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In Conversation with Afikaris Gallery

We often speak of the Arts but not the places that carry them. Known as the art gallery to visit in Paris, during our short stay in town, we made a quick stop at Afikaris a day before their grand opening of a group exhibition. Their founder, Florian Azzorpadi, was kind enough to chat with us and walk through the process of managing an art gallery.

Let’s just go from the very beginning; How did Afikaris come to be?

Actually, it started with a passion to know more about what was happening on the African continent with the young generation of artists. Through arranged meetings, I had the chance to meet a few artists I really enjoyed talking with and to see their work. It was a moment you could not help but just to say; “Wow! This is remarkable”.

Then, it developed with the hopes of starting a project with these artists and building something together like a team or family. The project started in my apartment, in Paris, the 18th district, which was quite a popular area. Everything occurred in my living room, on the fourth floor, 60 metre square. Can you imagine while we had art pieces as large as 2 metres trying to fit in this small room? The idea was to do our best to promote the work of the artists. Fortunately, we did a great job and it was because naturally, the selected artists were very talented and deserved the exposure.

We opened a proper space in 2020 during covid.

And how was that?

It was interesting. Actually, it was really needed at the time because I could no longer sleep in my own flat. My apartment had an office, a storage room and an exhibition space. At some point, it was too much and I was looking for more space. It was crucial to align the ambition of our artists which meant a more diverse catalogue. Most importantly, to build better exhibitions.

We moved again last year in 2022, to this space Rue de Notre Dame de Nazareth. The idea behind this change is again, to show the ambition of our gallery, to promote the more experimental artists and give them the best exposure we can. Building the best exhibitions we possibly can because they are very talented.

I started in 2018 and the same idea remained; to highlight to the best of our ability the quality of the work represented, and also, the intelligence and message of the artists.

Maybe we could head further back because our audience also would be interested to know a little bit more about you Florian. From my understanding, you are the founder of Afikaris, correct? What is your background?

My background? Is it important? [laugh]. I’m actually an engineer. It depends where you start, but I worked mostly as a child because my father is an Antique seller. So I grew up with the art world but it was mostly to support my dad. I also had an interest in science and therefore, I did scientific studies. I did an engineering school in Paris and then, I worked as a consultant.

Then, I worked in a start-up in Africa for 3 years. During this trip, there's something in me that made me say; “I don't want to work and live with people only from Paris”. I wanted to be connected to other cultures and other messages. When I travelled, I had the chance to meet so many different personalities.

I was working for this E-commerce company and we had teams in Kenya, Nigeria, Egypt, Ivory Coast and Morocco. In my team, we had more than 120 people, everyone with very different stories, cultures, ages, profiles, personalities and religions. Some in conditions they didn’t have the same rate of success in their region compared to my previous works in Paris, a place where everyone has a similar background than you. I saw some people with backgrounds that are deemed less valuable in the global work market but undeniably talented. In Nigeria, for example, I was so impressed by the level of intelligence of young people who had almost no formal education but were ‘street smart’ in a sense. I was supposed to teach them how to do things but actually, it was quite the opposite, I learned much more from them.

You know, when you walk across galleries in Europe, there is a similar narrative being portrayed. What made you feel it would be appropriate to bring the artwork of another continent into this Parisian space?

First, it was for me because I wanted to see the artwork. I was really interested in seeing some artworks I could see nowhere else and so singular and specific. One of the profiles I had met was Jean David Nkot when I travelled to Cameroon in 2018, I was literally shaking when he showed me his artwork, some even 4 metres-long paintings. If I were to bring his work to Paris, I would imagine other people would also want to see it.

That confident?

Of course, there is this confidence… At the end of the day, it is a project, it’s a business, there is also the business side of things that you make in your head but also, by talking to other people.

No, it’s not true, there is not only one narrative in Paris and other regions. I think we target everyone. For example, you heard about us and you’re not from Paris.

Fair enough.

There are so many ways to communicate. Actually, less than 50% of our sales are made in France and therefore, more than half of our buyers are abroad. Even within galleries, there is no single artist with the same narrative, each artist has their own narrative. Every year, we have maybe 10 different narratives and all the difficulty comes from matching with the narratives of the artist.

Describe to us the first exhibition you built; what was the reaction of the general public if you can remember?

The first one was at the very beginning in 2018. It was a pop up in Paris. It was not my best exhibition, of course, but people really liked it and it had a good vibe and was a nice start. Then, my second first exhibition was the first time I presented in a fair and it was very random because I chose a fair in Lebanon. Just before the economic crisis and honestly, people didn’t like it and it was terrible. We didn’t sell anything, I invested a lot of money and I really wanted to cry but Berut was nice. Few months after the fair, we sold everything online. So it was a good souvenir. They were nice paintings but not presented in the right location at all.

And then, the third one, the first exhibition we made in a proper space in Paris. We were very proud and artists were very happy as well. The artists who trusted us from the beginning could see the project was taking a nice shape.

How does Afikaris gallery recruit their artists? Speaking to a few galleries, I know everyone can have their own techniques.

There are honestly infinite ways. It’s a question with no right answers because there is no proper way. It is really like everything; there is a personal connection. It can be, of course, because you connect with a specific piece part of a show, online, a newspaper and you think to yourself; “Ok, this is really cool!”. And then, I do some research and maybe I can have a discussion with the artist and build a connection.

Some artists we met for real. Even Ousmane Niang who is part of this show, I met him in my apartment. Someone brought him from Senegal, he was travelling with one of his friends who was also an artist and he was sitting on a chair in my apartment. We talked but I think I didn’t know his work. A day after, his friend showed me his pictures and months later, I travelled to Senegal to meet him again. So I met him in my apartment very randomly.

Then, there are also some people, there are friends of friends, there are recommendations. I mean, there are many ways. It’s more about how you decide to say yes or no, and that is more difficult. It must fit in the line but it can also mean that it is very different from the line because you know, sometimes we want to cut, sometimes we want to re-evaluate things. Building exhibitions that are not boring, I want to show artists doing the same things but a bit different. If I have one artist with a very intimate atmosphere, I don’t want to have 3 other artists like this in my gallery.

It is also about having a complimentary program all year long. Also, it has to make me happy as well [laugh].

Most important [laugh].

When it is over, we have to say; “Ok. it was a nice show”. Of course, it is a bet as well. You hope that the artist will produce a good show and you hope that the artist is as talented as you hoped. You know, I am the owner, I created this job and I want to work with people I like. I don’t have time to work with people I don’t like, I don’t connect with and who are not respectful and it has happened in the past. The more they are nice, the more it will motivate the gallery and I to do our best.

I mean, I presume there will be a lot of artists reading this. Did you by any chance in the past had artists approaching you for an opportunity?

Almost everyday.

Everyday? Ok and how do you respond to that?

I want to use this opportunity to say sorry because most of the time, I do not reply.

I mean, you’re a busy man.

But also, the worst thing is because I don’t know what to say. Sometimes, you only receive a PDF and when you are sure, you can reply like this doesn’t fit with the lines of the gallery. Other times, maybe you leave it just open. I can tell you 99% of the time, when an artist writes to us, it doesn’t go anywhere further. Almost all of the artists we work with, we tend to choose ourselves. But, it happened already in the past. Sometimes, it is really hard to judge without seeing the work for real. Plus without communicating face to face. Except if the PDF is very beautiful [laugh]. Or there is an attached CV with very nice exhibitions however, for young artists with no CV, it's very unlikely. That’s why sometimes I prefer not to reply because I’m not sure.

I don’t want to be tough because I respect the work of everyone, many emails I receive are very similar things, and I tell myself; “Ok, this is nice but not original enough for what we want to show in the gallery”. In short, this is not for me.

I’m sure our readers will understand where you’re coming from. Perhaps let’s shift the focus to the artists you actually chose. Would you like to introduce some of them?

Yes, I can start with Jean David Knot. I would say a very important artist of the gallery. Maybe one of the guys who was here from the very beginning. Without him, I would have not done this project since there was a deep connection from the get-go. We still call each other almost everyday. Sometimes he calls me to wake me up on Sunday and I don’t reply [laugh]. If he reads this, I would like to tell him to stop harassing me on Sunday morning [laugh]. I went to visit him in 2018 and we formed a deep connection. When we sold the first piece for him, I even delivered the first fridge to his grandparents village, which was bought with the first painting we sold at the time. I remember till this day, we took the truck to Cameroon and delivered it.

From the beginning, I was very impressed by the speech, the technique and strength of his work. Aesthetically, some people would say it’s a very specific style, but for me, it's very powerful and it is evolving so well. Also, one of the reasons why it was the first solo show when I had the chance to open a new gallery. The first book we published…

You also publish books?

We publish books when we have the resources. This was a book retracing 5 to 6 years of his "career.

Human Condition ...