Why you should care
Get behind the mask. These African artists explore, critique and challenge the world we all share.
Pooja Bhatia is an OZY editor and writer. She has written for The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and the Economist, and was once the mango-eating champion of Port-au-Prince.
When economies emerge, so do art markets. Perhaps that proposition underlies the growing stature of contemporary African art. From London’s Tate Museum to the Brooklyn Museum of Art to Miami’s Art Basel, African art is attracting more eyeballs, dollars and Western display space than ever before. Even as some critics reject the idea of “African” art as reductive (it is), for buyers, it’s becoming an asset class unto its own.
This is not tribal art, like masks and wooden sculptures, nor could it be described in the outmoded lexicon of empire: primitive, naïve or savage.
This is not tribal art, like masks and wooden sculptures, whose abstractions Picasso adored and refashioned into Cubist fantasias. Nor could one describe contemporary work in the outmoded lexicon of empire: primitive, naïve or savage.
Instead, the most talked-about pieces challenge power, look steely-eyed at notions of class and female beauty, imagine different racial histories, or historicize global capitalism and trade. They aim to implicate their viewers, especially those with privilege.
Take, for instance, Ghanaian artist El Anatsui. The 69-year-old makes tapestries from recycled materials, such as the caps of liquor and beer bottles, and sculptures from things like the lids of condensed milk cans. Though his materials are humble, El Anatsui’s massive works are noble, sumptuous and utterly beautiful. A tapestry made from pounded bottle tops in gold and red resembles the robes of an fairytale emperor. Another recalls kente cloth, the woven Ghanaian garment, with all its associations with nationalism. A serpentine floor sculpture of golden can-lids somehow evokes both the chains of slavery and the enormous lucre generated from human trafficking, then and now. At auction last year, his New World Map, a wall-sized golden tapestry fashioned with flattened bottle caps generated some $850,000, a record for him.
The most talked-about pieces challenge power, look steely-eyed at notions of class and female beauty, imagine different racial histories…
Alongside higher prices is the increasing visibility of contemporary African art at elite venues. London’s Tate Museum is helping lead the charge. Its exhibition of the work of Sudanese-born Ibrahim El-Salah recently wrapped, but last year it established a committee devoted to acquisitions from the continent, and it’s already bought at least 30 works. Over the summer, the Tate gave over 12 rooms to an installation by Beninese artist Meschac Gaba. Gaba’s work, entitled the ”Museum of Contemporary African Art,” was a sort of memoir of his journeys from Africa to Europe, and included things like Ghanaian currency with Picasso’s face and a Swiss bank that resembled an African street market.
It’s not just the Tate, of course. This month’s Art Basel, in Miami, saw the introduction of two new fairs centered on Africa. London’s Frieze, the weeklong fair in October, featured more African artists than it ever had, according to reports, with showings at high profile galleries like David Zwirner as well as, for the first time, participation by two South African galleries.
Currently headlining the Brooklyn Museum: Wangechi Mutu, a Kenyan-American artist whose work takes on, among other things, ”racism, neocolonialism, wanton consumption, persistent sexism [and] environmental spoilage.” Ah, and they’re beautiful and sometimes brain bending, in a good way. Some critics have seen a little of Chris Ofili in her work, the British painter who so enraged Rudy Guiliani with his elephant-dung incorportating “Holy Virgin Mary” portrait back in 1999. But Wangechi has much more up her sleeve than shock. She questions everything and her media are wide ranging. The Afrofuturistic animated video she made with musician Santigold, The End of Eating Everything, was just chosen for Sundance this year.
A rising economy has provided new opportunities for ambitious African artists and gallerists, as well as international collectors.
What’s fueling the contemporary art boomlet? One reason is probably high economic growth in parts of the continent. Certainly, a rising economy has provided new opportunities for ambitious African artists and gallerists, as well as international collectors. Several new galleries have recently sprung up in Nigeria, and they promote their artists to clients as far afield as China. As multinationals set up shop in business capitals like Lagos and Johannesburg, some are looking to local artists’ work to display in their lobbies.
Such is the extent of the boom that some aficionados are worried that too much African art will end up in the hands of collectors abroad, and not enough will remain at home to inspire locals. The durability of the boom — and the long term growth of the African art market — depends on whether an infrastructure of museums, galleries, collectors and governments can mature.
But the more substantial motor may be historical and generational, a sort of cultural shift. Both of these terms are still being defined, but they’re a certain departure from the past.
During the colonial era, which ended only about 50 years ago, artistic production was pigeonholed into a few “native” tropes that appealed to outsiders. Sometimes it was suppressed. In the 18th and 19th centuries, for example, European missionaries tended to regard sacred objects as idolatry and encouraged or forced their destruction.
Now, however, the first generation of artists born after independence movements swept their continent has come of age, and the second generation is getting there, all of them creating legions beyond masks and spears.