Upon entering the Accra office of the Lebanese-born British gallerist, art collector, and curator, Marwan Zakhem, one immediately notices Self Acquired (2016) a work composed of stitched-together pieces of yellow plastic containers by Ghanaian artist Serge Attukwei Clottey.
Situated right behind Zakhem’s desk, the work is symbolic of his role in the growing global interest in Ghana’s artists and art scene—which in recent years has become a hotspot for international collectors and has also seen the launch of new galleries and artist-led spaces.
Clottey’s show “My Mother’s Wardrobe” was the first exhibition held at the art space that Zakhem founded, Gallery 1957, when it was officially opened on March 6, 2016, the 59th anniversary of the day that Ghana gained independence. Clottey is best known for stitching together pieces of yellow cans used for carrying water to create installations he calls “Afrogallonism.”
Zakhem, the gallery’s founder, has previously said that 1957’s “founding ethos is its commitment to supporting and promoting emerging and established artists across West Africa and the diaspora.”
Three weeks after he welcomed ARTnews to his office, Zakhem hosted an artist talk at the Pearl Room of the Kempinski Hotel Gold Coast City Accra, the five-star hotel he built that houses some of his collection. He was there to speak with members of Artemartis, a Ghana-based art collective and agency, before the opening reception of their latest exhibition. Artemartis, despite being composed of nine Ghanaian artists, had not exhibited together in the country until “When The Birds Fly Home,” their show that opened in early February at Gallery 1957.
“I am passionate about what I do with the gallery,” Zakhem told ARTnews. “I am passionate about the artists that I represent. I am extremely passionate about Ghana’s cultural ecosystem and the part that it is playing in this revival of contemporary African arts.”
Touria El Glaoui, the founder of the 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair, credited Zakhem with being “very generous in building up his network and his community.”
Zakhem never planned to own a gallery and curate art. Born in 1972 in Beirut, he grew up in a house with paintings on its walls, but he didn’t take trips to museums or art fairs. Zakhem recalled he had no “inclination” to be an artist or to be involved in the art industry in any shape or form.
He trained as a civil engineer and later came to Ghana “to start a business of constructing—believe it or not—large oil and gas storage facilities, tanks and pipelines.”
During travels throughout the continent, he started buying art “as any tourist probably did,” for about 20 or 30 dollars a pop. He recalled purchasing works by “largely obscure painters,” and he has continued that practice in the years since. According to Zakhem, the two well-known Senegalese painters whose work he owns are Amadou M’Baye and Soly Cissé.
The works he bought ended up being hung in his house, offices, and restaurants in Senegal, and he later gave some out as gifts to people who visited him. The thought of others appreciating his love for the arts planted a seed in his mind to keep at it.
Although he had been buying art for years—“West African art only, nothing else, nothing more,” he said—it wasn’t until he moved to Ghana in 2003 that he really began his collecting journey. He proudly showed off one of the first paintings he bought by the late Krotei Tetteh, whose work he has around the Kempinski hotel and whom Zakhem later discovered was a relative of Clottey.
A visit to the studio of Tetteh changed everything for Zakhem. Tetteh “kind of took me under his wings a little bit [and] showed me what he was doing,” he recalled. Zakhem also met other artists like Kofi Agorsor, Owusu-Ankomah, and Ablade Glover, who became a mentor and whose work he later bought.
For a six-year period, he placed the 50-plus paintings he amassed in his offices, his restaurants, and wherever else he could put them. At the time, he mainly bought abstract modernism works.
And then “something happened, magical” as Zakhem put it. Around 2013, he met with artists including Clottey, Ibrahim Mahama, and the “whole KNUST [Kwame Nkrumah University of Science of Technology] establishment.”
“What these artists were doing was something I had never envisaged,” Zakhem recalled. They were producing “work made out of plastic, work made out of jute sacks, work that was not painted.”
When Zakhem visited Clottey’s studio in Labadi, a suburb of Accra, in 2015, he recalled that it jolted him into his trajectory.
Zakhem set out on a plan to start a gallery to support Ghanaian artists, ensuring they had the necessary resources and platforms to be successful without having to lose their identity or travel outside the country to find a following. “It was important to prove that these artists can have a sustainable career again based from here,” Zakhem said.
Friends thought it would be a better idea to launch a gallery in London or, better yet, to start a foundation if he had to have an art space in Ghana. However, the latter idea wasn’t appealing to Zakhem because even though he had a decent collection, he didn’t think it was one worthy of a foundation. What he did have was an eye for local talent.
Gallery 1957 has its roots in the Kempinski Hotel Gold Coast City Accra, which Zakhem opened in 2015. The first gallery space is housed in a redesigned part of the building initially earmarked as a mechanical room where he showed and commissioned works from the likes of Clottey, Mahama, and Yaw Owusu. The reaction to selling a Clottey piece, for example, wasn’t encouraging—friends said they’d rather buy a Rolex than invest in an artwork.
But Zakhem continued onward, inviting curators, journalists, and collectors to see what was on view, even paying for their plane tickets and hotel rooms. The guests not only got to see Gallery 1957 and the artists it represented but were also immersed in the cultural scene of Ghana by attending music festivals and visiting other cultural institutions around the country, including Mahama’s Savannah Centre for Contemporary Arts in Tamale in the Northern Region of Ghana.
“We did all of this to make sure they knew that this country was great and that the artists coming out of it were even greater,” Zakhem said.
Gallery 1957 has grown in stature since its founding. It has since inaugurated two more spaces on the premises of Kempinski Hotel Gold Coast City Accra, in the Galleria Mall, and a third at Hyde Park Gate in London.
Along the way, the gallery has acted as a feeder for greater success for many of its artists. Gideon Appah, for example, had a solo show at Gallery 1957 in 2019, one year before his first New York exhibition, at Mitchell-Innes & Nash, and three years before gaining representation with Pace, one of the world’s biggest galleries. The gallery’s roster has also grown and now includes artists such as Abdoulaye Konaté, a well-known Malian artist who makes abstractions from fabric, and Collin Sekajugo, one of two artists who showed at last year’s award-winning Ugandan Pavilion at the Venice Biennale.
Importantly, Gallery 1957 is more than just a commercial gallery. It also facilitates many other initiatives that are intended to grow Ghana’s art scene.
One such initiative is the Yaa Asantewaa Art Prize, founded in 2021, which supports “female artists from Ghana and its diaspora.” Araba Opoku was its first recipient. (Awardees need not be represented by the gallery; Opoku is not on 1957’s roster.)
The gallery’s artist residency program is also coveted, with Amoako Boafo, Opoku, Rita Mawuena Benissan, Kwesi Botchway, Isshaq Ismail, Johannes Phokela, Cornelius Annor, Godfried Donkor, Tiffanie Delune, and Afia Prempeh among its current and past participants.
The program allows participants to focus on creating art for up to a year. The art is subsequently exhibited by the gallery. Gallery 1957 also pays for tickets, visas, and medical bills and provides accommodation for artists not from Ghana and also for those who don’t live there. The majority of these artists are invited by Zakhem personally.
Prempeh, who is based in Kumasi, first connected with Zakhem in 2015. In 2020, Prempeh had posted an in-progress painting in memory of her late mother on Instagram, and Zakhem reached out to her. Ultimately, Prempeh joined the gallery’s roster in 2021, the same year she started her residency and later had her debut solo exhibition.
During her residency, Prempeh only had to concentrate on creating a body of work for her exhibition. She was provided a fully furnished two-bedroom apartment, a monthly stipend, the service of caretakers, and any needed materials. In an interview, Prempeh said she had previously lived “hand to mouth,” making her art in her bedroom. Suddenly, she didn’t have to worry about paying for materials, getting a space for an exhibition, and sending out invites.
“It has made a whole lot of difference in my career,” Prempeh said, speaking by phone. “The moment [Marwan] recognizes your talent and then he picks you, he changes your life as an artist and your career.”
Gallery 1957 has also set its sights on reaching many beyond Ghana, and one way it’s done that is through participating in fairs. Two years after it first opened, in 2018, the gallery took part in Art X Lagos. It is now a regular there and at other international fairs, including the 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair (New York, London, and Paris), Art Paris, the Investec Cape Town Art Fair, and Art Dubai.
“[The gallery] participating at many international art fairs as possible [provides] international visibility to a lot of artists from Ghana,” El Glaoui said, adding, “From a cultural perspective and international visibility, Gallery 1957 has been very instrumental.”
“I think that the job the gallery has done [at] Art Dubai by bringing a new generation of African artists, especially from Ghana and countries from West Africa, has been super important,” said Pablo del Val, the artistic director of Art Dubai, which has been billed as the leading international art fair in the Middle East. “Its presence in Dubai has been the first time that many collectors and institutions had the opportunity of getting in touch with their roster of artists.”
The international reach has helped artists such as Prempeh, who previously had only shown her art in Ghana before working with the gallery. Now, however, it has been seen in the United States, the United Kingdom, and the United Arab Emirates. Still, Prempeh said that Gallery 1957 has also spurred her to consider how an art scene has grown closer to home.
“I was probably looking to have my exhibition outside because people kept telling me, ‘If you sell these works outside, the money you’d make,’” she said. “But then Gallery 1957 came in and made me realize that I can make it right here.”