London fair marks rise of contemporary African art

The first fair of contemporary African art outside Africa opens in London on Wednesday, a testament to the growing market for works rooted in the social and political realities of a troubled continent.

A visitor looks at "Giant Ball" by Beninese artist Romuald HazoumĀ at the Contemporary African Arts Fair at Somerset House in Central London on October 15, 2013

More than 70 artists are represented at 1:54 -- named after the number of countries in Africa -- from well-established names to those with no presence outside their own nations.

Philip Boutte, an expert in contemporary African art at the Magnin-A gallery in Paris, said the fair showcased the breadth of paintings, sculpture and photography on offer.

"In the minds of many people, African art is all about indigenous art. At one point, people thought we were only offering Bushmen, people who make art without thinking, but there are genuine artists," he told AFP.

Behind him was a sculpture by Mozambique's Goncalo Mabunda, a throne made of pistols, Kalashnikovs and other weapons left over from that country's civil war.

Priced at 9,500 euros ($12,800), "Zuma" is at the lower end of the price range of the five-day fair at Somerset House, which contains works costing between $1,600 and $480,000.

Next to the sculpture is displayed 55,000-euro ($74,000) "Letter from the ICC", an acrylic painting of a man sweating at a note from the International Criminal Court by Congolese artist Cheri Samba.

These two works are not subtle, but are striking examples some of the themes that bind the artists as much as their geographical location.

"Politics is a very clear theme, social issues are a very clear theme, beauty and aesthetics are very important," said Koyo Kouoh, the Cameroon-born artistic director of the fair.

"Western art is full of auto-referential art. Artists think people are interested in their emotion -- we are not."

The fair is being supported by Christie's auction house and staged to coincide with Frieze London, a major event in contemporary art, in the hope of raising the profile of African artists.

Some have already benefited from an increase in interest in recent years, with works by Ethiopian painter Julie Mehretu and Ghanaian sculptor El Anatsui now selling for more than a million dollars. But they remain the exception.

Kouoh says that as African countries grow economically, more people are looking at the continent's creative output.

"Art is driven by economic factors. Africa's economic indicators are very positive and naturally there is an interest in works of art," she told AFP.

Romuald Hazoume, who has had work shown at the British Museum, the Centre George Pompidou in Paris and the Guggenheim in Bilbao, expressed regret that there was not more of a market for African art on the continent itself.

"The newly rich Africans buy Bentleys, they like showing off. They don't understand that culture is the best investment," he told AFP, wearing traditional beige robes and a stack of necklaces around his neck.

"The car breaks after a year, and it says nothing about your roots. Whereas art, or a museum, can carry into future generations."

He is selling sculptures based on the jerry cans which people in his native Benin use to smuggle petrol over the border from Nigeria. "I am paying tribute to these heroes of survival," he explained.

A smaller version of the fair has taken place in Johannesburg since 2008, but this week's event is much more ambitious.

Founder Touria El Glaoui, the daughter of celebrated Moroccan artist Hassan El Glaoui, said she hopes one day to take the fair to Africa. "That is when my dream will be accomplished," she said.

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Writer: AFP
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