Who is Lavinia Calza? (an interview)

Zihan Kassam  -  March 12, 2017

Kenya based art agent and collector Lavinia Calza sets down with Conceptual Fine Arts to talk about present and future of contemporary African art.

She may keep a low profile, but Lavinia Calza is shifting the tectonic plates under a number of contemporary Kenyan artists. Connecting with emerging and established artists, she represents Kenyan artists abroad, advising private collectors and participating in reputable international art fairs.

Calza also has a personal collection of Kenyan contemporary artwork, which includes the biggest names to come out of Nairobi. It makes up thirty percent of her larger collection. In December 2016, a few days before her ‘Lab Launch Party’, CFA got an interview with Lavinia Calza, in Nairobi, Kenya.

“Most of my Kenyan collection is from the artists I represent,” she says. “I look for artists that push boundaries; artwork with a kind of duality to it; pieces with roots in the artist’s local environment but that transcend to the global scene. I’m not looking for African artists but rather good artists coming out of Kenya.”

Calza has been travelling to Africa for twenty years now and collecting African art for just as long. She is from the evolving species of global citizens who make the world feel like a small marble. Born in Milan and raised in Italy, she then moved to the UK and later New York. It is no coincidence that the artwork Calza is attracted to cannot be confined to one place.

Calza’s career in the arts began when she worked at Christies in the International Communications Department. She then worked as a specialist in 20th century art at Sotheby’s in London as the Deputy Director of the Impressionist and Modern Art Department and Sotheby’s in New York, as the Vice President of Modern and Contemporary Art.

Then in 2003 Calza came to Kenya for the first time when she moved with her partner who works in conservation. They lived three years in the Chyulu Hills so their children, “could experience a different kind of life.” Later, she returned to London where she worked as director at Ben Brown Fine Arts managing the gallery, working with the secondary market, and dealing with artist placement in international collections (2007-2009). After this, she bounced between Kenya and the UK working as an advisor to collectors of 20th century art.

Calza is an influential figure who operates under the radar. Like a magical character from a novel, she is the blushing introvert who surfaces at full moon to tilt the art cosmos off its axis – with a spin forward. She began realigning the stars in 2012 on her second stint in Kenya.

Calza has taken her passion and knowledge for 20th century art and delved a little deeper into Kenya’s potential. She made studio visits in Nairobi and met a few artists whose artwork resonated with her. Their artwork inspired her to apply her former experience and network to raise their profile. In 2013, Calza founded ARTLabAfrica (ALA), an incubator for developing art from East Africa with a dual mission to sell art on the international market and create dialogue with curators, cultural producers and collectors in Europe and the US.  “It became clear that the gap was the international market, which is my strength. All my contacts are in London and New York. I saw a group of artists who were connected to curators but very few people were increasing their visibility or providing a connection to the international market.”

Calza began by presenting artwork by Kenyan artists at art fairs and collaboration projects in London, Paris, New York and Cape Town. Under the umbrella of ARTLabAfrica she has showed every year at the 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair (of which Calza is a founding member). She represents well-known artists like Peterson Kamwathi, Gor Soudan and Paul Onditi but also emerging artists like David Thuku and Onyis Martin, who she showed for the first time at the fourth edition of 1:54 at Somerset House in October 2016. “The organizers and the curators have done an incredible job of putting Africa on the map and highlighting the 54 countries. The curatorial team do a really good job. The commercial side is married to a strong curatorial side and there are interesting artists with important messages.” Furthermore, Calza participated in The Young International Art Fair 2016, in France and she has also organized solo shows of Kenyan artists at VOLTA New York in 2015 and 2016. She returned to Volta this March with Beatrice Wanjiku for a solo exhibition at Pier 90, Booth D10 from March 1st to 5th, 2017.

December 2016 was an especially celebratory month for Calza. It marked the launch of The Lab by ARTLabAfrica, with the support of the Kobo Trust Foundation. Kobo Trust generously sponsored a space at their Kobo Safaris headquarters in Kilimani, Nairobi. The dedicated zone includes offices, artist studios and a gallery space where The Lab can operate as an artist-led non-profit project. Amongst the small set of artists working onsite are recognizable names like Peter Elungat and Dickson Kaloki. Through exhibitions and a small local auction in 2012, Kobo Trust has been supporting the arts in Kenya for some time now. With a mutual passion, the ARTLabAfrica and Kobo match could prove to be a prolific pairing.

The launch of The Lab was celebrated with a pop-up exhibition Talking Walls by Kenyan artist Onyis Martin. The show opened December 17, 2016. Martin holds a studio onsite where he has been exploring different media, in an attempt to express his views on migration, displacement and suppressive spaces. In Talking Walls, he uses wire mesh and thick layers of acrylic paint to create textured “walls” bearing posters that read ‘No Posters’ or ‘Protected Area’, for example. Martin is examining ideas around consumerism, contemporary branding and manipulation through visual communication. “He looks at traditional versus contemporary society, juxtaposing them and showing the dichotomy – the collision. The walls are the silent witnesses to these tensions,” Calza explains.

Martin’s work has been receiving a lot of attention and he was selected by curator Tumelo Mosaka to participate in the Tomorrows/Today solo show section of Cape Town Art Fair in February 2017. Also in February, his mixed-media triptych Dance, Reject, Return went under the hammer for Ksh 305,240, at the annual Circle Art Auction in Nairobi. This was the first time Onyis Martin’s artwork was selected for the auction market. Martin is certainly going places and this year he will exhibit in London and New York. While discussing his future with Calza, she shares more about her philosophy. “I see the artist as my client and the goal is to help them develop. With no rent to pay and fewer worries, they can focus on their work. ARTLabAfrica hopes to nurture artists and hopefully their artwork will become accessible to Africans from every walk of life. We hope this will include the reach of school children and young professionals.”

While Lavinia Calza nurtures emerging talent, she also cultivates her own collections. “It’s a mess!” she says about her international collection. “It goes everywhere from European mid-century, to Italian, and American Contemporary. I can’t frame all of the works on paper so they sit in drawers.” Her excitement hints at a possible addiction, a habit that is impossible to break. “I come from a collecting family,” she says, “so I was always surrounded by art.” The Calza collection comprises over a hundred works, from the USA and Mexico to France and the UK and Africa. She is what we call a passion collector. “I buy what I want on my walls, what I connect with. I’m not in a rush. I take my time and wait for work that moves me.”

Upon entering her house one is surrounded by great art. British painter Chris Ofili, Japanese photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto, and American sculptor Teresita Fernandez, the list goes on, but we pause to concentrate on the enormous, consuming Susan Beard painting that I once saw hanging in her living room in Karen, Nairobi. Painted with a quick, thin layer of black oil on canvas, it is an intense, breathtaking depiction of the flat iron building in New York. The sheer scale of the painting is impressive, then the technical mastery and of course Susan Beard’s expert hand at perspective drawing. With bold, loose strokes it is a testament to the match between skill and confidence but also a sense of playfulness and that particular crude but chic contemporary flair.

Finally there is Calza’s contemporary Kenyan collection, which she classifies as, “abstract, non figurative and narrative artwork.” She is drawn to artwork that sparks the imagination and stirs the psychological interior. Each work speaks of not just one but many subjects at once. The untitled Beatrice Wanjiku painting from the Straight Jacket Series (2015) could be a woman or man, in pain or in a trance, malevolent or innocent. Like this, most of Calza’s collection of artwork, figurative or otherwise, spurs emotions with no names, rousing the viewer to reflect on reality. From his Prayer Series, a Peterson Kamwathi in her collection depicts a group of naked men in prayer, kneeling over in the same direction. Like the Wanjiku, it questions several things. It is an investigation of group behaviour, religion, unity, collective conscience and more. Calza’s collection includes artwork by many of Kenya’s pin-up personalities including Michael Soi and Paul Onditi. It also includes up-and-comers like David Thuku, who has being working as an artist for some time now but began turning heads in 2016, with an impressive new body of work.

Calza seems particularly excited about a photograph by James Muriuki from his Nairobi: a State of Mind series. It is a picture of one of the many buildings under construction in Nairobi. Draped in net, the undisclosed structure implies an impending threat: When it is finally unveiled, what will the new Nairobi be like? What we are becoming – as consumers, as chronic urbanizers, as deranged capitalists? The photograph was one of four images exhibited at Kunsthaus in Bregenz, Austria in 2012 and Calza is happy to have secured it at the 2015 Circle Art Auction in Nairobi.

There is a link between her taste in art and the way she lives her life. The artists Lavinia Calza collects are pushing the limits of the body, social behaviour and social constructs. Lavinia lives much in the same way. She uses her abilities, and her dynamism, to take things to the next level, to make things happen and to live a life that is productive, introspective and different from the norm. She also shows that Nairobi is a place where you can do this kind of thing.

Caught in the spell of transformation, in today’s Nairobi you can be who you want, do what you want and lay down new laws. New rules are being assembled, new groundwork is being laid. Nowadays there are remarkable conceptual artists in the city and also a growing sect of agents and art-devotees that are finding, documenting, showcasing and promoting talent from Kenya. “You can mould things and you can crib yourself,” says Calza about creating opportunities for yourself within the art sector in Nairobi. “My goal is to make the non-arty people aware of what their city is creating and what it has to offer.”

At the end of 2016 Calza relocated to London with the idea to shuttle back and forth between the UK and Kenya. Dealing in painting, sculpture, photography, performance and installation, there is no doubt that the artists she has promoted are gaining international attention. They are being included in prestigious collections and exhibitions including the 2017 Venice Biennale. And, as an art addict, her personal collection continues to grow.


NOTE: this article was written from the perspective of artist and art critic Zihan Kassam on the ground in Nairobi Kenya.