Alice Gbelia did not envision that she would be running one of the biggest sites for African art, but one personal experience changed all that.
In her search for artworks for her house, Gbelia could not find the products that fit her style, her African heritage and her love for black pop culture.
The absence of such artworks inspired her to set up Ayok’a, an online store featuring products from black artists. Ayok’a means welcome in Gbelia’s native language in Ivory Coast.
Unlike many stores, Gbelia decided to diversify to other products such as mugs, phone cases and greeting cards, besides wall hangings.
“[The idea] came from a simple observation: we started selling art prints because we think it’s a great way to inject personality into a room, but here is the thing: not everyone has a wall. A lot of people live in rentals or in spaces where they don’t have the flexibility to put art on the walls, even if they would like to. Whereas everyone today has a phone and has occasions where they would like to send a thoughtful greeting card,” she says.
The business started off in 2017 and has featured quite a number of artists, whose works are not easily available online. It was thus an important move for Gbelia to create such a space as a way to open up spaces to these artists who have been limited in a way by traditional gatekeepers, who according to her are “mostly white, [and] tend to favour people in their circle and those people more often than not look like them”.
For Gbelia, there are quite a number of factors that block African artists from showcasing their work.
“I think it actually starts at home: creative skills and endeavors are not appreciated as much as they should in African culture. One of our artists, Artista Amarela who grew up in Angola and now lives in Portugal says: ‘There is not much to tell about Angolan art. I live in a society where art is unfortunately not appreciated, is left aside, and is very undervalued’. It’s also not always appreciated in black households, where we are not encouraged to pursue artistic endeavours. So if you are not finding support in your own home, it’s more difficult for you to gain that confidence you need to think that the art you are making is valuable and wanted. Once you go past that, I think it’s a matter of networks. The art world has never shone for its diversity or inclusivity,” she says.
The business has changed since inception. Not only has Ayok’a started to ship out products across Europe and Canada, it has also been able to add more product range. One of its future plans is to have more innovative ways of engaging with the customers.
“We’re engaging with our audience to see what they like and what they would like to see on our site, such as larger size art prints and photography. We will also do more events, first by trading at pop-up events and eventually doing our own, so that our followers can experience the brand. We’re also looking at new ways of sharing stories not only of artists we work with but also black creatives at large doing amazing work.”
Artists looking to have their products on the site only need to send their portfolio.
“What we’re looking for are artists with a distinct style. I like to look at a body of work and recognize the artist’s touch. We are particularly keen on artists who are proud of their heritage, be it African, Afro-Brazilian, Caribbean or African-American. We discover that our customers respond well to art that tells a story or that relates to Black/pop culture,” Gbelia concludes.
Here are some of the artworks featured on Ayok’a.