By Andrew Mulenga
After longstanding marginalization, recent trends on the global art scene show there is finally an acceptance and increase in demand to view and collect contemporary African art alongside so-called antique “tribal art”.
On the one hand there has been a string of major exhibitions spanning from the United Arab Emirates, across the European mainland to the UK and USA.
On the other, the business aspect of it all has been exceptionally lucrative with artists still living on the continent earning top dollar from international art fairs and auction houses.
There is no telling where all the interest is coming from or how long it will last, the business of art being as volatile as it is. The scene is still quite speculative as The Telegraph (UK) financial specialist Charlotte Beugge highlights in an article entitled African art: a good investment?, published in May days before London auctioneers Bonhams held its annual Africa Now sale that has been running since 2009 where “Estimates for pieces go from £3,000 to £100,000 (a piece) and prices have been rising in recent years.”
While European museums and galleries are showing keen interest in the top contemporary African artists The Telegraph reports that Giles Peppiatt, director of contemporary African Art at Bonhams observes: “Interest in contemporary African art has exploded, particularly among international collectors, who expect it to be the next market where values increase in the same manner as contemporary Chinese art”.
Possibly, China’s museum boom had a lot to do with this in the early 2000s as it generated a lot of attention when growing government and private investment pushed the total number of museums to about 4,000 according to the World Economic Forum.
In the same way, The Telegraph reports that the African rise has seen some investment from within the continent itself, meaning it is not only the demand from overseas making the prices surge. It can also be linked to the increased interest from African buyers because of economic growth in West Africa and the Sub-Saharan Africa.
But then again despite such reports there could also be some ideological underpinnings that cause the West-centred art world’s spotlight to veer towards a particular region as British art historian Julian Stallabrass points out referring to the case of China in his book Contemporary Art, from the Oxford University Press a Very Short Introduction series.
“Global interest was directed at Chinese art in the short term because of the massacre of dissidents in Tiananmen Square in June 1989, which led to a focus on artists who could be read as oppositional,” he writes.
However, Stallabrass also observes that longer worldwide attention for China came as a result of new regulatory markets and the rapid generation of great wealth and inequality with a contrasting average improvement in living standards for most people.
“Just as capitalism as a world system stepped out from behind the cloak of its defeated opponent after 1989 and, in its rapid transformation, was revealed as the rapacious, inexorable system that it is, so it may be with the art world. The end of its use as a tool in the prosecution of the Cold War has made clear what had already been in development: its core function as a propagandist of neoliberal values,” declares Stallabrass.
Nevertheless, this is Africa’s time but there is no substantial notion that explains why. But there is no harm in throwing about some speculation and perhaps one can be forgiven to ruthlessly suggest that the attention Africa is receiving now can be traced back to the days of slavery.
It must not be forgotten that Africa has always had a cathartic effect on an indisposed Europe vis-à-vis the West. Whenever the West is in trouble where does it run to? Africa.
After the discovery of the Americas in the late 1400s slave labour was needed to build the “new world” as well as work in the plantations that fed Europe and supported its economies so it looked to Africa.
The history books also tell us that when Europe had nowhere to turn to after the “Long Depression” of the late 1800s it is Africa’s resources that offered Britain, Germany, France, and other countries unlimited resources to help recover and they quickly conjured the Berlin conference of 1884 and ravenously divided the continent among themselves.
This period would also provide what them with tribal art, ritual carvings and “fetishes” imaginably pillaged from villages to fill their empty museums and eventually inspire an art scene that had run out of ideas. A number of European artists such as the venerated Picasso and Georges Braque dedicated their entire careers mimicking the so-called primitive art later developing movements such as Cubism changing a whole era of art.
Africa also provided a battleground at the height of the Cold War which coincided with the continent’s liberation period and because of choosing sides, heroes such as Patrice Lumumba in the Congo were murdered to pave way for NATO’s interests for instance.
But maybe today the West is looking to Africa once again in the field of art because the only semblance of sanity in it is left among contemporary artists from the continent and its diaspora.
From the look of things, even as its theorists crack their craniums the definition obsessed west seems to have forgotten what art is, what purpose it serves and probably where it belongs, but long and lengthy arguments have been written about these topics.
Anyway, ever since the French-American artist Marcel Duchamp liberated art from its snobberies by displaying his Fountain, a ready-made urinal -- he probably plucked out of demolished building -- in a New York exhibition in 1917, the ripples of the radical shift in perceptions that he caused continue to give leverage to artists such as Milo Moire the Swiss artist who was turned away from Art Basel the premier international art show last month because she tried to enter the fair space naked as part of a nude performance. Moire gained recent notoriety for her "Plop Egg Painting", paintings created from paint filled eggs that she drops from her vagina on to a canvas. In passing – while on the topic of absurdities -- one might add that Tracey Emin’s 1998 piece My Bed sold for US3.7 million late last month. This artwork is in fact the artist’s unmade bed which was left in this state for four days after she broke up with her boyfriend only to be exhibited as a major work and was shortlisted for the prestigious Turner Prize in 1999.
Such performances and artworks have become the incarnation of contemporary art in the west. Moreover where some critics observe that “Duchamp's work was a protest against the stale, unthinking artistic establishment of his day”, it can be said that contemporary African art is the reverse of this.
Contemporary African art provides a return to innocence not because it is parochial, wall bound art, but because its producers live in a more tangible reality that is not drowned by ultra-theoretic notions.
An international African artist can be uncorking champagne at a gallery opening in Frankfurt one evening and visiting grandparents in a far flung African village the other all the while reflecting the best of both worlds in their work in her or his work. There are doubts as to whether the act of producing Moiré’s "Plop Egg Paintings" can be tolerated outside the comfort zone of Europe.
The phenomenon of the African artist may best be captured in the words of the radical South African artist Kendell Geers during an interview with international curator Katerina Gregos.