The destruction of patronage networks and the subsequent isolation of African art and artists during colonialism and early independence are things of the past for a group of artists who have leapfrogged their way into living rooms and boardrooms across the world.
This article was contributed to TechCabal by Patrick Nelle of bird Story Agency
Huddled in a tiny office, young workers are neatly wrapping up canvases, ready for shipment. The silence in the room is loud — only interrupted by an occasional sigh, heavy breathing, or a cough. At the far end of the room, a young man is multitasking— his fingers hammering at the buttons of a laptop, while he chats on a smartphone. An air of urgency hangs in the room and he, like the rest of the team, seems pressed for time.
In an age that welcomes and pays for digitally-signed images of all types, and in which vast volumes of clothing chosen from digital catalogues traverse the world, it is perhaps not surprising that digital manifestations of art are giving artists ready markets all over the world. What might surprise many is that this system of digitally marketed, paid-for, and delivered artworks is flourishing here in Kinshasa.
Welcome to the engine room of Bandombe Galerie, a virtual art gallery that is the brainchild of Sisqo Ndombe. Bandombe showcases and connects contemporary African artists with potential clients, globally.
“A majority of African artists do not manage to make a living from their creations because there are not enough channels dedicated to their promotion,” Ndombe explained.
That’s where Bandombe comes in, attracting potential buyers, connecting them with artists, and then providing the platform for negotiation, payment, and delivery of the creative works.
“As an artist, if you don’t have a place where you can show your work to an audience, you shall never succeed,” Ndombe added.
Where traditional art galleries prefer working with acclaimed artists and often shun aspiring and unknown creators – often simply because a gallery only has so much space – Ndombe felt he could solve this problem on a digital level. As the idea began to crystallise, his “eureka” moment struck… he could leverage the internet to not only showcase unknown talent – including his own – but also to market and sell top African art, globally.
“I remember the time when I had to reach out to galleries, walking long distances carrying my canvases, trying to find some buyers. I couldn’t afford to do things that way anymore,” he says as he recalls his journey as an artist.
The power of the internet has been a game-changer not just for him, but many more artists, who have signed up to his network across Africa.
With limited finances, the start was going to be a struggle. However, from his wages as a graphic designer in a local company, he managed to save some money and through constant sacrifice, his dream began to unfold.
“In 2018, Bandombe Galerie, website: bandombe.com, went up online,” he said.
As the idea to sell more than just his own art evolved, he onboarded other artists. Some were reluctant but Ndombe is nothing if not persuasive and he managed to convince enough of his fellow artists to sign on with the platform. Where there was reluctance at home, artists from other African countries jumped at the opportunity.
“I thought my fellow Congolese would be the first to jump in, but that didn’t happen. However, when they saw that artists from other countries were packing the platform, they started to join in,” he said.
At first, it was not easy to get buyers to trust the concept or the platform, but Ndombe’s never-say-die spirit kept the project focused on his goal — to attract buyers with unique artworks.
“What is instrumental to attract art lovers and buyers on our platform is to have a good selection of displayed works,” he explained.
It took the team eight months of anxiety, patience, and sacrifice before selling their first piece.
“Our first client was a European woman. She had been working in Congo for a couple of years, and now she was leaving the country. She wanted to take some art piece from Congo with her as a souvenir,” Ndombe recalled.
In the four years since, the Kinshasa-based virtual gallery Bandombe Galerie has grown in leaps and bounds across Africa making it one of, if not, the, most popular virtual galleries for patrons of African art launched on the continent. Currently, it has 800 registered artists from 30 African countries and more than 3,000 artworks in its catalogue.
Looking back at its journey of the gallery, Ndombe said that what started as a small idea to address his dilemma is now helping some aspiring artists to emerge and gain visibility among art collectors far beyond the borders of their countries and continent.
“It has given access to many African artists and their works to a wider audience and market,” he said.
One of those who bought up into Ndombe’s virtual gallery initiative is Rwanda-based painter, Izere Antoine.
“Bandombe is very supportive of the up-and-coming talents and African art in general,” said Izere.
Izere said through the virtual gallery, he has found buyers for three of his paintings. And above all, beyond the visitations and inquiries, Bandombe has transformed his life and equipped him with tech skills to digitally market his works and brand himself.
“Mostly it also encouraged me to be more in online marketing like websites and more,” he said.
Nigerian artist Onofua Dennis, who has also signed on with Bandombe talks glowingly of the virtual gallery.
“Their marketing competency, their capacity in dispensing durable relationships between artists, collectors, and as well as the gallery team through communication, packaging, and delivery of artworks are great,” he said.
Particularly, Onofua praises Bandombe’s payments policy and logistics management which he says have been key in building that durable relationship between all artists and clients.
“Percentage of payment due to the artist is being attended to within a short period of time. More so, I have seen fantastic reports of buyers – delivered publicly – about the receiving of their package,” he added.
When asked if Bandombe has been helpful in helping him obtain more artistic recognition, he quickly cuts in: “Well, yes”, adding that; “To date, we have sold more than 214 pieces… and that is remarkable”.
For Ndombe, the growth and future success of Bandombe Galerie mean more work and a commitment to growing his client base.
He is also determined to end the current trend in which the global emergence of contemporary African art is being driven mainly by non-African buyers, instead of by a local market.
“It’s important to sensitise our people to consume more art. We envisage the opening of a showroom and the organisation of art fairs across the continent.
“The potential is huge for Africa arts, and a bright future is beckoning those with the courage to embrace the infinite opportunities offered by technology to shine on the global stage,” he concluded, signing off on another deal with a remote patron.
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