Report: Culture

African contemporary artists make their mark

"Tsiatsia  - searching for connection", an installation by Ghanaian artist El Anatsui, on the façade of the Royal Academy of Arts in Britain (2013)
"Tsiatsia - searching for connection", an installation by Ghanaian artist El Anatsui, on the façade of the Royal Academy of Arts in Britain (2013) Courtesy October Gallery London

African art is most often symbolized by traditional masks and sculptures. But that is beginning to change as artists in Africa and the Diaspora make their mark on the contemporary art scene.


On a summer's day in London a couple of years ago, around 100 art collectors sat poised at Bonhams for an African contemporary art auction. The most sought after piece was El Anatsui's New World Map, a 350 x 500 cm shimmering tapestry of discarded metal bottle tops woven together by copper thread. It was sold for 662,282 euros making Anatsui the highest selling Ghanaian artist of all time. A similar piece went under the hammer at Bonhams in New York for 525,055 euros two weeks earlier.

Anatsui is one of the founding fathers of the Nsukka Group whose members all attended the University of Nigeria, Nsukka in the 1970s. Like other artists in former British, French and Portuguese colonies across Africa, the Nsukka Group sought to re-discover indigenous art. The 'uli' designs painted by artists on the homesteads and skins of the local Igbo tribe for centuries, provided the Nsukka Group with their inspiration. Anatsui then went on to be inspired by the contemporary world around him in eastern Nigeria that has been subject to political and social decay in the decades since the civil war ended in 1970.

Interview with African art collector Christian Sulger-Büel

Anatsui is not alone in his ability to create art out of rubbish and sell it for thousands of euros in Europe and the United States. Romuald Hazoumé, an artist from Benin, has been wowing the contemporary art world in London, Paris and New York for over two decades. Hazoumé is best known for his masks made of canisters used to smuggle gasoline illegally from neighbouring Nigeria on the backs of motorcycles.

Masks from Hazoumé's Cargoland exhibition sell for around 6000 euros each, a fraction of the price of pieces by Britain's Damien Hirst or America's Jeff Coons. The irony is though that Hazoumé has said of his work: “I send back to the West that which belongs to them, that is to say, the refuse of consumer society that invades us every day.”

Besides a handful of artists such as Anatsui, Hazoumé and several South Africans who command relatively high prices at auctions, the market for contemporary African art is still in its early stages compared to other emerging economies such as China and Russia.

"Chinese collectors have an obsession with buying back antiquities acquired from China and exported in bygone eras at auctions around the world for large sums of money. The Chinese super-rich tend also to buy contemporary art made in China," Christian Sulger-Büel, a London-based collector of African art, said during a recent visit to Paris.

"Russians also tend to buy back ancient Russian art and are showing an interest in expensive contemporary pieces. But as African economies grow, there is a shift in the way art is regarded by the elite there and very important African collections are being built up by African nationals in addition to the main collectors of nationalities," noted Sulger-Büel.

Enjoyed by elites

Sindika Dokolo, the 41-year old Congolese Angola-based businessman, is for the time being the only man in Africa committed to buying up African contemporary art in large quantities with the purpose of opening up art to the masses. In 2005, Dokolo bought over 500 pieces collected by the German businessman Hans Bogatzke and added it to his own collection that he started aged 15. Dokolo was inspired by many hours spent in European museums with his Danish mother as a child.

Through his Sindika Dokolo Foundation, the Congolese-Danish art enthusiast has been showing parts of his collection at art fairs in Lusophone Africa, and at the Venice Biennale, the most important event in the world of contemporary art.

But as Antonio Tomas, an Angolan professor of urban anthropology points out, Dokolo's association with the ruling family in Angola, serves to distance ordinary people from his art project.

"Because he's married to the president's daughter, Isabel Dos Santos, [Africa's richest woman], ordinary people in Angola see art as something to be enjoyed by the elite," said Tomas. Art in Angola was dealt a serious blow by almost four decades of civil war. "This means there isn't really a sufficient supply, which is why demand is satisfied by buying art from abroad," Tomas explained.

The most mature market for contemporary art in Africa is South Africa, which in many ways reflects the stability of its economy. But just as Nigeria has recently overtaken South Africa as the continent's largest economy, its art market is also coming of age. The commercial capital Lagos boasts the highest concentration of galleries per square meter anywhere on the continent outside of South Africa. Lagos is also home to the largest gallery in West Africa, which was founded some forty years ago by the textile artist Nike Davies-Okundaye. But it is the emergence of smaller galleries that enable unknown artists to get exposure that excites Chike Nwagbogu, founder and curator of the Nimbus Gallery in Lagos.

"What you have to understand with Nigeria is that the multimillionaires who live here, do so in an air-conditioned bubble. It would be dangerous for them to go in search of artists who live in poorer areas. So we offer them a safe environment to view art," Nwagbogu told RFI by telephone from Lagos.

There are a growing band of Nigerian multimillionaires who are willing to invest in art made in Nigeria. Whereas just a decade ago the wealthy would "keep their wealth outside of Nigeria, and were not interested in investing in art of any kind," Nwagbogu said.

Sponsored art

Interview with Elvira Dyangani Ose, International Art Curator at Tate Modern

As democracy takes a grip on Nigeria, which until 1999 saw dictatorship after dictatorship, consumer confidence is growing. This is having a marked effect on the service and creative industries, including banking and art. London's world-renowned Tate Modern is increasing the representation of African artists in its collection, acquiring new work and staging displays and exhibitions.

Part of that deal signed in July 2011, included a post for an International Art Curator. A year later, Elvira Dyangani Ose, an Equatorial Guinean with an impeccable international career, took up her post at the Tate Modern.

“I’m interested in those artists that are crucial for the local context and also an international narrative of African art. What we’re trying to do at the Tate Modern is dig and find all those figures that have been overlooked,” Dyangani Ose told RFI while at the biggest event in African contemporary art, the Dakar Biennale, which is currently underway in the Senegalese capital.


Slideshow: African contemporary artists El Anatsui and Romuald Hazoumé

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