GREATEST / Easy Otabor
Infinite Archives founder and part owner of Saint Alfred shares his time at RSVP Gallery and how it’s all led to his next chapter: Anthony Gallery.
I’ve been friends with Isimeme “Easy” Otabor since 2009, when he was the buyer and operator at RSVP Gallery and I was part of the creative team. During that time, Easy had his hand in the many different projects and creative worlds that led to where he is today. For anyone who has had the pleasure of meeting or working with Easy, you know that he is one of the most authentic and hardworking people you’ll ever meet. No matter how busy he is or how many projects he is juggling, Easy takes time out of his day to call you to see how you are doing, to share what he’s up to creatively, or to offer up advice and motivation. The most inspiring thing about Easy is that he genuinely cares and works hard to maintain positive relationships with everyone he works with.
After our time at RSVP, we both went on to pursue different career paths in the creative industry. He was working with global brands via partnerships and touring with Travis Scott (at the time, an emerging artist). I went on to consult and be in-house at Soho House & Co. Easy and I always stayed friends and shared our projects and achievements; I’ve continued to be inspired by his career trajectory and how he achieved it by aligning himself with people and things he believes in. In 2017, Easy asked me to help him write the brand statement for his new brand, Infinite Archives.
Two and a half years later, Easy and I were catching up at one of his favorite restaurants, Sunda, when he mentioned he wanted to open an art gallery in Chicago. I told him that we could make it happen, and just like that, we got to work. For months we worked on finding the perfect location; something that made sense with his vision. After searching tirelessly, we finally had the perfect space: an industrial facility with garage doors. After two soft-open exhibitions, we officially opened the doors to Anthony Gallery in our hometown during the week of NBA All-Star Weekend this year. The gallery’s debut exhibition, titled 1988—with artists like Wes Lang, Tyrrell Winston, Sterling Ruby and Nina Chanel Abney—was a success. The gallery’s support and excitement from peers and strangers alike have been overwhelming. There are many reasons for all the support, but the main one being that Easy and I both collaborated with many amazing people on the project—too many to name. It is a true testament to Easy’s philosophy on the importance of relationships.
Here I sat down with my dear friend to discuss how it all started, from his early inspirations to working with some of the biggest names in the industry, how we opened Anthony Gallery and much more.
Easy, for those who don’t know you, can you share a bit about your life growing up in Hazel Crest and Chicago? I think this informs a lot about who you are, what you value creatively and where you ended up.
I was born in Chicago, Illinois. I stayed in the city until I was 5; parents decided to move to the south suburbs—Hazel Crest. My whole life had me moving to different areas so I was all over the state of Illinois whether it was for family reasons, to visit friends, or because of the places that basketball or art took me at the time. I knew people all over the Chicagoland area. That helped me as it was always easy for me to make friends. I just apply that same concept to traveling the world now. I love seeing new and different things; it keeps me inspired and open-minded.
The gallery’s support and excitement from peers and strangers alike have been overwhelming.
For a while, after we both moved on from RSVP Gallery, I couldn’t figure out what you were up to. Suddenly you’re jet setting at every important cultural event around the world and hanging out with some of the most influential people in contemporary culture. How did developing relationships and friendships with people in fashion, streetwear, art, music, and sports shape the way you managed your career growth and later, collaborations?
I think helping and working with influential people earlier in my career really helped me learn and figure out a lot of things, mainly what I didn’t want to do. Don C & Virgil [Abloh] believed in me and took a chance on me to be the buyer and operator of RSVP Gallery for all those years. To have a real reason to be in Paris and see all those brands and fashion shows at the time was a blessing. Also, being good friends and traveling the world with Travis Scott earlier in his career allowed me to help where it made sense. That gave me experiences that shaped new goals and dreams for me.
You’ve always been ahead of the game. When you launched Infinite Archives and decided to limit the collections and drops, did you knowingly realize you were creating a sustainable brand, or that it would lead you to open an art gallery?
To be honest, I didn’t. I.A. came out of me just trying to stay busy and do something for myself for once. Instead of complaining about what I saw all the other brands not doing, I thought I would do it myself. As far as that leading to an art gallery, I met so many artists for things I was trying to do for I.A. that it just made sense. I had a crazy opportunity to do things differently while still being respectful to the current state of the art world.
Instead of complaining about what I saw all the other brands not doing, I thought I would do it myself.
How did Infinite Archives kick off your collaborations with artists like Matt McCormick, Georgia Bayliss and Morgan Blair?
To be real, the first artist I worked with, Georgia Bayliss’s work was so amazing, it had to be sold as art prints. That went well and led to me wanting to consistently [do prints] with each drop. It’s way cooler, to me, to sell out of prints before t-shirts.
What is it like for you to work with visual artists directly versus brands?
Well, all the artists are usually my friends or we share a common interest and want to make sure we are on the same page, so that’s usually easier versus brands where I have to explain what I want to do with them. With brands, there’s a lot of mapping things out and back and forth, but those experiences also make me better and force me to find more interesting ways to make things work.
What I love about everything you’ve done in your career is that it’s all seamlessly integrated into what you’re currently doing, which is art collecting and opening Anthony Gallery. You literally make it look “easy.” Can you talk about that moment when you realized you wanted to open your own gallery?
So many people, places and stores have inspired me to open Anthony Gallery. I just wanted to bring all the amazing artists that I see all the time globally to Chicago.
When you first started toying around with the idea of Anthony Gallery, I was so moved by your decision to name the gallery and project after your late father. Can you explain why it was important for you to name the gallery after him and why your first gallery needed to be in Chicago, versus LA or New York?
I thought naming it after him would be fitting in so many ways. One reason: as a tribute to him, but also as a reminder to myself to keep working hard and not give up. Every time I see my father’s name, it just inspires me more and reminds me of all he went through so that my family and I could have a better life.
We’ve come a long way since our first two exhibitions, Unite Through Culture and Festival. How would you describe the feeling of opening an art gallery with so much anticipation and excitement from your peers?
It was great—a bit stressful, but all good things to be stressed about. There’s nothing that time, focus and consistency can’t fix. I’m still learning and always will be. I’m a student... a freshman in this world, and I have to do my homework.
There’s nothing that time, focus and consistency can’t fix. I’m still learning and always will be. I’m a student... a freshman in this world, and I have to do my homework.
It was awe-inspiring to have highly-regarded artists, curators, and gallery directors be so impressed with the curation and execution of the gallery when we officially opened with the exhibition, 1988. What was it like for you to present this project to the world, in your own hometown, during NBA All-Star Weekend?
It felt great. I just wanted to bring a great show to my home city.
Virgil called you the “Larry Gagosian of the streets” at the 1988 opening. Gagosian started selling posters on the streets of LA, you started selling sneakers, so the statement is not too far off. What is your vision for the next chapter of your career now that I.A. is a successful brand and the gallery is up and running?
[Laughs] Yeah, that’s an amazing statement. I am just trying to stay consistent and focused on the gallery and the happiness of it all. I want to make sure I don’t get caught up too much—I’m staying grounded and keep finding that thing that pushes me to keep going. I love being happy and making sure I keep a good balance in my life.
What artists did you love growing up?
Jean-Michel Basquiat, Andy Warhol, Futura, KAWS, George Condo and Jackson Pollock. Artists that were between what I learned in art classes in high school and streetwear.
What artists are you currently excited about?
So many at the moment: Nina Chanel Abney, Sayre Gomez, Morgan Blair, Erin M. Riley, En Iwamura, Gerald Lovell and Anna Park.
What is some advice you have for young or new collectors?
Buy what you like and what speaks to you—that’s all that matters.
And finally, what should we expect to see from Anthony Gallery in 2020 and beyond?
Hopefully great exhibitions and inspiration.
INTERVIEW: ALICIA GUTIERREZ
PHOTOGRAPHY: AMY TRAN