forgotten and neglected space was quite a deliberate choice, she says “When they called me back, they wanted to show me a space within the mall which is like a shop space but while I was there meeting with them I told them we should have a look around. We walked around a little bit, we arrived at where RAI is situated, which is like an exit space, it was a designated exit space for the staff. When I got there I thought wow, this is such an amazing space and to them it was a dead space, it didn’t mean much to them _ and up until the time we were going to open they tried to convince me not to take the space because they didn’t understand what we were trying to do. And I told them two reasons, I loved the fact that it was accessible to all.” She adds, “I’ve always been against the notion that art has to be something elitist or something that you have to get invited to view or to engage…people should engage art of a daily basis as they are moving from one place to another …. I loved the fact that the workers are able to see the work and that there was a flow of energy within the space and that fascinated me a lot.”

Workers’ space or not though, RAI is still on Victoria Island, close to all the posh homes and amenities for Lagos’ elite. In contrast to the island which is home to quite a few, the mainland has few galleries. Surely if the aim is to expand access to the arts and artists development, a mainland location would have made more sense? Sanwo has a riposte to the assumption that Victoria Island’s proximity to wealth, and a relatively clued up audience of potential wealthy buyers was the real draw for RAI. She says emphatically that it was not the attraction. The attraction she says is that Victoria Island and its environs are fast becoming the hub for the social lives of Lagos’s middling sort.  “I think V.I. is actually rather central. A lot of people coming in from the mainland from the island to work… five days a week, you find this influx of people in the morning and then an outflux in the evening. So even though V.I. is thought of as an elite neighborhood, it is also a working district as well”  This demographic of workers, particular young, and upwardly mobile adults who live mostly on the mainland are the core audience Sanwo wants to reach out to, as well as the usual suspects on the Island.

We have this group of upwardly mobile adults who would also like to spend some of their spare time to engage the arts, to have conversations, to have dialogue. Some of them are at some level failed artists who have gone into other professions due to the pressure of sustaining themselves. So, you find we are reviving this urge in them to go back to the arts. So, in a way we have found a way to cater to that demographic. The thing about the island is that it is central, so you find people coming in from the various neighborhoods as well…Lekki, Ajah, and it goes further down the axis as well. In a way that that will be the presumption, but when you look at it at a deeper level you realize that there is a huge chunk of people who are not elitist in anyway but are always sort of around V.I. or V.I, which has some proximity which they can easily access.” Predictably, Sanwo identifies sustainable funding as the venture’s biggest challenge. “Since inception we have been self-funding; we’ve looked for ingenious ways to make sure that things run- trade by barter; getting people to support us with their time.” She’s optimistic about RAI’s prospects, and is also working on expanding the base of their activities to ensure its success. They’ve struck a few partnerships, notably a media partnership with PopCentral TV, a small media production outfit. The partnership with PopCentral she says is exciting because the company is launching a channel on DsTV, which will allow RAI to participate in embedding art into popular culture in Nigeria. The drinks brand Amarula, who supply drinks for events are another notable supporter. While she stresses that there are conversations happening with potential patrons and sponsors, she’s careful about the kind of organizations and institutions she’s approached for support.  The emphasis for RAI is not just selling art but also being a space for the development of artists and their work. “We don’t want it to be another commercial venture; we are looking for people who are into a long term developmental goal for the arts”

Revolving Art Inclubator is located at Silverbird Galleria 133, Ahmadu Bello Way Victoria Island, Lagos

Dele Meiji

Dele Meiji is a writer.