Adenrele Sonariwo of Rele Gallery: Establishing the narrative for Nigerian culinary Art
Record this in a journal with indelible ink. In 2016, Adenrele Sonariwo, a former number cruncher at the world’s top accountancy firm, PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), started a revolution which took the form of a culinary art photographic exhibition. The revolution was announced in Adenrele Sonariwo’s own Rele gallery in Onikan the cultural hub of Lagos, Nigeria. From this year onwards, food as provocation, political strife, transformation, optimism and new beginnings – as art – should be seen as beyond experimental in Nigeria. Nigerian food has crossed a barrier. It is art not just because it looks creatively good, but because it now has the opportunity to make you and I aware of richer meanings, beyond the simple function of filling us up.
Adenrele was kind enough to tell us not only about her groundbreaking dramatic “What’s cooking” culinary art photographic exhibition, but also about contemporary art in Africa in general.
How would you describe the intersection between art and food?
I would say they both meet in the middle. Food is similar to art with regards to texture, colour, and vibrancy, its potential to evoke emotion, to please the eye and mind and to satisfy. Food, quite frankly is art, and the creation of it, as well. To us at Rele Gallery, food is one of those givens, like the sun rising up every morning, acknowledged, yes but the how of it, not given its due, not understood or appreciated enough, and that’s what our exhibition, ‘What’s Cooking’ is looking to change.
Tell us about the curation process for “What’s cooking?”
For this exhibition, it was a collaborative process. The chef, cooks and photographers already led the way with the kind of works they chose to create, and I was there for most of the creative wheels turning, in an advisory role, but it was the culinary artists and photographers that really ran with it. When the works had been created and ready to go on the wall, that part was easy. The works, in a sense led the way. Each culinary artist, however, brought something different to the table so it was important that the essence of each collection shone on its own as well as blended well with the others and if you come to the gallery, to see the exhibition, I daresay you’ll agree the process went very well.
Rele gallery is known for “nurturing the creators of art and bringing the world to them.” To that extent, how integral was working with others to make the “What’s cooking” exhibition possible?
This exhibition as I mentioned earlier was all about collaboration! Without it, it would never have happened. More specifically, collaboration with like minds.
Our technology partner in this Samsung Mobile Nigeria have proven time and again, their commitment to pushing boundaries with their investment in creative endeavours, so when the idea was first seeded, they wasted no time getting on board and took it on brilliantly. Per the culinary artists and photographers, it was important as well to find those passionate about what they do, and look for how to constantly challenge themselves creatively. Kelechi Amadi-Obi was an absolute no-brainer for this, as well as Chef Tiyan Alile, Ozoz Sokoh (Kitchen Butterfly) Dunni Obata and Asiko. If you check the trajectory of their work, they are creatives simply not interested in the expected, or the bare minimum. Sometimes, when you get all these creative sparks in a room, everyone with their ideas, it may seem like a recipe for disaster, but this wasn’t the case. Guided by us, the culinary artists were generous with their ideas, generous in taking suggestions, generous in letting go sometimes and being led (which I will tell you, for any creative worth their salt is not easy!), but it all came good.
Could the culinary arts ever become a prominent part of Nigerian food and art culture and history?
That’s the plan! This is exactly why we have staged an exhibition such as this, to establish that narrative, to set the wheels in motion. Our food is so rich in cultural, social, political and even economic context, and art is a reflection of the times and these things so why shouldn’t the culinary art take its place.
For instance now, tomatoes, are dominating national conversation as their costs have skyrocketed. Tomatoes are now a metaphor for poor economic decisions, climate change, inadequate agricultural support, even a spiralling exchange rate. An exhibition, installation with tomatoes, today would spark intense national engagement or debate, wouldn’t you say? That’s the power food merged with art can have!
Where do you see the exhibition and appreciation of contemporary African Art in the next 5 years?
I see it on a brisk upward climb. Collectors, enthusiasts, critics, all around the world have seemingly exhausted their interested in art from familiar places and are increasingly looking to Asia and Africa to stoke their interest.
This is a great opportunity to leverage on. Closer to home, we need to keep putting structures in place across board, from galleries, auction houses, to festivals, fairs, to the artists themselves that will see works getting the attention and due it deserves, fairly priced, artists properly represented, and art properly presented, communicated and marketed, all these things will work together to ensure the exhibition and appreciation of contemporary African art continues on this upward march.
If I had to invest some of my hard earned cash, will you recommend contemporary African art? Why and which artists should I keep my eyes on to snap up their work?
We would recommend you keep your eyes on Isaac Emokpae. His stained glass work is very refreshing and inspiring. Another artist to watch is Alimi Adewale. If you’re looking at a younger crop of artists, and want to invest now, as their careers are just really kicking off, look to Eloghosa Osunde, for intensely human narratives and stories in photography. For ultra-pop art, unique in its psychedelia and colour, check out Dennis Osadebe. For the best young artist working in mixed media, look for Ayobola Kekere-Ekun. For alternative cutting edge photography, we would recommend Ima Mfon.
Rele gallery will be the number one on “my must see” list in Lagos. Where would you suggest I go, to immerse myself in the best food Lagos has to offer?
You can check out Lost In Lagos, Nothing to Do In Lagos, Fomo Lagos, Bored In Gidi, Eat Drink Lagos for top food recommendations. And anywhere that has our exhibiting culinary artists are (Tiyan Alile, Kitchen Butterfly or Dooney’s Kitchen) is a good place to go!
Any tips for others passionate about art curation who may want to own their own exhibition space some day?
You are going to need a heart of steel. Because the industry is largely still infantile and there’s no structure, if you are a believer in process and not a fan of ‘anything goes’, it can be a tad frustrating. However, with specific regard, to the work, you have to immerse yourself in the scene, take curation courses, visit artist studios, speak to collectors, enthusiasts, artists, go to other galleries, home and abroad, get a sense of what is standard, and work on how you can present your own unique offering, have a narrative, a goal of what you are trying to achieve asides just being a space to showcase art, identify the kind of works you are interested in, looking to push out. With all these things covered, you should be on your way.