The Goodman Gallery, one of South Africa’s leading contemporary art galleries, is not the country’s oldest, nor the only one with a presence at international art fairs. But it has an enviable roster of South African and international artists, including William Kentridge; the veteran photo­grapher David Goldblatt; Misheck Misamvu, Zimbabwe’s representative at the 54th Venice Biennale; and the US-based Nigerian rising star, ruby onyinyechi amanze.

This year, it celebrates its 50th birthday. Across an era of violent political tumult and the democratic transformation of the state, the gallery has been a resolutely non-discriminatory space. As well as selling art by both black and white artists, from South Africa and elsewhere, it has been required at times actively to protect artists and to defend freedom of expression.

This month the gallery is hosting, for the first time on the African continent, the seventh international conference on African and African American art, Black Portraiture[s] III: Reinventions, Strains of Histories and Culture. As the ANC’s hopeful state-building project seems once again in jeopardy, the Johannesburg conference marks a significant moment in the maturing of the African art scene: the wresting back of critical discussion from the diaspora to Africa itself.

African art has become a hot property internationally. When, in 1997, Beninese artist Meschac Gaba conceived his sprawling interactive installation, “Museum of Contemporary African Art” (1997-2002), which was acquired by Tate in 2012, the title was an ironic provocation.

Western museums have since sought to enhance their holdings in contemporary African art. Art fairs, such as 1:54 in London and New York, and prominent western dealerships are bringing African and African-American artists to the attention of a growing number of collectors, and Bonhams leads the auction houses with its series of Africa Now sales of modern and contemporary art from the continent and diaspora.

More recently, Africa has begun to seize back the initiative. There are thriving auctions houses in Nairobi and Lagos serving increasing numbers of local collectors. The first contemporary art fair in Nigeria, Art X Lagos, ran earlier this month. Ano, the non-profit Ghanaian arts organisation set up by curator and film-maker Nana Oforiatta-Ayim, is running events in its first permanent exhibition space in Accra this month, ahead of its official launch in March.

Looking ahead to 2017, the first edition of Art Accra opens in Ghana in August, and in September the Thomas Heatherwick-designed Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa in Cape Town will be the first major institution open to the public to answer Gaba’s challenge.

In 1966, when Linda Givon (previously Goodman) opened her gallery in Johannesburg’s northern suburbs, the situation looked very different. It was a jittery year politically. Two months earlier, Hendrik Verwoerd, Prime Minister of South Africa and architect of apartheid, had been assassinated in the House of Assembly in Cape Town, and South Africa’s protracted Border War with the South west Africa People’s Organization (SWAPO) in Namibia had begun. Givon, who had worked for the American dealer and collector Eric Estorick at the Grosvenor Gallery in London, opened with a show of 30 artists, mostly leading European modernists — Picasso, Giacometti, Klee, Miró, Moore — aimed at Johannesburg’s small but active art-buying community.

The startling black walls, black ceiling and white floor of the gallery’s first home signalled its determination to defy segregation. One of the earliest exhibitions, in 1967, was a show of the expressive pen-and-ink drawings of Julian Motau, a self-taught artist who died the following year aged 20 in a random killing in Alexandra Township. At times, to avoid trouble when the security police knocked, black artists who were mingling at their own exhibition openings would temporarily don uniforms and serve the drinks. In 1978, Ezrom Legae’s “Chicken” drawings, an oblique protest at the police murder in 1977 of Black Consciousness leader Steve Biko, were saved from confiscation when Givon pleaded they were merely images of poultry. Goodman Gallery was one of the prime movers behind the 1983 travelling exhibition Art Against Apartheid, and in 1984 exhibited for the first time at Art Basel.

When Liza Essers purchased the gallery in 2008 and became its director, her priority was to shift the focus from South Africa to the continent as a whole and the international context beyond. “My life is about effecting social change,” she says. “We are Arab Jews. My mother was forced from Libya when Gaddafi came to power [in 1969]. In 1972 she came here as a refugee.”

She seeks to defy what she sees as an artificial cultural divide between North and Sub-Saharan Africa, “a colonial legacy”, by showing the Egyptian artist Ghada Amer and Moroccan Mounir Fatmi, and to engage with other artists of the southern hemisphere, who perhaps have similar perspectives on colonial history, such as Alfredo Jaar (from Chile) and Tabita Rezaire (from French Guiana).

Essers has also initiated ambitious curatorial projects. The exhibition series In Context, pioneered in 2010, invited international artists and locals to explore the significance of place in their work, in displays across Johannesburg. This year’s iteration is inspired by a piece the American artist Hank Willis Thomas showed in 2010, “A Place to Call Home (Africa-America)” (2009).

Exhibitions at Goodman Gallery and the Johannesburg Art Gallery feature established names such as Wangechi Mutu, Alfredo Jaar, Julie Mehretu, Theaster Gates and Carrie Mae Weems, and lesser known artists. “We are a cross between a commercial gallery, a public gallery and an independent project space,” Essers says.

The growth of the market for African art has provided welcome revenues and stimulated interest. From its beginnings as a home for both black and white South African artists, Goodman has become a major conduit for an increasingly vocal African contribution to a globalised conversation.

‘In Context: Africans in America’, November 17-January 17, goodman-gallery.com; ‘Black Portraiture[s] III: Reinventions, Strains of Histories and Culture’, November 17-19, blackportraitures.info

Photograph: Anthea Pokroy

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