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Feb 20, 2022
Looking to invest in some art, or just a culture vulture who likes to stay ahead of the curve? Well, African art is the trend that’s here to stay. Take it from Enah Ohioma-Belo, a contemporary African art specialist at Sotheby’s, who told OZY there’s an “ever-growing demand” for work from the continent, and it’s raising ever-higher prices too. There’s also a wealth of diversity — from an Eswatini-born millennial who fashions gender-bending sculptures out of cowhide to a painter from Benin who’s reclaiming the Black body from the colonial gaze. Here are the new young artists from across the continent that you should know about.
– Based on Reporting by Kate Bartlett, Senior Editor
Aboudia, Ivory Coast
This Ivorian, who goes by only one name, also draws heavily on his country’s experience of civil war — garnering comparisons to Jean-Mchel Basquiat because of their graffiti-like quality. During the conflict in 2011, Aboudia hid in his studio, painting the horrors he witnessed outside, his work often featuring skulls and guns. But he doesn't want to be pigeon-holed as a “war painter.” His major focus these days are collages of the street children in the Ivorian capital, made from materials he finds in garbage bins. His piece, “Untitled” (2013), sold for a record-breaking $222,138 at auction. Some of Aboudia’s works can be seen at the Ethan Cohen Gallery of Los Angeles for a short time.
Kudzanai-Violet Hwami, Zimbabwe
This Southern African country is perhaps best known for its Shona stone sculptures, but Zimbabwe also has a wealth of cutting-edge, world class artists. Hwami is one of them. The 29-year-old is becoming a major name to watch on the international art scene, representing her country at the 2019 Venice Biennale. Themes of identity and the Zimbabwean diaspora, sparked by some of the worst inflation in the world, are common in her work and Hwami also paints intimate nudes and self portraits. She experiments with multimedia, incorporating digital collages, photography and silkscreen into her large canvases. Her painting Tampon Incision Study 3, sold for $190,500, triple the estimated sum, at auction in March of last year.
Gonçalo Mabunda, Mozambique
This Maputo-based sculptor fashions his work from the literal remnants of his country’s brutal civil war. Elaborate tribal thrones made from disused AK47s, rocket launchers, bullets and pistols, as well as masks that play on the African-influenced work of Georges Braques and Pablo Picasso. In his 40s, Mabunda is one of the older artists featured here. There was an exhibition of his work in London last year and his work was also exhibited at the Art Dubai fair. Former president Bill Clinton even acquired one of the Mozambican's pieces for his office.
Otis Kwame Kye Quaicoe, Ghana
This artist from Accra has relocated to Portland, Oregon. Why? Love of course. Until recently he wasn’t working as a painter full time, instead working at a local FedEx. He says the racial tensions in America perplex him, citing that race “wasn’t on my mind, ever, until I got here.” And getting to know African-Americans seemed like a meeting of two cultures. Quaicoe’s works are vividly-colored, pop art-esque portraits of Black men and women with eye-catching accessories like sunglasses and stylish hats. They are selling for six-figure sums and he says he’s getting recognition he would never have got at home.
Michael Armitage, Kenya
The son of a British father and Kenyan mother, this millennial artist grew up in Nairobi, but is now based in London. “I have always felt like an outsider both in Nairobi and London," he says — though his subject matter is always about Kenya. He often paints on Lubugo, a cloth from neighboring Uganda made of tree bark and traditionally used as a burial shroud. Armitage’s themes range from the political to the surreal, mixing in pop culture references but also influences from the classic Western canon like Francisco Goya and Paul Gauguin.
Taiye Idahor, Nigeria
This millennial from Lagos explores Black, female identity through drawings and collage, with works that have been exhibited internationally from Japan to Dubai. Themes include Chinese influence in Africa, globalization and the environment, with Black hair as a recurring motif. One of her exhibitions was entitled “Hairvolution” and has sculptural braids weaved out of newsprint, while another is called “Going Back to my Roots.” The artist was thrilled when one of her works was featured on a wall in the background of an episode of hit TV show Empire.
Women Making Waves
Nandipha Mntambo, Eswatini
“I am interested in uncovering that binary, that in-between space that you can’t always pinpoint or articulate," says this 40-year-old from the tiny landlocked country bordered by Mozambique and South Africa, formerly known as Swaziland. The artist’s best known for her figurative cowhide sculptures that play with the differences and similarities between humans and animals. Mntambo, who has exhibited all over the world, also explores the ambiguity of androgyny and gender roles in striking photographs of herself dressed as a Spanish matador. She also takes intimate portraits of members of the region’s lesbian community.
The Script Doesn’t Write Itself
This Ethiopian artist from Addis Ababa is a new name emerging on the international art scene. Her monochromatic paintings, rendered in broad brush strokes, are reminiscent of Picasso’s Blue and Rose Periods and have a melancholy, almost dreamlike quality. The young painter took part in last year’s Art Dubai Fair where her — still affordable — work sold for about $6,000. Berhanu looks like a rising star worth keeping an eye on.
Sungi Mlengeya, Tanzania
This self-taught artist is the master of negative space. She uses mainly a black and white palette for her minimalist portraits of Black women in white dresses. The artist describes her use of white space as “a place of calm, free and detached from social norms and restrictions, real and imagined.” Mlengeya only recently left a career in the banking sector to become a full-time painter, a gamble that has paid off since now she has exhibited around the world and one of her works recently sold for $50,000 at an online art auction.
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African Art Market
Art Fairs and Auctions
Johannesburg, Lagos and Addis Ababa all have - or at least had before COVID-19 - major annual art fairs attended by well-heeled collectors from the continent and across the world. And art fairs centered around African work are also being held further afield, with the 1-54, an event in partnership with Christie's, taking place several times a year in global art centers like London and Paris and dedicated to art from Africa and the diaspora.
African Art for Africans
What’s been striking recently has been the nationality of the buyers at such art fairs. The majority of works at the most recent Sotheby’s auction were sold to African buyers, despite most bidders hailing from Europe and North America. Experts say this could prove a shift in power in that locals will decide the value of their artists in global markets. “Even through the challenges caused by the pandemic, approximately a third of our bidders and buyers in 2020 were new to Sotheby’s,” Ohioma-Belo told OZY. And in fact 2020 was the auction house’s largest-grossing year for sales of contemporary African art.
Zeitz MOCAA Museum
This new museum is giving African art it’s rightful place on the map, think Africa’s MOMA or Tate Modern. Opened in an old grain silo on Cape Town’s stunning waterfront in 2017, the Zeitz is the largest collection of African art on the continent, with permanent as well as revolving exhibitions. The museum was named one of Time magazine’s top destinations in 2018, and the building’s architecture alone is worth a visit, plus after perusing the collection you can enjoy a glass of chilled South African Chenin Blanc at the rooftop restaurant with marvelous views over the harbor.
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