It is only in the past decade that African artists and art have been featured in major exhibitions in museums, galleries, international biennials and other platforms - even through the tradition of arts, crafts and culture of the world’s second largest continent dates back centuries. It has been very difficult for historians and curators to trace the development of the scene, because many works, mainly made from wood and earthy, have disappeared. Still, African art made in the past 150 years provides enough evidence of a great variety of artistic traditions and approaches, divided mostly into geographical areas and ethnic and tribal groups. In particular, Postcolonial Africa has been building upon the existing platforms for expression, expanding it and creating works that are recognizably “African” and based on the continent’s rich heritage.
Depicting the rich traditions and customs, the splendid diversity and unity of the countries, as well as often difficult social and political realities, African artists developed a unique kind of creation, recognizable for its deeply meaningful context and the particular aesthetics. In recent years, the artworks created by African artists are finally getting the attention and the recognition they deserve, something which is reflected in their steady rise on the art market, as they secured a significant place at the sales table. A notable step forward is also reflected through the 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair in New York, and Nigerian-born Okwui Enwezor chosen as the curator of the 56th Venice Biennale in 2015. Through street art as well, Africa has given way to creative expression, looking to get rid of stereotypes, racism, intolerance and conflicts.
Editors’ Tip: Contemporary African Art Since 1980
Jointly written by Okwui Enwezor, the curator of the last edition of Venice Biennale, and Chika Okeke-Agulu, is Assistant Professor of Art and Archeology and African American Studies at Princeton University, this must-have volume is the first major survey of the pieces of African artists from diverse situations, locations, and generations who work either in or outside of Africa, but whose practices engage and occupy the social and cultural complexities of the continent since the past 30 years. Its frame of analysis is absorbed with historical transitions: from the end of the postcolonial utopias of the sixties during the 1980s to the geopolitical, economic, technological, and cultural shifts incited by globalization. This book is both narrower in focus in the periods it reflects on, and specific in the ground it covers.
Born in Durban in 1974 and living in Johannesburg, visual artist Tracey Rose is one of the most prolific artists from South Africa. Working with photography, video installations and performance, she deals with the topics of gender and race, often through self-portraiture, featuring her body and body hair. Feminist and provocative, the art of Tracey Rose transmits various points of her country, which she brought to exhibitions worldwide, as well as the Venice Biennale in 2001. Inspired by her own childhood and interesting ancestry, she tackles the imposed standards of beauty and the questions of inequality, looking to ridicule and eliminate them as the protagonist of her own art.
Featured image: Tracey Rose - Lucie’s Fur Version 1-1-1 – I’ Annunciazione (After Fra Angelico), c .1434, 2003. Image via goodman-gallery.com
Looking to express the traditional beliefs in Ghana and tell historical facts of his country, sculptor El Anatsui uses many different materials, such as clay and wood, and makes exquisite objects of a stunning visual impact. Recognized and exhibited worldwide, this creative also spent a lot of time in Nigeria, teaching at the university in Nsukka and belonging to the group of arts makers who incorporate the Uli designs into their artworks. More recently, El Anatsui turned to installation and more complex sewing techniques, which allowed him to make art using unconventional materials like liquor bottle caps and discarded pieces of metal, for his large-scale assemblage art.
Featured image: El Anatsui. Image via trbimg.com
Born in Nigeria in 1958 with an education in California and London’s Royal College of Art, Sokari Douglas Camp creates mostly steel sculptures that bear strong connection to her African roots. Portraying different aspects of culture and traditions of her hometown Kalabari, located in the delta of the river Niger, she creates abstract human figures in ritual clothing, rich with detail. Sokari Douglas Camp is one of Africa’s most prominent sculptors and one of the very few female African artists to have had success on the international art market. Her pieces are featured in many museums and galleries and was commissioned for a number of public memorials.
Featured image: Sokari Douglas Camp. Image via nbog.us
Abdoulaye Konaté is a talented individual from Mali, who has been representing his country through textile installations and paintings which reflect on political and environmental issues in society. Born in 1953, he studied in Bamako and Havana, Cuba, after which he dedicated himself to the exploration of various ever-present themes like religion, war, ecological changes and the AIDS epidemic in Mali with its devastating consequences. Abdoulaye Konaté creates his trademark tapestries and textile-based installations using cotton and traditional basin fabric, dyed and woven cloths sewn together to compose figurative compositions. Much of his art also goes beyond the borders of Mali.
Featured image: Abdoulaye Konaté. Image via kritikaonline.com
The expressionist prints, drawings and animated films of South African artist William Kentridge and their raw composition draw attention to the various aspects of social injustice. As the son of two lawyers defending the victims of apartheid, the artist was always close to the core of events, and his point of view is strongly represented in his haunting visual narratives. Introducing us to many hypocritical elements within his own society, William Kentridge’s artworks focus on expressing an emotion, rather than a sheer picture of an event, sometimes even by containing autobiographical pieces that get immersed in the political and social atmosphere of his art.
Featured image: William Kentridge. Image via hypocritedesign.com
A former politician and diplomat in Sudan, Ibrahim el-Salahi is also consider a pioneer in Sudanese art and one of the key figures in African modernism. Inspired by his Arab and African heritage, he was one of the first to elaborate the Arabic calligraphy in his paintings, through the means of linear abstraction and the frequent use of greys. Throughout his fifty years of career, Ibrahim el-Salahi also incorporated the Western influences in his art, having studied in London. His more recent works convey faith, the beauty of life and just peace of existence in general, through complex and thought-provoking compositions.
Featured image: Ibrahim El-Salahi. Image via markofhearts
Somewhere between constructivism, geometric abstraction and futurism lie the multilayered artworks of Julie Mehretu, a contemporary art-maker from Ethiopia. These large-scale drawings and paintings encompass different techniques and media, including acrylic paint, pencils, pens and ink. Based on city maps, architectural renderings, building plans and aerial perspectives, they represent the hectic urban development of the modern times, moving in a way so accelerated that it is hard to catch its rhythm. In her own words, Julie Mehretu is trying to create a metaphoric, tectonic view of structural history, while at the same time creating imagined worlds upon realistic scenarios.
Featured image: Julie Mehretu. Image via nbcnews.com
When talking about African artists, we can’t go without mentioning Marlene Dumas, the South African-born painter who has worked with collages, drawings, prints and installations. As a student of painting and psychology in 1970s Amsterdam, she started painting portraits, figurative and semi-abstract heads deriving from her being a witness of apartheid. From then on, she’s had many subjects for her portraiture projects, including newborn infants, strippers, celebrities and politicians, as well as famous gay men. Highly evocative, the dark and sometimes disturbing art of Marlene Dumas also inspires her writing - poems and essays, as well as her teachings.
Featured image: Marlene Dumas. Image via artobserved
Perhaps best known for being exiled from his homeland Zimbabwe after standing up to the country’s president Robert Mugabe with a series of controversial paintings, Kudzanai Chiurai is considered one of Africa’s youngest emerging talents. His daring and arresting artworks in mixed media, which includes paintings, drawings, video and photography, talk about xenophobia and democracy, economic crisis and the influence of politics on his country. Kudzanai Chiurai also uses spray paint and stencils to create outdoor pieces that speak loudly about the oppressing situation in Zimbabwe.
Featured image: Kudzanai Chiurai. Image via sverigesradio.se
A self-taught street artist from Cape Town, Faith47 has been painting the walls and streets of her homeland South Africa for more than fifteen years now. Tackling issues like injustice and inequality, her pieces envision a point of view of a white woman living in Africa, depicting the desperation, crime and ignorance happening around her, and her lasting struggle of feeling powerless to help. Poisoned with contradictions, Faith47 channels herself through her art, absorbing the culture of her country, but also other places around the world, which she feels all share the same destiny and the same lack of cultural values. Her street art is often accompanied by works on canvas, photographs and collages.
Featured image: Faith47. Image via creatorsdocumentary
If we were to name an individual who quite literally conceived the Museum of Contemporary African Art, that would be Benin born Meschac Gaba. Because there was no space for his practice, because it simply did not exist, he made his own, during his 1996 residency at the Rijksakademie van beeldende kunsten in Amsterdam. The project consisted of 12 exhibition rooms installed across various European art institutions over the period of five years, and it is now a part of Tate Modern, which purchased it in 2013. The Museum includes the Summer Collection Room, Draft Room, Game Room and even Museum Restaurant, featuring Meschac Gaba’s paintings, ceramics, multimedia installation art and decommissioned bank notes.
Featured image: Meschac Gaba in his Library, from the Installation at Tate Modern, via Tate
Born in Kenya, Wangechi Mutu eventually received her MFA from Yale and settled in New York, but she never forgot her roots and culture. In fact, her photomontages reference Kenya as a country and deal with post-colonial issues at large, combining ink, acrylic and sometimes glitter and pearls on top of imagery culled from magazines and advertisements. Apart from the way the West perceived the “primitive” African nations and the problems of colonization and race, Wangechi Mutu reflects on the hypersexual objectification of the female body as well, by creating women composed of animal heads, motorcycles, cervix diagrams and the exposed torsos of a playboy model. Her work is often linked to the style of Afrofuturism.
Featured image: Wangechi Mutu, photo by J Caldwell, Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University
A South-African photographer and visual activist, Zanele Muholi has become the rising star on the continent’s art scene in the past few years, with features at events such as FotoFocus Biennial in Cincinnati. Her photographs deal with giving visibility to black lesbian women in South Africa through visual documentation of the community, putting an emphasis on each of its members and discussing politics in the post-Apartheid country. Zanele Muholi is also the co-founder of many related associations and non-profit organizations, and the Honorary Professor of Video and Photography at the University of the Arts/Hochschule für Künste in Bremen, Germany.
Featured image: Zanele Muholi, via eyeonart
A multimedia artist, Egypt-born Ghada Amer is known for her abstract canvases that combine painting with needlework. Examples of feminist art, the artworks often also involve gardening as well, as another one of the typical “domestic” and “feminine” labor. In other media, particularly printing, drawing, sculpture and installation, Ghada Amer often depicts erotic female bodies, addressing issues of femininity, sexuality, post-colonial identities and Islamic culture. Over the years, she has been fighting the stereotypes built around women and the Muslim identity, sometimes also using figures from popular culture such as the Disney princesses, who masturbate in her And the Beast from 2004, for example.
Featured image: Ghada Amer with The Blue Bra Girls, 2012. Courtesy Leila Heller Gallery
The practice of Kenya-born Ato Malinda consists mainly of performance, but also of drawing, painting, installation, video, and ceramic object-making. One of the honourees of the inaugural African art awards given out by the Smithsonian Institution in 2016, she often sheds light on the issues in her country, even though she grew up in the Netherlands; her pieces react to the illegalization of homosexuality and grant support to the national queer community. Her art, in a way, represents a platform for the voice of the LGBT community. Some of Ato Malinda’s projects are also of personal nature, as they depict her dysfunctional childhood and sexual abuse.
Featured image: Ato Malinda.Representation, photograph, 2014. Courtesy of Circle Art Gallery. © Ato Malinda & Daniel Jack Lyons. All images used for illustrative purposes only.