Discover Africa and Its Talented Artists
Forget the tired, old stereotypes attached to Africa. The continent’s artists have long engaged in a sophisticated visual dialogue that is finally receiving the international attention it richly deserves.
“There’s a scramble for Africa happening right now. The contemporary art market is going crazy for us and the thing is, I can’t decide if it’s the answer to all our prayers or if it’s almost distasteful,” says Jonathan Garnham, founder of Blank Projects, a collective and gallery space in Cape Town for southern Africa’s emerging artists.
It all happened so quickly. When asked about African art five years ago, people could possibly name Ghanaian sculptor El Anatsui, and then they just pictured a jumble of masks and wooden statues. Certainly nothing worth boarding a plane for. But when the art world finally turned its long overdue attention to Africa, it found a continent brimming with talented artists producing work deserving of international acclaim, some of it destined for the Thomas Heatherwick-designed Museum of Contemporary Art Africa due to open in Cape Town late this year.
Touria El Glaoui, the daughter of Moroccan artist Hassan El Glaoui, played an important role in that change of perception. In 2013, she launched the 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair, which takes place in New York in May and in London in October.
“I knew a fair was necessary when I realised there was nowhere for African artists to come together and present their work,” she says. “I think with 1:54 [a reference to the continent’s 54 nations], we have created an important sense of community, enabled galleries to have easy conversations and artists to feel less like outsiders, and pushed forward a continent that is waking up to presenting its talent to the world.”
Another turning point was last year’s Venice Biennale, which was curated by an African for the first time — Nigeria’s Okwui Enwezor, who ensured more African artists (21) were represented than ever before. Art Basel in Miami Beach also added impetus last year by staging talks on the emerging African art market, and in November the British Museum dedicated a floor to a three-month exhibition of West African art.
Africa is set for even greater exposure this year. Last month, Tunisia’s Selma Feriani Gallery attended Art Basel in Hong Kong for the first time, joining South Africa’s Goodman Gallery, which made its debut last year. But the real coup for African art is the Armory Show, which takes place in New York in the first week of March. Each year, its Focus section highlights a specific region and this year it was Africa.
“The continent and its diaspora are often neglected in all forms of culture, and I consider this to be a travesty as Africa is incredibly rich,” says curator Yvette Mutumba, one of the two Focus directors for 2016. “I’m delighted that this is changing, but I also know this sudden interest in Africa is connected to the dynamics of the art world and the hunger to find the next big thing. It was Asia, now it’s Africa — it all falls under the quest for something new. What I keep trying to say is that the art has been there all along; it’s the people who need to play catch-up.”
While the new focus on Africa is translating into sales, prices are still lower than for the art of other emerging markets, which makes this the ideal time to start a collection. Bonhams London holds a Modern & Contemporary African Art Sale in May and October each year, having created the category in 2007. It is still the only big auction house to have a dedicated African sale. Although its figures are still small in relation to other emerging markets (its most recent sale totalled just under £2m), the numbers are growing exponentially.
“Africa is the last frontier of art, so this hype doesn’t surprise me in the least,” says Bonhams’ director for contemporary African art, Giles Peppiatt. “As the market for Chinese art has faltered, so the market for African art has soared. The attention it’s getting is, of course, exciting, but what’s interesting is that it’s not just from people with a specific interest in African art. The buyers are men and women with mainstream contemporary collections — people who were buying a Jeff Koons last month but who now want a Chéri Samba. This illustrates quite how impressive a lot of the art is, but it’s rather unusual as, in most emerging markets, China or Russia for example, the art markets are initially dominated by newly rich domestic buyers. It’s only after they have paved the way that galleries in Europe or America start to pay attention. Africa is certainly bucking that trend.”
Africa was always going to be complicated. The contemporary African art category encompasses 54 countries, 1.1 billion people, more than 2,000 languages, thousands of tribes, and a near equal split between Islam and Christianity. How is it possible to trace a single theme or discuss a single economic or political change under such a blanket term?
“When we say a sale is about African art, we’re not attaching any values to it. We’re simply allowing our buyers to know which catalogue to pull off the shelf,” says Peppiatt. “The problem comes when buyers start asking for art that looks stereotypically African, whatever that means. Our solution to that is to only sell work that we believe has a strong independent and authentic value, and is not pandering to any outdated notions of what African art should look like.”
Arguably more than any other continent, Africa is consistently subject to stereotypes, which means there is still an onus on African artists to have a position on one of the many issues long associated with the continent, be it rape, poverty, war, Aids or Ebola.
“This is the aspect of the recent hype that I find slightly distasteful,” says Garnham, whose Blank Projects is exhibiting in Focus at the Armory Show. “The international market can’t help but exoticise Africa, but by doing that, they turn it into the ‘other’ and create a narrow frame of what an African artist can be and what they should be commenting on. For example, I’ve gone through countless portfolios with European curators and they will often only look at work by black artists, because white South African artists don’t fit into whatever box they need them to be in.”
Kapwani Kiwanga, whose work will form the central exhibit of Focus, has long debated this point in her art. For her Afrogalactica trilogy, she has invented and occupies the character of an anthropologist from the future who explores vast fields of knowledge relating to Afrofuturism.
“I am a Canadian citizen living in Paris, but because of my African heritage, people expect me to have a specific position on life and art,” she says. “So I have used that prejudice in my work, melding together fiction and truth in my installations to illustrate the extent to which the world vision of Africa is fantasy.”
Turiya Magadlela, an artist from Soweto, Johannesburg, is taking to the Armory Show a series of haunting canvases and complex installations made from torn pantyhose. “I was drawn to the range of colours and textures I found in flesh-coloured stockings and I wanted to see what the effect would be if I replaced the ribbon and ropes typically used in children’s games with broken pieces of women’s underwear. It’s about fragility, transparency, beauty, pain, distortions and liberation of women,” she says. Johannesburg also has one of the world’s highest rape rates, and the fact that these canvases and “playgrounds” look like a sea of broken women’s flesh cannot be a coincidence.
Violence and unrest is also a theme of Guinean-born artist Namsa Leuba, who lives between South Africa and Switzerland. In her arresting photography, she comments on the reality of life in modern Africa, and most recently on the effect the anti-apartheid struggle of the 1970s and ’80s has had on the youth of today.
“It’s about the reappropriation of a cultural and social identity of black people after the years of apartheid,” she says. “Zulu kids burning their passports is just one example of this new generation trying to build their future and find their place in a contradictory society, where the West and Africa are trying to coexist.”
Other commentators on violence include Mozambican sculptor Gonçalo Mabunda, who creates objects from weapons recovered at the end of his country’s civil war, and Ivorian artist Aboudia, who took refuge in a basement studio from heavy fighting in 2011. During that time Aboudia started making his large-scale, brutally energetic paintings, which combine a superficial innocence with a dark interior world. “While the vitality of his style recalls Basquiat, the darker undercurrents and themes describe a battlefield straight out of Goya,” says Jack Bell of London’s Jack Bell Gallery, which represents Aboudia.
Which brings us to the role governments have played in their countries’ marginalisation from the art world, governments that have repeatedly been asked to put more resources into local culture — to no avail in most cases. Artists need to find representation abroad because no money is invested locally, as illustrated by the fact just four African countries sent galleries to 1:54 last year — five from South Africa and one each from Nigeria, Ivory Coast and Morocco. And it is a similar story for the Armory Show. “We are just touching the tip of the iceberg with what we are representing,” says El Glaoui.
London-based galleries represent more African artists than the galleries of any other city. Toby Clarke of the Vigo Gallery in Mayfair will be taking work by Sudanese painter Ibrahim El-Salahi to the Armory Show.
“I had, to my disgrace, not known his work until Frances Morris of the Tate Modern showed it to me. But as soon as I saw it, I was blown away,” says Clarke. “I’ve been representing him ever since and roughly half the work we sell goes to museums — including the Tate Modern and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Curators are now far more inclusive and are taking a more sophisticated world view of the history of art, realising that the American and Euro-centric view that has dominated their collections is limiting. They are now playing catch-up, hence the demand from museums, particularly for Ibrahim, who is seen as the godfather of African modernism by many.”
Some African artists finally hang alongside their European, US and Asian contemporaries. Chéri Samba from the Democratic Republic of Congo is at the Centre Pompidou. South African William Kentridge and Ghana’s El Anatsui hang at the British Museum. And as the world opens its eyes to more African artists, we will all benefit from understanding a bit more about life on the continent.
“I have learned that if you don’t speak, you let other people define what Africa is,” says Magadlela. “We can’t change Africa, and we can’t change our Africanness, but we can change the way people think of us. And that is important.”
What to buy now
Bonhams’ Giles Peppiatt expects prices for these artists to soar in the next five years.
£100,000 or more
£30,000 to £100,000
Chéri Samba (above)
Pascale Marthine Tayou
£10,000 to £30,000