Africa, 26 July 2012, Art Media Agency (AMA).
The African continent enjoys a spectacular cultural wealth – especially for arts. But is such wealth recognised on an international level and throughout the continent itself? To what degree is African contemporary art valued in today’s world?
Not until the 1980s did the West begin to discover contemporary African art. Only over the past thirty years have steps been taken to develop and reassert the value of contemporary African art both in Africa and at an international level. Some Western exhibition curators such as Jean-Hubert Martin, John Picton, Clementine Delisse, Hans Obrist and Susan Vogel, who contributed to the international acknowledgement of African art, are at the roots of this change. Jean-Hubert Martin, art historian and former director of the Centre Pompidou in Paris, played a pivotal role when he organised the first major exhibition of non-Western art, “Magiciens de la terre” in 1989. Having sparked a debate on contemporary African art in Africa and around the globe, the exhibition is considered to have been a decisive turning point for African art, as it gained visibility in museums and on the art market. According to the German newspaper Handelsblatt, two other notable events contributed to the change in Western views on African art, “Art from South Africa”, a 1990 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in Oxford, and “Art contemporain arabe” (Contemporary Middle Eastern Art), a 1988 exhibition at the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris. In 2004, Jean-Hubert Martin organised the touring exhibition “Africa Remix”, which gave an overview of the art scene of all African nations throughout the entire continent. First shown in Düsseldorf in Germany, “Africa Remix” later moved on to Paris, London, and Tokyo.
A number of key figures from the Western art world may also be credited for bringing contemporary African art to the most prestigious Western art institutions. However, they were often met with criticism from African exhibition curators living abroad, who denounced stereotypical images of African art and Western ethnocentricity in playing “teacher”, explained an article published in The Herald on 20 March 2011. Some expatriate exhibition curators, like Olu Oguibe, Okwui Enwezor, Salah Hassan, Gilan Tawandros, and Simon Njami were determined to change any and all preconceived notions on contemporary African art and remarkably contributed to artistic practices and to the organisation of artistic events in Africa. Moreover, for the past twenty years, artists and African-born exhibition curators have participated in international events, such as Art Basel Miami, la Documenta, the Venice Biennial and Arco Madrid. It can be noted that the beginning of the 21st century ushered in a wave of exhibition curators on the African continent, thus marking an important point in the development of the contemporary art scene in Africa.
Despite this, many art communities on the continent continue to suffer from a lack of framework, institutions, resources, and recognition, due in part to government attitudes. Usually, they do not develop the cultural sector enough, not realising how it can contribute to the development of a country. Today there are few cultural sites and no Fine Arts schools in Senegal, asserts Ken Aïcha Sy in the magazine Boytown. One young woman and founder of the blog Wakh’art, whose goal is to create a discourse on African art, added: “Considering the richness of this culture, our leaders should be giving it much more attention. Spreading public awareness would be even better”.
Cécile Fakhoury, founder of the Cécile Fakhoury Gallery in Ivory Coast, explained in an interview with AMA that there are a number of intracontinental differences; she noted that South Africa experiences a more lively art scene compared to other African nations. She additionally stated that so that the entire continent can position itself more firmly in the international art scene, more places and art events would be needed to raise greater visibility for artists, which would thus develop the art market on the whole.
A few significant measures to develop the contemporary African art scene on the continent have already been taken. Among such measures are the auction house Art House in Nigeria, the Dakar Biennial in Senegal, the Rencontres de Bamako in Mali, as well as art centres and foundations like the Zinsou Foundation in the Republic of Benin, and Senegal’s Raw Material Company. Even more are expected to appear in the near future. Some of them are described in this article.
In 2005, the Zinsou Foundation opened in Cotonou in Benin. First and foremost an exhibition space for African-born contemporary artists, the institution also intends to create a cultural exchange network. At the heart of the project is the advancement of African artistic heritage, education, development, and poverty reduction, according to the foundation’s website. The centre offers an array of projects whose purpose is to make children discover contemporary art. Furthermore, the foundation has established a number of children’s libraries and also organises workshops for schoolchildren – often in collaboration with artists, illustrators, musicians, and photographers.
Senegal’s Raw Material Company, located in Dakar, is “a centre for art, knowledge, and society” set up in 2008 and a site for artistic practice and critical exchange. The centre’s purpose is to promote growth and appreciation of artistic and intellectual creativity on the African continent. It offers a space for production, exhibition, meeting, research, and debate. One such example was an international symposium on the creation of art institutions in Africa, which was organised by the centre in January 2012. Participants from various African countries had the opportunity to discuss the current state of affairs in order to establish other similar art institutions in Africa.
A wide array of notable art events has since been organised in a number of African countries. The contemporary art fair JoburgArtFair has been taking place in Johannesburg in South Africa since 2008. It is the first official art fair to take place – and currently the only of its kind – and is reserved exclusively for native African artists. The goal of Artlogic, the fair’s organisers, is to make contemporary artists more accessible to the public and introduce such artists as major players on the international art scene. The event is also an important platform for young emerging artists.
The African photography biennial Les Rencontres de Bamako is held in Mali’s capital city of Bamako every two years. Set up in 1994, the event underscores the richness of photography, a sector of African art which is still relatively undervalued. Early editions of the event brought African photographers into the limelight, giving many of them the opportunity to exchange ideas. Today the event is a significant platform which showcases various trends in African photography and video, while also being a tool of interaction for artists, exhibition curators, collectors, the media, and the public at large.
Furthermore, the primary mission of Ethiopia’s Zoma Contemporary Art Center is to encourage and support young Ethiopian artists. The centre offers residencies to local and international artist in the city of Addis Ababa and the town of Harla. Named after the young Ethiopian artist Zoma Shiferraw, who passed away in 1979 following a serious illness, the centre opened in 2002. In addition to offering residencies, the centre also organises seminars and workshops.
The preliminary framework and steps which have been taken to develop the arts sector throughout the African continent have so far been established, but there still remains much to do. As summarized by Koyo Kouoh, artistic director of the Senegalese art centre Raw Material Company, summarised in an interview with the site Afrique Jet: “The African continent must set up its own institutional framework for the good of cultural expression. It is time to create the formal and institutional framework so that art in Africa can better contribute to the development of critical opinion within a free and open civil society”.