Africa has undergone what the global art world has described as an “art boom” over the last few years. This has led to international interest in contemporary African art, shifting the focus away from naive art and collected ancient artefacts, and has generated enough interest to see the emergence of institutions like Cape Town’s Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa
Many artists started working together to earn money by paint backdrops for a theatre company. They joined forces to buy supplies and, ultimately, a house, formally founding the collective in 2013.
Some of them are energised by the art world’s interest in what young African artists are producing, while they’re also painfully aware of how hard it is to become an internationally recognised name, like Wangechu Mutu and other Kenyan artists who are building their profiles. This is especially so because the East African art scene is modest compared to the well-established scene of South Africa, or the quickly growing art space of Nigeria, Ghana and Senegal.
Contemporary African artists have gained more visibility at international fairs like Art Basel, while auction sales have reached record highs
Contemporary African artists have gained more visibility at international fairs like Art Basel, while auction sales have reached record highs. In 2015, for example, South African fine art auctioneers Strauss & Co. sold Ghanaian sculptor El Anatsui’s Al Haji for $186,781, while his 2015 work Zata fetched $77,000 at Lagos’s Arthouse Contemporary Art Auction, according to the 2015 Africa Art Market report.
Among Africa’s big earners are well-known artists like South Africa’s William Kentridge or modern artists of the early and late 20th century, like Irma Stern, Gerard Sekoto, Malick Sidibé and Keïta Seydou, pioneering photographers who were only recognised late in their careers. This boom has not yet trickled down to younger artists, but it has helped with their visibility. “It’s easier to get your work out there,” consider staff at South Africa’s Stevenson Gallery, which represents several African artists. They explain that this boom is also reflected in the amount of coverage African contemporary art now receives.
According to the Africa Art Market report, a quarter of the continent’s artists are trained in workshops or cooperatives like Brush Tu. The majority (62%) have attended formal art school, while 13% are self-taught
That attention has led to increased support for local artists, as well as an increasing number of art collectors from the continent.
The world is starting to pay attention, but regardless of much the world is waking up to the continent’s creative minds, it is still the established artists who get notice. It’s not just the outside world, though. As Africa’s economic prospects have improved, wealthy Africans have started becoming collectors, especially corporations, according to the art market report. Multinationals that are setting up shop in Nairobi are eager to hang local art in their lobbies and boardrooms, boosting artists’ earnings.
Locals, however, need more convincing about Kenya’s fine art. The Brush Tu artists all lament the ubiquity of batik prints — “all from the same print” — and local markets that favour curios more than art. And then there are the tourists, who always want an animal in the picture.
“Our art has been dismissed as European, we have been told that we’ve been colonised”, claim the majority of African artists, arguing that contemporary art’s wide field of interpretation has meant that their work is left out of what local collectors believe African art should look like. While the collective allows them all to pursue art as a full-time occupation, earning recognition at home has proved difficult.
International interest is evident in the rising number of visitors, sponsors and collectors attending art fairs like Art X Lagos or museums like the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa
That’s why much of their energy in the last few years has been channelled toward making the most of Brush Tu’s presence at the annual Kenya Art Fair in Nairobi. Art fairs around the world have changed the art industry, bringing thousands of buyers directly to galleries throughout just a few days. In Africa, art fairs like the Turbine Art Fair in Johannesburg and Art X Lagos have introduced budding artists to new first-time buyers. At the very least, art fairs educate the public about contemporary art.
“Imagine how it is to introduce yourself as an artist and to be asked what song you sing,” says Elias Mong’ora, who held a solo exhibition at Nairobi’s Polka Dot Gallery last month.
The 25-year-old moved to Nairobi in 2011 and sought out the art collective. Until then he’d relied on YouTube as a teacher. According to the Africa Art Market report, a quarter of the continent’s artists are trained in workshops or cooperatives like Brush Tu. The majority (62%) have attended formal art school, while 13% are self-taught.
The collective has also set up residencies of their own, instead of waiting for an international programme to set them up. With the help of the Danish Embassy, they’ve set up Air Brush, a three-month residency programme that has hosted Kenyan and other African artists, including the principal of the underfunded art school of several members of the collective right in Buruburu.
The enterprising art collective’s push has however paid off, with some of their work selling for a few thousand dollars and almost all of them having headlined a solo exhibition. It isn’t quite the price of more established artists, but it’s enough to make a living. And like the house in Buruburu, it’s a modest start to what will likely be a lucrative career in the still emerging African art scene.
On over 600 pages, Visual Voices presents over 400 pieces by 57 different contemporary artists in Kenya, showcasing a vibrant, edgy and growing art scene. The artists in the collection use various methods, including painting, sculpture, mural, photography, glasswork and furniture, besides on-site installation projects.
This weighty book also presents art’s vital role in documenting the social, political and cultural experiences of Kenya from the 1970s until today. The collection shows the changing tastes, styles and narratives—and, by extension, how the conversation about art and its function has shifted over time. Surrealist swirling dreamscapes, semi-impressionistic paintings and sculptures made of discarded wood and sheets of scrap metal all combine to testify to a level of artistic sophistication that has evolved consistently and upwardly over the decades.
Over the last few years, Kenya has cashed in on the “art boom” that Africa has been experiencing, especially in major cities like Lagos and Cape Town. International interest is evident in the rising number of visitors, sponsors, and collectors attending art fairs like Art X Lagos or museums like the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa.
Mahlangu is a distinguished painter whose work is based on the traditional and intricate paintings of South Africa’s Ndebele people. This 81-year-old artist was first introduced to the medium as a young girl when women were responsible for painting the walls of their homes with bright colours. Mahlangu’s use of geometric shapes is a nod to the detailed beading and clothing typically worn by Ndebele women.
This isn’t the first time that Mahlangu’s work has featured on the international stage. In 1991, she designed a version of a BMW car for their “Art Car” exhibition, while in 2016 she was brought in again to design a model for the 7 Series. The British Museum has also commissioned Mahlangu’s work, the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington DC and Paris’s Centre de la Villette.