African Art - Africa's turn
By Nii Bonney Andrews.
Contemporary African Art is so sizzling hot- it’s
It is experiencing a boom in the West BUT very few
Africans on the continent or in the Diaspora are
taking advantage of this or are even aware of this
In vast swathes of
Africa, Contemporary African Art (and indeed ALL
art) is under exposed and artists undervalued.
African art has moved beyond the so called
“primitivism” of 1906 when it influenced Western
artists such as Picasso and Henri Matisse. This,
during the 1930s and 1940s, ignited a trend or
movement in the West.
Almost all upscale Western interiors featured
traditional or “classic” African Art. In Western
educational institutions however, it was only in the
1980’s that African art became an area of research
and instruction- and this was only in a very small
minority of colleges and universities.
Since the 1990’s, a group of Africanist scholar
curators such as Salah Hassan (Cornell), Okwui
Enwezor (San Fransisco Art Institute) and Olu Oguibe
(University of Connecticut) have challenged the
original conservative mind set and paradigms of the
first wave of Western scholars and collectors.
Indeed, as early as 1906, Aina Onabolu of Nigeria
(1882-1963) was a full time easel painter who
painted portraits of Nigerians with a meticulous
realism. Later, he studied art in London and Paris
in the 1920’s and was pivotal in getting art into
the Nigerian school curriculum.
The areas of controversy have been about Western
educated and non-educated African artists; those who
live outside Africa and those within Africa; debates
about African identity in a post-colonial and
globalised world and charges of simplified and na´ve
representations of Africa.
But let no one get side-tracked by these seeming
academic or “book long” questions and arguments.
There is a pure and straight forward struggle over
representation of art from Africa in what is now its
largest market- the West. Whichever view point wins
will have an impact beyond the simple sale and
acquisition of Contemporary African Art.
Since the 1989 exhibition, Magiciens de la terre, at
the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, two major
issues have come to the fore. In that exhibition,
art works by 50 western and 50 non-western artists
were placed in an informal manner so that the works
will “speak for themselves”. For many viewers, it
was the first time that they had seen Contemporary
African Art and it opened up the floodgates in the
The two issues that came to the fore were that
first, the art works were chosen by white westerners
who came up with a different selection of artists
than the African experts would have selected;
meaning that again the West was imposing its own
standards. Second, from the western perspective, the
works were not yet part of the western cannon- an
implicit criticism of western art history.
So while over the past decade, market globalization
and the internet have heightened the interest of
scholars and collectors in art from Asia and Africa,
the latter market still remains relatively small and
under developed (like everything else!). And
Africans themselves have hardly any impact on it or
patronize it. However, there is much to be admired
This includes the uplifting and redemptive work of
Mozambican artist Goncalo Mabunda; the Uli inspired
hard wood tapestry and curtains of aluminium of the
Ghanaian artist-philosopher El Anatsui (winner of
the Prince Claus prize), the order out of disorder
masterpieces of the palette knife maestro Ablade
Glover, the provocative self photographs of Samuel
Fosso of the Central African Republic (formerly,
formerly Empire!), the elemental and symbolic
ceramic works of Tunisia’s Khaled Ben Slimane and
the sublime sculpture of Nigeria’s Ben Enwonwu.
Contemporary African Art therefore is broad and
inclusive. It encompasses painting, sculpture,
ceramics, fashion, jewelry, textiles, photography
and new media.
It has moved beyond the stereotypes of paper mache’
and wooden masks; the art works are diverse and the
themes presented highlight shared problems and
concepts while constantly challenging us to expand
the boundaries of what is possible.
A small coterie of cosmopolitan, savvy and hip
Africans (HECSOBANS) have long caught on to and
purchased, supported and showcased this art.
Happily, it has provided major aesthetic benefits
and significant financial rewards. It is now time to
consolidate this small foothold and engage the
larger emerging African middleclass and corporate
institutions in supporting Contemporary African Art
in a mutually beneficial manner and enterprise.
More especially as African artists have had a harder
time finding, developing and keeping an
international audience and since there has not been
a proliferation (in Africa) of museums, galleries
and auction houses as has been the case in Asia and
In this regard, two newly established institutions
deserve support. They are ARTcapital Ghana (ACG) and
the Africa Institute of Art Appraisers (AIAA). Both
of them, based in Accra, have highly qualified and
experienced business and art professionals on their
The first, ARTcapital, aims to become an indigenous
international art auction house and gallery
specializing in the modern and contemporary Art of
West Africa and its Diaspora and focusing on the
appropriate international recognition and therefore
support of artists who are from or are based there.
It plans to hold successful auctions of modern and
contemporary art works from West Africa and the
Diaspora resulting in a more equitable share of the
proceeds from sales going to the artist and to help
create awareness of the scope and depth of the Art
of West Africa and its Diaspora.
ARTcapital will create enthusiasm and passionate
interest in individual artists and construct an
accurate working database to be used for fair market
oriented valuation of the Art of West Africa and its
Ms Damali Kelly, Chief Operating Officer for
ARTcapital explained “We aim to generate excitement,
through our auctions, of what is available in
African Contemporary Art by allowing the market to
determine a fair price for the artists; everyone who
participates will benefit immensely”.
She added, “We will feature scarce and important
signature works by prominent African artists
including museum quality paintings, sculptures,
textiles and works on paper from private collections
and notable estates representing all major twentieth
century artistic movements”.
The second, AIAA, is a non-Profit member driven body
formed to support member needs and serve the public
through ethical practices. Its aim is to offer to a
connoisseur and interested parties international
acquisition and art appraisal services with special
emphasis on the modern and contemporary Art of
Africa and its Diaspora according to international
best practices and standards.
It plans to direct and enhance the prominent and
effective position of art appraisal services within
the artistic community in particular and the
national economy in general and to establish and
maintain cooperation between art appraisers in
Africa and art appraisal institutions throughout the
AIAA will also promote the exchange and
dissemination of knowledge and ideas on art
appraisal and connoisseurship and the development of
the best possible standards of artistic practice and
facilities while assisting individuals, corporations
and museums in the development of important
collections of art and in assessment of
authentication and valuation of singular pieces. It
will also recommend and encourage the highest
standards of education, training and research in art
and its related disciplines.
The creation of these two organizations is certainly
long overdue. It is time that the pioneering
efforts, of the Africanist scholar-curators
mentioned above, were solidified by indigenous
institutions impacting on the international market
place where Contemporary African Art is commodified
Surely, Africans must have an impact on how
Contemporary African Art achieves meaning and value
as it travels across cultural and international
boundaries- “in the seamless synthesis of art
history and economic anthropology”.
It is hoped that these new institutions will work
tirelessly and in an uncompromising fashion to
measure up to the best international business and
ethical principles and practices - for Africa
deserves nothing less, as it certainly must be
The author is a neurosurgeon and Chief of Neurosurgery and Vice-President of