Sunday 9 March 2014

On the international space, new face of African art makes fragile ascendance

By Tajudeen Sowole
Despite Africa's slow economic growth, contemporary art of some countries has been gaining ascendancy in the west, representing the new face of the continent's creative value. And the prospect of African art in contributing to the pool of economic vibrancy of the international art market is not impossible.

Visitors and organizers during the debut edition of 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair held in London, last year. PIC: COURTESSY OF 1: 54

Quite a number of international art events such as exhibitions fairs and auctions in Europe, and to a little extent in the U.S, have given hope of a possible explosion of African art on the global space.  It started gradually with gatherings like Africa Remix: Contemporary Art of a Continent, from about 15 artists, which toured few European cities like Düsseldorf, London, and Paris, from 2004 to 2005 and Tokyo in 2006. It however took a new tone, from 2008, with auctions in Nigeria, leading to similar sales in the U.K.

From 2008 when the Lagos-based Arthouse Contemporary Limited debuted as auction house and made unprecedented sales, commercial art events focusing African contents, particularly in overseas, have been on the increase. The trend, either a coincidence or conscious effort to fall in line with the ArtHouse example, in 2009, attracted Bonhans, one of the oldest auction houses in the U.K. Ever since then, Bonhams has been organising Africa Now auction in London with only one attempt in New York.

Also, last year, Art Dubai, UAE, included art from West Africa in its Marker section, a segment of the yearly event. Curator of Marker 2013, Bisi Silva of the Centre for Contemporary Art (CCA), Lagos led galleries from Nigeria, Cameroon, Ghana, Mali and Senegal to the event, which hosted an estimated 27, 000 participants from 75 countries.

And in just one year, the presence of African art on the international space keeps increasing as new entrants, 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair and an online outlet, The Auction Room, came with focus on art from the continent. One edition of the first African art fair in the U.K, perhaps, in the entire Europe may be too early to assess the prospect, but the organisers are excited towards the second edition. “Public response and strong sales only encouraging us to bring 1:54 back with a bang, returning to the iconic Somerset House across 15-19 October 2014," a statement released few days ago from the organisers reads in part.

El Anatsui's sculpture, New World Map sold fot Sold for £541,250  at Bonhams suction
So much happenings on African art in the last ten years crowned with debutant, Angola's Golden Lion prize award at the Venice Biennale, 2013,  the rest of the art world has no reason not to see the prospect in African art.  In fact some observers have argued that African art is “the next new thing after the Chinese art.” In the last one decade, Chinese art has blossomed in the west, and strengthened the communist country's rising super power image.

Art of Africa had, in the past, influenced certain renditions of European masters of post-Renaissance as well as made impacts in the 1960s through 70s and 80s, courtesy of the Osogbo school, inspired by expatriate Uli Bieier. If the west viewed African art from the prism of ancient and naïve rendition of the 1960s to 70s, the game is no longer the same.

Art historian and artist, Prof dele jegede of the Department of Art, Miami University, Ohio U.S; sculptor and art historian, Prof Frank Ugiomoh of the University of Port Harcourt, Rivers State; and curator, Silva shared their thoughts on the chances of African art contributing significantly to the world  market.

jegede traced the presence of African art on the international scene further back in history. "That African art is on the ascendance on a global (as opposed to continental) scale is not a new phenomenon. Recall the transformation of classical African sculptures from the opprobrious category of cabinet curios, fetishes, and hideous items to 'art.' He noted that African art of the mentioned era gained respect for “Eurocentrism as with Avant-gardism.” But the new face of African art, he argued, has changed the early “effluvium that came with undisciplined appropriation of classical African art.”  The current “discipline,” he explained, “boasts of a good presence of African scholars.”

How real is the African hope of explosive art market, when economic fortune is stunted by bad governance, leading to corruption, civil crisis and increasing instability across the continent?

Predicting an explosion of African art as possible next thing after the Chinese is premature", Silva argued.  She agreed that there is "a substantial interest" in contemporary art from Africa, but warned of the fact that "the focus is on a few countries such as Nigeria and South Africa and a few artists from other parts of the continent." Silva cautioned that Africa is a continent. "Remember Africa is also not a country and whilst the countries mentioned above form part of the largest economies in Africa, the other 90% have a smaller markets."
  Ugiomoh is of the school of thoughts that see Africa as the next point in global art. He insisted: "ideally and predictably, Africa is the next point.” He noted how “hyping the cultural capitals” of a particular nation is crucial. The ingredients of such hypes like art exhibitions, fairs, auctions "are needed to drive the cultural or symbolic capitals of a nation," stressing that Africa "is now at that point."

  He however agreed that the realisation of African art as the next big thing depends on the number of master artists available. “We need a little more of artists like El Anatsui who has gone virtual and virile.” Speculators, he explained "will drive the art” mostly from the Diaspora.

  But that much of these are happening abroad, and not on the continent, casts the shadow of a flash in the pan, hence the doubt about the reality of the prospect. 

 Optimistic of the prospect, jegede assured that with the brief reminder of the continent’s antecedence, “there is no reason to be fearful that the internationalization of modern/contemporary African art is happening outside of the continent."

Artists, he noted, are the ultimate beneficiaries through exposure such as publications, exhibitions, acquisitions, commissions, and other outlets that “promote and/or enhance visibility.”


Seven wooden sculptures of Ben Enwonwu sold for £361,250 ( three times estimated price) at the last Bonhams;' Africa Now auction

On the anticipated explosion, jegede aligned with Silva's argument. He warned that such hope "may of course be a mirage; it may not materialise."  But with more exposure, the much-anticipated explosion may not exactly be a mirage, given the history of art within the global presence of a particular culture. 
"The pendulum of art has always swung across space and time. It used to be Greece, then Rome. And in the 19th/early 20th century, it was not art if it wasn't manufactured in Paris. Since the middle of the last century, the pendulum has remained here in the U.S. There is no reason to suppose that it may not swing to Africa next. At the core of this global phenomenon is the reaction of the art market as an industry. For the dream to materialize, though, we need a whole tribe of El Anatsui and William Kentridges and Ghada Amers.”

As more of the events are happening outside the continent, particularly art auctions that have unearthed high values of masters like Enwonwu, Anatsui, Kentridge and Irma Stern, the ultimate benefit of using art to contribute meaningfully to the continent's economic growth could be lost. Ugiomoh disagreed. He argued that art in the context of the global market space is different from inter-cultural dialogue as exchange of money is involved in the transaction. Referencing Karl Marx’s definition of art, Ugiomoh likened art to oil. “When Karl Marx defined a work of art as a commodity, it requires an exchange of money to acquire it.” He argued that those who really have strong purchasing powers are in the Diaspora.  "Art is a crude commodity, and so much of it trapped at home in the hands of collectors. They have to go outside from simply visible to being legible.”

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