Out of Africa

Solange Mallett owns African Plural Art at 1305 Fillmore.

Solange Mallett owns African Plural Art at 1305 Fillmore.


Solange Mallett, the owner of African Plural Art, is passionate — about African art; her newly opened gallery at 1305 Fillmore; the neighborhood; the visitors who come to look, learn and sometimes purchase; and the tribes supported by the purchases.

“You have to be passionate about what you’re doing and passionate about sharing it with other people,” she says. “This is what I want to do. I’m from French Africa and I want to share with people here.”

Mallett was born in the Ivory Coast and grew up in Paris. Her husband’s work for the World Bank necessitated frequent moves: to Madagascar, Chad, Tanzania. In Paris, where they lived before moving to the Bay Area, Mallett ran an online African art business.

“That business taught me that I wanted a shop where people could come in and I could share what I’m learning with them,” she says.

Mallett explored several San Francisco neighborhoods before choosing her space in the Fillmore Center near Eddy.

“We fit in the Fillmore. I wanted to be in an African American community,” she says. “People stop in to look and to talk. The other day, a woman came in. She told me she didn’t know where in Africa she was from, but she saw this art is so important. She thanked me for bringing this art to the African American community. That’s why I’m here.”

Remodeling the new space took 15 months. But by opening day in early April, the long narrow space had been transformed into an a brightly lit gallery displaying art and gift items from several sub-Saharan African nations — the meaning behind the Plural in the gallery’s title.

“I don’t sell antiques. I sell tribal art — art made in the traditional way,” Mallett explains. “These are used objects from tribes in different countries: the Ivory Coast, Democratic Republic of Congo, Nigeria and Mali.”

Photographs of African Plural Art at 1305 Fillmore by Daniel Bahmani

Photographs of African Plural Art at 1305 Fillmore by Daniel Bahmani

To demonstrate, Mallett walks over to a statue of a tall man. “Look at the dents and scratches on this statue; you know it’s been used,” she says. “This is a statue of a rhythm pounder from the Senufo tribe from the north of the Ivory Coast. The Senufo rhythm pounder, called Debele by the tribe, dispensed justice, assured social cohesion and took charge of the initiation of male members of the society.”

Approaching a display of colorful necklaces and other jewelry, Mallett pulls a table linen from a shelf of woven baskets, bags, linens, clothing and bracelets to display the fine work. “My goal is to help the women in Ivory Coast villages and other villages live better lives,” she says.

Photos on Mallett’s computer cycle to show men weaving on hand-carved wooden looms; the small wooden house that serves as a factory; hundreds of tablecloths and clothes hanging on wood railings.

“The husbands weave and the women make the patterns,” she says. “It takes a long time. Then they make a six-hour trip to a big city where, if they’re lucky, they make one or two sales. People in Africa live on what they receive from their work, and they can’t live on one or two sales. I deliberately don’t charge high prices to move inventory and bring in more pieces. If they’re selling more, they can live better.”

Then another shop offering catches her eye. “These baskets are made by a women’s voluntary association in Madagascar,” says Mallett, who raised money for their cooperative while living there. “They use the profits from their sales to help new mothers. These weavers are so talented, but they just don’t have the outlets.”

Mallett makes annual trips to sub-Saharan Africa to acquire new items. “I bring back what I love,” she says. “This art speaks to me, and I hope others will have the same experience.”

African Plural Art is at 1305 Fillmore Street. The gallery is open from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Tuesday and Wednesday and from noon to 7 p.m. Thursday through Saturday. Contact the gallery at 415-539-5873.