From the Venice Biennale to New York’s Armory Show, the art world’s love affair with Africa is hotting up
Contemporary African Art is on a roll. The Venice Biennale has crowned Africa twice in a row, bestowing the Golden Lion on photographer Edson Chagas’s thoughtful Angolan Pavilion in 2013, while this year, under Nigerian director Okwui Enwezor, the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement went to Ghanaian star El Anatsui. This winter, a plethora of exhibitions featuring artists of African origin are on in Europe and America. John Akomfrah’s new three-screen film installation “Vertigo Sea”, first shown at Venice, is now at the Bildmuseet in Umeå, Sweden. Otobong Nkanga’s solo show Bruises and Lustre is at the Museum of Modern Art in Antwerp. And the first solo show of British-Nigerian video artist Zina Saro-Wiwa, Did You Know We Taught Them How to Dance?, is at the Blaffer Art Museum at the University of Houston, Texas
Interest from collectors is evident from the growing number of commercial galleries showing African and diaspora artists in London, New York, Paris, Berlin and elsewhere. Many of them exhibited at London’s African art fair 1:54, which returned to Somerset House for its third edition during Frieze Week this year and reported healthy sales. The fair is now gearing up for its second New York edition in May.
In October, Bonhams launched the first exclusively African contemporary art sale. World records were established at £31,250 each for Nigerian-born Peju Alatise and Malian Abdoulaye Konaté. And sale room stalwarts Anatsui and William Kentridge also saw records broken, with Anatsui’s “Al Haji” going for £146,500, the largest sum paid for a wooden sculpture by the artist, and Kentridge’s “The Pit” fetching £20,000, the top price achieved by one of his monotypes.
As if to seal Africa’s ascendance, New York’s Armory Show in March is to make Africa its regional focus. This is the seventh such “focus” — an effort to highlight the artistic landscape of a single region and capitalise on collectors’ thirst for the next big thing (Latin America and China have previously featured). The Armory Show has appointed a curatorial double act: Julia Grosse and Yvette Mutumba are founding editors of Contemporary And (C &), an online platform funded by the German Institute for Foreign Cultural Relations for “international art from African perspectives”. It makes no distinction between work made in Luanda, Lagos or New York. What matters is a link with Africa, whether through birth, blood or cultural inheritance.
Gosse is half-African-American, half-white American, and Mutumba half-Congolese, half-European; both live in Germany. Their rather clunky title, “Focus: African Perspectives — Spotlighting Artistic Practices of Global Contemporaries”, reflects the complexities of what the curators are hoping to achieve. The artists range from the visionary Caribbean painter Aubrey Williams (1926-90), who arrived in London from Guyana in 1952, to Eddy Kamuanga Ilunga (b. 1991), founder of the young collective M’Pongo based in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo. In their selection of 14 galleries, their criteria were quality, variety of media (“We want to make sure this is not a focus on photography”) and a diversity of topics (“We do not want 20 projects on poverty or globalisation”).
Vigo, from London, will show the venerable Sudanese painter, Ibrahim El Salahi. From Lagos, Art Twenty One will show new photographic work by Swiss-Guinean photographer Namsa Leuba (b. 1982), while Omenka will show stunning paintings by Slade Art School graduate Nengi Omuku. SMAC gallery from Cape Town represents the rising Kenyan artist Cyrus Kabiru, known for his elaborate “C-Stunners” sunglasses made from found materials. Circle Art Gallery in Nairobi, meanwhile, will bring a video installation with performance and photography by Ato Milinda, exploring lesbian, African and diaspora aesthetics, while Mariane Ibrahim Gallery from Seattle will show meticulous, dreamy drawings of fantastical realms by the Nigerian-born Ruby Onyinyechi Amanze.
The idea of nomadism is intrinsic, the selection reflecting the way contemporary African artists slip between countries and continents. The only commissioned artist is the Canadian Kapwani Kiwanga, who is based in Paris. Kiwanga has a Tanzanian father and Canadian mother of Irish and Italian descent. “African contemporary art is a nebulous concept: our realities are so complex, ” she says. She trained as an anthropologist and social scientist, and her research-based projects emerge as video, sound installation, sculpture or performance. Some work has been inspired by science; and she is as curious about Benin, Senegal or South Africa as Tanzania. She sees herself as “a complete outsider”. For her project in New York, she will draw on that city’s long history of converging cultures. As she puts it, “I am hoping to complicate the labelling.”