Contemporary African art: who to buy now
‘There are many talented artists whose work is still affordable.’ In the run-up to 1-54 Online, Powered by Christie’s, leading curators, collectors and critics pick the names to look out for
Touria El Glaoui, founding director of 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair, London, New York and Marrakech
‘The additional online format, 1-54 Online, Powered by Christie’s, has enabled us to expand our capabilities and to do so internationally, despite the global challenges presented by Covid-19,’ says Touria El Glaoui, founder of the world’s leading contemporary African art fair. ‘Christie’s has a strong commitment to showcasing contemporary African art, and we are excited to assist in giving its clients more opportunity to engage with the work and practices of artists from Africa and its diaspora.’
‘We ensure that 1-54 has multiple price points so that collectors with varying budgets can acquire work at the fair. For first-time collectors with lower budgets, I would recommend the gallery Guns & Rain, which is presenting two emerging artists: Thina Dube and Tuli Mekondjo. For first-time collectors with higher budgets, I’d suggest visiting the booth of Jack Bell Gallery, where you’ll find works by Gonçalo Mabunda for around £15,000. For established collectors, Addis Fine Art is selling work by the brilliant Tadesse Mesfin priced around £35,000.
Artists to watch? ‘Roméo Mivekannin, shown by Galerie Eric Dupont, and Devan Shimoyama, presented by the New York-based De Buck Gallery, are receiving a lot of attention at the moment,’ says El Glaoui. ‘Mivekannin creates large works on free canvas made from burlap sacks sewn together, which explore the representations of the Black body throughout history. Shimoyama explores his identity and the politics of queer culture with large works that incorporate glitter, rhinestones and sequins.’
Tokini Peterside, founder and director of Art X Lagos, Nigeria
Tokini Peterside founded ART X Lagos in 2015 after spending several years developing Nigeria’s luxury and culture sectors. As West Africa’s first international contemporary art fair, its aim is to promote contemporary African art.
‘The global discourse on visual art is incomplete without Africa’s perspectives, histories and stories,’ says Peterside. ‘We need to make African art a cornerstone of the global art market by investing in institutions and expanding the collector base. African art shouldn’t be marginalised or considered niche.’
Among Peterside’s favourite African artists working today is Njideka Akunyili Crosby, whose work ‘uses images of Nigerian pop culture to counter generalisations about the African experience.
‘Zohra Opoku brilliantly uses installation, sculpture and photography (above) to explore her Ghanaian-German heritage and conceptualise West African traditions, spirituality and family lineage.
‘Taiye Idahor from Nigeria uses diverse media to explore female African identity. Her 2018 show Òkhùo, at Tyburn Gallery in London, used the figure of the Queen Mother of the Benin Kingdom to reflect on women and power.’
André Magnin, curator and founder of MAGNIN-A, Paris
In 2009 the curator André Magnin founded his eponymous gallery MAGNIN-A with the mission to promote contemporary African art on the international market. ‘Although the market for African art is now booming thanks to an influx of fairs and museum shows, works are still affordable,’ he says.
‘Chéri Samba from Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of Congo is a major figure in African painting,’ says the gallerist. ‘He applies his unique African vision to world news in his work.
‘Romauld Hazoumè from Benin uses found objects to make monumental works that incite critical discussions on the historical, political and economic problems facing Africa.
‘Following in the footsteps of the great photographer Malick Sidibé, Omar Victor Diop from Senegal uses his camera to situate African culture in the dynamic, pop, contemporary world — where it is often ignored by the West.’
Isabel Millar, Post-War and Contemporary Art specialist at Christie’s, London
‘It’s exciting that 1-54 will be the first major fair going ahead physically in London this year and that the model has been adapted so quickly to incorporate an online element,’ says Christie’s specialist Isabel Millar.
‘I just love that 1-54 has partnered with Christie’s this year; it shows a great commitment to showcasing contemporary African art’ — Josefina Kapelo
‘The collaboration with Christie’s will open up the fair not only to those who are unable to travel to London, but also to many of our collectors internationally who may be well-versed in other categories, but who are new to contemporary African art.’
Taking place alongside the digital fair will be an intimate presentation of around 30 exhibitors at Somerset House and a 1-54 Highlights exhibition at Christie’s King Street. Among Millar’s favourites works on display at Christie’s is Molten (below) by Sungi Mlengeya, a self-taught painter from Dar es Salaam in Tanzania.
‘As with many of her works, the palette is minimal, with a dark female figure rendered flat against a white background,’ says Millar. ‘There’s a real sense of intimacy in this work: although the figure is lying down and looking back over her shoulder, she appears elevated, powerful and timeless.’
‘I’m also drawn to the dreamlike and exquisitely detailed works by Joana Choumali that Loft Art Gallery is bringing to the fair,’ she says.
Ekene Emeka Maduka, a talented young painter born in Nigeria and now based in Canada, is another favourite. ‘Her bold, colourful figurative paintings often depict the artist herself within rich narratives that address her Nigerian heritage, culture and femininity.’
According to Millar, ‘The African contemporary art market is on the rise, but there are many talented artists whose work is still affordable — now is a great time to start a collection.’
Jean Pigozzi, photographer and collector
‘Just over 30 years ago I went to see a show called Magiciens de la terre in Paris. I was struck by the work exhibited by a group of African artists, and I decided to start my own collection,’ says Jean Pigozzi, who has since amassed more than 10,000 works by more than 100 African artists. For guidance Pigozzi hired the show’s curator, André Magnin. He has acquired nearly all of his collection directly from the artists themselves.
'My good friend Charles Saatchi gave me some important advice: if you like an artist, buy them in depth,' Pigozzi says.
Some of Pigozzi’s current favourites? ‘Congolese sculptor Bodys Isek Kingelez makes great work and is showing at MoMA this year. I like Frédéric Bruly Bouabré from Côte D’Ivoire and George Lilanga from Tanzania, too.’
Josefina Kapelo, founder and director of Boogie-Wall, London
Since opening in October 2019, Boogie-Wall — the first female-run gallery in London to exclusively show works by women — has garnered praise and attention from critics and collectors alike. ‘I decided to open my gallery in London because of its innovative and inspiring art scene,’ says Josefina Kapelo. ‘The city offers great opportunities for an emerging gallery like ours.’
For its 1-54 debut, Boogie-Wall is presenting works by Delphine Diallo, Adelaide Damoah and Namsa Leuba. ‘These three ladies are inspiration itself and incredibly talented,’ says Kapelo. ‘Their work brings extraordinary depth and emotion.’
Kapelo, who has visited the fair each year since its launch in 2015, is particularly drawn to its engaging presentation of artists and galleries. ‘It’s one of the few art fairs in the world where I end up mesmerised after my visit,’ she says. ‘I just love that 1-54 has partnered with Christie’s this year; it shows a great commitment to showcasing contemporary African art to a more global audience.’
Othman Lazraq, president of the Museum of African Contemporary Art Al Maaden (MACAAL), Marrakech
‘My parents have been collecting modern and contemporary African art for 40 years, and the market is always changing,’ says Othman Lazraq, president of MACAAL in Marrakech.
The non-profit space, which aims to nurture a broader awareness of contemporary African art, opened to the public in early 2018 (but is temporarily closed due to the Covid-19 pandemic). ‘We are cultivating the younger generation of artists through MACAAL LAB, which works with schools and universities, as well as offering three-month residencies to African artists,’ he says.
‘Many African artists approach powerful topics with a sense of humour, and despite a lack of gallery infrastructure and cultural policy, there is a new network of professionals carving out a vibrant cultural landscape across the continent,’ Lazraq continues. ‘One example is the fantastic Senegal-based artist Fabrice Monteiro, who uses photography to address issues surrounding pollution and the pillaging of Africa’s natural resources.
‘I also adore the work of South African artist Zanele Muholi. She is both an artist and an activist, using photography, video and installation works to highlight violent subject matter. Her wonderful 2015 show Isibonelo/Evidence, at the Brooklyn Museum, addressed LGBT issues in Africa.’
Rakeb Sile, co-founder of Addis Fine Art, Addis Ababa and London
‘Addis Fine Art was born from a desire to represent the rich talent in contemporary visual art in Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa,’ says Rakeb Sile of Addis Fine Art. ‘We are committed to bringing the strength and diversity of art from the region to an international audience through our programming.’
Co-founded by Sile and Mesai Haileleul in Addis Ababa in 2016, the gallery has since expanded overseas, opening a London outpost in October 2020 in Cromwell Place. ‘Due to the current climate, a lot of people will not be able to join us physically at the fair,’ explains Sile. ‘So 1-54 Online, Powered by Christie’s will allow us to reach that audience as well as Christie’s supporters and collectors.’
The gallery is exhibiting new works by Addis Gezehagn, Ermias Kifleyesus, Tsedaye Makonnen and Tesfaye Urgessa at Somerset House as well as one work by Tadesse Mesfin at Christie’s. ‘Each artist brings something distinctive to the wider curatorial theme of our presentation, which explores the tumultuous nature of the human condition,’
For the gallerist, collecting contemporary African art can be a gateway into cultures and histories which are not widely known. ‘Learning the history of an Ethiopian modernist painter like Tadesse Mesfin allows you to see the world in a completely different light,’ he says. ‘Like many of his peers, Mesfin studied in the USSR in the 1980s. Look closely at his paintings and you can see nods to Russian realism, which he was taught there.
‘I would encourage new collectors to see African countries individually, rather than considering the continent as a monolith. This is because each nation is extremely diverse in its artistic practice. Be sure to reach out to galleries and ask a lot of questions about the artists and their influences, and why they work in their chosen medium.’
‘African artists have always produced innovative work, but only recently has it truly been appreciated on the international stage’ — Rakeb Sile, Addis Fine Art
And the market? ‘The African art market is becoming more and more dynamic, with more galleries and collectors becoming interested in what is happening on the continent,’ says Sile. ‘African artists have always produced astounding and innovative work, but only recently has it truly been appreciated on the international stage.’
Marwan Zakhem, founder and director of Gallery 1957, Accra, Ghana
‘I started collecting contemporary African art when I moved to West Africa nearly 20 years ago,’ says Marwan Zakhem, founder of Gallery 1957 in Accra, Ghana. ‘This is a very exciting period for the contemporary African art market, and there are a significant number of young talented artists. Social media platforms allow artists to reach global audiences to a degree that was impossible a few years ago.
‘I sit on the Tate Africa Acquisition Committee, which recently acquired work by the Nigerian artist Emeka Ogboh. He primarily works with sound, and his installation The Way Earthly Things Are Going (2017) was shown at Tate Tanks in December 2017. It makes explicit the connection between the volatility of financial markets and the movement of people seeking better lives.
‘Gallery 1957 was inaugurated with an exhibition of work by the artist Serge Attukwei Clottey in 2016. He creates art across installation, performance, photography and sculpture, examining Ghanaian politics and culture. In 2018 he participated in a ‘Gallery Takeover’ between Gallery 1957 and Lawrie Shabibi in Dubai, where his solo show, The Displaced, explored the migration story of the artist’s family as a journey of remembrance.
‘Finally I would suggest the work of Kudzanai-Violet Hwami. She is a young Zimbabwean artist who held her first solo exhibition at London’s Tyburn Gallery in 2017 to much acclaim. Her bright oil paintings celebrate the complexities of diasporic identities, exploring Afro-punk, LGBTQ and internet subcultures.’