The Appeal and the Originality of Contemporary African Art

March 26, 2016

From the ancient rock art to the wooden carvings, various techniques and materials used to express magic, beliefs and powerful forces, existed and still exist in various shapes on the vast continent that is Africa. What is interesting today, and is seen as a global event, is the rise of the appeal of the Contemporary African Art. As one of the reasons for this boom, the influence is seen in the decline of the Chinese Art Market, which to some explains the move to a new and bigger area that is still relatively unknown and fresh. At the same time, the excitement for African, especially the young African Contemporary artists, is seen in the fact that the prices of such artworks are relatively low and this is yet another incentive for young collectors to focus on this rather young segment of the globalized art field. But, if we take a deeper look into African art, we are confronted with the fact that apart from the above-mentioned reasons, originality, passion and the feeling that the art is produced by the want rather than the must, seem to be the driving forces behind the works produced and quite possibly the reasons for the appeal. Young collectors with an interest in the political and social art, and in the art produced in the part of the world that is quickly changing shape, need to look no further.

contemporary african art home york modern south courtesy africa work arts  contact sculpture press nigeria 2016 2015
Left: Kudzanai Chiurai - Minister of Defence / Right: Kudzanai Chiurai - Minister of Arts and Culture. Image via

The Fire

During the most recent Contemporary art market boom, the young American painters seem to have been pushed aside by the powerful and socially engaged works of their colleagues and the leading figures of contemporary African art. The works with real issues – murderous, religious fanatics and environmental disasters, showcase the force behind the activism-fuelled works in relation to the new trend of American young Contemporary artists, Zombie Formalism, where produced works seem to say  relatively little. Providing the critical eye to the issues of their surroundings, many African artists comment on what is happening around them with quite a brutal and honest voice. This passion is electric and is a rare thing in the world where money shapes most desires and ideas. One such artist working and living in Africa is Kudzanai Chiurai. Exiled from Zimbabwe after producing an unflattering portrait of the country’s president, this artist, who works across many different art fields, including painting, prints, photography, music, publishing and film, has become an important figure in African Art. Chiurai’s art is brutally honest, and with the use of dramatic multimedia compositions addresses the pressing issues of the southern African region, from conflict and violence, corrupt government, displacement to xenophobia. Challenging the role of Art and the responsibility of the African artists in the evident globalization of art, Chiurai creates works that don’t play catch-up but follow the thought and the idea of staying true to what you really know.

contemporary african art home york modern south courtesy africa work arts  contact sculpture press nigeria 2016 2015
Left: Abdoulaye Konaté - Génération biometrique. Image via / Right: Abdoulaye Konaté - Composition en rouge (orange, vert et jaune citron). Image via

The Variety of Materials

We must acknowledge the fact that the vastness and the variety of the African continent do influence the originality and the diversity of the materials that local and diaspora artists use. When paint and canvas were not available to him, Abdoulaye Konaté started using materials native to Mali, specifically raw and dyed woven Malian cloth. Combining the aesthetics of the local yet commenting on global themes, Konaté creates a distinctive vision that merges political and social issues and traditional craftsmanship. Working in two different fields, painting and installation, Konaté is just one of the leading figures of contemporary African art that influenced and reshaped the use and functionality of different materials. Named as one of the leading and most significant living African artist living on the continent, his older colleague, El Anatsui, similarly reshaped the understanding and the aesthetics of the sculpture. Working with various materials, El Anatsui is famous for his use of easily accessible materials, such as bottle tops, railway sleepers and driftwood for the creation of the most intricate pieces. Touching upon the tradition of tapestry and cloth making, Anatsui creates works that transcend the feeling of the luxurious and rich with something quite the opposite.

contemporary african art home york modern south courtesy africa work arts  contact sculpture press nigeria 2016 2015
El Anatsui - Earth’s Skin. Image via

The Rise

The development and the change that the African continent went through, plays a major role in the understanding of this art market boom. What is interesting is the fact that now; the buyers are not just international but are coming also from the local major players. The oil and its money trail, the rise of technology and the opening of proper’ channels of distribution, do influence the interest, and the vastness does influence the variety. Apart from these reasons, a momentum for African art and the presence of the African artists in the art world, was only strengthened eversince when Nigerian Okwui Enwezor became the first African to curate the Venice Biennale. The lovers of art from Africa and also the global scene are paying attention and eagerly awaiting the opening of the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa (Zeitz MOCAA) in Cape Town. The German businessman Jochen Zeitz, alongside Victoria & Alfred Waterfront plan to develop the world’s largest museum devoted to contemporary art from Africa.

The discovery and the interest for African art existed from early Modernism period, but the contemporary African art scene and its leading figures, seem to be standing strong. This interest will as a domino effect only influence the rise of new talents and we can only assume that we are in for new surprises for sure.

Editors’ Tip: Contemporary African Art Since 1980

The book, African Art Since 1980, a product of the collaboration between two academics, Okwui Enwezor and Chika Okeke-Agulu, is the first major survey on the works of Contemporary African artists. Examining a range of ideas, concepts, issues and variety of different mediums, the book showcases the importance and the diversity of Contemporary African Art from 1980. Examining the range of ideas and concepts that have shaped the work and practice of African artists, the book offers an insight into the place the works hold within an international and global framework.

Featured image in slider: Kudzanai Chiurai – Revelations V, 2011. Image via All images used for illustrative purposes only.

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