African art ‘exploding’ in popularity

Though there is currently an “explosion” of western interest in contemporary African art, it is not new to the market. For the past two decades African artists have been producing astonishing pieces that speak not only to their ability to represent their culture but their desire to shed light on African issues.

This is a guest post by Kirsten Roof, a writer for the Seattle-based anti-poverty advocacy group The Borgen Project and graduate of the University of Washington in arts and psychology.

The cognoscenti (or those with a refined enough sense of the art scene to use the word ‘cognoscenti’) say contemporary African art is the “next big thing.”

The BBC recently said so on the recent opening of the Venice Biennale where Angola won the prize for Best National Pavilion. Several shows featuring African art have opened this summer: The Brooklyn Museum of Art, the Tate Modern, and the Royal Academy in London are all currently showcasing major contemporary African artists.

A piece by El Anatsui, a Ghanaian artist who works with recycled material, at the Brooklyn Museum

A piece by El Anatsui, a Ghanaian artist who works with recycled material, at the Brooklyn Museum

Flickr, Eva Blue

Contemporary African art pieces are being introduced to the global art market as valuable investments. As museums in New York, England, Berlin, and Paris are contesting to showcase their work, artists such as El Anatsui are beginning to see the prices of their work achieve a competitive level.

Though there is currently an “explosion” of western interest in contemporary African art, it is not new to the market. For the past two decades African artists have been producing astonishing pieces that speak not only to their ability to represent their culture but their desire to shed light on African issues.

El Anatsui, a favorite at the recent Venice Biennale, is a Ghanaian sculptor who uses discarded bottle caps, aluminum and copper wire to create massive hanging tapestries.

Though active since the 1980’s EL Anatsui’s career has recently taken what Kevin Dumouchelle, curator of his exhibition at the Booklyn Museum of Art, calls “a meteoric rise.” In 2012 his work New World Map Tappistry sold for a hefty £541,250 (roughly $ 714,450). With prices like that it is easy to see why so many people in the art world are beginning to look to African art as the new, and beautiful, way to invest.

One of El Anatsui’s pieces hangs on the massive atrium wall of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Other works by El Anatsui and also Yinka Shonibare are on display at the Seattle Art Museum.

Sokari Douglas Camp, a female artist born in the Niger Delta, Nigeria, studied art in England and the US. Her work had been in exhibitions throughout the United States and Europe.

Using sculpted steel and powdered paint Sokari creates statues that speak to her Kalabari heritage and the socio- political issues of the Niger Delta. Her 2004 piece Teasing Suicide addresses the impact oil companies have had on the Niger Delta. In this piece Sokari references the marriage that seems to exist between oil and guns in the region. Rising tensions between Niger Delta Natives and oil companies have left many victims on both sides.

A fellow Nigerian, Yinka Shonibare, focuses his attention on the influence that colonialism has had on the African continent. The political and economic interrelationship between the two continents is a key theme in his work. Educated at Goldsmiths University of London, Shonibare has had exhibitions around the world including the Venice Biennale. His most notable commission was by Okwui Enwezor for the Documenta XI in 2002. Shonibare creates faceless sculptures in Victorian dress but he uses brightly colored African fabrics. His famous Scramble for Africa (2003) comprises fourteen male figures dressed in Victorian fashion sitting around a large wooden table. They symbolize the European figureheads who came together at the Berlin Conference to divide up Africa.

The current international visibility of contemporary African artists is changing the perception of African art from being ethnological curiosities to important legitimate works of art.

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Kirsten Roof is a graduate from the University of Washington with a double major in Psychology and Art History. She was Director of Red Dress Gala, a philanthropic auction for Alpha Phi International, and also spent time in Zambia, Africa studying economic development. Currently she is an intern at The Borgen Project, a non-profit organization that fights global poverty by working with U.S. leaders to ensure poverty is a focus of US foreign policy. Roof is from Whidbey Island, Washington and enjoys hiking.

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