Duality has been the defining characteristic of Simi Launay’s life thus far. She’s British-Nigerian, a native English and Yoruba speaker that’s fluent in French, a creative and an economist, a practising artist and gallerist.
Fusing her passion for art with her business-mindedness, Launay created Ungalleried, which was born out of her own difficulty in approaching galleries for representation. Ungalleried’s aim is to open up the market for creatives who might otherwise fall outside of the limits of the traditional gallery model. Ungalleried exists partly online, partly in physical space, aiming to “bring the traditional brick and mortar model into a global and digital age.” Just like Launay herself whose personhood, art, and interests have often straddled borders, “Ungalleried stands for a new wave in the art market for those individuals who live beyond boundaries — be they physical, cultural or geographical.”
In this Q&A, ÌMỌ̀ DÁRA got the chance to talk to Launay about her entree into art collecting, the necessity of African art collectors, and her hopes for the future of the African art market.
I am Simi Fapohunda, recently Simi Launay. I'm a British-Nigerian. I grew up in the UK, but I was born in Nigeria. My family moved to the UK when I was three. From a very early age, I nurtured a passion for everything creative. The first time my parents asked me what I wanted to be when I was older, I said I wanted to be a performing artist, and they were like, "performing arts?!" So that shut it down, unfortunately. I was a straight-A student, so my parents suggested that I be a doctor instead.
I love my parents and I know they made these suggestions because they only ever wanted the best for us. As academics and migrants moving to the UK, they understood that in order to—from their perspective—thrive in Western society, all you had to do was have a "respected" profession. That way you can find employment anywhere in the world and you will always be financially secure. I think that the arts were a great unknown to them, as well as the prospects of what you could potentially be as a creative. So, I think that they were just worried about me and genuinely thought I was a bit mad, without all my wits and maybe a bit naïve.
I ended up studying economics. My first job was in recruiting and then I moved into executive search. I specialised in recruiting senior professionals into Sub-Saharan Africa, which was a great fit for me because I really felt like I was playing my part in building the nation-states and economies of Africa. I’m passionate about making an impact in Africa. I’m not interested in power, but rather, influence. I want to have a stake in its development and its growth story. I ended that journey for unfortunate reasons. That can be another story but not for this interview.
At the point that I decided to move on, my husband and I were also having a conversation about whether or not we would stay in the UK. My husband is French and he had moved to London so that we could be together. So, I felt like it was only fair to explore moving abroad. Now we’ve found ourselves in Portugal.
I wouldn't say it's why I collect African art. I think it's one of the reasons that I enjoy it. I love all types of art. My favourite place to be ever, anywhere in the world, is always a gallery. But I feel like if I can't even love my own art, why should I expect somebody else to? And I do love it, but I want to learn more about it too. If I can collect art from somebody else or somewhere else that was inspired by another culture, I should also be able to collect art that was inspired by my own culture.
It came from really just wanting to learn more about Yoruba culture. We also wanted to build a collection that would have value. There aren't many collectors solely focused on classic Yoruba pieces. We want to ensure that we bring the value back to classical Yoruba art and make sure that if we were going to start collecting, we wouldn’t do it sporadically. We wanted to know that we could do it with some rigour because if you look at classical Yoruba art, it's not actually the most expensive. But I think it's under-appreciated and there isn't one collector who holds so much of it.
There are a couple of things that play into this. There is a lot of it, but at the same time, there isn't a lot of it that's of very good quality. If it has the provenance and it has the quality, then that's what lends it its value. Also, the reality about how the stories connected to these objects have been transmitted, adds to its value. I feel like the stories surrounding classical Yoruba art are much more factual than works made by artists from other ethnic groups because you have more Yoruba orators of those stories. I feel like as Nigerian people, we have this sense of national pride, which means that even though, at the time when we started collecting, I admit to having limited knowledge on different aspects of our culture, you can't show me ere ibeji and I wouldn't know that it's an ibeji and I wouldn't understand the stories behind the ibeji. I understand that this is a huge part of our culture. So I feel like it's less mythologized in that sense.
Whereas if you look at Kota, when I talk about the way that the stories have been transmitted, not many people know anyone from the tribes that speak the Kota language. Not many people know who they are. Not many people know anything about the stories and why these statutes came into existence. So, I feel like people have been able to say whatever they want to say about them. Their value lies in this mythology and exoticism.
A lot of the value in African art has actually been propagated and built by Francophone dealers and they have a lot more stock of works from the Francophone African countries. These dealers have more research that they have written, which is important to note because it doesn't necessarily come from the African perspective. So, in terms of the market forces surrounding those types of classical pieces, they're a lot more Westernised, they're a lot more commercialised, and that's why I think the value has been able to increase more so than Yoruba art.
There are many kinds of assets that lend to the label of "high quality." Expert dealers and the people who I love to learn from the most are able to identify objects based on defining characteristics. They can say that this figurine was carved by this particular artist and we see that because they had a signature style. That's part of quality. If not that particular artist, then the atelier that it came from because they would have had maybe one or more artists who were creating these pieces and they know that because they also had a signature style. I think that's part of quality. I think another contributor to quality is whether or not it's been preserved—was the piece able to withstand the test of time? And of course, the question of authenticity. Has it actually been authenticated with the age and date correlating to the period that it should? You must look at the craftsmanship, as well.
Well, I think that you still have to use the same standards because the idea of provenance is something that the art market as a whole has instituted. I learned, in a course at Sotheby's titled "How to Run a Contemporary Art Gallery", that there are various mechanisms that dealers use to increase the provenance of a piece. For instance, if the artwork is in a personal collection, curators can ask the collector to lend it to a museum exhibition, or the piece might get included in a book that's being published.
I think that because the market was developed in the West, you still have to use these same metrics. I’m interested in seeing how these same metrics can be transmitted for use in Africa. That’s why I think it’s so important that we have more African collectors. We need to build more African institutions because, right now, you still have to work within the parameters of the art market and its established rules. As far as I see it, there aren't enough African institutions for collectors to say, "Oh, it's been lent to an important institution in Ibadan". Everyone can signpost the British Museum or the Quai Branly. We need to have institutions in Africa with the same name recognition so that we can increase the value of classical African art objects in African collections. We need to have more African collectors who can say, "This came from Charles Ratton, but then it went to an African collector called Simi Launay, and then it went to another African collector called Dangote”.
Another conversation that I've been having with myself is how I can plug my skill set in. I'd love to speak to the board of culture and arts in Nigeria for instance, so they can ensure that the curriculum is updated with how we should be transmitting stories of African history. How can we ensure that there's funding in place for artists, so that on the question of repatriation, we can actually have a valid argument. The British Museum understands the value of those classical pieces more than Africa.
Don't get me wrong, I think it's great that people have the rhetoric of, "They've stolen our work, give it back", but instead of buying that Gucci or whatever, go and invest the money and build an institution. I just feel like people need to put their rhetoric and their actions together. It's almost laughable from a restitution perspective to say "send it back to Africa". Send it back to where? We must develop our artistic institutions to the point whereby the work can be restored and preserved. For me personally, I feel like that's my future in the arts in Africa—to ensure that we have the right influence, the right voices, and the right experiences to build these artistic institutions so that our art can live beyond us. We want our grandchildren and our children's children's children to see these works.
For classical African art, I think that it will always retain the label of African art. In Modern art, for instance, I think that the label can be less restrictive. If you look at Picasso, for example, I think he should be seen as an African artist even though he's not African. He took inspiration directly from classical African art. Cubism, that's African art. I saw this really interesting exhibition called "Picasso Primitif" at the musée du quai Branly in Paris a couple of years ago and it directly juxtaposed Picasso's works with classical African art.
Obviously the "primitive" label is quite controversial. The use of that word caters to an audience that doesn't understand why it's harmful. We have to ensure that we flood the market with the appropriate language and the appropriate research so that people can be more educated. The use of outdated language is a question of education. They've been educated on "primitive art." In addition, there needs to be enough Africans who are suitably offended, to say, "Actually no, it's not primitive. This is what it is. This is the correct terminology that we should be using. Why is our art called "primitive" when it's from the same period as Renaissance art?" It's also our responsibility to ensure that we have enough literature to supplant the outmoded work that's already out there. I just think that there aren't enough academics right now who are African themselves that are looking at classical African to address that topic.
African art and African forms need to be elevated not only in the art market but also, in terms of preference. I was actually having a really interesting debate recently with a friend of mine about this sort of "threshold" of Africanness. She's an interior designer and she creates furniture that is inspired by Africa, but it doesn't use Ankara or Kente cloth. She takes inspiration directly from African forms and African themes, but she's been accused of not being African enough and not being able to be put into that category because she doesn't have the Ankara in her designs.
Even I've gone on this journey. When I first moved to Portugal I started to paint and that was how Ungalleried started. It was also around the time we started to collect and I was thinking, "I really want to paint African people", because I missed working in Africa, I missed African stories. So, I started to paint African figures because I wanted to transmit these stories. I was thinking, whenever I go into galleries, I rarely see people who look like me depicted in figurative works. I wanted to contribute to that. I think that it was vital to see one’s self, reflected in the pantheon of art as an individual.
I've been on this journey for the last year and a half or so, just thinking about the type of work I want to produce. I think that art should transcend skin colour, you know. I feel like just because you're painting an African person, it doesn't necessarily mean I have to paint them black. I just feel like as an individual, I have way more defining characteristics than my skin colour. I'm a woman, I am a sister, I am a friend, I am an entrepreneur. Yes, I'm Black, I'm also funny, I think. I'm passionate about art. There's more to me than my Blackness. I love artists who are able to challenge the idea of nonchalant Blackness and not having to explain ourselves. We should have reached a point in time where we can paint ourselves blue.
I'm only Black when I'm not in Africa. I'm only Black in Europe. I'm Black in Asia. Well, in Africa, I'm Simi. When I'm in Nigeria, I'm first identified by my tribe or my father's town. First my name, then my father's town, then my tribe, then I'm Nigerian. So, I feel like when you're in Africa and you're guided by whatever creative forces you're submerged in. You're just creating. You just are and you just exist. That's a message that I would also like to see transmitted more.
My husband spent many years living and working in Conakry, Guinea. I first became interested in classical African art when I used to visit and saw the work first-hand, as an adult. We went to a dealer over there, and we saw one of the figurines that comes from the region where my husband worked, Boké. We saw a nimba figure from the Baga people. It's a sign of fertility and it's a symbol of the Baga people. It was one of the first pieces that we bought. It's not real, but we still have it! We didn't know at the time and the dealer obviously told us that it's very old. But I wouldn't say it was a mistake. We would actually like to have another nimba, a real one, but I want to commission something that takes inspiration from the classical form too. One of Guinea's largest exports is bauxite, the ore used to produce aluminium, and it's in the region where the Baga people come from. So, I'd actually like to commission a nimba to be made from aluminium, which would pay homage to the region and its people.
So that was the first piece we bought. Then we bought the Gelede mask. And then the ose Sango. It's beautiful! We also have an epa mask. It's huge. It's from Ekiti, my father's state. We recently bought a torque, which was the Yoruba currency and we want to buy some more because I'd like to have a wall of these. We have a Kota mask that's on its way too! We're still looking for more Yoruba pieces. I really want to have an ere ibeji. If you find really good ones, they're beautiful, but there are a lot of them.