Collectors have discovered African art
At a time when values for some blue-chip contemporary artworks have fallen by a third from a year ago, collectors are finding pockets of strength in a surprising new art mecca—Africa.
From Morocco’s Marrakesh to Cape Town’s harbour, Africa is sprouting new auction houses, biennials, art fairs and museums.
Gone are the days when Africa’s cultural output consisted of traditional tribal masks, woven baskets or carved figures; today’s rising art stars are exploring potent issues like immigration, gay culture and China’s investment in the continent.
Andrew Esiebo was born in Lagos, Nigeria, and has earned an international reputation chronicling his region’s economic and cultural expansion over the past decade. For his 2012 series, ‘Nuances,’ he turned his lens on barbershops in Monrovia, Liberia.
Francisco Vidal, who represented Angola in the last Venice Biennale, is known for making paper--and then lining it up in rows in order to create his exuberant and politically potent installations.
‘It’s a universal perception that sewing is a woman’s job,’ said Johannesburg-based artist Nicholas Hlobo. That’s partly why he said he’s chosen to use colourful ribbons to stitch cryptic, fantastical paintings and bulbous, rubbery sculptures as a way to ‘challenge that convention and come to terms with my sexuality and masculinity.’
Contemporary African art is a bargain compared with other art-world hot spots. Bonhams expert Giles Peppiatt said works by Africa’s best-known living artists typically sell for less than US$150,000, or the ballpark asking price at auction for works by much younger, less time-tested artists like New York art star Dan Colen.
Politically charged portraits by Congolese painter Cheri Samba, the first contemporary African artist to have a show at the Louvre, still sell for around US$30,000.
Gallery works by William Kentridge, a major South African artist whose animated drawings are owned by museums like the Tate, hover between US$150,000 and US$600,000, according to Goodman Gallery.
That’s a fraction of the millions paid lately for artists from other continents who found fame after him, like China’s Zeng Fanzhi or Brazil’s Beatriz Milhazes.
Africa’s economy is still roiling from volatile oil prices, but prices appear to be holding steady or rising for many of the continent’s heavy hitters in the art world.
A shimmering tapestry made from folded scraps of colourful aluminium by Ghana’s El Anatsui—arguably the best-known living African artist—sold for US$1.2 million to a U.S. collector at Bonhams in London, the artist’s third-highest auction price.
Collectors say they’re taking a closer look at contemporary African art now because the continent’s whole scene is making a seismic break with tradition.
Little of it borrows from Africa’s traditional visual tropes: 19th century carved wooden figures, raffia costumes and woven baskets once deemed “primitive” yet famously collected by modern artists like Picasso.
The current generation of contemporary African artists is well-travelled and up-to-date on artistic developments in New York and London while simultaneously tuned into issues at home.
China’s entree into Africa, as investor and importer-exporter, is a hot-button topic of work throughout the continent.
Moffat Takadiwa pays scavengers in his home city of Harare, Zimbabwe, to bring him examples of cheaply made Chinese imported plastic goods, nicknamed zhing-zhong, which he bundles into bulging wall hangings.
Congolese artist Sammy Baloji layers century-old photos of indigenous tribes and pith helmet-wearing Belgian colonists atop smokestack views of copper-smelting factories and mines now owned by Chinese companies.
Samuel Fosso, a photographer known for taking elaborate, Cindy Sherman-style self-portraits, dressed up like Chairman Mao Zedong for a series called “Emperor of Africa” that made its debut at the Lagos Photo festival in 2013.
Migration is another prevalent theme. In South Africa, Dan Halter makes wordplay paintings and collages using woven plastic bags, a nod to the heavy-laden refugees and roadside peddlers the artist meets along South Africa’s border with Zimbabwe.
His dealer Ashleigh McLean at Whatiftheworld Gallery said Mr. Halter’s art tries to reconcile his mixed feelings about being a Zimbabwean living in a country wary of immigrants.
In South Africa in 2016, a former Puma chairman Jochen Zeitz is converting a 1920s grain silo along Cape Town’s harbour to be a nine-story museum to exhibit his vast holdings of African artists like conceptual photographer Edson Chagas as well as international stars like Glenn Ligon.
Piet Viljoen, an asset manager in Cape Town, opened a space in a former Victorian home called the New Church Museum. - wsj.com