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Abi Salami: “Invest in marketing”

Invest in marketing — ditch the “if you paint it, they will come” mentality — There is this completely fictional belief that all you have to do is create phenomenal art, post it online, and the people and collectors will come flying to you. Unfortunately, that couldn’t be the furthest from the truth. You need exposure, and you need […]

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Invest in marketing — ditch the “if you paint it, they will come” mentality — There is this completely fictional belief that all you have to do is create phenomenal art, post it online, and the people and collectors will come flying to you. Unfortunately, that couldn’t be the furthest from the truth. You need exposure, and you need to get your work out there. There are many free ways to get exposure, but more than likely, you will be competing against thousands of other artists, so you need to invest in marketing that helps you stand out. That could mean working with an art consultant or attending higher-end fairs like the Other Art Fair and Superfine Art Fair. Either way, you need to find creative ways to showcase your art so that people can actually engage with it.


I had the pleasure of interviewing Abi Salami. She explores the uncanny in every day, allowing her subconscious to inform her paintings while using a personal lexicon of symbols to explore memory, mental health, and race, specifically with the aim of destigmatizing mental illness in African communities. Born in Lagos, Nigeria, and based in Dallas, Texas, Abi earned an MPA in Accounting from the University of Texas at Austin before committing to a full-time career as an artist. She has since exhibited in Dallas and across the United States, including at The Women’s Museum in Dallas, the African American Museum of Art in Dallas, and Viridian Artists Inc. in New York City, just to name a few. One of her many accolades is being selected as a candidate of the Saatchi Art 2020 Rising Stars under 35 Class. Her work has been featured on D Magazine, Voyage Magazine, Artsy, and on FOX16 morning news.


Thank you so much for joining us. Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path?

Well, I was born in Lagos, Nigeria, and my family emigrated to the United States when I was ten. I expressed an interest in art from a young age. I would bring drawings as gifts for my paternal grandfather whenever we would go visit him, and he encouraged my parents to buy me art supplies so I could continue to create. However, in Nigerian culture, art is seen as a pastime and not a career, so I went to business school instead of art school. However, I never stopped creating artwork. While working at a job that required extensive use of the left side of my brain, I used art as an escape and a way to express myself. I worked in Corporate America until I was laid off from my role due to a merger, and I made the decision to chase my dreams of being an artist full-time. It’s been three years since I left my desk-life and I haven’t looked back. In those three years, I have exhibited my art at galleries and museums across the country, and I was selected as a 2020 Rising Star by Saatchi Art, and I am just getting started!

Can you tell us the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

I feel like despite being a challenging year for almost everyone, 2020 also helped me really focus on my art practice and has led me down the path that I am now. I had more time to really think about what I wanted for my career and what kind of message I wanted my art to convey. There was so much chaos going on in the news, in the world, that I really leaned on creating art as a way to escape. I started painting where I wanted to be and focused less on my current situation. The tone of my art changed too. The work I had created up until then was dark and somber, and I decided to change my color palette to some more uplifting pastel and muted colors, and I saw a big change in my mood and how others reacted to my art. More people were drawn to my new style, and I felt like my message about positive mental health was being heard more clearly for the first time. So yes, 2020 was a complete mess, but it taught me a lot about myself and made me into a more resilient person.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I can say the funniest mistake I made initially was being resistant to treating my art practice as a business. I, like many other artists, was so glued to the romantic idea of just creating whatever art I wanted and thinking people will just magically appear to buy it. It took time, but I soon learned the importance of having a strong brand and brand message, having a cohesive portfolio, and understanding the importance of art marketing. It wasn’t funny back then because I struggled and stumbled until I finally had my “duh” moment, but it is definitely funny now to think of how naïve I was!

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

I currently have two exhibitions that are featuring my artwork. There is one going on in Gilroy, CA, at Gallery 1202. The show is called Looking Back in 20/20, and the theme was for each artist to create a piece of work that sums up their feelings about 2020. The show is up until February 26th. You can contact the gallery at [email protected] to schedule an appointment to view the exhibition.

The second exhibition is here in Dallas, TX, at Neighborhood Store + Gallery. The show is called “Tellin’ Our Own Story,” and it features six black female artists (myself included). The show will run until the end of February. You can contact [email protected] to schedule an appointment to view the exhibition.

Also, I have an exciting upcoming collaboration with a sports organization, and I am working with a developer who is interested in using my art as décor for a new commercial project. I cannot provide details yet, but if you sign up for my mailing list, you will know when the announcements are going to be made!

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started,” and why? Please share a story or example for each.

Being a successful artist is about being a brand — this I struggled with for a long time before finally creating a brand that was authentic to me as a person. I really had to dig deep and ask myself why I am creating art, and what message do I want my work to convey? Once I figured that out, everything else was very easy. I have my mission written out so that I can refer back to it every now and again to make sure I stay on track.

Don’t waste money on Facebook ads — selling art doesn’t really translate well on Facebook ads. People don’t only purchase art because they love it, they also love the artist that created it, and for them to love the artist, they need to know the artist’s story. After awareness, then relationship building begins. I use my social media platforms to build relationships with not only collectors but the lovers of my art, and I find that to be way more effective than using Facebook ads.

Invest in marketing — ditch the “if you paint it, they will come” mentality — There is this completely fictional belief that all you have to do is create phenomenal art, post it online, and the people and collectors will come flying to you. Unfortunately, that couldn’t be the furthest from the truth. You need exposure, and you need to get your work out there. There are many free ways to get exposure, but more than likely, you will be competing against thousands of other artists, so you need to invest in marketing that helps you stand out. That could mean working with an art consultant or attending higher-end fairs like the Other Art Fair and Superfine Art Fair. Either way, you need to find creative ways to showcase your art so that people can actually engage with it.

Likes don’t mean anything — I think a lot of people know this now, but several years ago, likes were like golden tokens, and everyone wanted more and more until we quickly realized that likes equal to zero dollars. I’ve seen artists who get a lot of likes struggle to sell their work, and artists who get maybe 5 to 10 likes sell every painting they post. It’s not about likes. It is about relationships and the community you are building around your art.

Build your mailing list before you worry about followers online — I learned this the hard way when Facebook started decreasing organic reach. It is more important to have people’s email addresses, physical addresses, or phone numbers than it is to have millions of followers on social media. Facebook and Instagram can go away at any second, so you need to make sure that you own your following and can still continue running your business without social media.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

I would say try your best to make time for self-development. I try to commit at least 5 hours a week to listening to podcasts, tutorials, webinars about the art world so I can gain more knowledge and ultimately make more sales. There is no way that you know everything there is to know about your field, so make time to stay abreast and think of it as “you” time because you’re nourishing yourself!

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?

I would normalize self-care by changing all students’ curriculum to include a class that discusses the importance of positive mental health and teaches students to meditate, stretch or practice yoga and keep a private journal to help them deal with their thoughts. The class would discuss mental illnesses to make the students feel comfortable talking about mental health. The end goal will be to have a new generation that values mental health just as much as they do physical health, and no one has to suffer in silence.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person to who you are grateful who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

My sister, Femi Salami, and my friend, Jennifer Holmes, I would say, have helped me in so many unquantifiable ways. Whether it involves being there when I need a shoulder to cry on, or listening to me rant about my frustrations, or being cheerleaders when I get down on myself. They are always there to help me out, and it means so much to me!

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

My favorite life quote is, “The answer is always no unless you ask.” It reminds me not to be shy or to assume anything. Opportunities are endless, and you just have to ask.

Is there a person in the world or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them.

If I could meet one person, I would love to meet Christian Louboutin. Apart from being my favorite shoe designer, I am inspired by his story. Like me, he wasn’t truly formally trained, but he had a passion for designing women’s shoes, and he continued to chase that passion over the years. His tenacity inspires me to continue to chase my dreams. He sold 200 shoes his first year in business, and by 2012 he was selling 700,000 a year. You can only do that if you have an unwavering belief in yourself and your product. He creates shoes to help women feel empowered, and I create art that celebrates womanhood, so I strongly relate to and understand his mission. I’ve never put on a pair of Louboutin pumps and felt like the world wasn’t mine for the taking. So Christian, if you ever want to have lunch with a fellow African creative, I am free!

How can our readers follow you on social media?

You can follow my Instagram account @abi.m.salami

And my website is www.abisalami.com.

Email: [email protected]

Thank you for these great insights. This was very inspiring!

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