Gallerist of Interest
‘It’s a very exciting time to be a black woman in the arts’
with Wunika Mukan
Based in Lagos, Nigeria, Wunika Mukan Gallery was set up in 2019 with the objective of championing emerging talent in contemporary art from the African continent and the diaspora. In this week’s ______ Of Interest, we caught up with the gallery’s founding director, Wunika Mukan.
The founding director of her eponymous gallery, Wunika Mukan curatorial practice relies on an approach balancing instinct and experience. A commitment that began before the gallery, Mukan has spent an extensive amount of time working in Nigeria’s art and cultural space with institutions like LagosPhoto Festival and Nigeria’s Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. Then, three years after opening the gallery’s doors, Mukan made her international fair debut in the gallery LAB pavilion of the 2022 iteration of FNB Art Joburg. Since then, Mukan’s diary has been intentionally filled with efforts to cement Wunika Mukan Gallery’s place on the global stage.
A good entry into the gallery regarding where it is, where it has been and where it plans to be; the group exhibition Love Your Family does well to reflect Wunika Mukan Gallery’s ethos. “I loved this show so much because of the originality of all the artists,” exclaims Mukan. “It meant a lot to me to show these artists because there is the constant temptation to copy whatever visual arts style is trending. But every piece in the exhibition was reflective of the artist’s individuality. The pieces were brave in their style, palette, boldness and subject matter.”
Earlier this year you changed the gallery’s name from Pacers Gallery to Wunika Mukan Gallery. Could you please tell me about what informed that decision?
Pacers was the name of my mothers fashion line in the early 80’s in Kano Nigeria. It was my first introduction to the arts, photography, design and my mother remains my biggest supporter. I thought it only fitting to start my gallery with her.
As I have grown in my curatorial practice, I have also become more confident in my role. I knew it was time to transition into my full self, in every way. To own and really take charge of the responsibility the gallery has to its artists. It was important for me to do this with confidence and be okay with people having to learn how my name is pronounced. It was important to make the association between myself and the incredible artists and programs we’re working on in this corner of the world.
With that said, what would you say are the series of events that informed your decision to set up Wunika Mukan Gallery and how would you describe the experience so far?
Becoming a gallery operator was a natural evolution of my career. It represents the culmination of my experience and talents and interests. Starting from my time at the African Artists Foundation, a non for profit space that exposed me to phenomenal artists who trusted me to collaborate and execute our shared vision. I have had the honor of working on large scale projects like LagosPhoto festival, the National Art Competition and project managing Nigeria’s debut at the Venice Biennale. . All of this has given me a firm grasp of artistic temperament which permitted opportunities to curate multiple solo and group art shows and led me to my current role where I continue to do the work I started many years ago, using a different mechanism..
Last year your gallery exhibited in the gallery LAB pavilion of the 15th edition of FNB Art Joburg. Could you tell me what that experience was like for you?
FNB Art Joburg 2022 is a historical moment for me because it was my gallery’s first international fair. It was the best learning experience myself and my team could’ve asked for. I learnt a lot from my engagement with guests, other curators and collectors. Having our international debut at a globally renowned fair within Africa also gave a sense of pride in seeing how far the industry had grown since the days I started out.
Just as important was the benefit to our participating artist, particularly Adulphina Imuede whoalso attended and described the experience as emotional.
How would you describe the collecting culture in Nigeria since you first established Wunika Mukan Gallery?
The culture of collecting art is by no means new to Nigerians. What has occured is simply an expansion of access. Now that there are more shows and more artists, younger Nigerians are taking on the habit of collecting art as well. They are often well informed, and invested in the artists themselves as much as they are with the work.
They attend shows locally and abroad, follow auctions and also organize and engage with local artists. They’re also intune with their identities and what it means and looks like to be a Contemporary African, they use art as a creative outlet as well as investment , they are making space for themselves at the table and dictating what is important and relevant to them.
Before opening the gallery, you worked extensively in the art and cultural space. Considering this and the time you have spent in other parts of the continent, as well as abroad, would you say sets the art scene in Nigeria apart from others?
This is easy. Nobody hustles like Nigerians. The enterprising and entrepreneural spirit of Nigerian artists is unmatched. And the sheer concentration of skilled artists often prompts the ecosystem to always seek new ways to penetrate, explore and be seen. Also, our artists are digitally savvy and incredibly active on social media which gives them greater access and attention.
Let’s talk about the group show Love Your Family now. What was the series of events that led to you posing questions around our ideas of love, especially those we first learn in the home?
Love Your Family has always been a saying dear to me. I use it as a reminder of what I’m doing and why. Life can be full of heavy distractions that push us further away from our true voice and selves. Sometimes it can even be well meaning. But the older we get the more autonomy we have in controlling what we let in and keep out. Nothing to me is more important than the people we allow into our lives to exchange love and support. The people we love are an extension of who we are and what we stand for. I see family as more than the traditional nuclear or extended structure. I wanted to explore the theme of love and family because it has different meanings for everyone. No matter who we call our family, we open ourselves up to be seen. We open ourselves up to the possibility of harm and/or redemption. How do we choose who to let in? I was very interested in posing this question to artists that I have spent a lot of time admiring from afar, some new and some mid-career.
So you brought together artists from across the continent and the diaspora to visually discuss their interpretations of love and family. Is there a thread running through the artists’ practices?
Love your family was probably the show I put together the quickest because it was the most honest reflection of my personality. I loved this show so much because of the originality of all the artists. They all have such unique styles. It meant a lot to me to show these artists because there is the constant temptation to copy whatever visual arts style is trending. But every piece in the exhibition was reflective of the artist’s individuality. The pieces were brave in their style, palette, boldness and subject matter.
The world is looking at us right now. It’s almost as if we will inform the future. This isn’t just in art. It’s in music, fashion, food, television and film. Where do you see the contemporary African art scene going?
This is easy. Onwards. African art has expanded so much and there is a lot of room for more growth. Art is essential to the expression of self and society and Nigerian society will always give artists something to reflect upon and be inspired by. Art is giving Nigerians influence not just reputationally, but financially. I foresee more artists making a living from their work, more art fairs, more galleries, more avenues to develop skills. Through the arts we are only becoming more connected and influential as Africans. It’s a very exciting time to be in the arts. It’s a very exciting time to be a black woman in the arts.