Sometimes parents move with their children from one country to another. When this happens, there’s no telling how their new worldview will impact their lives or what unique opportunities they might have. French-Ivorian entrepreneur Alice Gbelia shares her journey from a schoolgirl in France to art dealer in Zurich. Find out how a simple search for art that reflects her African culture became a springboard for her new venture.
You are from the Ivory Coast but moved to France at a young age. Tell us a bit more about your background and your connection to that part of the world.
I was born in Chad to Ivorian parents. They traveled a lot because of my father’s job and they were stationed in Chad when I was born. But we moved quickly back to Ivory Coast, where I spent my childhood. We lived there until I was eight and then moved to France with my mom and my sister.
Even though I have the French nationality, I consider myself Ivorian first and French second, in terms of the links I have with my country from my family. And since we left home I haven’t gone back [to the Ivory Coast enough], but I still travel to Africa quite a lot. I hope that in the future I’ll be able to go more often. It’s something that’s on my mind.
Was travel a big part of your life? Were you interested in seeing other parts of the world?
Funnily enough, when I was younger I wasn’t that much into traveling. I think it’s because my family wasn’t very rich so we didn’t go on holidays and things like that. I think my first holidays were when I was eighteen and something I paid for myself. But in France, when you get to college [middle school/junior high] everybody learns two languages. Usually, you learn English and another language; [in my case] Spanish. I discovered I was really good at English, which came very naturally to me. When I was going to school I always had this plan of going to study abroad for one year to an English-speaking country. I didn’t end up doing that because I finished all my studies in France.
Then I met my boyfriend at the time, who was British and living in England. And lo and behold, all of a sudden, I felt very motivated to move to England. I moved to London for love and I stayed there even after the relationship ended. I lived in London for ten years, and I still think it was the best decision I ever made because it widened my horizons. A lot of things that I’ve done since, like creating an online magazine, exploring culture, I don’t think I would have done without that move. But I started getting a bit tired of the city because it’s a big city with lots of people. It’s very crowded, very stressful and a bit expensive. I was looking to move but I wanted to stay in Europe because my family is mainly there. I found a job in Switzerland and I’ve been living here for six years now.
How have your experiences differed in each place you lived?
If I talk about my childhood in the Ivory Coast, I see it with rose-tinted glasses. Most of my memories are of me and my sister playing outside with our cousins. It wasn’t anything extraordinary, but it’s this sense of family that was lost when we went to France.
In Europe, you live pretty much isolated from your family. I think that was the biggest change between Africa and Europe. The loneliness was quite hard. Also, that’s when we realized we were different from other people. That’s when we discovered racism. Kids calling us ‘blackie’ at school. There’s another important thing people don’t really realize: usually when you move from Africa to Europe, your lifestyle gets downgraded a little bit. In Africa, every family has a maid, a cook. There are always people helping around the house. Even in working or middle-class families; you don’t have to be wealthy to have that. Then all of a sudden we go to Europe and it’s just my mom doing everything. She was dropping us at school, cooking, cleaning. In the long-term moving to France was the right decision, but there were a lot of sacrifices along the way.
On the positive side, I grew up in an affordable housing lot that was very culturally rich: French, North Africans, Africans, we all mingled and played together. And I’ve never really found that elsewhere, not even in London, where groups tend to be a bit more separated. I also benefited from a great education, for free! But I guess the disillusionment started when I entered the job market and realized things didn’t work out the same way it did with my white peers.
When I went to London, for the very first time, I saw things that I never saw in France. For example (it was the late nineties), I went to a Gap store and I saw that all the salespeople were Black. In France, that was never seen. If you were Black and you wanted a job, you would maybe work in the kitchen of McDonald’s.
There were no Black people in customer-facing roles. When I saw that, it was a revelation and I realized there was a different way of being Black in London [than in France], where I would have more freedom and opportunity.
Switzerland is totally different. London is very much multiracial, so you see people from all over the world. Switzerland is pretty much white, which is normal because they don’t have the same history of colonization. When I arrived six years ago it was quite common that I would go a whole day without seeing another Black person. I was the only Black person in the office, in the building – even in the area. But now things have changed: there are many more immigrants, so we see more Africans and Indians.
You observed some change even in the short span of six years that you’ve lived in Switzerland. Prior to observing this cultural shift as a result of immigration, how did you cope with the shock of coming from a multicultural environment to a predominantly white environment? How did you navigate that transition?
It was very difficult. I did not cope very well. My first two years in Switzerland were really hard. I was a little bit depressed and I was thinking of going back [to London]. There were no other Black people in my circle. All my friends at the time were white, mostly. It’s not a problem, it’s just that for most of them, I was their first Black friend. With that comes a lot of explaining. I had to educate them about my hair (why I changed it often, what extensions and weaves are) and I also had to explain racism to them. Sometimes we would discuss the news but they didn’t necessarily see the point [of view] of the person who was a victim of racism. It takes a toll. I was glad to do it because they’re my friends and I want them to understand the world better. But there were some days where I was thinking, I don’t have the energy to explain my world all the time, every day. So that was really difficult.
Before moving to Switzerland, I never thought that [being the only Black person] would be an issue. I grew up in France, so I’m used to being in white spaces. Even when I was in school in France, I was always the only Black girl. So I was surprised when it really depressed me to realize I was always on my own. The token Black person. Now I know that wherever I move in the future, I need to have Black people around me. It’s non-negotiable. I will not go, for example, to Denmark. I refuse. I realize that, for my well-being, I need to see us around. I don’t need to be friends with only Black people, but I need to see Black faces. I need to have people who I can talk to about Black culture without having to explain it.
Things are easier now because my Caucasian friends understand my world better. I have a Dutch friend for example who doesn’t shy away from conversations about racism: she asks questions and more importantly, she listens. I take them to see Black movies, like Moonlight and Black Panther. Now I really enjoy exploring things with them and showing them there’s something else other than mainstream culture. Now my circle has widened; I have more African friends. It feels a bit more balanced and I feel much better now.
You mentioned you considered returning to London. Would you have any advice for those struggling in a new location?
The advice I would give anybody who moves to a new city or new country is to give it a chance. I think you need the minimum of two to three years in a place to really get the feel of it and to really know if you’re going to be happy or not. The first years are always going to be difficult, wherever you’re going. Whether you’re in a community where you have lots of people who look like you or not. Even my first two years in London were difficult – even though my sister and my boyfriend were there – because change is difficult.
My mistake when I moved to Zurich was that I tried to recreate the lifestyle I had in London. Apart from the multiculturalism, what I was missing was the cultural vibrancy of London. Going to plays, theaters, fashion shows. I couldn’t find that in Zurich because it’s a German-speaking city and I don’t speak German. What I should have done is realize that London is London, there’s no way I can have the same lifestyle; and instead, try to embrace what’s new and unique about Zurich. So when I decided to stay I tried to really appreciate Zurich for what it is. The thing we have in Zurich that we didn’t have in London is that we’re very close to nature. You can go to the mountain, you can go hike, you can go by the lake. So if you’re a little bit outdoorsy and you learn to love and embrace those things, you can have a very happy life. That’s what I am trying to do and I think that’s what I’m going to take with me wherever I go. Leave your old life behind because that was a separate moment, separate city, and try to embrace the positive of the new place. What does it have that you won’t find anywhere else? Once you find that jewel, it makes things easier.
Another suggestion is to be more intentional about your friendships. We’ve all been there: you’re new in town so you tend to say ‘yes’ to every invitation because you don’t know anyone and you just want to go out. But you can end up being with people who don’t necessarily stimulate you emotionally or culturally. It’s like ‘okay, you might be very nice and very cool, but if I don’t think this friendship is going to nurture me then I’m gonna say no.’ Now I’d rather be alone than be out for the sake of being out and being around people.
How long after you arrived in Zurich did you become involved in the art scene and create your business selling and featuring Black art?
When I was in London I had created an online magazine about Black art and culture in London. It had very good critical success but not enough traffic to monetize it, so after four years, I closed it.
When I ended up in Zurich, I gave myself one or two years to just live before doing something. I didn’t know what that something would be, but I knew it had to be related to African culture. And because the magazine wasn’t financially successful, I decided that my new venture would be something very commercial where I would make money. For a few years, I was just keeping my eyes open and searching for that idea.
And then, what happened is – in Zurich, when you rent a flat, it comes really bare. You have to buy everything. For the first time in a long time, I had the opportunity to put my own stamp on the decoration. I decided to have some paintings on the walls and I wanted something that would remind me of my culture, African culture. I looked online and I discovered some websites that were selling affordable art but it was very difficult to find something I could relate to. When I typed ‘Africa’ I would find maps of Africa and images of elephants.
I thought I do not need a map of Africa in my home to remind myself that I’m African.
That’s when the idea started flourishing in my brain. I thought I love the business model of this website, but the only problem is that I didn’t find what I wanted. I started thinking there must be other people like me, of African descent, living in Europe or in the West, who are looking for that type of thing but don’t know where to find it. So the next step was to go on Instagram and I saw there were loads of artists selling the type of art that I wanted. So I put two and two together and thought Okay, there are all these artists that I could buy from, but it’s very difficult to buy from them because they’re all very scattered or you have to send an individual email. It wasn’t very efficient. But here was this business model where you could have a platform where everybody could go and buy from them. So that’s how I had the idea for my business.
How do you connect with the artists featured on Ayok’a?
I found a lot of them on Instagram. I would send them an email and explain the vision behind the platform, telling them that what I want to do is not just showcase art, but also enable people to buy it from them. One thing I’ve noticed when it comes to Black culture, there are a lot of platforms where you can look at things. But it’s more important to buy from those people, because in order for them to continue creating they need to make a living out of it.
A lot of the artists were really talented, but they were not even thinking of selling their art because they didn’t know if people would buy it or the logistics needed to sell. When I approach the artists I tell them, yes I’m here to showcase your creativity and talent, but also to enable you to make money. For the artist, it’s a way of reaching an audience without doing too much work. When they see people are ready to buy their work it makes a huge difference in terms of confidence. Like, oh, there are people in the world who think what I’m doing has value. It’s really what I wanted to do with this platform, to say we find value in your art and we’re ready to pay for it. A lot of the artists I’ve signed really respond to it because they all have day jobs and they do their artwork as a side job, but they’re really passionate about it.
There’s also this thing in our community where creative professions are not really valued: imagine telling African parents, “Oh, I want to be a graphic designer.” First of all, they don’t even know what it is. All they know is that you want to keep drawing your whole life. I really want to show there are avenues for talented and creative people to earn a living and build a future with their talent.
Long-term, I would like to work with a charity or create one where we can go back to the Continent and encourage children to keep exploring their creative side and not just toss it aside to all become engineers and doctors like our parents want. I want to show them that there are positive outcomes, there are a lot of things you can do when you’re creative and you have talent.