Forget masks and tribal statuettes – the art world is in love with African contemporary art, and there’s a good chance the public will soon be, too. By Brian Noone
Two years ago, New York’s Metropolitan Museum held an exhibition called African Art, New York, and the Avant-Garde. Focusing on the continent’s influence on pieces by Picasso, Brancusi and other modern artists, the scholarly show was a reminder for the artworld that African art matters to western sensibilities – and that it has mattered for much longer than the past few decades. But more than that, with its retrospective gaze and emphasis on established European and North American masters, it was a reminder of just how little attention contemporary African artists get – and what potential the future holds.
Gone are the days when “African art” meant crafted curios that collectors treated as objects of equal aesthetic and anthropological interest. Colonial notions of forward and backward are crumbling, and the array of cultural creations across Africa is expanding its audience by the hour: the Nigerian film industry – known as Nollywood – now produces more feature films each year than Hollywood (but fewer than Bollywood), and iROKOtv, Africa’s Netflix, reports more than 100m views annually from users across the globe. African music is yet more widely distributed, with dozens of West African stars touring worldwide, and the youth-oriented MTV’s Africa Music Awards returning this month. African style, too, is increasingly global, as designers from across the continent gain attention at major international department stores, from Dover Street Market Ginza to Bergdorf Goodman, and African Fashion Weeks are popping up at couture capitals in Europe and the Americas.
But of all the current cultural output from Africa, no medium is better placed to erupt onto the global scene than art. African artists have been everywhere over the past few years. Most prominently, atlastyear’sVeniceBiennale,Angola won the Golden Lion for best national pavilion with works by Edson Chagas, whose socially engaged photographs also featured prominently at the inaugural 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair that same year in London, the most significant of its kind in the world. The second edition is slated for this October, when it will again run contemporaneously with Frieze – the fairatthecuttingedgeofcool,whichitself last year not only poached two South African galleries to its Regent’s Park tent, Goodman Gallery and Stevenson, but also boasted a number of further booths given over entirely to African art.
The British capital, thanks to both its thriving art scene and cosmopolitan connections, has become the epicentre for the worldwide diffusion of contemporary African art. This summer, following years of collecting new pieces, the Saatchi Gallery is hosting an expansive exhibition called Pangaea: New Art From Africa and Latin America, following closely on the significant institutional moves of last summer: first the draping of the normally staid Royal Academy with a 15m x 23m tapestry by Nigeria-based El Anatsui, and then two major exhibitions by African artists, Meschac Gaba of Benin and Ibrahim El-Salahi of Sudan, at the Tate Modern on the South Bank. Both of the latter were part of the museum’s two-year Across the Board programme, which also involves live performances by African artists in the recently unveiled Tanks and a new African Art acquisition fund that in the words of Tate director Chris Dercon will help show “African artists as part of a global history of modern and contemporary art”.
London, of course, is not alone in its enthusiasm for African art. The long- awaited New Africa Center is slated to open next year on Fifth Avenue at the top of Central Park, in Harlem, housing one of the great collections of African diaspora art in the world, in addition to exhibitions and events. Another major collection, the Zeitz, from former Puma CEO Jochen Zeitz, is now based out of the German philanthropist’s safari retreat in Kenya, Segera (see sidebar), and will soon receive a new home in Cape Town, South Africa – the first such major museum on the continent. And perhaps the top collection of contemporary African art, that of Italian businessman Jean Pigozzi, still has no permanent home – but it’s hard to imagine that remaining the case for long.
Contemporary African art, then, is perhaps a few years from widespread acknowledgement, but it’s hard not to picture a day very soon when the contemporary creations will eclipse anthropological collections – just as the mention of Chinese art now gives a first impression of Ai Weiwei or Yue Minjun rather than carved jade miniatures or Ming dynasty vases. Might this, as Bono once said, be the “African century”? Artistically, at least, it really might be.
IN CONVERSATION WITH JOCHEN ZEITZ
The German businessman and collector talks about contemporary African art; his Kenyan retreat, Segera; and the forthcoming Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa
Why combine African art with a retreat in Kenya?
I want my guests to have an in-depth, holistic experience that includes connecting with the wide- open savanna, but more. I want to share the diversity of culture and beliefs in Africa – the captivating narratives that only artists can create. Narratives that allow my guests to understand Africa for what it really is. Not some poverty- stricken, drought-ridden place – but rather a truer representation.
How has the worldwide market for contemporary African art changed over the past decade?
My engagement with contemporary art from Africa has always been with the vision of establishing a museum on the continent. Of course demand has risen dramatically for contemporary art from Africa which means good pieces are harder to get and prices are higher. But my focus remains noncommercial.
When will the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa open?
Zeitz MOCAA will open at the end of 2016. Until then, we have the Zeitz MOCAA Pavilion at the V&A Waterfront [in Cape Town], where at present we change exhibitions every three months. Our inaugural exhibition was by Swazi artist Nandipha Mntambo. Our next exhibition is by Angolan artist Edson Chagas.
Centurion, Q2, 2014