Alexis Galleries: The art, the artists and the muse

Musa Jibril and Simeon Mpamugoh

If you walk in before the click of the camera, before the aperture open to let in the light that will freeze the frame, the stillness of the fleeting moment will make you catch your breath. The set-up is surreal. A model calmly seated, wearing minimal makeup (a slash of blood-red lipstick and oxblood nails), barest of accessories (necklace and bangles) and a simple brown gown, surrounded by an oeuvre of brilliant colour paintings. A flurry of metaphors ruffles my imagination. Like an essence from the Greek mythology; a Mona Lisa marooned in an island of art; a senorita sequestered in a salon of art. A Muse.

In the concrete world of art, she is a muse of a sort, given to inspiring artists, sustaining their art, reveling in art––that is Patty Chidiac-Mastrogiannis, art collector extraordinaire and curator of the Alexis Galleries.

She is witty and vivacious. Her voice is stentorian, an octave above the din. Her language is lyrical. But she is blunt––“Maybe that was, why I went into art” she says–– couple with her vim and vigour, she is a character with whom a first encounter lingers like an echo in the caverns of your mind.

She is, however, more than just an Effendi of art. What she has created on Akin Olugbade Street, off Idowu Martins Street, Victoria Island, Lagos, is a mind-blowing art nirvana. A cluster of art businesses –– Homestores, Alexis Galleries and Art Café––that combines to give a feel of “outdoor oasis” and “indoor bliss.”

A chat with Chidiac-Mastrogiannis––which I think is a must if you are visiting the galleries––leaves you impressed about her searing passion for art, artists and business of art. You can’t help but the be curious about her background which surprisingly turns out to be a collage of ‘Lebanese blood, Nige- rian soul and Beninese roots.’

Here, an excerpt: “I was born in 1966 in Cotonou,” she declares, “I came to Nigeria on January 21, 1975. I grew up in Kano. So I am Nigerian in my heart.” (Impressively, too, she speaks four languages: French, English, Arabic and Hausa.)

“I was naughty in the class while at St Louis in Kano. Teachers would send me out to kneel in the sun for as long as two hours until I was taught humility. So I grew up a very humble person. I am a polite person. I got my O and A level in England and I studied beauty therapy. But my father passed away when I was 17. And there was no other male figure, neither a brother nor an uncle, in the family. I was the youngest of four sisters. I started working in furniture, refurbishing homes and in the process learnt the art of interior decoration in Lagos.”

Introduction over. The art questions begin.

Precisely what’s her taste in art?

“It is diversified,” she says. “I love realism, I also like abstract, contemporary, pop art. But when you are in the art business, there is no such thing as preference. However, one thing I can assure you I like is colours, bright colours. I found it disappointing that artists in Nigeria paint in greyscale and dark colours when we live in a country that is sunny and full of colours. I go out, I see the green of the trees, the blue of the sky, the gray of the asphalt, I see lots of colours. You buy a wrapper and it has five, six colours; so, why are they painting in greyscale? I don’t understand it. It upsets me. I can understand doing a charcoal painting, but not everything has to be done in dark green, dark grey and dark brown for God’s sake.”

At this point she rues her miss– –“I should have been an artist because I have always done things with my hands when I was growing up.”

The fault was not hers: “When I was a little girl in Kano, art was not big in Nigeria then. There was no art school. Then, of course, my parents wanted me to be successful in life and preferred me doing other things than being an artist.”

She has made up by becoming an art collector and becoming an activist for artists. “I do feel empathy for artists. I understand the artist. I have the mind of an artist.”

Her romance with art started with pining fascination for painting in her teenage years. “I started with two paintings I bought from an artist in Cotonou when I was 19. Then I bought another two paintings when I was 26. The next thing I bought was an Eleanor Douglas’ painting from Signature. Signature gave me a very good deal at the time––I was paying $100 to $200 dollars a month––and I managed to complete payment in about six months. The same Eleanor piece that I bought for $1, 400 in 2002, Arthouse sold it for $50, 000 dollars in 2016. Even if you buy a land, it does not appreciate so much in such a short time. That tells you investment in art pays. The secret is to buy the young artist and then promote him to become master.”

Her passion for collecting art has taken her round the world.

“Every trip I made which is a holiday trip turns out to be a business trip,” she says. “I went to Morocco for two weeks, invited by the King of Morocco who came here and bought a lot of arts from us. In Africa, I have been to Egypt, Ghana, Benin, Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, Senegal and Ethiopia. I have been to many countries in Europe, Asia and America. I find Indian arts quite intricate especially the sculpture, which is so defined and so symmetrical and so incredible.”

She readily declares her bias for Nigerian artists and artists from the West African belt, saying, “The whole West African art tickles my fancy.”

In one breath, Chidiac-Mastrogiannis notes the strength and the shortcoming of Nigerian artists. “Here, we paint. In other places, they carve, they draw, they do so much, and so much effort is put into art. Nonetheless, I have not seen a better art on canvas than in Nigeria––maybe one or two. Nigerians are by far the strongest when it comes to implementing painting on canvas––the strokes, the work, the quality, the definition, so incredible.”

Since she opened her galleries in 2011, she has been tirelessly devoted to the task of elevating the welfare of artists.

Alexis Galleries have had numerous artists on its stable. “Some have gone and are now on their own,” she discloses, “but I am not signing on any Nigerian artists, since they can come around and display their work. But I sign artists from outside Nigeria. I used to have 11 foreign artists. At the moment, I have two, Dominic Zinkpe, a Beninese, who has been with me since 2011 and Samuel Tete-Ketcharn, Ghanaian-born Togolese, who has been with us since the past three years. Zinkpe has become an international acclaimed artist. Now, we are working on Samuel.”

Just a few weeks ago, six local and international artists drawn from Ghana, Ibadan, Abuja and Lagos concluded a four-week residency.

The one-month programme–– which began on May 14 and ended June 14––was the first in the eight- year life of the gallery.

Says Chidiac-Mastrogiannis: “The artists had cross-experiences, helped and inspired each other, which is considerably important to the upcoming, master and younger artists. That is what we do at the gallery: lift the younger artists honing their creativity in the art world. We want to see how we can put the artists on a greater pedestal with our residency programmes, workshop and lectures. We hope to have min- imum of two-art residency a year.”

Running galleries, curating shows, dealing with the day-to-day works and artists, is no mean task. She admits it is taking a toll on her.

“It takes a lot from me in terms of my health,” she says, “If I was doing this 20 or 30 years ago, I will still have so much energy but now it tires me out. However, I am not stopping.”

Businesswise, Alexis Galleries operate differently from other galleries. Her exhibitions are rent-free, an arrangement whereby artists display their works, make good sales and cut percentages for the galleries. “We take care of the arrangement––the publicity, the refreshment, the invitation. Basically, the artists come in relaxed and showcase their work without spending a farthing,” she says.

The secret behind such extraordinary magnanimity is the galleries’ wide-ranging sponsors such as Pepsi, Nederburg, Amarula, Wazobia TV, Cool FM, Chocolat Royal and the Avenue Suites who pick the bills.

Nonetheless, Chidiac-Mastrogiannis also deploys an efficient marketing tactic. “I hang paintings in restaurants and hotels free of charge. I even give commission on sales so that they can push sales to enable me to push things for my artists. However, I take my commissions because I run a business, but I am extremely generous with my artists.”

Contrary to popular belief, Chidiac-Mastrogiannis avows that art collecting is big in Nigeria. “We have the biggest collectors in and from Nigeria. Big auctioneers abroad like Bonham’s and Sothesby’s, their biggest buyers are Nigerians. Nigerians are the best collectors there is.”

She cites an example: “There was an Eleanor’s artwork bought by collector in 2001 in Port Harcourt for $2000. I sent the 10” x 101” painting to Bonham’s and it was bought for a whooping sum of £174, 500 by a Nigerian!”

She worries that Nigeria is not getting on the train of private museums which is the vogue around the world nowadays.

“We have a huge potential and I think Lagos should lead the trend ahead of Cape Town or Dubai or anywhere else because most of their arts comes out from here. Nigerian artists are the ones kicking the market at the moment, whether it is in South Africa or Dubai. When Bonham’s hold African contemporary art exhibitions, the works are mostly from here.”

Are Nigerian artists as good as the masters? No basis for comparison, she says. “They were giants of an era; they were good for their time; if they were around now, they would be overshadowed by Nigerians. Do you know how much talent we have in Nigeria? About 50 to 100 artists come to me every years, they are so diversified they don’t even think the same way!”

We then take a tour of the “Alexis Place” which comprised of the Alexis Galleries, Homestore and the Art café. Homestore is an art shop stocked and stacked with eclectic artworks ranging from exquisite objets d’art to customised interior decor and valuable pottery and souvenirs.

The store brims with a cornucopia of artworks sourced from different countries and different artists.

The galleries harbour the finest paintings of this age. It is a waste of time, a waste of expressions trying to describe the magnificence of the canvases.

Upstairs we walk through the Art Café, where patrons are given the luxury to indulge in the fine art of wining and dining in a leisure space that is maximally comfortable indoor or outdoor. A few customers are seen working on their laptops using the free wifi available for their convenience. A bakery, wine shop and photo studio coming up soon will further diversify the hub.

The evolution is still on going, according to the art maven. “At the front, we are having a bakery for cakes and opposite it, opening soon, a wine café, for fresh wine. We do not own these two; they are sublets.

“Opposite us is a supermarket where they can buy whatever else they need. Very soon, we are going to have an inhouse photographer.”

The Alexis Place is open to the public and is available for rent for events such as weddings receptions, get-to-gether and board meetings.

“Every penny we made, we reinvested to make this a hub where patrons can come and spend a whole day. I want people to come here and get what they need––good food, great drink, good time.”

Our interaction rounds off on a personal note.

Chidiac-Mastrogiannis gives the reason why at this point in her life she is all for art: “Half of my life is already passed on. I am 52, that means I have to rush and do whatever I want to do––5, 10, 20 or 30 years––so we mean business,” she declares.

She has an interesting philosophy of life: “I am a strong believer of Karma. What goes around comes around. I believe in the afterlife––though I am not supposed to. I believe if you do bad things, you will comeback and pay for it. I believe if you are doing good, when you are in need, God will send you a helper.”

What do you fancy being in another life?

“If I have my life to live again,” she muses, “I will still want to be an art collector but I will learn earlier in life to be an artist.”

For the love of money or for the love of art, which of these motivates her business dealings?

“Money does not make the person, the person makes money; if I were draining the artists I should by now own three houses. I don’t own any. I rent, but I get my satisfaction.”

I have been looking for the best definition of who an artist is, I found inspirations in Chidiac-Mastrogiannis epigrams: “I believe artists come from another planet. They are special people. They know how to put beauty together––God gave them the gift.”