COLLECTORS AND INSTITUTIONS ARE FINALLY JETTISONING THE CLICHÉS OF THE CONTINENT’S OUTPUT, SAYS BRIAN NOONE, WHO PROFILES THE BUZZING CONTEMPORARY SCENE FROM CAPE TOWN TO LONDON
LAST YEAR WAS A BANNER YEAR FOR CONTEMPORARY AFRICAN ART ON THE GLOBAL STAGE: the world’s premier museum of such works, Zeitz MOCAA (zeitzmocaa.museum), opened in Cape Town. Angola-born artist Kiluanji Kia Henda won the Frieze Artist Award (frieze. com), and Dineo Seshee Bopape of South Africa won the Future Generation Art Prize (futuregenerationartprize.org) at Venice. Perhaps even more significantly, the official outgoing portraits of Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle – to be hung in perpetuity in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington DC – were painted in a distinctly African vernacular by artists Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald.
But 2017 wasn’t just an African moment; it was a signal that the African art world has ascended to the global stage. Collectors have, for the most part, left behind the tired notions of authenticity and animism that motivated much of the collecting of traditional Sub-Saharan African artworks in the 20th century, confirming what proponents have been saying for decades: that contemporary African art, whether it’s from South Africa, Ghana or Morocco, belongs in the global conversation taking place daily in auction houses, galleries and museums round the world. This year has begun with further evidence of the emergent demand for art from Africa and its diaspora across the globe, including in Africa itself.
Just five years old, 1-54 (1-54.com) is already the undisputed leader among contemporary African art fairs, with events now in London (October), New York (May) and, since this February, Marrakech, where 1-54 founder Touria El Glaoui, the daughter of a Moroccan painter, grew up. “We are so proud of how far we have come since our first London fair in 2013,” says El Glaoui, explaining that the initial event featured 16 galleries, while this year’s will include 43. “The growth and popularity of the fair,” she continues, “is a real testament to the shift away from Eurocentric art-historical narratives.”
The key to changing these narratives lies, perhaps above all else, with the galleries that sell the works. In constant dialogue with collectors, it is they who, as Marwan Zakhem of Accra’s Gallery 1957 (gallery1957.com), says, present contemporary African artists “alongside the work of their international peers – as they should be – and no longer defined just by their continent, but by the quality of their work”.
Other blue-chip galleries in Africa include Goodman Gallery (goodman-gallery.com) and Stevenson (stevenson.info), both of which have locations in Johannesburg and Cape Town and, like Gallery 1957, exhibit at global art fairs like 1-54, Art Basel and Frieze.
And it’s not just African galleries that are championing the continent’s art. Jack Bell (jackbellgallery.com) in London and Skoto (skotogallery.com) in New York focus on it, while other recent exhibitions have taken place at prominent galleries such as Gazelli Art House (gazelliarthouse.com) and October (octobergallery.co.uk) in London and White Cube (whitecube.com) in Hong Kong.
German collector Jochen Zeitz, who has been displaying pieces from his vast collection of African art at his Kenyan safari resort, Segera (segera.com), for years, last year opened the 9,500sq m Zeitz MOCAA, and this seems like the obvious choice for future importance. But a number of former MOCAA staff now work for the newest institution in Cape Town, the Norval Foundation (norvalfoundation.org), which opened in April in a space slightly larger than MOCAA, exhibiting works collected by Louis Norval as well as exhibitions drawing from international public and private collections.
There are other emerging institutions within Africa, most of them off the (barely) beaten path: coinciding with the inaugural 1-54 in Marrakech, for instance, was the relaunch of the Museum of African Contemporary Art Al Maaden (macaal.org), a collection from the property-developing Lazraq family. Or there is the Zoma Museum (zomamuseum.org) in Addis Ababa, a high-concept space generating increasing buzz. And art fairs continue to gain attention across Africa, from Dak’Art (biennaledakar.org) to Bamako Encounters (rencontres-bamako.com).
Western institutions, too, are doing their best to assert credentials: The Studio Museum (studiomuseum.org) in Harlem is currently mid-expansion, while recent exhibitions at Tate Modern (tate.org.uk) and Fondation Louis Vuitton (fondationlouisvuitton.fr) have set the terms of Western engagement with African art. Up-and-coming satellite fairs, Prizm (prizmartfair.com) and Art Africa (artafricamiamifair.com), which take place alongside Art Basel Miami Beach, are claiming an increasing market share, and at auction, it’s Bonhams (bonhams.com) biannual Africa Now auctions that sell the largest number of major works, but Sotheby’s (sothebys.com), which staged its first modern and contemporary African art sale in May 2017, is seeking to corner the high-end market.
Down the line, both Congolese businessman Sindika Dokolo (fondation-sindikadokolo.com) and powerhouse collector Kavita Chellaram (arthouse-ng.com) have significant collections in Africa, while Jean Pigozzi’s African art collection (caacart.com), said to number more than 10,000 pieces, has been rumoured to be looking for a central Paris home. As we rethink the narratives of the history of art, it only makes sense to consider that the leading institution of African art has yet to be built.
NetJets Magazine, Autumn 2018