By Christy Anyanwu
For Dr Kessington Enaye Okundaye, art runs in the family. The passion for artistic works prompted the serial entrepreneur, who has a PhD in Business Administration and a graduate of Information Systems Management, to set up Eko Art Gallery in Houston, Texas, United States of America. It is noteworthy that he is the son of renowned artist, Chief (Mrs) Nike Okudaye, director of Nike Art Gallery, Lagos. In this interview, he opened the curtain on his journey in the world of art and business.
Tell us how you got involved in art?
Before getting into business, I worked mostly in the finance sector. I was a senior executive in one of the largest banks in the US. I left 9-5pm work and went into full time business in 2005 and I never looked back. Art is a passion apart from the fact that it is in the family. For several years, my wife and mother, Nike, had been pushing hard for us to do something in Houston, Texas. My wife Uloma Okundaye is the Director of Eko Art Gallery in Houston. Seeing her passion for the arts you would almost think that she is a direct descendant of my mother more than me. She is the driving force behind our setting up the gallery
in Houston. I have multiple business interests, ranging from real estate development, property company and event centre here in Nigeria. My approach to every- thing I have ventured into is always to focus on how adds value to myself, the stakeholders and general populace. When my wife decided that we get into it, we first opened a gallery in our house. We did that for a couple of years, just to test what the response in the local environment in Houston. Then we began to discover that there is an ecosystem of art enthusiasts within Houston. Our focus is exclusively on Nigerian artists; we don’t want to stretch ourselves into regions we are not familiar with.
How do you get the artworks?
After opening the gallery, we’re discovering art collectors and artists, and learnt about a community for people who love arts. Before the COVID-19 pandemic came you would go to the gallery in Nigeria and you would meet people from all over the world. Many of them come from the US. You have a handful of places in the US for people who have interest in African culture and arts. Houston has one of the largest black populations in the US. There’s a lot of awareness of Nigerian art and artists, including our music. Even on the radio they play a lot of Nigerian songs. So, we very quickly realized that there’s a bigger audience for Africans. Then, we began to push our indigenous artists in that environment. Our focus is exclusively Nigerian artist. We don’t want to press ourselves into terrain we are not familiar with. We have rich art and culture all across Africa but you see arts is not just any commodity you put a price tag on in a shelf; there’s always a story behind every work of art. So, we want to be that vehicle to tell that story. We have a lot of stories to
tell within the Nigerian art space. That’s why we are focusing exclusively on Nigerian artists. Very importantly, artists need to start earning serious income from what they do and we are hoping that we will play our part in ensuring that we bring Nigerian up and coming artists and even the masters to par with the Western contemporary artist. How do we achieve that? It is by giving them a place where their expression is closer to Western culture of African art.
Is there any between the art collection in US gallery and the Nigeria gallery?
The US gallery is a miniature of the Lagos gallery. We are keeping to the same traditional artists and art- works from this gallery; we are not going too far. We need to tell a story we have developed here. We want it to be known that this is from Nigeria. The word Eko is probably one of the most popular words in Nigeria. We want to build on Eko itself, the Lagosian. We want that name to tell a lot of stories in fabrics, paintings, carvings and literary works. We want to replicate what we have her in the US gallery.
When exactly did Eko Gallery start?
Eko Gallery itself is two and half years old. We moved the gallery from the house to the actual gallery space. The house is more of a residential community in the outskirt of Houston. If you are an art enthusiast you will definitely find the art wherever it is. Then, we find there’s a community of artists sacredly located in downtown Houston in Sawyer Arts District. A family that took some abandoned warehouse along train track, this is like rice plant but it’s probably over several decades that have not been used. They took those warehouses, multiple of them, spanning like five different streets and converted them into art studios and art galleries. Today, when you talk about arts, no one goes into that part of town unless they are going for the arts. I think they are probably about 4,000 plus art studios and galleries there. That was the place we felt we should have the Eko Gallery. We are hoping we will be inviting more artists from Nigeria. Early in the year we invited Ayo Ola, a lady artist from Nigeria. We want to continue in that thread of inviting different artists, having exhibitions, workshops, because I think that is the first way to start putting the artist in their face.
In the community where we are, we need to reintroduce this artist to them. It is one thing to tell the story through the art, but it’s another thing for them to know the artist in person. The plan is for them to work in the studio (Houston) and have their exhibitions. That is our plan for them. We want to be able to work with the artist, we provide accommodation, we provide whatever we can, give them a place to work and plan events with the artist during their stay with us.
Are you working with old generation or new generation artists, to stock the gallery?
Frankly speaking, you want to work with the young artist. There are collectors who are acquainted with well-known names. They are able to value African work based on the value of some of the old artist. They have a target. For example, many of them are familiar with the contemporary European arts; this is the potential value of an African/Nigerian artist. We want to invest in up and coming artists. Some of these collectors are not just impressed in beautiful works; they are investing in something that has substantial monetary value. There are two things that drive an art collector. Potential value of the work, so when he’s putting his money behind it, he knows it’s like goldmine.
What is your vision for the gallery?
First, we have to build the market which refers to the collectors. Then, we want to bring the collectors to Nigeria. We want to be able to contribute in one way to tourism. Imagine you have something in your house you love so much and one day you have the opportunity to go to that place where it was made. It’s like go- ing to the birthplace of the artist. I remember when we went to Jamaica to visit the birthplace of Bob Marley. My wife insisted my 50th birthday will be in Jamaica. When we entered the compound of Bob Marley, it’s like we are finally witnessing, we entered his room, his kitchen, the house he grew up in, the tea cups, his plates…you sit in the bedroom where he sat and com- pose one of his popular songs. His guitar is still there. We went to his graveside where he, his grandparents and siblings were buried. And we exclaimed, ‘Bob Marley, so this is where you came from!’ So people collecting African arts, when they get to come to Af- rica, it’s going to be an awesome experience.
What lessons has life taught you as a person?
Humility is the biggest life lesson. Everything that we have in life is temporary: health, wealth, and happiness come and go. I think at the end of the day, for me, if you humble yourself, you will be exalted. If you exalt yourself you will be disappointed where you find yourself, that’s my biggest lesson in life.
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