African Contemporary Art Is in Vogue in London, From Museums to Fairs

African Contemporary Art Is in Vogue in London, From Museums to Fairs
Meschac Gaba, Museum of Contemporary African Art 1997 - 2002, The Salon, Tate
(© Meschac Gaba)

LONDON — The crowds drawn to the Tate Modern for the recent openings of the exhibitions “Meschac Gaba: Museum of Contemporary African Art” and “Ibrahim El-Salahi: A Visionary Modernist” appear to be yet more confirmation of the West’s growing appetite for art from the African continent.

The shows were not originally scheduled to coincide, but together they give a good sense of the breadth of practices the label “African art” can cover, from Benin-born Gaba’s conceptual, multi-room installation (recently acquired by Tate) to Sudanese El-Salahi’s formal experiments, informed by sources as varied as European modernism and Islamic calligraphy.


Meanwhile, over on Piccadilly, Nigerian artist El Anatsui has draped the façade of the Royal Academy of Arts with one of his signature tapestries made from flattened bottle tops. The artist, who has shot to fame in the last decade, is also currently showing at the Brooklyn Museum in New York.

“For the first time, there is a consistent interest from leading institutions around the world,” Elvira Dyangani Ose, a curator of International Art at Tate Modern and co-curator of the El-Salahi show, told BLOUIN ARTINFO UK. She explains it partly to be a result of the increasing awareness of the need to create “a more inclusive narrative of art history.” Yet the curator is also quick to point out that these emerging African art worlds “are only new to certain audiences.”

In London, organizations such as Iniva have long promoted non-Western contemporary art, but Tate is spearheading the move at a more mainstream level, and this has in turn attracted corporate interest. Dyangani Ose’s post was created in 2011 and is supported by Guaranty Trust Bank. The Nigerian giant also supports Tate’s recently-launched African Acquisitions Committee.

At this year’s Venice Biennale, an African country, Angola, won the Golden Lion for the best national participation for the first time, heralding the continent’s place on the global art stage. Talking to the BBC’s Naveena Kottoor for an article entitled “Why African art is the next big thing” Cameroonian-born curator Koyo Kouch said: “The award is praise for Angola but also for Africa.”

The market definitely seems to be embracing the trend. Kouch herself is about to launch 1:54, a new art fair in London dedicated to contemporary African art, slated to open at Somerset House during Frieze London this autumn.

As for the auction houses, Bonhams is the only auctioneer currently offering stand-alone sale of contemporary African art. Their “Africa Now” sale, held in London last May, totalled £1.3 million, setting new world records for over twenty artists including Ben EnwonwuUche Okeke, and Uzo Egonu.

The price point for modern and contemporary African art remains fairly modest. London gallerist Jack Bell — who is about to open an exhibition of thrones and masks made from reclaimed weapons by the Mozambican Gonçalo Mabunda — sees this relative affordability as a plus.

“It’s really accessible for young collectors at the moment,” he told ARTINFO UK. “You can find works at a fraction of the price, of really good quality, and that pack a punch.”