Out of Africa
October 28, 2021
“THE COLLECTORS aren’t coming to Abuja—I have to go to them,” Dolly Kola-Balogun, founder of Retro Africa, told me at the opening of the ninth edition of 1-54 Contemporary Art Fair in London at her booth, where she was showing Tyna Adebowale. Her prices, she explained as we discussed the shrinking collector base in Nigeria, are pegged to the dollar, which the Nigerian naira is increasingly weak against. “If I want my artists to be well-known and reckoned with, I have to travel.”
This itinerant spirit is reflective of a burgeoning moment in London and other Western art capitals, where African artists and galleries are gaining institutional and market attention, and sometimes putting down roots. Ethiopian gallery Addis Fine Art just opened a two-level venue in Soho and plans to use its basement floor to collaborate with other African art galleries who want to show work in London. Retro Africa is currently putting finishing touches on a new space in Miami, where Art Basel will, this December, see an upshoot in African gallery representation. In August, Retro Africa showed Nigerian artist Victor Ehikhamenor, Congolese painter Cherie Samba, and African American artist Nate Lewis at Lehmann Maupin in New York—an international gallery collaboration as rewarding as it was unusual.
At 1-54, which boasted its largest-ever roster of exhibitors, (fourteen galleries were showing for the first time) enthusiasm was in the air. Strategically timed to run alongside Frieze, 1-54 tapped an international pool of collectors visiting London for the megafair. Laid out across two wings of Somerset House, the space felt warm and lived in. On the first day, masks were worn and soon taken off, presumably deemed a hindrance to animated conversation. The opening party had no music and seemed to not need it in the end. People were happy to just talk about the art they had just seen, wine or cocktail in hand.
The tightly curated and eventually sold-out booth of Lagos-based gallery SMO Contemporary Art presented a “unique take on figuration,” according to its founder Sandra Mbanefo-Obiago, from the Nigerian artists on view. A standout was Patrick Akpojotor, a still-underrated Nigerian artist who paints architectonic forms in bold, occasionally garish colors. Man of Influence, 2021, a roughly six-and-a-half-foot acrylic canvas, prompted one collector to hurry home to measure her wall to see if it would fit. And there was Deborah Segun, a fast-rising artist whose colorful, Cubist-inflected female figures celebrate body positivity and inclusivity.
In the booth of Nuweland gallery, located in the Netherlandish village of Oosterzee-Buren and specializing in art from Southern Africa, twenty-two-year-old Capetonian Shakil Solanki’s autobiographical works about intimacy and queerness caught my eye. His dreamy blue gouaches and silk screen prints with chine-collé inlay are spare, delicate and extravagant at the same time. They sold out. So did the ceramic sculptures by Ben Orkin, resembling ancient Malian architectural forms. South Africa’s Kalashnikovv Gallery showed figurative work by Isaac Zavale, who employs mural painting and sign writing techniques to depict the xenophobic unrest that plagues South Africa. Still, many galleries bucked the prevailing trend of figuration, a noteworthy detail given the outsize presence of a certain idiom of empowering portraiture on the market (not to mention on Instagram). At Galerie Atiss Dakar, for example, there were rich textural works by Serigne Mbaye Camara using textiles, wood—a recurring material in his work—and other mixed material to absorbing effect. At 50 Golborne, King Houndekpinkou showed glazed ceramics that seemed ornamental at first glance but upon closer inspection reveal technically accomplished pottery work drawn from the forms of ancestral or ritual objects, some of which were stolen from present-day Benin where the artist’s family is from—and are in museums in France where he is currently based.
Tucked into a far corner of Somerset House, works by Afro-Brazilian poet, scholar, and artist Abdias do Nascimento and sculptor Mestre Didi were shown, with institutional acquisition in mind, by the sustainability-focused 01.01 Platform. Together, these late artists evoked the magical objects and practices of Candomblé, a diasporic religion founded by African slaves, preserving a connection to continental Yoruba culture and the spirit world of the orixas.
One doesn’t, of course, often associate religious experiences with art fairs, where even “experiences” are now taking a backseat to capital. Christie’s, never one to miss out on an opportunity, had a special booth showing one of the top-selling African NFT artists, Osinachi, with works priced between 40,000–60,000 GBP that depicted a Black man relaxing in a swimming pool.
“When the work crosses the continent, it loses part of its message, its meaning,” a British-Nigerian anthropologist, who asked to be quoted anonymously, told me. “When people exhibiting the work don’t do the work of forming a connection to it, it can look the way it does,” he said, referring to the lifeless appearance of some of the displays.
“When you go to 1-54, you know you’re going to get a specific thing,” one art dealer, based in an African country but not herself African, said to me quite matter-of-factly in Frieze’s tents. “But with Frieze. . .” It wasn’t clear what “specific thing” she was referring to. But there was no time to press for details. There were pitches to be made to collectors sprawled across the tent. Air kisses to be exchanged.
At Frieze Masters, Lagos’s kó Gallery showed Obiora Udechukwu, a modernist pioneer of the uli art movement in Nigeria whose legacy is seen today in works of artists like El Anatsui and Nnena Okore. Udechukwu’s ’70s work, broody and dark and inspired by the recent Nigerian Civil War, was particularly affecting. At the booth, there were many congratulations for kó’s founder, Kavita Chelleram, the implication being that an African gallery appearing at Frieze Masters was a feat. Statistically speaking, it was. “We want to go mainstream,” explained Chelleram when asked why the gallery elected to skip 1-54. “We want a larger public to know what’s going on. We want a much wider, critical, global audience.” It seems their gambit paid off: Four of Udechukwu’s works were acquired by Tate as part of the “museum’s strategy to transform the representation of modern art from African and the African diaspora,” according to an online statement from curator Osei Bonsu. The rest of the booth sold out.
Contrastingly, Addis Fine Art opted for a two-pronged strategy—showing at both 1-54 and Frieze. At the former, they featured four artists of the Ethiopian diaspora: Tsedaye Makonnen, Tariku Shiferaw, Helina Metaferia, and Tsefaye Urgessa, all based abroad and seeking a deeper connection with the African art scene. At the Regent’s Park tent, they showed the Ethiopian Merikokeb Berhanu, whose colorful, semiabstract paintings merging inner and outer worlds they reckoned would appeal to a Western audience. “Berhanu is one of those artists [where we thought] the bigger the stage, the more recognition she’ll get,” Ikenna Malbert, program and artist manager at Addis Fine Art, told me. “And we were right: She sold out in the first few hours at Frieze.”
— Ayodeji Rotinwa