Interview by Yinsey Wang
Maryam Lawal, a British-Nigerian lawyer, founded The House of African Art (HAART) in 2018. Passionate about the arts, Lawal aims to champion art from Africa and its related diaspora through this exciting new platform.
HAART is hosting a free exhibition from 21 to 26 March 2019 in London. Celebrating innovative and fresh perspectives from the African continent, the exhibition showcases work by artists such as Àsìkò; Aurélia Durand; Ayesha Feisal; John Madu; Kojo Marfo; and Emmanuel Unaji. Unlike traditional exhibitions, the event uses a pop-up model to engage a wider audience and will feature performances, talks and events.
Yinsey Wang interviews the entrepreneur on her love of art, her passion for representation and how the idea for HAART came about.
What motivated you to start HAART?
I have always had a long-standing personal interest in art. Throughout my time at school and secondary school, I would create a lot of paintings and drawings. I remember having some of my artwork hanging up around school buildings and the great sense of pride and happiness that I felt once I had finished producing a piece of artwork. I studied and made art until I was around 15 or 16 years old and then the time came for me to start thinking about what “serious career” I was going to pursue. I ended up studying and training towards practicing as a lawyer, which has been my professional career for the past 5 years. However in my free time, I like to keep up to date with what is happening in the art world by frequently going to art galleries, exhibitions and art fairs, whether in London (where I live) or in Lagos in Nigeria, where I am originally from.
A few years ago, whilst I was on a trip to Lagos I was exploring the galleries, speaking to gallerists and appreciating the latest artwork being exhibited, I thought it would be great to showcase some of the work that I was seeing out there in London. I did not take the idea further at the time. However, on my trip to Lagos in April of 2018 the idea came to me again, and from there HAART was born.
You are a lawyer by profession, do you find those skills and experiences useful in your work with HAART?
Absolutely. From the moment that I decided I was going to set up HAART, I knew that I would have to take certain steps like incorporating the company, registering my trademark and drafting a variety of legal agreements. I think that the legal knowledge, training and experience that I have built up over the last 10 years has laid a really strong foundation for me to run HAART.
When I first started connecting with the artists I work with, I remember meeting a Ghanaian artist and chatting to him about what I do and my goals for HAART. At first, I felt slightly nervous about telling him that I was a lawyer, as a career in the arts and a career in corporate law do not immediately go hand in hand! However, I remember how enthusiastic and pleased he was to hear it. He said: “Maryam, it’s great that you are a lawyer as it means that you can advocate for us artists and use your skills and experience to represent us in a professional capacity. A lot of artists from Africa are “represented” by people who are not Africans and who have very little knowledge or interest in Africa. The fact that you are both an African and a lawyer will be an asset for you and your artists.” This was a really defining moment for me. It was at this point that I realised that my legal skills and experiences could actually be used to make a difference in people’s lives.
What is a piece of artwork that has inspired you the most?
I wouldn’t say that there is just one piece of artwork that has inspired me the most; however there are certain artists who consistently produce bodies of works which both inspire and excite me. One of the main aims of HAART is to showcase artwork that is bold, striking and cutting edge and thereby dispel any limiting connotations of what artists from the continent are producing. Whenever I see work by artists such as Nigerian pop-artist Williams Chechet or Moroccan photographer Hassan Hajjaj (who is probably one of my favourite contemporary artists), I feel inspired all over again and I’m reminded of the importance this element of HAART’s mission.
Where did your passion for art come from?
As mentioned earlier, I have always has a long-standing personal interest in art. As a child and throughout school and secondary school, I used to make a lot of artwork and I remember my family buying me large sketchpads and professional drawing kits to keep me occupied and out of trouble! I also remember when I was around 10 years old and my father asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up and it was always enthusiastically “AN ARTIST!” However my professional career took a different turn and so I’ve kept up with the arts over the years by going to art galleries, exhibitions and art fairs. So I would say that art has always played a role in my life. The main difference is that now I am finally able to start developing my passion for the arts on a more full-time basis.
Why in particular is HAART’s focus on Africa and its related diaspora? What is it about the community’s stories do you feel speaks to you?
As a dual Nigerian and British citizen who was born and brought up in the United Kingdom but who actively maintains strong ties to Nigeria and other African countries, I feel that the stories and issues which many of the African artists I meet deal with in their works, such as on identity and exploring traditional African cultural origins, relate to me on a personal level. I think this is important as it allows me to really connect with the artists I work with once we’ve established that our interests, views and ambitions are aligned.
HAART aims to provide a platform for artists from across the African continent and the diaspora who are producing really cutting edge, striking, vibrant work, by giving them greater exposure, recognition and support for their work. Artists from Africa are still largely underrepresented on a global level and through my platform I aim to get people to appreciate the diversity of creative talent from across the continent and thereby provide the artists with greater recognition and exposure for their work.
What has been the biggest challenge so far in relation to your journey with HAART?
People always say that starting your own business is hard but I don’t think that I fully appreciated just how much work it really is! Starting HAART has been the most difficult and yet the most rewarding thing I have ever done. From sending out email after email to get people in the industry to spare just 30 minutes of their time to speak to you and listen to your ideas, to reviewing and negotiating contracts that I’ve never seen before and getting various organisations to appreciate that HAART is still just a self-funded start-up business, getting a new business off the ground really is one of the most challenging things you can do. However I have honestly loved every moment of it. I’m learning new things, meeting new, interesting people and evolving as the business does too. I love that I have the ability to tailor things to be exactly how I want them to be and to craft and shape HAART so that it begins to embody the visions that I have for it.
What do you wish you had known before that you know now since starting HAART?
Luckily enough, I actually don’t think that there are particular things I wish I had known or steps which I now feel I should or shouldn’t have taken since starting HAART. I have tried to make sure that I let HAART grow and develop organically, and take the time to build the relationships with the artists I work with and also the team that are assisting me. It is still very early days though, so maybe if you ask me this question in a few years time my response will be completely different!