Africa’s art scene is set to take Asia’s place in the spotlight

As we look at the art world, 2017 will undoubtedly belong to Africa. With a young and emerging scene waiting to blossom, it is set to take Asia’s coveted place in the spotlight, winning over the hearts of galleries, institutions and collectors the world over.

In Paris, the region was celebrated as the guest of honour at Art Paris Art Fair in February and is the subject of “Art/Afrique: Le Nouvel Atelier”, showing at the Fondation Louis Vuitton.

An artwork by South African visual artist Nicholas Hlobo, ‘Untitled’, fetched US$77,530 at Sotheby’s Modern and Contemporary African Art sale in May.

Occupying the whole of the Frank Gehry-designed museum, this monumental survey exhibition spans the past 30 years of artistic production from the continent. South Africa benefits from the most visibility with one section out of three dedicated to 16 artists from the country. Household names, such as William Kentridge, David Goldblatt and Sue Williamson, are placed alongside younger artists including Zanele Muholi, Lawrence Lemaoana and Kudzanai Chiurai, together playing an active part in shaping South Africa’s identity 20 years after the end of apartheid.

‘Say her name: Queezy’ is a photograph by South African artist Jody Brand, displayed in Being There at the Fondation Louis Vuitton. Born in the late 1980s, Brand belongs to the generation of artists who were coming of age during the last years of apartheid.

The highly regarded exhibition is bound to become one of the crucial events that contributed to promoting African art in international circles.

On the other side of the channel, in London, the Serpentine Gallery unveiled its 17th temporary pavilion in late June, dreamt up by award-winning Burkinabe architect Diébédo Francis Kéré. Taking social and ecological factors into account, Francis Kéré opted for a stripped-down steel and wood structure resembling a large tree canopy under which people can gather, hoping to bring a little of Africa’s community-oriented way of life to Kensington Gardens.

This prestigious commission – the first in the series to be designed by an African architect – comes on the back of Sotheby’s inaugural Modern and Contemporary African Art sale in Mayfair as a foolproof reminder that the British capital currently represents a fertile territory for African art abroad.

Serpentine Pavilion 2017, designed by Francis Kéré. Serpentine Gallery, London (23 June – 8 October 2017) © Kéré Architecture, Photography © 2017 Iwan Baan

Exceeding its predictions for this first dedicated sale, Sotheby’s fetched a total of US$3.6 million with 116 lots by both established and emerging artists. World-renowned Ghanaian artist El Anatsui saw the hammer go down on one of his aluminium bottle cap installations for US$941,690, making it the most expensive piece in the sale, while Nicholas Hlobo, one of the South African artists also included in “Art/Afrique”, made his auction debut with his rubber and ribbon work Untitled (2006) selling for US$77,530, about five times the high estimate.

If we are to trust the numbers, the still young and emerging contemporary African art market shows great promise. Hannah O’Leary, the house’s head of Modern and Contemporary African Art, was delighted with the results, especially seeing that “the most sought-after artworks were those by younger artists, which is extremely exciting for the artists themselves and their careers, and also for the potential of this market”.

South African artist William Kentridge’s ‘World On Its Hind Legs’.

Strategically, Sotheby’s settled on its New Bond Street saleroom for this inaugural auction because “London is currently the centre of this market, with many African and international collectors living or spending time in the city. We also have more commercial galleries that specialise in promoting contemporary African artists than anywhere else in the world, as well as the first and largest contemporary African art fair, 1:54,” O’Leary explains.

Focused on history, memory and identity, ‘Nolwazi II, Nuoro, Italy’ by South African artist Zanele Muholi echoes the work of William Kentridge and David Goldblatt in the Fondation Louis Vuitton’s permanent collection. Courtesy of Stevenson, Cape Town and Johannesburg.

This could change in the coming years, however, as Cape Town gets ready for the grand opening of the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa in September, the first of its kind in the region. The museum, founded by collector Jochen Zeitz with the support of the V&A Waterfront, and designed by Heatherwick Studio, is poised to become a global symbol for African culture and a platform for the continent to tell its story through its own lens.

“For a very long time, the African story has been told by outsiders. Africa’s taking ownership of its narrative,” says Tandazani Dhlakama, Zeitz MOCAA’s curatorial trainee in the institution’s introductory video. It has indeed been a long time coming for Africa to build a world-class museum entirely dedicated to art of the 21st century, but wars and internal conflicts in recent history have compelled governments to focus on politics and cut funding for cultural projects.
‘Alien Resurrection’, a drawing by Abu Bakarr Mansaray from Sierra Leone. The artist’s drawings consist of detailed calculations, sketches, diagrams, and commentaries executed in pencil, ballpoint pen and crayons. Courtesy of CAAC – The Pigozzi Collection/Photo: Maurice Aeschimann
With an improved social and political situation and increasing wealth, the region is now establishing itself as a new hub for contemporary art, with South Africa taking the lead.

Beyond such permanent infrastructures, social media, art fairs and public installations have also helped a younger generation of artists living in Africa gain international visibility, circumventing the institutional support that was traditionally required.

Painter and sculptor Lionel Smit, one of South Africa’s rising stars, is the perfect example of someone who has directly benefited from these platforms to showcase his larger-than-life portraits.
‘Cumulate Fragment’ by painter and sculptor Lionel Smit.

The artist currently has 177,000 followers on Facebook and over 20,000 on Instagram. His work is frequently shown at fairs worldwide, including Art Central Hong Kong this year with M Contemporary, and recently installed his monumental bronze sculpture, Morphous, in Union Square, New York.

With all this attention on South Africa, is it fair to say that the country is in fact the epicentre of the African art scene? “Absolutely not. Africa has 54 countries,” says Lee Garakara, the founder and director of Mwimbi Fine Art Gallery in South Africa and Hong Kong. “West Africa, for example, has been very active in the visual arts space and Nigeria in particular is known as Africa’s largest art market outside South Africa.”

Angolan photographer Edson Chagas’ ‘Found not Taken, Luanda’ (2009-2013). Chagas walked through the streets of Luanda, collecting discarded objects. Taken out of their context and photographed in relation to a carefully chosen background, the mundane items are turned into abstract icons that animate the city.

In Lagos, powerhouse collector Kavita Chellaram founded the auction house Arthouse Contemporary to promote the rich West African scene, and as a result is in part responsible for propelling artists like Uche Okeke and Ben Enwonwu to international fame. Both also featured in Sotheby’s’ May sale, alongside artists from 14 countries, including Benin, the Congo, Ghana and Ethiopia.

This diversity is not truly accounted for when the umbrella term “African art” is used. In a previous interview, O’Leary remarks that “to talk of African art as if it were one school, or as if artists in South Africa and Morocco had a shared history – that is incorrect. However, Africa has been largely overlooked by the international art world until recently.”

Problematic or not, many artists still benefit from the exposure provided by such a broad label. Specific terms and concepts might be devised soon to speak more precisely of the various practices currently referred to as “African art”, but for now, the priority is to give Africa as a whole its chance to shine in the art world.

 Originally published in the July 2017 issue of the South China Morning Post STYLE Magazine and on

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