‘Night of the Long Knives I’ (2013) by Athi-Patra Ruga © Hayden Phipps/Whatiftheworld Gallery
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South Africa may have officially entered an economic recession this month, but its art market remains active and its artists very much in evidence in the UK this week.

Among the booths of two events in London, both the 1-54 contemporary African art fair and Frieze London itself are some of South Africa’s better-known practitioners, including Kendell Geers and William Kentridge — whose solo show Thick Time opened at the Whitworth Gallery in Manchester this month (until March 3 2019).

At 1-54 at London’s Somerset House, Of Gods, Rainbows and Omissions opens this week, the first UK exhibition of Athi-Patra Ruga, an artist born in Mthatha in the Eastern Cape. In a series of highly charged films, performances and photographs (from October 4 to January 7 2019), Ruga questions South Africa’s post-apartheid propaganda.

At the Embankment entrance to Somerset House, meanwhile, is a suspended boat, part of “Rupture” by the Western Cape artist Emma Willemse. The artwork is one of four projects by South African artists backed by Cape Town’s Spier Arts Trust and restaurant chain Nando’s — a significant supporter of the country’s contemporary art.

And across London at the Old Truman Brewery, an immersive installation about nuclear war comes, courtesy of the South African-born female muralist Faith XLVII at this week’s Moniker urban art fair (October 4-7).

“There’s certainly more of a presence of art from South Africa than usual,” says Touria El Glaoui, director of 1-54, who is just back from visiting the 11th edition of the FNB Joburg art fair, which she describes as “full of new activity”.

Certainly South Africa’s art scene has been in the spotlight lately, with the openings of huge private museums, including the Zeitz Mocaa and Norval Foundation and Sculpture Garden, both in Cape Town. In Johannesburg, The Centre for the Less Good Idea, an artist incubator founded by Kentridge in 2017, provides opportunities for dozens of artists twice a year.

‘The Day Rhodes Fell’ (2015) by Sethembile Msezane © Tyburn Gallery

With its more established arts infrastructure, South Africa is well placed to benefit significantly from the growing appreciation abroad of contemporary culture from the continent. “South Africa has the universities, the publishing houses, the foundries and residencies that stimulate an art economy,” says Ashleigh McLean, curator at Cape Town’s Whatiftheworld gallery. “It may not compare to the US and Europe, but in Africa it’s the arts capital,” she says.

McLean says that although her country has its problems, right now the arts are in a relatively strong position. “We have a democratic constitution that protects artistic freedom. It’s much harder as an artist to explore gender issues or gay rights in Nigeria, or to get support for politically challenging work in Zimbabwe, for example,” she says. McLean’s gallery represents Ruga, who addresses all of the above, and also brings to 1-54 a work by Thania Petersen, whose father faced involuntary exile from South Africa in 1984. Petersen’s Islam-inspired work, including “Musallah I” (2018, £6,000), refers to slavery and forced removals.

Lebohang Kganye’s ‘Phisi yaka e pinky II’ (2013) © Lebohang Kganye, Courtesy Afronova Gallery

Issues of migration, identity and oppression are now, sadly, universal themes, says Emma Menell, founder director of Tyburn Gallery in London. This seems to have contributed to a growing taste for art (from all geographies) with a social and political thrust that is markedly more prevalent at fairs and auctions worldwide. Among the South African-born artists Menell is bringing to 1-54 are Sethembile Msezane, who staged a performance in 2015 as the Cecil Rhodes statue was removed from the University of Cape Town (Msezane’s photographs documenting her performance start at £2,500).

Local buyers of South African art remain in the minority. For higher-priced modern art, the figure is low as 10 per cent; for work by emerging artists, dealers estimate that around 30 per cent of buyers are local. However, gallerists and auctioneers at all levels say this is becoming more balanced. Liza Essers, owner of Goodman Gallery, which has spaces in both Johannesburg and Cape Town, reports that one of an edition of Cape Town artist Haroon Gunn-Salie’s “Senzenina” (2018) sculptures — a chilling group of headless figures currently on view at the Frieze sculpture park in London’s Regent’s Park, priced at $300,000 each — sold at FNB Joburg to someone she describes as a “major, serious” South African collector. “It was very surprising for me,” she adds.

Frank Kilbourn, chairman of South African auction house Strauss & Co visited the fair too. “Around 50 per cent of its visitors wouldn’t have been there five years ago,” he says. It’s a change that McLean of Whatiftheworld has also observed: “The audience that appreciates art was previously very white and very upper and middle class. There’s been a massive shift.”

In addition, there has been a shift in the sale of art on the secondary market. Giles Peppiatt, director of modern and contemporary African art at Bonhams, has been running dedicated South Africa auctions in London since 2007. He says that while Transvaal-born artist Irma Stern (1894-1966) has long been the “grande dame” of the modern art market, the black South African artists of the 20th century are now being rediscovered.

The top lot at Bonhams’ auction on September 12 was “Portrait of a Man (Lentswana)” (c1942-47) by Gerard Sekoto (1913-93), which went for £310,000 (£380,750 with fees) against an estimate of £100,000-£150,000.

Gerard Sekoto’s ‘Portrait of a Man (Lentswana)’ (c1942-47), which sold at Bonhams this month

On the ground, Kilbourn believes, “the excitement around more ambitious and diverse contemporary art means that people are now looking to see what came before”. He cites artists such as Alexis Preller (1911-75) and Christo Coetzee (1929-2000) as those with price levels that “leave room for upward movement”. Kilbourn’s auction house, which holds sales in Johannesburg and Cape Town, had its highest turnover to date by far in 2017, at R329m (£17m) against an average of R176m since its first full year in 2009.

There are, however, reasons to be nervous. South Africans are watching not only their financial markets and currency collapse, but also the unfolding effects of an accounts scandal at its biggest retail group Steinhoff (owner of the UK’s Poundland) that wiped billions off the Johannesburg stock market at the end of last year.

Essers counts her blessings. “I thank God every day that the counterbalance to this dire economic situation is that African art continues really to be in the spotlight and is set to do so for at least the next 10 years,” she says.

October 3-7, 1-54.com/london

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