From Rome to Mexico City, Los Angeles to Paris and frequent trips to London, Nadia Sesay, the globetrotting editor of BLANC Modern Africa Magazine, makes it a point to see contemporary African art exhibits all over the world.
Recently returned from a trip to Miami for the annual Art Basel fair, a glitzy and party-laden celebration of art, she gives insight to her journey in travelling for art’s sake.
It all started to make sense on a Wednesday afternoon, in January this year in Bilbao, a city in northern Spain. I was at the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, a mammoth museum that at the time was hosting the equally prodigious exhibit Making Africa: A Continent of Contemporary Design.
Making Africa showcased the work of over 120 artists and designers from Africa to illustrate how design accompanies and fuels economic and political changes on the continent.
Prior to entering the museum I paused for a break in its café (I seldom pass on the opportunity for coffee). I needed a moment to absorb my presence at the Guggenheim, and truthfully, my place in the world. I had left behind a blizzard in the States only the day before, but I sat outdoors in the temperate climate of northern Spain, my outermost garment, only an unbuttoned cardigan.
African art was hot, and has yet to cool.
Reaching deeper into memory, I landed in 2014. On a typical Wednesday in that former life I would have been hurriedly typing an email, battling the clock to hit ‘Send’ before the start of my next meeting, and worse, still sipping that morning’s then-tepid coffee. But instead I was enjoying a hot cappuccino accompanied with one of those fancy crust-less sandwiches stuffed with a prawn, at an art museum in Spain. Feeling at peace, and happy, I reflected on this journey and wondered, how?
I was born in Freetown, Sierra Leone but grew up in a suburb of Washington, DC. Giving thanks to our mothers is standard practice – everyone from politicians to rappers does it. But let’s insert a globe-trotting, art-loving African in that spectrum. My mother’s fondness of museums was unmatched. She was my first exposure to an art critic, and a young me her begrudging companion to the various museums in DC.
After university I joined the corporate hustle but later abandoned that race that so many peers, especially in Washington, DC, so awfully craved. I too had chased the life that took pride in long hours, and satisfaction in titles (‘Director’, ‘Chief Officer’, etc.) over purpose, and therefore sacrificed the end result of pursuing purpose – happiness.
My journey in contemporary art started at a very fortuitous time. Western media and global collectors had developed an insatiable appetite for art from Africa. African art was hot, and has yet to cool. I had always found pleasure in travel.
As I ventured into Instagram (my naturally reserved demeanor had been nearly inactive on social media), I discovered women like Lee Litumbe and Asiyami Gold, who green lighted the path for me to travel the world as a young female African entrepreneur.
Even if I touted – falsely – that my opportunities are completely self-created, the art world keeps me in check.
Inspired to explore contemporary art and other aspects of contemporary culture, like fashion and travel, I created BLANC Modern Africa, a contemporary art and culture magazine inspired exclusively by Africa and its diaspora. BLANC covers topics like African artists at Miami Basel, the first contemporary African art exhibit in Istanbul, as well as a travel guide to Istanbul authored by the founders of that exhibit.
I am eternally grateful for the opportunity to see art around the world. Yet I understand my journey is possible because I am a product of Western privilege. I travel freely because my passport allows it. I am an entrepreneur because my socio-economic and political infrastructure makes such an option available.
Even if I touted – falsely – that my opportunities are completely self-created, the art world keeps me in check. I am never the most well-travelled, glamorous, or wealthiest person in a room. Case in point, I attended an art event in London hosted by the Otedolas. Art Basel in Miami, with its VIP art previews and endless invite-only events, was the same. So I remain even more fervent in my pursuit of the successful entrepreneur narrative.
It came together, in September 2016. My travel date to Milan had arrived. I packed my luggage, which included a newly acquired greenish-yellow lace dress (because you spruce up your wardrobe when travelling to a global capital of fashion).
After arriving at Malpensa Airport and settling into my Airbnb rental, I changed into that dress and ventured out to the Fondazione Prada, to see an exhibit by the Angolan artist Nastio Mosquito. Fondazione Prada is a concrete compound, with its sole exterior colour a glistening 24k gold leaf covered wall. The site very obviously bore the glamour of its namesake fashion house.
The inside of Fondazione Prada was also minimalist and grey, except for the sole accent colour – the same hue of my frock. Having never seen the interior of the building, this was a new, and pleasant, discovery. I fit in at Fondazione Prada, literally. And in a figurative sense, I fit in contemporary art.
The same calm of Bilbao overcame me – the satisfaction that I was exactly where I was meant to be.