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How Anjeni Ramtahal is transforming the marketplace for Caribbean artists

LES ÎLES (meaning The Islands, in English) is a social enterprise created to advance the reach and profitability of artists from the Caribbean and the Caribbean diaspora. At its core, the company aims to facilitate sustainable economic growth for the artists and, by extension, the region at large.

Operating as a digital platform, LES ÎLES defies traditional categorization. It acts as an art gallery, storefront and artist representation house, all rolled in one. 

We caught up with Anjeni Ramtahal, the founder of LES ÎLES, to find out more about her journey and her bold vision for the company.

Why did you launch LES ÎLES?

Anjeni: I left Trinidad when I was 16 years old to study in Canada, with the hopes of having access to more opportunities than a small island could provide. I would return to visit my family every year. After 24 years living abroad, in 3 different countries, the concept of ‘home’ is not a simple, one-word answer. Like most of the Caribbean diaspora, I live between worlds, adapting to new societies, but still rooted in my home country.

In 2017, my husband and I decided to make Amsterdam our base. We purchased a ‘maisonette’ amongst the canals. We wanted to fill our bare walls with a thoughtful selection of art. We had one artwork with us, which was a small chattel house painting we both treasured, that my father bought for us during a trip to Barbados. We wanted to build around this. When looking for new works, the options available seemed not only expensive, but presented no real connection. For example, I didn’t see myself reflected in the Slim Aarons prints that showed ‘iconic’ lifestyles of elite Americans and Europeans. There were many more options we searched, but none resonated enough. 

I then turned my focus to sourcing Caribbean art. I thought that if we were to spend our art budget on Caribbean artists, this would not only directly improve the lives of individuals back home, but also allow us to transform our new place into a home that inspires and reflects who we are. Even though my husband is Dutch, he embraced the idea of bringing in more of my heritage into our daily lives.

It was an awkward process of selecting an artist, getting someone to meet and pay them in local currency, then waiting for someone who happens to travel out of the country to the same city, to pack it in their suitcase and coordinate a time to meet. In the end, I was so satisfied with having a piece of my culture with me in Amsterdam, that I decided to work on a solution to enable a more efficient process for others wanting the same connection back home. 

This solution includes art from the English, Spanish, French and Dutch-speaking Caribbean countries together side-by-side. It was through the process of building LES ÎLES, getting to know the Caribbean artists, and understanding their stories and perspectives, that I truly felt like I was fully understanding myself. All of these years abroad, I adapted, but I did not know who I really was. These artists have taught me critical analysis of my own history, what I lost from leaving the islands, what I gained and what I need to preserve. It has been a significant turning point for me to take control of my own future, with confidence in what I bring to the table, internationally.

‘PRICELESS’ by Carmel Gumbs, Anguilla

Tell us about LES ÎLES commitment to social and economic change for Caribbean artists and the region as a whole.

Anjeni: LES ÎLES is indeed a social impact, for-profit enterprise, creating shared value, addressing the needs and challenges of Caribbean society, while generating profit. This model was most suitable based on our core values and vision for scaling. We operate on three pillars:

  1. Art Sales and Resale Platform: We help Caribbean artists by marketing, selling, and transporting their art to international buyers (consumers and business). Without such a platform, artists in the region are often limited to their country’s local demand, which can be highly competitive and also tied to the country’s own economic vulnerability. LES ÎLES elevates their profile, stories, and works to a broad audience of customers who want to support Caribbean artists. Our resale model allows customers to resell the art on the website where artists receive a portion of the profit, so they can share in the benefit of the increase in the value of their works over time, and the reseller receives selected benefits from LES ÎLES.
  2. Channel for Work: LES ÎLES employs the service of artists for its own operational and creative functions and has built up a network of creatives who are available to work. This service is extended to organizations who seek creative services and want to support Caribbean talent. Examples of demand projects include commissioned work for commercial space, illustration services for books, art writers, and graphic design for new projects.
  3. Innovation Projects: We partner with AI teams for art-related projects with a Caribbean focus, to push representation within the AI space for art.

How has your personal migration experience influenced this project?

Anjeni: Art was always my first love growing up, but I could not convince my parents to allow me to study it at the university level. I ended up studying mathematics at the University of Waterloo in Canada. I went on to gain an International MBA at Rotterdam Business School in the Netherlands. My expertise grew in technology and marketing for large retailers. 

Daëna Ladeesse, Guadeloupe

Even though I had been distanced from art for many years, I believe that my experience and passion eventually converged at the right time. Starting LES ÎLES was something that gave me purpose, and my technical background not only enabled me to self-fund and realize this, but also steer the initiative in a truly innovative direction. The art world traditionally lacks diversity, accessibility and transparency. I’ve approached LES ÎLES from a digitally native, retail perspective, offering a modernized model that I believe is the future of dealing art, especially to previously excluded audiences. But I did not want to act as a gallery. I want to help as many artists as possible in the region. Only a small number get international representation, and I wondered, what happens to the rest, and what potential do we, as a region, forgo, if they are not supported?

The World Bank states that members of the Caribbean diaspora are largely willing to invest in the region, with the first choice being real estate. However, most are excluded due to red tape. I wanted to test the idea that art can be a viable alternative. 

Daëna Ladeesse, Guadeloupe

Many artists on the site have already realized increases in pricing between 2020 and 2021 in the global marketplace, signaling validation of the positive trajectory for Caribbean art. There is potential to gain financially and, also as important, emotionally. If we can normalize the diaspora collecting Caribbean art, this can create an impact on a larger scale in the region.

What do you see for the future of the project?

Anjeni: My mission for LES ÎLES is to leverage technological advances to create a system where Caribbean people do not need to leave the region to have better opportunities like I felt I had to. My vision is that an artist in the deep south of let’s say, Trinidad, can sell their art via our website to someone matched in Toronto. The piece will be shipped via our logistics, and the artist receives money directly into their account. All of this, without having to leave their home. This not only extends to artwork, but other design categories such as wearables, home and services like graphic design, illustration, content creation and more. Creating an engine to financially empower the creative sector is our ultimate goal. We believe that strengthening this sector strengthens the overall economy of the region, because this is exactly where we, as a region, are competitive on a global level.

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