Africa Art Gallery

Charitable art gallery is a window into the African imagination. Click Play Video for an online exhibition narrated by Maeve Marnell

When the Belfast-based charity Food For Thought Africa were looking for new ways of generating income to fund their various educational projects in Africa, the hard-working folks who pull the strings knew that it would take something special to convince the public to part with their cold, hard cash.

Little did Maeve Marnell and her FFTA associates know that their something special was staring them 'Giraffes'straight in the face. They had shipped it from Africa themselves, and hung it in wooden frames on the walls of their own homes - African paintings, as colourful and vibrant and eclectic as the artists who had produced them. Belfast’s Africa Art Gallery was born.

‘The gallery was set up in November 2007 as a means of raising funds for the charity,’ remarks Marnell. ‘Obviously we travel to Africa regularly to look after our projects, and whilst we were there we had bought art for ourselves and brought it home.

‘More and more, people would comment on the various paintings. They had never seen anything like them before. So we came up with the idea of selling African art for the sole benefit of the charity. We’ve been totally overwhelmed by the success we’ve had.’

With several private art galleries open for business along Belfast’s Lisburn Road (where the gallery is located), the Africa Art Gallery has a wealth of competition on its own doorstep. But no other gallery in Belfast (and perhaps the rest of Ireland) can boost such a unique stock.

Whether you’re walking into town in a sleepy daze on the way to work, or trudging home after a long day 'Masai'of retail therapy, the paintings that adorn the walls (and brighten up the windows) of Belfast’s only charitable art gallery cannot help but catch the eye.

Purchased from artists in countries like Nairobi and Kigali (most of the artists featured are self-taught and work separate jobs) the paintings on show in the Africa Art Gallery reflect the exotic landscapes, indigenous wildlife, dynamic cultures and vivacious artistic techniques of the African continent.

Masai warriors, resplendent in bright red togas, hunt and gather with spears in hand. Herds of cattle and giraffe cross the plain. Abstract landscapes shimmer and pulsate, tricking the mind into thinking that here, in rainy old Belfast, a sub-tropical heat wave has descended to blur the vision and quicken the pulse. 

The Lisburn Road art market has never seen the like.

‘We’re very fortunate in that a sponsor lets us use the premises free of charge,’ Marnell continues. 

‘We buy the paintings from the artists direct and sell them on at a higher price. That money then goes 'Sisters'back into the charity. So it means that the charity has nothing to lose by this venture, and also that the artists that we buy from can make a living for their families, which is the beauty of it from our point of view.’

With business booming, Marnell believes that FFTA's unorthodox funding gamble has paid off.

‘I knew that I liked the paintings, but I thought that was just because of the time I had spent in Africa, meeting the people and artists there and experiencing the different cultures and landscapes that the artists depict in their work. 

'I didn’t know what the average person in Belfast would think of them. But people absolutely love the paintings and they love the fact that the money is going into the charity. They really believe in our projects.’ 

Lee Henry