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Contemporary African Art - Africa's turn
By Nii Bonney Andrews.

Contemporary African Art is so sizzling hot- it’s pumping!

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 development.

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 West.

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 and treasured.

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 Latin America.

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 staffs.

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 Diaspora.

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 world.

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 and circulated.

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 Africa’s Turn!

Dr. Nii Bonney Andrews

The author is a neurosurgeon and Chief of Neurosurgery and Vice-President of neuroGHANA.



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