It all started out so simple. Alice Gbelia wanted some Black artwork for her walls. She searched high and low to find pieces she liked. She could not find anything. So, in 2017 the Ivorian/French entrepreneur started her own e-commerce business selling Black art. Today, Ayok’a is one of the biggest international sites for African and Black art. Besides wall hangings, she also offers products such as mugs, phone cases and greeting cards.
Gbelia tells TNJ.com how her love of art turned into a success for her.
TNJ.com: How did you get interested in art?
Alice Gbelia: I can pinpoint the exact moment when I got into art, and more particularly into African art: it was in 2009, at the Double Club, a pop-up bar/club/restaurant/art installation in London. It was curated by Fondazione Prada and was meant to be a conversation between Congolese and Western culture. The bar served Primus beer (popular in the Congo) and had a gigantic mural of a work by Congolese artist Cheri Samba. Of course, I knew about African artists before that but it was the first time that I saw art as something cool that belonged to all of us and not just in museums.
TNJ.com: What made you want to enter the business of art?
Alice Gbelia: It came from a very pragmatic need to have nice art on my walls without having to pay hundreds or thousands of pounds for it. I started thinking that there was a middle ground between the elitist art galleries and the commercial prints you find in random stores. No one was doing it for Black art at the time so I jumped at the opportunity.
TNJ.com: Why did you create Ayok’a?
Alice Gbelia: I’m from the Ivory Coast so when I began my quest for affordable art, I naturally started looking for something that would reflect my heritage and love for black culture in general. I shop mainly online so that’s where I started my research. I found cool online art shops but they didn’t have the type of art I was looking for. Then, I found amazing Black artists on Instagram but there was no easy way to buy from them (very few had online shops). This gave me the idea to create Ayok’a: a platform where you can buy affordable art from great Black artists.
TNJ.com: Why was Ayok’a needed?
Alice Gbelia: Ayok’a is an answer to the lack of inclusion in the art world. Mainstream online art shops have very few Black artists on them. The ones who are present usually don’t have the same exposure as the other artists because their art is seen as too “niche.” Well on Ayok’ a, Black artists take center stage. We interview all the artists on our platform, and share their stories with the world. When I did my first ever interview, I took one of my artists with me. So that’s one side of the coin: we want to give Black artists more exposure. On the other side, you have the customers: people like me, from an African heritage who want cool art they can relate to and that’s devoid of the usual clichés about Africa and Black culture.
TNJ.com: Please tell me how Ayok’a works from the artist’s point of view.
Alice Gbelia: Ayok’a is a way for artists to generate passive income. All they have to do is give us the digital files of their art, and let us know how they would like to sell it: as art prints, greeting cards, t-shirts, and/or phone cases. We take care of the marketing and fulfillment and give the artists a cut on each sale.
TNJ.com: Why do you think Black art is still often overlooked?
Alice Gbelia: I think it’s because the gatekeepers of the art world are still mostly white. Just in April this year, there was a bit of a controversy because the Brooklyn Museum decided to hire a white person as an African art curator. Those gatekeepers are the ones who decide what type of art is valuable and to them, that’s art by artists that look like them. Fortunately, things are changing. Two Black artists were commissioned to do the official portraits of the Obamas, contemporary African art exhibitions are taking place all over the world, and you have an emerging class of Black curators pushing the agenda. I’m happy that Ayok’a is part of this movement.
TNJ.com: You are based in the UK, do you travel to Africa much?
Alice Gbelia: I used to live in the UK, now I’m in Switzerland. I wish I could travel to Africa much more than I already do. I was in Morocco last year and the year before it was Tanzania and Zanzibar. I obviously go back home to Ivory Coast to see family and I’ve also visited Senegal and South Africa. Next, I’d like to go to Ghana, Mozambique, and Namibia. And when I do, I’ll try and find artists to launch on the platform.
TNJ.com: How did you fund the company when starting out?
Alice Gbelia: It’s all funded with my own money. I still work a full-time job and I use my salary to cover the costs of running the company. It’s a curse and blessing . A curse because I work 80-plus hours per week and have to make some sacrifices when it comes to my social life. A blessing because it’s a safety net: it allows me to invest in the business and give it time to grow.
TNJ.com: How do you find artwork?
Alice Gbelia: Mostly artists online, on Instagram or portfolio sites such as Behance. Some artists contact us directly, because they’ve heard of us and want to be featured on our platform. And last but not least, I also recommendations from friends and from our own artists.
TNJ.com: What are your long-term goals with the company?
Alice Gbelia: I’d like Ayok’a to become a lifestyle brand. Right now we are focusing on art but we’re planning to explain into home decor accessories as well. We’ll still work with Black artisans and bring them on the platform and allow us to find customers all over the world.
TNJ.com: What are your goals for 2018?
Alice Gbelia: I have two major goals for the year. The first one is to allow our customers to experience our brand and our products. We’re doing this by participating to pop-up events. We did one in May in London, have already signed up for another one in September and there’s also one that we’ve applied for in Paris later this year. The second goal is to find new ways of sharing our artists’ stories. This should take the form of an e-zine coming out later this year.
TNJ.com: What are the pluses of being an online company?
Alice Gbelia: The main advantage of being an online business is that you can serve customers from all over the world. We currently ship in Europe, the U.S., and Canada and that’s an audience we wouldn’t be able to reach if we had a brick and mortar shop. Another advantage is that as an online business, you have access to a lot of data: how many times buyers have visited our site before buying, where they’re coming from, which social media channel drives the most traffic, etc… You can measure track and measure things, which in turn allows you to make informed decisions.
TNJ.com: What are the minuses of being an online company?
Alice Gbelia: The drawback is that people still like to see and try products before buying them. And no matter how great your product pictures are, they don’t always do justice to the real product. When we did this pop-up market earlier this year, customers were able to see how tough our phone cases, are for example. And we recently received a 5-star rating on TrustPilot from one of our customers who says that the art print she bought even better in real!
TNJ.com: What have been some changes you have faced in building the business, especially as an entrepreneur of African descent?
Alice Gbelia: There are still a lot of preconceived ideas about Black businesses, namely that we provide bad customer service. That’s something that’s very much at the front of my mind. We try to offer the best customer service possible and I personally answer customers inquiries. The business is self-financed for now, so I only have to answer to myself. I suspect that I will encounter challenges when it’s time to raise capital. Add to that fact that I’m a female entrepreneur and I have my work cut out. But I don’t let that worry me too much. Things have evolved and there are now many initiatives that support female and “minority” entrepreneurs.