There is a new international scramble for Africa happening but this time it is not for lucrative geographical territories but its modern art.
Investment in the right pieces can see a 10-fold increase in their future value — leading to a plethora of international galleries vying to represent its artists.
While reports of Africa’s growing middle class art collectors abound, of which there is, in reality 80 per cent of sales in African art still come from international collectors mainly in the US and UK.
Something that art fairs such as 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair – which opened yesterday at London’s Somerset House — has capitalized on.
Individual prices at last year’s fair reached almost $70,000.
When 1:54, named after the 54 countries that make up the African continent, launched four years ago, it did so to just one wing of the 16th century house.
Today, the fair takes over the entire building, a testament to the show’s increasing popularity.
Fighting for control
However this year a quiet riot is taking place; Africa, no longer content with seeing its artists fronted by foreign galleries, is fighting for control.
17 galleries make their debut at 1:54 and a considerable number of them are based on the continent such as Gallery 1957 – which opened in Ghana earlier this year.
Its Lebanese-born founder Marwan Zakhem, told CNN he wanted to give artists “the option of not having to travel internationally and hook up with galleries around the world.”
Many artists struggling to get their artworks noticed, inevitably move to the US or Europe notes Zakhem.
Gallery 1957 — named after the country’s year of independence, allows artists “to be able to do their work within Ghana but have the platform to be able to take it internationally – I don’t think a lot of artists have had that opportunity,” he says.
A closer relationship
The gallery brings to 1:54, the works of Serge Attukwei Clottey, born and raised in Ghana’s capital. For Clottey, being represented by an Accra based gallery means a closer relationship and bond.
“As an artist I just can’t deal with this whole markets and everything, because I’m in my process I just want to do my art,” says Clottey.
“I just want to be in my studio and create my work, but, I believe getting to work with good galleries is quite important because then you can become less concerned with the politics of it.”
Clottey’s works often deal with political and social issues in Ghana.
His use of the yellow jerry cans used to carry water in Ghana, is recognizable.
“The plastic jerry cans for me has a very interesting journey coming from Europe and into Africa,” he says.
Giving artists their own voice
Also debuting at 1:54 is Ethiopia based Addis Fine Art, which opened its doors January 2016.
“We wanted to tap into the wider market so that our artists can get recognition and be commercially successful,” its co-director Rakeb Sile told CNN.
Of its white cube space in Addis Ababa, Sile notes they “wanted it to be like when you walk walked into a New York , have that feel, that curatorial rigor.”
Amongst its five Ethiopian-born artists exhibiting, is Michael Tsegaye. The mixed media artist has been highlighting the country’s rapid industrialization – a contentious issue amongst locals.
His Chasms of the Soul series looks at cemeteries that have been bulldozed over to make way for luxury buildings.
“He looks at how a lot of things that we used to know, they’ve been stripped away, with these new generalized cities emerging,” says Sile.
What’s important, says Zakhem is the newer Africa based galleries allow artists to have their own voice, which is often missing on international platforms.
A boost in local collectors
Audiences can now start to notice the large distinction between modern arts from Senegal versus that of Morocco.
“This whole African art thing I find it hard because it’s such a large continent, to say that somebody’s art that is coming from Labadi [Ghana’s beach town], is the same as somebody that is coming from Zimbabwe – it’s not,” Clottey says, with a noticeable frustration.
It’s also a way of increasing the number of local collectors. “A lot of my collectors are based abroad and not in Ghana but just recently after my show with 1957 [which took place in Accra] a lot of Ghanaians have patronized the work,” explains Clottey.
For Africa’s new galleries, sales are not flying through the door yet, admits Sile. “But that’s because people aren’t used to buying from galleries within Ethiopia,” she says, “Because there isn’t that many.”
A decline in international interest?
Will the international interest in Africa’s modern art abate? Not likely think experts.
“It would be too easy to think that this is just a trend,” says Nadia Amor, director of Galerie d’art L’Atelier 21 – another newbie to 1:54. The luxury five-year-old gallery is based in Morocco, Casablanca.
“The rise of such interest for contemporary African art is most likely to be related to the deep and strong statements that African artists are making through their artistic productions, which are rooted in cultural, social, and political issues and phenomena that are altering the face of Africa,” she says, “making it one of the places where alternative gazes and thoughts are emerging.”
Amor adds: “Even though it is a very competitive market, they [African artists] have a sharp sense for positioning themselves through the relevance of their works.”
1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair runs until 9 October, at Somerset House, London.