Marcellina Akpojotor, "Rhythm of Evolving Story (Conversation Series)" (2020), fabric, paper, charcoal and acrylic on canvas, 96 x 156 inches (all images courtesy Rele Gallery and the artists)

LOS ANGELES — As Los Angeles’s international cultural profile has risen over the past decade, galleries from more established art capitals have opened outposts here. Next month, however, will be the first time that a contemporary gallery from Africa will place roots in the city. On February 1, Rele Gallery from Nigeria will open the doors to its new space on swanky Melrose Avenue in Beverly Grove. The gallery, which already has two locations in Lagos, will debut with Orita Meta – Crossroads, featuring work by three contemporary Nigerian female artists: Marcellina Akpojotor, Tonia Nneji, and Chidinma Nnoli. The title comes from a book and painting by fellow Nigerian artist Peju Alatise, and is loosely translated from a Yoruba phrase meaning “a junction where three roads meet.”

“I really just love LA as a city,” gallery founder Adenrele Sonariwo told Hyperallergic via email. “It’s such a strong, vibrant community of individuals that care deeply about the arts, especially African Art, which I’ve experienced first hand.” Just last year, weeks before the pandemic shutdown, the gallery had a booth in the 2020 LA Art Show.

Despite Rele Gallery being the first gallery from the African continent to open in Los Angeles, Sonariwo says contemporary African art “is already well established as a genre in the world, including the United States.” Even prior to announcing the Los Angeles launch, a large share of the gallery’s patrons came from the US.

Chidinma Nnoli, “A Poetry of Discarded Feelings / Things (III)” (2020), acrylic and oil on canvas, 42 x 50 inches

Sonariwo was also co-curator of the Nigerian Pavilion for the 57th Venice Biennial in 2017, the first time Nigeria participated in the highly regarded international exhibition. The pavilion featured work by Alatise, as well as Victor Ehikhamenor and Qudus Onikeku.

The artists in Orita Meta explore universal themes of gender, family, and empowerment from a Nigerian perspective. In her series A Poetry of Discarded Feelings, Nnoli explores the stifling dichotomy of purity and sexualization imposed on women through family, religion, and the state. Nneji drapes her female figures in brightly colored and patterned fabrics, creating images of female communion and solidarity. Meanwhile, Akpojotor actually incorporates pieces of Ankara fabric to build up her intricately layered scenes. 

Tonia Nneji, “Portrait of the Listeners” (2020), acrylic and oil on canvas, 48 x 60 inches

“I wanted to present a good collection of some of the most talented contemporary African artists that are currently creating on the continent,” Sonariwo said. “In particular I wanted to present women creating from a different perspective than the US audience might be familiar with.”

Rele Gallery has been particularly invested in emerging artists; in 2016, it established a Young Contemporaries initiative to mentor a handful of artists each year, a program which Orita Meta artists Marcellina Akpojotor and Tonia Nneji participated in. You can expect future programming to feature contemporary African art, with a special focus on women artists, though Sonariwo says they are also open to working with artists from other locations.

Orita Meta – Crossroads opens at Rele Gallery (8215 Melrose Avenue, Beverly Grove) on February 1. The gallery will be open by appointment.

Matt Stromberg is a freelance visual arts writer based in Los Angeles. In addition to Hyperallergic, he has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, CARLA, Apollo, ARTNews, and other publications.