1:54 African Art Fair in New York last Year.
1:54 African Art Fair in New York last Year.
Image: Katrina Sorrrentino

When African and European cultures encounter each other, the event is inevitably loaded with colonial baggage, which often results in perpetuating
stereotypes about Africa and its people.

Art fairs have democratised the art scene to some degree, allowing for African galleries or those representing artists from the continent and diaspora to show their art in New York – for example, the Armory Show in that city had a special focus on the continent this year – or London, where the now annual 1:54
Contemporary African Art Fair takes place. 

In addition, biennales, such as the one in Venice, are where African countries, such as Zimbabwe, Angola and SA, have secured national stands displaying their art. Commercial galleries dedicated to promoting and specialising in African art are popping up. An example is the newly opened Circa London by the Everard Read gallery, which has galleries in Joburg and Cape Town. 

Circa London’s opening show presented an array of artists from the continent
Circa London’s opening show presented an array of artists from the continent

That these “encounters” are taking place in the West might suggest that the power relations between Africans and developed countries are in the process of being reversed. However, the battle is centred on visibility rather than challenging how African culture is framed or “consumed”. Exactly what kick-started heightened interest in contemporary African art is tricky to pinpoint.

“It is like trying to study the particles of water it takes to make a wave; so many things come together to make it happen. I think it is just part of an exploding interest in art and the search to find the next big thing, whether it is Chinese art or African. There is a recognition that there is considerable value to
be found in African art,” says Georgie Shields, director of Circa London, which opened its doors in Fulham in March. 

The new gallery deals primarily in art from Africa but was not conceived to cash in on this “wave”. Shields, along with South African gallerist Mark Read and London partner the John Martin Gallery, had been planning the space for a decade. Giles Peppiatt, the director of African art at Bonhams auction house in London, is able to determine precisely when he became aware of the value of African art.

Michael MacGarry’s art has an obvious African twist
Michael MacGarry’s art has an obvious African twist

“It was the selling price of a Gerard Sekoto for £120 000 back in 2006 that alerted us to the possibilities in this market.” Since then, values of African art have in some cases risen 300%, he says. 

This encouraged Bonhams to set up a division dedicated to African contemporary art in London, Sotheby’s has just announced that next year it will launch dedicated sales of Modern and Contemporary African Art in London, and contributed towards the establishment of 1:54 in that city and then, later, one in New York.

Its director, Touria El Glaoui, rejects the idea that African art is the new flavour: “I don’t feel that this is a ‘trend’ at all; times are changing, and the cultural sector and art market is becoming less reductive.”  A case for the inclusion of African art in Western art centres and asserting its contemporari-ness was made a decade or more ago, with African curators based in Europe and the US promoting culture from the continent. 

Circa London opens in Fulham
Circa London opens in Fulham

This includes the work of Simon Njami, best known for the Africa Remix exhibition, and Okwui Enwezor, the last director of the Venice Biennale and Documenta (2002). Maybe these curatorial strides influenced only a small intelligentsia, not art buyers. For, certainly, all the commercially driven initiatives around African art now are centred on increasing its visibility and educating audiences about its apparent diversity. 

“The African art scene is at a pivotal point – there is an abundance of creativity and talent – but the institutional structures, the support of foundations, residencies and programmes like that, as well as the patronage of collectors, has not quite caught up with the level of artistic production,” says Benjamin Genocchio, director of the Armory Show in New York.

In an effort to shift this, a special focus stand, African Perspectives, was at the centre of the Armory fair. “You need to have these specific platforms to give visibility first, and the next step will be inclusion,” says German-based curator Yvette Mutumba, who curated the platform at Armory.

Phillemon Hlungwani is one of the star artists Circa London will promote
Phillemon Hlungwani is one of the star artists Circa London will promote

The same African artists tend to keep reappearing on these ‘specialised’ stands and often stereotypes around African art abound; such as masks, textile art connected to its traditional past. As an African-owned gallery with contact with artists who are not yet known to Europeans, Circa London disrupts the terms on which African art is being exhibited.

The gallery is not branding itself as one specialising in African art. It opened with a group show, parading a diverse list of artists from SA, from Wayne Barker to Philemon Hlungwani, but the first two solo exhibitions will feature Alessandro Papetti, an Italian, and British sculptor William Peers. “Some of it is a deliberate effort so we are not categorised as a South African gallery. I am looking forward to a smaller group show and pairing African artists with those from elsewhere,” says Shields.

Turiya Magadlela was a hit at Armory and is showing work at Pace Gallery in New York
Turiya Magadlela was a hit at Armory and is showing work at Pace Gallery in New York

SOUTH AFRICAN ARTISTS MAKING WAVES ABROAD

IGSHAAN ADAMS – US hip-hop star Usher bought one of his textile artworks from the Blank Projects gallery stand at the Armory Show in New York

TURIYA MAGADLELA – Another artist from the Blank Gallery project stand, who wowed New Yorkers with her abstract “stocking” art, which sold out at Armory this year

ED YOUNG – This Smac Gallery artist always gets tongues wagging with his irreverent statements. His “So fucking African” slogan and “My Mom” balloons, which were given out at Armory, earned him column space in New York media

NICHOLAS HLOBO – Had a solo exhibition at the Lehmann Maupin gallery in New York

FRANCES GOODMAN – New York’s Richard Tattinger Gallery showed her distinctive gender themed art, which centres on the ways in which woman
are vilified for asserting power. Think oversized false nails and her embossed car bonnets.


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