For many years, contemporary African artists struggled for recognition as fine artists in their own right. Most people were familiar with African “tribal art” or the cultural artifacts from nameless artists collected by exporters. The demand for these “antiques” reduced many talented African artists to producing fakes or replicas of the outsiders’ perceptions of what African art should be, and what tourists looked for in the market. This led to a stagnation of innovation and creativity, as artists produced work for sale to, and for the satisfaction of a narrowly focused type of collector. There have always been the renegades, however, who produced art at the beckoning of their creativity and personal vision.
These renegades are now starting to gain the recognition they deserve in the formal art world. The National Museum of African Art at the Smithsonian in Washington D.C. is a powerful advocate for the voice and talent of contemporary African artists. They deserve appreciation for bringing the fine artists of Africa to light and providing space and opportunities for museum visitors to expand their knowledge and experience this unique perspective. Other galleries and auction houses are now starting to tune into the growing value of this artwork.
Chibundu Onuzo asserted that “Contemporary African art exists. Not only does it exist, it thrives. Not only does it thrive, it does pretty well at auctions, as the annual Bonham’s ‘Africa Now’ auction attests to.” July 16, 2014.¹ This article mentions multiple galleries owned by African women in London. In the U.S. there are a few notable galleries, such as the Contemporary African Art Gallery in New York. There is room for many more galleries specializing in African Contemporary Art in America. The economic potential is certainly growing, as described in a CNN video featuring Giles Peppiatt, the Director of Contemporary African Art at Bonhams. He explains how the African market stacks up against the rest of the world.²
For fine artists from Africa, this should be an exciting time. Gaining recognition for the creativity and ingenuity of their work, and allowing them to inspire their more conservative peers to be willing to take a chance and move out of the ghetto of tourist art to regain their suppressed artistic spirits. Art in Africa should not be relegated to pandering to tourists. Artists should be valued, once again, for the intrinsic value of their work and what they uniquely contribute to society.
¹Why you should buy African contemporary art now