Something new out of Africa
The market is hotting up for the continent’s artists, but a boom seems far off
By Edward Frankel. From Art Basel daily edition
Published online: 14 June 2013
Contemporary African art is increasingly being discussed, but still low-profile in comparison with, say, art from China, Russia or India—let alone the traditionally dominant continents of Europe and North America. Yet Africa is vast: with 54 countries, it covers 30 million sq. km. With each nation comes a huge variety of cultures and forms of artistic production. But financial success in the international art market has been elusive, with signs of a Chinese-style boom a distant prospect at best.
But things appear to be changing: in the UK, London’s first ever contemporary African art fair is due to take place this autumn and the Tate is setting up a two-year African art programme and a new acquisitions committee. Here at Art Basel, the curator Yvette Mutumba will moderate a talk on Saturday 15 June, “Focus Africa”, with the artists Otobong Nkanga and Meschac Gaba, whose Museum of Contemporary African Art, 1997-2002, was acquired by the Tate last year, where it goes on show on 3 July (until 22 September).
There has been an emergence of galleries dealing specifically in contemporary African art across the world in recent years. Jack Bell Gallery in London opened in February 2010, selling work by artists from Bangladesh, Haiti and Papua New Guinea, as well as Africa. But a year later the gallery chose to focus on contemporary African art. “Africa is changing at an incredibly fast pace,” Jack Bell says. “The art by the younger generation reflects this. It’s often politically and socially charged while being both very contemporary and also tied to cultural traditions.”
The landscape of buyers has changed too, Bell says. “In our first year of business, we were selling to British and European collectors. Three years on, our artists’ works are being acquired by the Hong Kong-based Franks-Suss Collection, the Museum of Old and New Art in Tasmania, Australia, and the Nevada Museum of Art.” Major collectors are taking notice as well. “Charles Saatchi, Frank Cohen and Jean Pigozzi were quick on the uptake and their support for a number of our artists has paved the way for wider exposure. It is one thing for me to say that the work is important. It is entirely another when the Saatchi Gallery includes it in an exhibition.”
The UK’s first contemporary African art fair, 1:54, named after the 54 nations of Africa, is launching at Somerset House in London at the same time as the Frieze Art Fair in October. “When I started this project, I was surprised that it had not been done already,” says Touria El Glaoui, the Moroccan founder of the fair. “Running the event during Frieze [will] ensure that the artists and galleries get the best visibility and leverage on the 60,000 visitors and the major collectors that will be in London at the time. Given the right platform, there is no reason not to see the same rise in interest we have recently witnessed in the Asian art market.”
African artists and galleries have also been making their presence felt at more established art fairs. This year, Art Dubai invited the Lagos-based curator Bisi Silva to organise its Marker section around West African art. Antonia Carver, the director of the fair, says: “The quality and diversity of the work exhibited seemed to resonate with viewers, and it was very successful for the participating spaces in terms of getting a foothold on the international stage and in terms of sales.”
Opinions within Africa itself, however, are more cautious. “Any young gallery representing mostly emerging artists will see a shift in their market over time,” says Joost Bosland, a director of the Stevenson Gallery [1.0/S8], one of two South African galleries showing at Art Basel. “Beyond the odd Bonhams sale, we are not sure if there is any evidence of growth. Individual artists from Africa might be growing their presence in the art world and, by extension, the market, but we are not aware of any growth across the category.”
Similarly, Pigozzi, who is a major collector of African art, is dubious. “I wish African art would take the direction of Chinese art, but it’s growing too slowly,” he says. “There are a few galleries in London and South Africa, and a few not so great auctions selling mediocre African art.”
Mutumba, the Africa curator at the Weltkulturen Museum, Frankfurt am Main, is similarly hesitant. “Some auctions have shown that there is an increasing interest in contemporary art produced by artists with an African background. However, William Kentridge is the only artist from Africa who made it into the top 100 of the artfacts.net ranking,” she says.
However divergent the opinions on the market are, what seems to unite those involved is a rejection of lumping 54 nations into one unit. “It’s hard to define ‘African art’, if indeed there is such a thing, given the vast, nuanced nature of the continent,” Carver says. It is a sentiment echoed by Mutumba: “[The term is] often used as a label, homogenising Africa’s extremely complex artistic production.” For Bosland, the market will only really take off once Western collectors approach contemporary African art on a level playing field. “Art with a capital A used to have to come from Europe, but the art world has slowly been expanding. Perhaps one day we will be just another part of that world.” Jack Bell perhaps summarises it best when he says that “these are good contemporary artists, regardless of where they are from.”
• The “Focus Africa” talk takes place on Saturday 15 June, 3pm-4pm
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