An interview with The Art of Resilience’s Montague Hermann
Lewa Next Gen’s The Art of Resilience will premiere in New York City from September 1–11, 2021 at the High Line Nine in partnership with Montague Contemporary. The exhibition captures the stories and faces of individuals living and working around Lewa Wildlife Conservancy in northern Kenya.
Montague Hermann is the founder of Montague Contemporary, one of New York City’s first galleries focused on representing contemporary African artists. Montague recognizes the importance of changing the narrative of contemporary African art and of building a new shared counter-history. By championing unique perspectives and diverse identities in an accessible and engaging way, he aims to foster a new dialogue between audience and artist and bring increased exposure to the exciting world of contemporary African art. Montague Gallery represents several of the artists featured in The Art of Resilience.
Tell us a little bit about yourself and your background. How did you come to enter the contemporary art world?
My passion for African art began while living for two years with the Gola tribe in Western Liberia, where daily interactions with the local tribal traditions such as the Poro and Sande societies drove a personal fascination with classical African art and tribal artifacts. This evolved over several years — I spent close to a decade living and working in 15 African countries — into a love affair with contemporary African art. Becoming close friends with many contemporary artists living on the continent, I wanted to share their stories with a broader audience. I founded Montague Contemporary in 2019 in recognition of the motivating factor of first-hand experience driving the future of the art market.
How do you interact with art today? What informs how you view a work?
When I view new works and meet new artists, I am primarily interested in their story and what informs their practice. I know plenty of collectors or gallerists who are less interested in meeting and getting a deep understanding of the artists they sell and collect. However, I could not imagine working with an artist without spending time with them, seeing a bit about how their life informs their practice, and becoming closer than simply business partners. My personal tastes drive me to find works that are political, compelling, imbued with layers of meaning, and break with convention.
What role do you feel the curator and gallery plays in the art world?
The reason I started a gallery was to fill a void in the market — to showcase the incredible artistic talent from across Africa in New York City and beyond. I think of my role as not only a steward for these artists, to help them present their talents to a larger audience, but also to help ensure they are not taken advantage of, are not overlooked, and are presented with the best opportunities we can provide. While there is debate about whether the gallery is still necessary in our digital world where collectors can reach out to artists directly, our role is to build awareness, qualify our buyers to protect our artists, and to drive penetration for these artists that otherwise would not have the opportunity.
Tell us about your work with the exhibit. What do you hope viewers will take away from it?
I hope that viewers recognize a few things. First, the interconnectedness of our world and the shared impact of COVID-19 on communities around the world. Lewa Wildlife Conservancy is hurting at the moment, and I hope visitors from New York and Europe realize the need to support these communities even when not physically travelling to them. Second, the wealth of talent from Kenya — we are featuring visual artists, designers, photographers, and ballet dancers. Africa often gets rolled up into one category for Americans, and I hope this exhibit sheds some light on talent and styles specific to Kenya. Third, I hope viewers start to see art and conservation as a part of their daily lives, not simply discretionary but core to their existence — fueling their spirit on a daily basis.
What inspired you to lead Next Gen’s art exhibition for Lewa Wildlife Conservancy? Why is this project meaningful to you?
Lewa has a special spot in my heart. Having lived in Kenya for three years, I often visited the property — I even ran the Tusk’s Half Marathon one year — and am in constant awe of their programming and their community-based conservation model. Since moving back to New York City, I am always thinking of ways to drive awareness of Kenya amongst New Yorkers and this felt like the perfect opportunity — showcasing some of the most exciting artists all in support of a worthy cause.
There are many up-and-coming artists participating in The Art of Resilience. What are you most excited to see in the exhibition? What comes next?
Lots of these artists have not had the chance to show in New York City, let alone in a premier location such as the High Line Nine Gallery. We are working closely with many of the artists to help them navigate future shows and exhibitions, to make this entry point a mere starting point for their North American careers. For instance, we are showing Elias Mung’ora’s work at our gallery this month for the first time and planning to show his work in a group show at Intersect Chicago this November.
Through a range of mediums, art can inform and inspire viewers to explore new ideas. How does art — particularly African art — connect viewers with conservation?
I think of the story of provenance — in the art world, there is much to do about a work’s provenance and the legacy of the stewards of each work. For me, though, provenance is all about the genesis of the work — where it was made, why it was made, and what inspired the artist along that journey. Kenya is a place that relies heavily on foreign support and tourism, with tourism second behind agriculture in generating foreign currency for the country. So the legacy of Kenya is one that relies heavily on their lands, to ensure sustainable agriculture and sustainable conservation. For me, I think these works all speak to some of the main issues Kenyans face on the daily basis — the uncertainty in the Lewa Community posed by the evaporation of tourism funds, the loss of gatherings and collective action across the country, and the degradation of the environment when big business is able to overcome the efforts of conservation.