When a city announces that it will soon be home to a new museum, residents normally cheer. Museums house countries’ historic art and antiques, but they also provide space for citizens to gather and reflect on their past, present and future. What’s not to like?
Well, if you listen to the detractors of the new Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa in Cape Town (Zeitz MOCAA), there’s plenty.
Zeitz MOCAA opened in September 2017, but plans for the institution were first unveiled in 2013. A collaboration between a private real-estate development in Cape Town, and German businessman and philanthropist Jochen Zeitz, Zeitz MOCAA was presented as Africa’s equivalent to London’s Tate Modern. Like the Tate Modern, it would be located inside a converted industrial building – in Zeitz MOCAA’s case, in a 65,000- square-foot converted grain silo. Zeitz MOCAA’s backers claimed it would attract hundreds of thousands of visitors every year, boosting the local economy, and be an inspiring space to showcase the best of the art being produced around the African continent. So far, so good.
“My collection has been strategically built over many years, specifically with the goal to create an internationally relevant public contemporary art museum in Africa,” Zeitz said in 2013. “After considering many cities across Africa, I’m excited to partner with the V&A Waterfront in Cape Town. It’s an iconic location in an iconic city, and will be situated in a historic landmark building. This will make my collection accessible to a local, national, continental and international audience.”
When it was subsequently announced that the inventive and ever-popular British architect Thomas Heatherwick would be designing the museum, its success seemed assured. But all was not as it seemed, and dissent was swirling in Cape Town.
From the start, there were uncomfortable questions about money. The owners of V&A Waterfront, GrowthPoint Properties and Public Investment Corporation, had decided they wanted a museum on the site before they had any art to fill it with. The art came later, when V&A Waterfront executives met Jochen Zeitz and persuaded him to lend them his extensive collection. But if the art wasn’t the developers’ first priority, what was? Money, detractors claimed. In critics’ eyes, Zeitz MOCAA was created simply to boost the value of the surrounding real estate, rather than out of any commitment to promoting African art or serving the public. This was followed by accusations that the 180-rand (HK$110) entry fee for people over the age of 18 was out of reach of many South Africans.
There were other hard questions. How can a privately owned institution in Cape Town, the richest city in one of the wealthiest countries in Africa, claim to represent artists working elsewhere on the continent? And people weren’t shy of pointing out the elephant in the room: both Zeitz and the museum’s director, Mark Coetzee, are white.
But while the debate raged in South Africa, Zeitz MOCAA was inspiring a very different international conversation. Excited by the museum’s ambition, global interest in contemporary African art spiked to an unprecedented level. Around the world, African art appeared in exhibitions and was the subject of books, essays and lectures. The year 2017 will go down in the history books as the year that African art exploded on the international stage.
Liza Essers, director of the influential Goodman Gallery in South Africa, has noticed a significant increase in international interest in African art. “2017 was a particularly successful year,” Essers explains. “With the opening of Zeitz MOCAA and the A4 Arts Foundation in September, we have seen an influx of visitors – from collectors to curators and independent journalists – coming into the gallery with a keen interest
to learn more about African art and to grow existing collections.”
On top of visiting South Africa in larger numbers, international curators and gallerists also hosted major exhibitions of African art in their own countries last year. One of the largest of these shows was at the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris, which devoted all 11 of its galleries to a sprawling exhibition titled Art/Afrique, le nouvel atelier, from April to September.
Within Art/Afrique were two separate exhibitions. The first, called The Insiders, featured a selection of works from the collection of businessman Jean Pigozzi, who is often said to have the world’s largest collection of contemporary African art. Included in the show were black-and-white portraits by famed Malian photographer Seydou Keïta and a painting by Congolese artist Chéri Samba, who addresses social issues such as Aids, inequality and corruption in his brightly coloured canvases. Alongside The Insiders was Being There: South Africa, a contemporary scene, a show dedicated to art created in the country between 1989 and 2009.
Elsewhere in Europe, the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam hosted a solo show of South African artist Zanele Muholi, while 10 African nations hosted exhibitions at the Venice Biennale. Among them was Nigeria, which participated in the biennale for the first time.
Hosting an exhibition at the Venice Biennale has “sparked interest in Nigerian art” and “ inspired critics, museum directors and gallerists”, says Adenrele Sonariwo, the lead curator of the Nigerian Pavilion. “Because of this, the art scene and stakeholders including artists and curators may now get attention and access that they previously didn’t have.”
Elsewhere, the Biennale’s Future Generation Art Prize, which comes with US$100,000 prize money, was awarded to South African artist Dineo Seshee Bopape. The runner-up award, the US$20,000 Future Generation Special Prize, went to Phoebe Boswell, a British Kenyan.
In Hong Kong, artists from around Africa were the subject of several exhibitions in 2017. White Cube hosted a solo show of paintings by Kenyan artist Michael Armitage in January; Lehmann Maupin showcased works by Wangechi Mutu in May; and from July to September, Lucie Chang Fine Arts collaborated with Lee Garakara on Bridges, a group exhibition featuring Zimbabwean artists Tafadzwa Gwetai, Franklyn Dzingai and Anthony Bumhira.
The pace of shows would suggest that African art is selling like hot cakes. But Lee Garakara, Hong Kong-based founder of the arts consultancy Mwimbi Fine Arts, believes Asia-based collectors are still reluctant. “Unfortunately most [collectors] assume renowned artists William Kentridge and El Anatsui are the only two that can be considered for collecting,” Garakara says.
The investment value of contemporary African art was also under scrutiny in London in May, when Sotheby’s hosted its first-ever sale dedicated solely to the genre. Featuring 116 lots, the sale was expected to raise between £2.78 million-£3.98 million (HK$28.6 million-$40.9 million). But in the end, it disappointingly fell just short of the lower estimate, bringing in a total of £2,794,750.
Some industry insiders have speculated that African art exploded onto the scene in 2017 because it’s relatively affordable. But Essers, of Goodman Gallery, is quick to point out that this is not always the case. “An attractive price may open some African art up to a broader audience – especially to younger collectors – but that does not make it a cheaper commodity. It very much depends on what you are buying,” Essers says. Goodman Gallery represents artists including William Kentridge and Yinka Shonibare, both of whose works have sold for upwards of US$100,000 at auction.
Both the stylistic variety and price range of contemporary African art is on display every year at the 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair. Founded in 2013 by Touria El Glaoui, 1:54 now hosts annual fairs in New York and London featuring galleries that specialise in art from Africa. With more than 50 galleries taking part in its London fairs, 1:54 attracts collectors from all over the world. “Approximately one third of the collectors who support the fair are from all over Africa,” El Glaoui explains. “The rest are from Europe and the US. But it’s not so straightforward anymore, people live somewhat nomadic lives and identify ‘home’ as more than one place.”
Although Jochen Zeitz has received plenty of international press, El Glaoui believes that other private patrons also played a key role in bringing African art to the fore. “Collectors that I feel have been influential include Sindika Dokolo who has now established a foundation in Luanda, which extends beyond just the acquisition of works,” El Glaoui says. “Yemisi Shyllon is also known for his large modern and contemporary art collection which he has been growing over many years now, and Sammy Olagbaju and Adedotun Sulaiman are among many Nigeria-based collectors who have sizeable collections.”
El Glaoui also believes that African art is becoming increasingly popular because a growing number of people want to hear minority voices. “I get a strong sense that the future is for the ‘marginalised’; artists who identify as woman, are of the LGBTQI and non-binary community or persons of non-Western backgrounds,” El Glaoui explains. “I can also see emerging and young artists having further access to international career opportunities, and with them will come younger patrons of the millennial generation. That may feel like a wish list, however it is all possible.”
Garakara agrees. “Curatorial methods are undoing master narratives developed by the West,” he says. “Part of this conversation is also highlighting efforts to re-educate and change narratives that shift from Eurocentric platforms. African writers today are commonly commenting on the role of self-articulation, creating and celebrating diversity within the continent itself without the approval from the West.”
Western notions of the continent, however, still loom large over discussions of African art. Even the phrase “African art” is a relic of colonialism that casually groups all of Africa’s 54 countries under one broad umbrella, ignoring the ethnic, cultural and linguistic groups that make each nation unique.
Curators, collectors and commentators may be stuck using clumsy phrases, but at least they’re talking about art from Africa – an entire continent that has often been overlooked by the power brokers of the art world. Heatherwick’s building for Zeitz MOCAA was commissioned by a private company, but he designed the museum with the public in mind. If Africa’s curators, gallerists and artists play their cards right, interest will only increase from here.