Afrobeats, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Lupita Nyong’o are instantly identifiable to Africans. But try El Anatsui – one is likely to draw a blank stare. Why are star artists little known among Africans, and is their art relevant, asks Musonda Chibwe Kapotwe.
On the global art scene and in certain cultural hubs on the continent, contemporary African artists, such as El Anatsui, Ibrahim El Salahi or Yinka Shonibare, have triumphed in a world notorious for its exclusivity and elitism. Shonibare, the British-Nigerian artist, was shortlisted for the Turner Prize and elected as a Royal Academician by the Royal Academy of Arts. Benin’s celebrated conceptual artist Meschac Gaba’s work is currently on display in London’s Tate Modern. But these huge names on the international stage remain unfamiliar to many Africans. Some may have heard of them but would still be hard-pressed to name these artists’ famous works.
The same cannot be said of their equivalents in fields like music, literature or film. Shonibare and Gaba may be well known in the art world, but they are not as recognisable in Africa as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the award-winning Nigerian writer, or Kenya’s Lupita Nyong’o – the Oscar-winning actress.
Some may point the finger of blame at the lack of media coverage of African art. But the starting point is for Africans ourselves to take a greater interest in the art produced around us. For many, African art is still wrongly synonymous with “tribal” [meaning traditional] art, to which not much value is attached.
The influence that traditional art had in shaping the work of Constantin Brâncuși, Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque has been widely acclaimed; yet the same cannot be said of other African art. Contemporary abstract African art is a natural progression in the evolution of local artists. However, if we exclude the oligarchs, established collectors and a small emerging market of informed and affluent art enthusiasts in West Africa, Kenya, Ethiopia and South Africa – where the contemporary art revolution is flourishing – the outlook elsewhere across the continent is less clear.
In African homes, many still decorate their living room walls with art, either done by family members or comprising purchases of poorly executed traditional oil paintings. Typically they feature African women traditionally clothed, performing domestic chores, or a busy local market scene with street hawkers and overcrowded buses. These popular images of rural and urban Africa are both mundane and condescending in their cultural blandness.
Similar cultural crimes are committed daily by naive tourists and ill-informed locals actively encouraging the trade in badly-crafted, mass-produced, wooden and metal masks or sculptures. The effect of this is to overlook the genuine African craftsmanship and artistic expression, which exists beyond the convenience of the shopping mall galleries and gift shops, all of which purport to sell “African art” to gullible, but enthusiastic, consumers.
Part of the problem lies in the nature of abstract contemporary art itself. For those used to the more traditional African art of the type described above, contemporary art can be difficult to digest. This challenge is greater in Africa than it is elsewhere as the market for abstract art has yet to fully mature outside of the esoteric world in which most of its enthusiasts dwell.
Other important issues are access, cost and education. Art exhibitions such as the 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair at Somerset House in late 2014, the Dakar Biennale and Art Dubai’s Marker art fair – which last year was curated by one of Africa’s leading art connoisseurs, Bisi Silva, the founder of the Centre of Contemporary Art Lagos (CCA) – may champion rising artists, but the disposable income of many ordinary Africans will not stretch to allow them to attend these regional, let alone international events.
Few will have witnessed Angola’s triumph in winning the Golden Lion for the best pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2012 or have the pleasure of seeing the work of Nigerian sculptor Sokari Douglas Camp in the permanent exhibition at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, or at the British Museum. The internet helpfully opens a window to the continent’s art, allowing art enthusiasts to access pieces which may never make their way to local museums or galleries. However, without the guidance, editing and commentary that often accompanies these pieces when they are in the formal setting of a gallery or museum, it is difficult for amateurs to educate themselves.
Despite an emerging affluent middle class on the continent, the issue of cost continues to impact access to art as African art prices carry on rocketing, particularly for seminal works by high profile artists. El Anatsui achieved a record-breaking price for a Ghanaian artist for New World Map, which sold for just over £540,000 at Bonhams’ African Art auction in 2012, and Ethiopian artist Julie Mehretu’s 2001 work Retopistics: A Renegade Excavation sold for $4.6 million at Christie’s in 2013. A middle and lower priced art market does exist for African contemporary art, allowing those on more modest incomes to participate, but the lack of transparency of pricing for artwork shown on the internet and in galleries remains a challenge.
When all is said and done, art education on the continent needs to improve. Outside of the cultural hubs, there are a paltry number of curators and critics with the requisite education, experience or gravitas to identify emerging talent or to analyse the merits and flaws of work produced by established artists. What the African art world needs is for governments and the private sector to invest in the infrastructure needed to develop art education in local schools and universities where the existing provision is pitifully small.
At present, even those with the talent or desire to pursue careers in curating or selling contemporary art have a limited number of domestic institutions to educate them. The Centre of Contemporary Art in Lagos is making a valiant effort to address this issue. It has established Asiko, an African art programme. Its website states its aim of “filling a gap in the educational system in Nigeria and many African countries, which tend to ignore the critical methodologies and histories that underpin artistic practice”.
The benefits for the public and private sector in supporting art education are clear; in the European Fine Art Foundation’s 2013 annual report on the global art market, it is estimated that the size of the international art industry was approximately £39.7 billion.
But in the current climate, it will be a struggle to give art any kind of priority as the continent rightly focuses its attention on winning more important victories to sustain its recent and fledgling economic recovery.
However, the most enduring art is usually intrinsically connected with the geographical, social and cultural roots of the artist, which makes it all the more important for Africans to become more engaged with the art which reflects a modern interpretation of their heritage.
It is not enough for African contemporary art solely to entrance the privileged few on the regional and global art scene. Its profile and success need wider recognition as well as access by the ordinary working and middle-class men and women on the streets of Lusaka, Kigali, Maputo and beyond.
The African art world is doing its part to shout about the rising stars in the field, and hopefully the rest of the continent will join the bandwagon to give the work of these artists the opportunity to resonate with a wider audience – not just abroad, but at home.