The insider’s guide to Contemporary African art
As the 2019 London edition of 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair rolls into town, leading curators, collectors and critics name their selection of African artists to watch
Jean Pigozzi, photographer and collector
‘Almost 30 years ago I went to see a show called Magiciens de la terre in Paris. I was struck by the work exhibited by a group of African artists, and I decided to start my own collection,’ says Jean Pigozzi, who has since amassed more than 10,000 works by more than 100 African artists. For guidance Pigozzi hired the show’s curator, André Magnin. He has acquired nearly all of his collection directly from the artists.
'My good friend Charles Saatchi gave me some important advice: if you like an artist, buy them in depth,' Pigozzi says.
Some of Pigozzi's current favourites? ‘Congolese sculptor Bodys Isek Kingelez makes great work and is showing at MoMA this year. I like Frédéric Bruly Bouabré from the Côte D’Ivoire and George Lilanga from Tanzania, too.’
Tokini Peterside, Founder and Director of Art X Lagos, Nigeria
Tokini Peterside created ART X Lagos in 2015 as part of her entrepreneurship MBA, after spending several years developing Nigeria’s luxury and culture sectors. As West Africa’s first international contemporary art fair, ART X Lagos helps promote African contemporary art. ‘The global discourse on visual art is incomplete without Africa’s perspectives, histories and stories,’ says Peterside. ‘We need to make African art a cornerstone of the global art market through investing in institutions and expanding the collector base. It shouldn’t be marginalised or considered niche.’
Among Peterside’s favourite African artists working today is Njideka Akunyili Crosby, whose work ‘uses images of Nigerian pop culture to counter generalisations about the African experience.
‘Zohra Opoku brilliantly uses installation, sculpture and photography (above) to explore her Ghanaian-German heritage and conceptualise West African traditions, spirituality and family lineage.
‘Taiye Idahor from Nigeria uses diverse media to explore female African identity. Her show Òkhùo at Tyburn Gallery in London used the figure of the Queen Mother of the Benin Kingdom to reflect on women and power.’
André Magnin, curator, author and founder of MAGNIN-A, Paris
In 2009, curator André Magnin founded his eponymous gallery, MAGNIN-A, with the mission to promote contemporary African art on the international market. ‘Although the market for African art is now booming, thanks to an influx of fairs and museum shows, works are still affordable,’ Magnin says.
‘Chéri Samba from Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of Congo is a major figure in African painting,’ says the gallerist. ‘He applies his unique African vision to world news in his work.
‘Romauld Hazoumè, from Benin, uses found objects to make monumental works that incite critical discussions of the historical, political and economic problems facing Africa. Following in the footsteps of the great photographer Malick Sidibé, Omar Victor Diop from Senegal uses his camera to situate African culture in the dynamic, pop, contemporary world — where it is often ignored by the West.’
Touria El Glaoui, Founding Director of 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair, London, New York and Marrakech
‘Contemporary African art has been minimised by preconceptions and stereotypes for far too long. We need to continually challenge these imposed limitations,’ says Touria El Glaoui, founder of the 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair. In 2018 the fair came to the African continent for the first time, launching in Marrakech after successful annual iterations in London and New York since 2013. ‘This is our homecoming. We are constructing a bridge to facilitate collaborations between North America, Europe and Africa — and with Morocco’s artistic legacy, that seemed an ideal place to do so.
‘Prior to 1-54 I travelled around Africa and the Middle East for work. While there I would try to connect with local art scenes. I encountered a wealth of art by people who had little presence outside their locale and saw the potential to create a channel for international exchange,’ El Glaoui explains.
‘I would suggest people check out the work of Phumzile Khanyile from Soweto in South Africa. I love the soft-focus, intimate yet raw nature of her photographs — it is like peering into a journal. As a believer in the power of collective practice, I want to mention The Black Athena Collective, consisting of Heba Y. Amin and Dawit L. Petros. Their multidisciplinary practice engages with the architectures of migrancy and frameworks of space in relation to errant bodies.’
‘Njideka Akunyili Crosby, from Nigeria, now lives and works in Los Angeles. Her work is absolutely astonishing: she combines collage, drawing, painting, printmaking, and photo transfers, and the scale and detail of her compositions are admirable. This is one artist I would like to see in action.’
Pascale Revert Wheeler, Founder and Director of 50 Golborne, London, United Kingdom
‘My interest in the contemporary art of Africa was sparked by my personal connections to the region,’ says Pascale Revert Wheeler, Founder and Director of 50 Golborne, a London-based gallery focusing on emerging African artists that portray, interrogate and challenge our ever-changing world. ‘I spent a large part of my childhood on an island off the East Coast of Africa and a lot of the last 15 years in my home in Lamu, Kenya.’
After closing her Paris gallery in 2004, where she exhibited African artists and designers, including Goncalo Mabunda, Cyrus Kabiru, Cheick Diallo and Jean-Servais Somian, Revert Wheeler travelled extensively around Africa to learn more about the region’s diverse art practices. ‘When I opened my new space in London, I decided that we would focus on emerging artists from the Continent and the Diaspora, avoiding South Africa and its satellites as they were already well represented by big international galleries.’
The gallerist suggests looking to pioneering female artists, such as Nigerian American-born Wura-Natasha Ogunji, whose multi-media practice and, in particular, her drawings on trace paper, explore the complex themes of identity, our relationship to geographical, architectural and filmic space, as well as daily life in Lagos; the Nigerian Ranti Bam who producers exquisite painterly ceramics; and the Moroccan Safaa Erruas. ‘The artist’s abstract tableaux combining laboratory glass, metal and paper delicately explore migration and issues of femininity,’ says Revert Wheeler. ‘Her work really gets under your skin.’
Marwan Zakhem, Founder and Director of Gallery 1957, Accra, Ghana
‘I started collecting contemporary African art when I moved to West Africa 17 years ago,’ says Marwan Zakhem, founder of Gallery 1957 in Accra, Ghana. ‘This is a very exciting period for the contemporary African art market, and there are a significant number of young talented artists. Social media platforms allow artists to reach global audiences to a degree that was impossible a few years ago.
‘I sit on the Tate Africa Acquisition Committee, which recently acquired work by the Nigerian artist Emeka Ogboh. He primarily works with sound, and his installation The Way Earthly Things Are Going (2017) was recently shown at Tate Tanks. It makes explicit the connection between the volatility of financial markets and the movement of people seeking better lives.
‘Gallery 1957 was inaugurated with an exhibition of work by the artist Serge Attukwei Clottey in 2016. He creates art across installation, performance, photography and sculpture, examining Ghanaian politics and culture. He recently participated in a “Gallery Takeover” between Gallery 1957 and Lawrie Shabibi in Dubai, where his solo show, The Displaced, explored the migration story of the artist’s family as a journey of remembrance.
‘Finally I would suggest the work of Kudzanai-Violet Hwami. She is a young Zimbabwean artist who held her first solo exhibition at London’s Tyburn Gallery in 2017 to much acclaim. Her bright oil paintings celebrate the complexities of diasporic identities, exploring Afro-punk, LGBTQ and internet subcultures.’
Laetitia Catoir, Director of Blain Southern, London
‘In 2013 Touria El Glaoui approached me with the idea for the 1:54 fair,’ recalls Laetitia Catoir, a director of Blain Southern gallery in London. ‘At the time, African artists made up only 0.05 per cent of those shown at fairs. Through 1:54’s efforts, many have been since been offered gallery representation and museum exhibitions.
‘The market is only six years old, but it’s not experiencing the rush of other recent emerging markets,’ she explains. ‘This is a good thing for both artists and collectors, as it represents a steady rise and a strong investment in the right direction,’ she continues.
‘Moshekwa Langa’s work is great, and we showed it at 1:54 in Marrakech. He grew up in South Africa but studied at the Rijksakademie in Amsterdam. Throughout the 1990s he showed at all the big biennials, helping put African art on the stage. Otobong Nkanga from Nigeria has worked in Berlin and Antwerp with textiles, paint and performance. Her art focuses on Africa’s environment and natural resources, and was part of 14 Rooms at Art Basel in 2014, curated by Klaus Biesenbach and Hans Ulrich Obrist.
‘The amazing Algerian artist Massinissa Selmani is a great draughtsman. His work was shown at the 2015 Venice Biennale and was the focus of a solo show at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris.’
Ric Bower, Editor of CCQ magazine
‘Meaning is embodied within process in African art, so the artist is never separable from the work. This is particularly clear in the work of the South African artist Mohau Modisakeng, whose recent show at Tyburn Gallery in London dealt with academia versus sacred knowledge and conjuring. The excellent Angolan musician and artist Nástio Mosquito brilliantly expressed a similar process-based concept at his 2016 show at MoMA in New York which comprised performance, video and intervention.
‘Godfried Donkor is a mid-career Ghanaian artist whose residency at Gallery 1957 in Accra resulted in a visual dialogue about the early 19th-century English explorer of the Ivory Coast, Thomas Edward Bowdich. Born out of many years’ careful study, Donkor’s work teased out important conversations about Ghana’s relationship with its past.’
Othman Lazraq, Director of the Museum of African Contemporary Art Al Maaden (MACAAL), Marrakech
‘My parents have been collecting modern and contemporary African art for 40 years, and the market is always changing,’ says Othman Lazraq, president of the Museum of African Contemporary Art Al Maaden (MACAAL) in Marrakech.
The non-profit space, which aims to nurture a broader awareness of contemporary African art, opened to the public in early 2018. ‘We are cultivating the younger generation of artists through MACAAL LAB, which works with schools and universities, as well as offering three-month residencies to African artists.
‘Many African artists approach powerful topics with a sense of humour, and despite a lack of gallery infrastructure and cultural policy, there is a new network of professionals carving out a vibrant cultural landscape across the continent,’ Lazraq continues. ‘One example is the fantastic Senegal-based artist Fabrice Monteiro, who uses photography to address issues surrounding pollution and the pillaging of Africa’s natural resources.
‘I also adore the work of South African artist Zanele Muholi. She is both an artist and an activist, using photography, video and installation works to highlight violent subject matter. Her 2015 show Isibonelo/Evidence, at the Brooklyn Museum, addressed LGBT issues in Africa.’
Vanessa Branson, collector and founder of Marrakech Biennale
In 2002 Vanessa Branson and business partner Howell James purchased a run-down riad in Marrakech’s medina, which she converted into a boutique hotel, El Fenn, complete with exhibition space. In 2005 she established Arts in Marrakech, now the Marrakech Biennale, which will return with its seventh edition in 2020.
‘The arts offer a safe place for debate, which is why I started the Marrakech Biennale,’ Branson says, ‘The last edition was curated by Reem Fadda from New York’s Guggenheim museum, and featured more than 60 contributing artists. It’s a wonderful platform to position African artists and their work alongside their international peers.
‘At the moment I am particularly passionate about the work of the Essaouiran Naïve School. It is a collective of about 20 artists from the Moroccan coastal town who are championed by Marrakech gallery Tindouf. It’s a real maverick space.
‘I also love the work of Leila Alaoui (1982-2016). She was a French-Moroccan photographer and video artist who tragically died in a terrorist attack while on assignment for Amnesty International in Burkina Faso. She was a real pioneer in terms of talent, style and understanding.’
Mark Coetzee, Executive Director and Chief Curator of MOCAA Museum, Cape Town
The Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa opened in Cape Town, South Africa, in September 2017. With more than 100 galleries, it is the world’s largest museum of contemporary African art and has been hailed as Africa’s Tate Modern.
‘The voice of Africa has been defined by too few players, so the mission of Zeitz MOCAA is to be a platform for a multiplicity of voices who look forward rather than back. Africa is 54 states and has a wide range of cultures, each unique in their own way,’ says Mark Coetzee, the museum’s director.
‘The museum is a non-profit organisation built around the founding collection of Jochen Zeitz, a German entrepreneur who spends a large amount of time in Africa. He has been heavily involved in conservation projects here, and helping establish this museum was his move into the cultural philanthropy sector,’ Coetzee explains. ‘We’re now committing to 21st-century artists, and want to make sure that while the market is healthy and prices rise, we can secure works for the community.
‘We are dedicated to displaying cutting-edge artists such as Mouna Karray, who works with photography and and is less known outside the continent, and more established figures such as Yinka Shonibare, a multidisciplinary artist born in London but raised in Lagos.
‘In 2018 we held a retrospective on the Swaziland artist Nandipha Mntambo, which covered an entire floor of the museum, and a retrospective of the multimedia Zimbabwean artist Kudzanai Chiurai. We also displayed the entire installation from the Golden Lion award-winning pavilion of Angolan artist Edson Chagas.’