Contemporary African artists finally get their due on global scene

October 1, 2017 |    Kristin Palitza    |

CAPE TOWN (dpa) – Gone are the days when African art was equated with wood carvings, masks and ethnic paintings.

A new generation of contemporary artists from the continent has become an integral part of the global art scene.

“The marketplace for modern and contemporary art from Africa has transformed dramatically over the past decade,” says Hannah O’Leary, an art expert at London’s famous auction house Sotheby’s.

Art from Africa is now regarded as “exciting, innovative and relevant,” says O’Leary, who describes this relatively new trend as “long overdue.”

In May, Sotheby’s held an art auction that exclusively sold contemporary and modern art from Africa for the first time.

A hundred works by 60 artists from 14 African countries were put up for auction.

Bidders from 29 countries around the globe ended up buying 83 of them for a total of 3.8 million dollars – a result experts see as an important signal for the global art market.

Many of those works sold for “record-breaking prices,” according to O’Leary.

The highest-selling piece, bought for 985,000 dollars, was “Earth Developing More Roots,” a sculpture made from bottle caps and wire by Ghanaian artist El Anatsui.

The sculpture “Crash Willy” by the British-Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare, with an estimated worth of about 203,000 dollars before the auction, sold for 305,000 dollars, a world record for the artist, according to Sotheby’s.

An art critic observes a piece by South African artist Athi-Patra Ruga in the recently opened Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa in Cape Town

British star architect Thomas Heatherwick explains how he was inspired to design the atrium of the Zeitz Museum for Contemporary Art Africa
The recently opened Zeitz Museum for Contemporary Art Africa is located in a converted historical grain silo on the famous shopping and entertainment mile V&A Waterfront. It is expected to attract hundreds of thousands of international visitors each year. – PHOTOS: DPA

Part of the original wall of the historical grain silo that was converted into the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa in Cape Town is on display

Works by South African photographer Zanele Muholi are on display at the recently opened Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa

Works by Antonio Ole from Angola, Pascale Marthine Tayou from Cameroon, Abiodun Olaku from Nigeria and Armand Boua from the Ivory Coast had also been highly sought-after, the auction house says.

Italy’s Venice Biennale, documenta in Kassel, Germany, as well as London’s trade fair 1.54, which will be exhibiting art from Africa’s 54 countries for the fifth time in October, contribute to the buzz.

The foundation of French luxury label Louis Vuitton has also gotten hip to African art with a three-part mega-exhibit planned this May.

“All these events have had a significant impact on how people view African art,” Emma Bedford, an art expert and director of the South African auction house Aspire, tells dpa.

As a result, art from Africa is being increasingly added to the permanent collections of top museums such as London’s Tate Modern or New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), according to Bedford.

Tourists coming to Africa now visit galleries and museums instead of only wildlife parks, she adds.

In many parts of Africa, pulsating art scenes are drawing ever-bigger crowds, including the RAW art centre in the Senegalese Dakar, the Centre for Contemporary Art in Nigeria’s economic metropolis of Lagos and the 32º East in the Ugandan capital of Kampala.

At the Kempinski Hotel in Ghana’s capital, Accra, British-Lebanese collector Marwan Zakhem recently opened a gallery for contemporary art, Gallery in 1957, to “place Accra and its already vibrant arts scene on the international map.”

Of course, not everything is rosy, art experts note. Compared to artists from Europe, contemporary African art remains under-represented worldwide, and many young African artists continue to lack institutional support.

Even the term “African art” itself is troubling, one-dimensionally throwing artists from 54 countries into a single category.

The continent’s most established art market is unquestionably based in economically strong South Africa.

The cities of Johannesburg and Cape Town are home to dozens of galleries and museums.

In central Johannesburg, the newly redeveloped Maboneng district has become a melting pot for art and culture, while in Cape Town, German businessman Jochen Zeitz aims to raise the game even further.

The former boss of sports brand Puma opened the Zeitz Museum for Contemporary Art Africa (Zeitz MOCAA) on September 22.

The museum, located in a converted historical grain silo on the famous shopping and entertainment mile V&A Waterfront, is expected to attract hundreds of thousands of international visitors each year.

The Zeitz MOCAA will make a “huge contribution to the appreciation of African art,” believes Paul Harris, a South African art collector, whose private collection of more than 1,000 works is permanently exhibited at his hotel, the Ellerman House, in Cape Town.

Now is the right time to invest in art from Africa, says Harris. “The interest in and understanding of African art is on the rise … and its value for money is remarkable.”

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