There was once a time in Western art history when Africa was pictured only through the eyes of Europeans, and when the varied visual language of an entire continent was reduced to the regressive label of “primitive”—and depicted through the paintbrushes of Picasso, Gauguin, and Matisse. It’s this kind of entrenched, monolithic understanding of Africa, and African art, that curators Julia Grosse and Yvette Mutumba hope to mortally rupture through “African Perspectives,” this year’s Focus section at The Armory Show.
It’s a tricky proposition: how does one shine a spotlight on African art without accidentally confining it to overly prescriptive visual categories? Their answer comes in the form of 14 galleries from across the globe (many from Africa) and an equally diverse spread of artists working across styles and mediums. In attempting to capture a snapshot of African art, the curators are threading a thin needle, while simultaneously endeavoring to increase our knowledge of the region. And with “African Perspectives,” Grosse and Mutumba have provided fairgoers with some of the most engaging work on view throughout the entire pier.
Years ago, a focus on African art “would have never even been considered,” Jack Shainman, a longtime supporter of African and African-American artists, told me as we stood in the shadow of Kay Hassan’s breathtaking mural of torn and reconfigured South African billboards. The fair’s focus on Africa is indicative of the art world’s gradual shift—slow enough to be tectonic—over the last few decades, one that culminated in the earthquake that was Nigerian curator Okwui Enwezor’s Venice Biennale in 2015.
Shainman cautioned, however, that over-emphasizing Africa as an exhibition or auction theme can deter artists who “don’t want to show in that context because they want to be seen as international artists.” It’s a sentiment echoed by some gallerists showing within the section itself. “Turiya Magadlela is from Africa but what’s on the wall should speak for itself,” says Jonathan Garnham, owner and director of Cape Town’s blank of the artist he has brought to the fair. “It’s a bandwagon I don’t want to jump onto. The artists I work with also don’t want to be seen first and foremost as African artists. They want to be seen as artists who incidentally come from Africa.” (Two of Magadlela’s pieces priced at $4,000 had sold by just the second day of the fair and many—though certainly not all—booths reported solid sales by Thursday morning, an indication that collectors will let others sort out the nomenclature while they sort out the wall hanging.)
Grosse and Mutumba, who founded Contemporary And, an online magazine dedicated to exploring Africa and the Diaspora, are clearly aware of the potential pitfalls. After all, “the focus is called ‘African Perspectives,’ not ‘Africa,’” says German gallerist Tanja Wagner, a reminder that Grosse and Mutumba opted not simply for a geographical requirement to entry but rather a multiplicity of connections to the continent. It’s the best, likely the only, way to invoke 54 countries, roughly 1 billion people, and thousands of languages.
A joint booth with Paris’s Galerie Jérôme Poggi, Wagner’s presentation of Armory commissioned artist Kapwani Kiwanga’s coarse sculptures, made out of a lucrative material harvested in Tanzania called sisal, is a strong example. Born in Canada, living in Paris, but with family in Africa, Kapwani “looks with different eyes,” as Wagner puts it.
Still, “inasmuch as there’s no such thing as African art, many of the African artists may see things a different way and tell their own story,” says Lagos’s Omenka Gallery curator Oliver Enwonwu (who graciously allowed me to interrupt his lunch). His booth hangs the paintings of Nengi Omuku—abstract, emotional manifestations of her frustrations while dealing with a failing Nigerian justice system. “She can experience that because she lives on the continent,” says Enwonwu. “That’s first-hand experience, that’s a perspective.”
While crucial, it’s one of many. “I think the idea that there’s an African identity or there’s something African artists are addressing in particular is troublesome,” Danda Jarolmek, director of Circle Art Gallery, told me. “It doesn’t really exist.” The gallery represents artists from Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Ethiopia, and Sudan, five distinct countries in East Africa. “In some countries, all the artists have come out of the same art school. In some countries, there are no art schools.”
Circle Art Gallery, showing videos of Ato Malinda that explore numerous issues, including the experience of being a queer woman in Kenya, has one of the most immersive booths in the section. Another is that of Tiwani Contemporary, the walls of which are covered with the paintings of Francisco Vidal, an artist who was inspired by jazz music and who you can periodically catch DJ’ing at the booth. Vidal studied in New York, but after moving to Angola he couldn’t find canvas supplies—so he made his own paper. “I think there are a lot of artists thinking about new techniques,” says Tiwani’s Nathalie Fouilloux of those working in Africa.
Indeed there’s a recurrence of craftsmanship and attention to material from the continent—as seen in Kiwanga’s sculptures or the the Afrofuturist “C-Stunner” goggles, made of detritus found on the streets of Nairobi, by SMAC Gallery’s Cyrus Kabiru. Some artists also fuse styles that might seem “Western” with those that appear “African.” At October Gallery, paintings by Eddy Kamuanga Ilunga feature the wet drapery style beloved by the Greeks, but Ilunga “infiltrates it with African textile pattern,” notes the gallery’s artistic director Elisabeth Lalouschek. The work was priced at $18,000, according to the wall label, which I watched a smiling gallery staffer add a green dot to.
Then, of course, at London’s Vigo Gallery, there is the towering presence of Ibrahim El-Salahi, the oldest and most influential artist on display in the section, known for blending Western modernism with elements of Arabic calligraphy and his personal Sudanese history—ultimately forging a style that is all his own. The presentation impressed several institutions.
There are problems and limitations to any geographical focus. Hectic art fairs aren’t the most meditative places for contemplating art from an entire continent. There’s a whole lot more happening artistically in Africa, much of it non-commercial. Many artists and galleries can’t afford, or don’t want, to make it to The Armory Show, even with a welcoming focus.
At WHATIFTHEWORLD, Justin Rhodes, director of the South African gallery, voiced such perspective. But, he added, “for people to be exposed to new artists and to a different part of the world they’ve never seen before is a very good thing.” His booth presents the work of Dan Halter, and one of his maps of woven plastic-weave bags that trace the destination of immigrants through their very materiality had a reserve from a major museum. So what happens next, after the focus? “I hope people dig a little deeper. Scratch under the surface,” says Rhodes. What comes next, it seems, would be many more African perspectives.
Isaac Kaplan is an Associate Editor at Artsy.
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