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facing the Covid-19, the digital shift of African galleries

“It’s dead from home dead”, laments the Tunisian gallery owner Aïcha Gorgi, based in Sidi Bou Saïd. In this charming blue and white village perched on the heights of Carthage, nothing is the same since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic. “My last exhibition dates back to last February. The activity is almost at a standstill ”, sighs this leading woman, whose turnover has plunged by 70% in 2020.

The most hopeless thing, she says, is not being able to sell your youngest artists. Uncertainty requires, the rare Tunisian collectors still active prefer to rely on safe values. “Fortunately, I own the walls of my gallery”, she slips, relieved to have been able to preserve her two employees.

In Tunisia, as elsewhere in Africa, galleries do not enjoy safety nets, such as the freezing of rents or the deferral of social contributions. The chain cancellation of fairs also dealt them a severe blow. Only the 1-54 salon, specializing in artists from the continent, managed to pass between the drops, in October in London.

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Without being able to insure his cutting from Marrakech, in February, the event will be duplicated for the first time in Paris, in the premises of Christie’s, from January 20 to 23. But for African galleries, it is not so easy to get there with the health restrictions coupled with the difficulty in obtaining visas.

Despite everything, African collectors did not go on a diet. “I may have even bought more, confides the Senegalese Sylvain Sankalé. I had fewer other temptations, more time for workshop visits and the feeling of being useful for something while making myself happy in a time of anxiety. “ His compatriot Bassam Chaitou abounds: “For ten months, I did not travel, I focused more than ever on the local scene and I refocused on the writings around my collection. “

“Internet and Instagram are more flexible and less expensive”

In fact, wherever a local market is more or less structured, galleries have managed to do well. “The cancellation of the fairs deprived us of important sources of income and especially networking, admits Danda Jaroljmek, director of the Circle Art Gallery in Nairobi. But by refocusing on Kenyan buyers, we got away with it. Finally, 2020 was better than the previous eight years! “

This balance sheet, the energetic gallery owner owes it as much to the elimination of costs inherent in fairs as to the digital switchover. Thus, during the three months of confinement, she renewed her subscription to the Artsy online sales platform and organized no less than three virtual exhibitions. If today the rate of infection remains low in Kenya, its visitors did not take the path of its gallery, preferring to converse and negotiate by email.

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“It was the online presence that saved us”, bounces Raku Sile, director of the Addis Fine Art gallery in Ethiopia. This brand, which usually participated in no less than eight fairs per year, garnered only 10% of its online sales. But to compensate for a closure of nearly six months from April to September, it had no other choice but to strengthen its digital activity.

Ditto for Caline Chagoury, director of Art Twenty One, whose very large space located in a hotel in Lagos closed its doors from March to December. Like so many others, she imagined virtual exhibitions that allowed her to maintain balance. In December, the venue reopened under good auspices with the exhibition of locally popular Nigerian artist Bruce Onobrakpeya, of whom she has already sold two paintings.

The young Nigerian gallery Polartics, based in Lagos, had since its launch in 2018, chosen to operate only online, especially as its clientele is made up of 70% Nigerians in the diaspora and African-Americans. “Internet and Instagram are more flexible and less expensive, admits its director, Oyinkansola Dada. Many of our collectors are young, in their 30s, and are used to buying art without seeing the works firsthand. “ While the gallery thought before the pandemic to anchor in a permanent space, it believes for the moment that “That no longer makes sense”.

“Tomorrow, visu and visio will work hand in hand”

For Bassam Chaitou, however, nothing replaces the real experience, as he may have felt against the big three. Blue by Joan Miro hanging at the Center Pompidou in Paris. “Of course, the virtual is not perfect, recognizes Raku Sile. But in the future, visu and visio will work hand in hand. “ Another downside: the digital presence has a cost that all African galleries can not afford. “A sales platform like Artsy is too expensive for us, with the devaluation of the dinar”, regrets Aïcha Gorgi.

While waiting for better days, the Tunisian gallery owner is now rethinking her profession. “As long as the bases do not exist in Tunisia, even when we stop talking about Covid-19, the situation will always be fragile, she analyzes. We have to build the land. “ So today she is working on an ambitious exhibition combining contemporary art and Tunisian crafts for 2022. History of giving oneself a horizon and sowing seeds which, one day, will bear fruit.

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