alexa African artists poor as rich cousins refuse to hang money on walls - Daily Nation

African artists poor as rich cousins refuse to hang money on walls

Thursday July 23 2009

Rock Art picture exhibited at the nerw Kisumu Museum gallery. Photo/JACOB OWITI

Rock Art picture exhibited at the nerw Kisumu Museum gallery. Photo/JACOB OWITI  


Among the many godchildren of Globalization is the art business. It has grown from several hundred million dollars a year into a multi-billion dollar industry in a little over a decade.

Bad news is that Africa is missing out on this bonanza.

Today art, especially contemporary art, brings together a vast, growing community of savvy artists, dealers, curators, galleries, museums, auction houses, publishers, film makers and internet designers in an exciting new marketplace where everyone seems to gain enormously. Unfortunately Africa and Africans are sadly locked out of this burgeoning business.

And this time it is not due to any machination by “blood sucking western capitalists” of the post-colonial order but by Africans’ own failure to cotton on to a good thing — even when it stares us in the face.

The just-ended Art Basel, the world’s biggest art fair, held every June in the Swiss industrial city of Basel, is a case in point. For five action-packed days last month the three hanger-size exhibition halls at Messeplatz on the banks of the sleepy Rhine, throbbed with feverish activity as the who-and-who of global art cut deals over an array of eye popping, heart thumping goodies.

There were fine samples from the usual suspects — Klimt, Picasso, Modigliani, Giacometti, Warhol, Kandinsky, Dali, Picabia, Pollock, Jasper Johns, Chagall, Calder, Rauschenberg, Lichtenstein, Bacon and many more.


There were fresh offerings from the latter-day gang - Jeff Koons, Hockney, Niki Saint Phalle, Lucian Freud, Anish Kapoor, William Kentridge and the tragic Haitian prodigy, Jean-Michel Basquiat, who died of a drug overdose just after hitting the big time.

There were mirthful splashes from post-Mao Chinese warriors, including the irrepressible Yue Minjun. There were modern-day Samurais, such as Takashi Murakami.

Art Basel 2009 hosted 300 tightly vetted art galleries showcasing some 2,500 artists. It drew 61,000 visitors and attracted 50 state museum groups on the hunt for additions to their collections. It was covered by 280 media representatives from Rio de Janeiro to Wellington; from Reykjavik to Johannesburg.

Showbiz personalities, fashion icons or moneyed folks who came to the annual feast in the plush carpeted booths included Brad Pitt, Naomi Campbell, Pharrell Williams, Roman Abramovich, Larry Gagosian, Christian Boros and super collector, Eli Broad of California — the man who moves the global art market like no one does. The last three personalities, for instance, plus London’s Charles Saatchi and Hong Kong’s David Tang are the Warren Buffetts of the art world.

Towering over the throngs of rich and perfumed glitterati in his signature faded slacks and polo shirt was Michel Pigozzi, the Swiss entrepreneur who, with curator Andre Magnin, are the forecourt of the enterprise to bring African contemporary art to western palates via their Africa Remix project. Pigozzi owns one of the largest collections of African contemporary art and has loaned several pieces to the UNAIDS to enliven the corridors of the Geneva headquarters.

Despite the global credit crunch, business was brisk in Basel.  Martin Kippenberger’s I Am Too Political sold for $1.4 million (Sh106 million). Two of Paul McCarthy’s stainless steel sculptures, Piggies, sold for $1.5 million (Sh117 million) each. The bargains included Kirchner’s Two Reclining Female Nudes which bagged a buyer at $200,000 (Sh15.2 million). Mickalene Thomas’s canvas, Kerry On, a gravity-defying bosomy woman in a yellow blouse, went for $65,000 (Sh4.9 million).

The Chinese, Japanese and Latinos are all said to have done well. The thing with art fairs is that many moneyed buyers insist on anonymity and only a fraction of the sales are released to the press by the galleries.

Now, where is Africa in all this? Nowhere. So much of western contemporary art, as showcased in Art Basel, Venice Biennale, Berlin Forum, Frieze London and New York  or on the walls of many an American or European gallery today bear the DNA of African classicism. That Picasso, Chagall, Matisse, Calder and the other cubists, surrealists or post modernists owe a huge debt to Mother Africa is now a cliché.

At the risk of sounding a tad chauvinist, I dare say African artists beavering away in their modest studios or lean-to shanty homes in Kampala, Ile Ife, Kinshasa, Nairobi, Maputo, Dakar or Khartoum are the most innovative, accessible, refreshing and prodigious among their generation worldwide.

And yet hardly any African artist was found in an important market such as Art Basel. Artists like Uganda’s Jak Katarikawe, dubbed “Africa’s Chagall”, South African Charles Sekano, Rwandan Sekajugo or Kenyans Kivuthu Mbuno, Sebastian Kiare and Tabitha Mburu all eke out a living on the margins of poverty after decades of dedication to their craft. Why?
Putting money on the wall?

The reasons are quite banal. Africa has been slow, too slow, in professionalising art. Our colleges offer art degrees but how many of the graduates can make a living as professional curators, gallerists, dealers or even understand the concept of an auction house? The entire East and Central African region has two commercial galleries of international standards, the venerable Gallery Watatu and its comely upstart, Ramoma, both in Nairobi.

A crucial factor is that Africans, rich Africans, refuse to buy art. The concept of “putting money on the wall” is alien to them. A while ago a major US business magazine did a cover spread on one of the newly minted billionaires of the Black Economic Empowerment class of post Apartheid South Africa. The paintings on the walls of the sumptuously appointed homes were distinctly run of the mill. There were no Jak Katarikawes, Marlene Dumas, William Kentridges, E. Saidi Tingatingas, Lilangas, Malangatanas, or Cheri Sambas. And yet these are some of the African artists slated to join the Rothkos, Modiglianis and Picassos of posterity.

Anyone who thinks that only frivolous people fork out thousands of dollars to acquire an art piece to adorn the home or litter the garden should think again. More than at any time since our ancestors drew fanciful images on cave walls and the Medicis were patrons of Florentine or greater European artistic creations, art, today, is gilt-edged investment, in fact the ultimate redoubt of a global financial system gone haywire.

Gallery Watatu’s hard times

Take for instance the Lauders, of the American cosmetics industry fame. Three years ago scion of the family plunked down $135 million (Sh10.3 billion)for Gustaf Klimt’s  1907 portrait Adele Bloch-Bauer at auction at Christie’s, New York. That painting today has a market value of at least $150 million (Sh11.4 billion). Seriously.

Just imagine if the Lauders had put the cash into Bernard L Madoff Investment (In)Securities, Lehman Brothers, or in AIG.

Take the case of Adama Diawara, owner of Gallery Watatu. The self-taught wily art supremo from Cote d’Ivoire is a veteran among the handful promoters of art in Africa. His Nairobi gallery, the oldest private gallery in sub-Sahara Africa, with impeccable pedigree, has fallen on hard times, largely due to the drop in the art buying expatriates visiting Kenya, failure of local patrons to make up the gap and, above all, the crippling rent charged by Lonrho House, downtown Nairobi. 

However, Diawara is the proud owner of the largest single collection of the works of Tanzanians Lilanga and E. Saidi Tingatinga, the latter being the only African to have found an international art movement that now bears his name. If Diawara’s gallery was located in London, New York or Tokyo, banks and financial houses would not only pay him a monthly fee to hire some of his paintings to display in their premise.

They would also accept his Tingatingas and Lilangas as collateral for loans that would allow Diawara to construct his own gallery and buy advertising space in the Daily Nation and specialised art magazines abroad – all being the window to international art sales.

Africa Insight is an initiative of the Nation Media Group’s Africa Media Network Project