Contemporary art from Africa is on the rise. The continent is the fastest-growing in the world and, where there is economic vigour, the art market seeks new talent to feed itself.
This month collectors visiting Art Dubai (March 20-23) will see work by a dozen artists from Nigeria, Cameroon, Ghana, Senegal and Mali on display in Marker, a curated section of the fair that focuses on a different theme or region in each edition.
“We realised that the various arts scenes of west Africa are particularly vibrant right now,” says Art Dubai director Antonia Carver. “The commercial gallery infrastructure might not be there yet, but there are brilliant artists, astute curators and dedicated collectors.”
Carver asked Bisi Silva, director of the Centre for Contemporary Art in Lagos (CCA Lagos), a non-profit, independently financed space focusing on media under-represented in Nigeria’s commercial sector such as photography, animation, film and video, to select galleries “with innovative programmes that work directly with artists to help further their practice”. Silva chose five organisations in the region, including her own, and asked them to respond to the theme of “Cities in Transition”.
“Africa,” says Silva, “is experiencing intense urbanisation and cities throughout the continent are being transformed as a result.” The five artists in the CCA Lagos display at Art Dubai explore the theme through a variety of media, she says.
“Red Alert” (2009, $4,000, edition of four) by Charles Okereke, part of “The Canal People” series, shows a discarded red slipper in a dirty puddle. Next to it are empty biscuit wrappers. According to the artist, it investigates “hyper-consumerism and the effects of such on the environment”.
“More than 80 per cent of consumable products such as these in Africa comes from China,” Okereke says. His piece, he adds, can be seen as a metaphor of “the need to stem this growth of utter consumerism … [and] the constant pollution of the environment”.
Other artists from Nigeria include Karo Akpokiere, whose “Lagos Mass Transit” (2010) is a pen, marker and Photoshop drawing showing a speeding city bus with a passenger balanced precariously on the outside, its bright colours and cartoon style recalling the city’s advertising hoardings. There is also Emeka Ogboh, whose “Interludes” explores 50 years of Nigeria’s independence using archival sound recordings.
Veteran Ghanaian painter Ablade Glover, who turns 80 this year, has a solo show of six canvases with the Nubuke Foundation from Accra. These are riotous cityscapes bursting with colour, that show markets, stations and firework displays. Meanwhile Carpe Diem from Mali (and located in Ségou, away from the fighting between Islamist forces and French soldiers in the north of the country) is showing the work of four artists, including photographer Harandane Dicko.
The exhibition will serve as an introduction to the sheer variety of artistic practice in the region, according to Silva, who warns against generic geographical descriptions of art from a continent that is so vast and diverse. “There is no such thing as contemporary African art – there is only contemporary art from Africa.”
International interest in art from the continent has never been stronger. Prices for established artists from booming countries such as South Africa and Nigeria are escalating at auction and their art is increasingly visible in museums, particularly in the US, where institutions are investing in programmes relevant to their constituent communities. Many are hiring curators specialising in the field and opening dedicated galleries. Ghanaian-born, Nigeria-based El Anatsui, who makes shimmering tapestries from bottle caps and tin cans, currently has two solo shows in the US: one at the Brooklyn Museum in New York and the other at the University of Michigan Museum of Art.
“The success of El Anatsui has made it easier for many artists who want to live and work [in Africa]. They don’t have to move to New York or London to have their work seen,” says art adviser Bomi Odufunade, whose firm Dash & Rallo focuses on contemporary art from Africa and its diaspora. “I am always being asked by collectors and a number of blue-chip gallerists in Paris and New York, ‘Have you seen anything or is there anyone I should be seeing? I can fly to Cotonou [Benin] or am happy to do a stopover in Accra.’”
In London, Tate has launched a two-year programme focusing on modern and contemporary art from Africa with sponsorship from Nigeria’s Guaranty Trust Bank. There is funding for a dedicated curatorial post held by Elvira Dyangani Ose, an acquisition fund and a series of symposiums in cities such as Accra, Lagos and Douala. This summer, as part of the initiative, Tate Modern will show the work of Meschac Gaba from Benin whose “Museum of Contemporary African Art” (1997-2002), an installation in 12 sections, has been acquired by the gallery. Meanwhile, modernist Sudanese painter Ibrahim El-Salahi will be the subject of a major retrospective in September.
Another initiative in London is a new art fair launching this October to coincide with Frieze. It is called 1:54 (in reference to the 54 countries in Africa) and will take place in Somerset House with 15 galleries from Europe, the US and African countries – all of them showing contemporary art from Africa at prices ranging from £2,000 to £200,000. Once the fair establishes itself, the hope is to move it to Africa, says organiser Touria El Glaoui.
However, the art market’s current fascination with the continent may prove to be little more than an infatuation, warns South African curator Mark Coetzee, who is responsible for the massive collection of contemporary art from Africa assembled by Jochen Zeitz, former chief executive of sportswear brand Puma.
Zeitz is this month opening a sculpture park at his estate in Kenya and is also planning to conduct feasibility studies to establish a gallery for his collection in Africa. “The market is always interested in the next big thing and is quick to look elsewhere once the fashion passes,” Coetzee says. But a serious museum investment in contemporary art from the continent should ensure that it will continue to be seen and studied far into the future even if the market loses interest, he says.
In six years Art Dubai has established itself as the leading art event of the Menasa (Middle East, north Africa and South Asia) area and provided the magnet for a Friezestyle Art Week in the Emirate. This year’s edition, which runs March 2023, is surrounded by a plethora of events, projects and exhibitions – plus a new design fair, Design Days Dubai. Ahead of the pack is still Art Dubai’s own six-day Global Art Forum, a programme of debates, discussions and talks that will host some 40 contributors. The fair itself this year will field some 72 galleries from across the world, while in Sculpture on the Beach, 11 large-scale works range along the seashore.