Contemporary African Art, the new gold rush

African art is hot. And I am not talking about African masks, which were introduced in New York by the Armory show in 1913 and that heavily influenced Modigliani, Giacometti and Picasso. I am talking about contemporary African art. The fact that Tate Modern appointed Elvira Dyangani Ose as the curator of international art is a sign that contemporary African art is about to become a serious contender in the art globe.

I went to 1:54, the first contemporary African Art Fair, held at Somerset House in London. The very energetic 1:54 founder Touria El Glaoui kindly sat down with us and explained enthusiastically the two-year development of her inaugural fair, up to the last-minute delivery of the superbly crafted contemporary furniture provided by Mabeo from Botswana. The fair came from her personal love of African art and as a response to the lack of visitors to Africa. Art collectors are not flocking to Africa so bring the African art to them.

I myself came across African art several times this year:

– At the Venice Biennale, with J.D. Okhai Ojeikerei’s photographs of hairstyles of Nigerian women and Edson Chagas, who won the Golden Lion for the Angola pavilion;

– Sudanese artist Ibrahim El-Salahi and Meschac Gaba’s Museum of Contemporary African Art at Tate Modern;

My Joburg at Maison Rouge (Paris), which depicted Johannesburg through the works and perspective of its artists.

Hence my curiosity developed about whether there is one African country that is most active on the art scene, out of the 54 African countries, the nationality of the galleries focused on contemporary African art, and the potential influence on and common characteristics of African contemporary art. Touria El Glaoui noted Nigeria, Benin and Côte d’Ivoire artists are more active on the current African contemporary art scene; while highlighting that the North Africa artistic community has developed but been confined to local collectors. French galleries may be dominant in African contemporary art and I certainly heard French speaking along the fair, but a variety of specialised galleries are exhibiting at 1:54. Touria invited not only commercial galleries but also artists’ residences and labs, as well as the Museum of Modern Art of Equatorial Guinea. There is no strong external influence in contemporary African art, except a notable Basquiat inspiration in Aboudia’s works.

Walking along the fair, I tried to gauge whether there are common characteristics and associations within the African contemporary artworks. First, a basic observation, African people are often depicted in contemporary African art. Second, I noticed the untypical materials in sculpture, for instance a sculpture by Zak Ove including an alligator head. There was a good variety of art disciplines, with noticeably more painting than contemporary art elsewhere, where the share of painting has decreased to the benefit of video installations in my view. Paintings, which were often displayed without a frame, photography, hyperrealism and sculpture with unusual materials, from emerging and more established contemporary African artists are presented. A few artists are well-represented or at several galleries: Ivorian artist Aboudia, Meschac Gaba from Benin, Edson Chagas from Angola, and Beninese Romuald Hazoume, who reinvented African masks with a contemporary twist. There was a buzzing atmosphere yesterday at the fair: I overheard galleries on the phone saying they had sold several works already and Charles Saatchi was visiting! I do strongly recommend visiting the 1:54 art fair, held until 20 October.

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