Is there a market (in Africa) for contemporary African art?

By Africa in Words Guest Jürg Schneider.

In a period of dramatically shifting geopolitics where markets as well as people have to readjust in an accelerated pace to new constellations of players and rules there is a lot of excitement about the changes that Africa is now going through – economically, politically, and not least socially. Here, I will inquire into the extent to which the market for contemporary African art, on the African continent and in the West, has changed and developed since the late 1980s and early 1990s.

The way the international art community talks about African artists and contemporary African art has definitely altered in recent years. As a starting point, I take Susan Vogel’s seminal exhibition Africa Explores which took place at the New York Centre for African Art in 1991. There had been several earlier precedents, most recent at the time Magiciens de la Terre in Paris, but Africa Explores, which sought to challenge the “widely held misconception about 20th century Africa […] that there is no modern Africa or African art, merely second-hand Western culture”, received a great deal of critical international attention and established itself as a milestone in the historiography of African art.

More than twenty years have passed and while there is no need to further discuss whether there is modern, or as I would prefer to say, contemporary African art, or not, two more of Vogel’s statements from 1991 deserve a closer look; her analysis that “there are few commercial art galleries in Africa, and no system of independent alternative spaces to form a critical presence”, and that “the lack of patronage by African collectors is the single greatest problem for International African artists”. Both comments address, speaking in market-economy terms, issues of supply – artists and galleries – and demand – clients, galleries, museums – of the international art market. [1]

To begin with the supply side, there exists today, “a great wealth of internationally acclaimed artistic talents living and working on the continent” as art advisor Bomi Odufunade, director of Dash & Riallo, explains [2] (not to forget those living and working outside the continent).  Seemingly referring to Vogel’s statements twenty years earlier, Odufunade places much emphasis on the “growth and success of independent visual art spaces and cultural centres across Africa” deploring at the same time the fundamental lack of major institutions in Africa collecting contemporary art. What has changed, in Odufunade’s view, is that “a new generation of seasoned African collectors have emerged from across the continent.” However, she does not go into any further details as to what these African collectors are actually collecting. Certainly, this depends on where on the continent these collectors come from. Nigeria, for instance, currently among the most vibrant and dynamic art scenes on the continent, with a burgeoning middle class, has a long tradition of collecting art. However, according to Joost Bosland, Director at Stevenson – a contemporary, rather experimental art gallery with spaces in Cape Town and Johannesburg (with whom I had the opportunity to discuss these issues) – most Nigerian collectors still tend towards more conservative art purchases, even when buying contemporary African art.

Image: Wura-Natasha Ogunji. From: http://www.ccalagos.org/

Image: Wura-Natasha Ogunji. From: http://www.ccalagos.org/

Bosland admits that on some levels there are definitely markets developing in Africa but at the same time there is also a tendency to overstate what is actually happening. “It’s more in the media than in reality”, he says. There are others joining Bosland in his cautious assessment of the art market’s readiness for contemporary African art, and Edward Frankel quotes both major collector of African art Jean Pigozzi, and the Africa curator at the Weltkulturen Museum in Frankfurt, Yvette Mutumba, on this in his article “Something new out of Africa”, which appeared during this year’s Art Basel.

Nevertheless, there is a perceptible dynamic changing and challenging the international art market. African art is increasingly being included in international art fairs and museums. In 2013, for instance: Art Dubai invited Lagos-based curator Bisi Silva to select and work with galleries and art spaces located in West Africa. Silva selected five spaces to work collaboratively with their artists to produce exhibitions for Art Dubai, namely Centre for Contemporary Art (Lagos, Nigeria – Silva is director); Espace doual’art (Douala, Cameroun); Maison Carpe Diem (Ségou, Mali); Nubuke Foundation (Accra, Ghana); and Raw Material Company (Dakar, Sénégal). The founding director of Raw Material Company is the Cameroonian Koyo Kouoh, who was also associate curator of SUD 2010, Salon Urbain de Douala, a project in which will see the participation of Tate Modern in 2013. In November 2012 Tate launched a two-year project entitled “Across the Board” which consists of a series of events featuring emerging African artists and exploring recent practices in the continent, which will take place in Douala (Cameroon), Accra in Ghana, and Lagos in Nigeria. While at Art Dubai 2013, African art was displayed in the Marker section which focuses each year on a particular theme or geography; at Art Basel this year the African continent was given prominent space during “Focus Africa”, a discussion between Yvette Mutumba and the Nigerian artist Otobong Nkanga; and African art is to have its own international fair, 1:54, in London from 16 to 20 October 2013, to coincide with Frieze.

On the other hand, there are definitely more venues and platforms on the continent where emerging or established artists can showcase their work than a couple of years ago. Alongside established platforms such as Espace doual’art, Dak’Art or the Bamako Photography Biennial there are more recent initiatives in Ethiopia (Addis Foto Fest), Nigeria (Lagos Photo), Benin (Biennale Benin) and DRC (Rencontres Picha. This, the third edition of the Biennale de Lubumbashi, was suspended in 2012 “for financial reasons” and postponed to October 2013.) Right now, even if “the scene is […] more fluid, more vibrant than ever before” (Bisi Silva) and “contemporary art from Africa is on the rise” (Cristina Ruiz), according to South African curator Mark Coetzee, only “a serious museum investment in contemporary art from the continent [will] ensure that it will continue to be seen and studied far into the future even if the market loses interest”. To sustain the current dynamics and interest in African contemporary art, maybe it is time, as Achille Mbembe has argued recently, “to leave the west to itself and look elsewhere and look differently”. [3]


[1] ^ Currently, for the Qatar Museums Authority, Susan Vogel is curating an exhibition of tents from the Sahara and Arabian deserts considered as architecture, engineering, and as aesthetic objects. The exhibition will open at the Museum of Islamic Arts in Doha autumn 2014.

[2] ^ Bomi Odufunade in a recent article for Contemporary And, the online “Platform for International Art from African Perspectives”, which is published by the German Institute for Foreign Cultural Relations.

[3] ^ Achille Mbembe in conversation with Tamar Garb. In Garb’s Figures and Fictions: Contemporary South African Photography Göttingen and London: Steidl and V&A Publishers. 2011, p. 302.

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Jürg SchneiderJürg Schneider, PhD, is a historian and affiliated with the Centre for African Studies, University of Basel, Switzerland. He has organized and curated various exhibitions. His writing on historical and contemporary African photography and photography in Africa appears in various journals and books. He initiated the project http://www. africaphotography.org, a platform for historical photographs from Africa, as well as www.african-photography-initiatives.org, a non-profit organization involved in various projects with the common goal of promoting Africa’s rich photographic heritage.



Categories: Art and Artists

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2 replies

  1. Thanks for the informative article.

  2. As an artist in this part of the world i believe the market is a bit slow in term of sales,the middle class in nigeria are not in majority conscious of art,they see it,hear about it but does not know the value.

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