Art of the African Diaspora Comes to Paris

When it comes to African art, the French have always veered toward old-school, artisanal fare. Now, in the largest auction of art from the Diaspora, French art collectors will get a chance to see (and buy) the very best in contemporary African art.

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The French like their African art to be traditional. Nobody uses that outmoded word "primitive" anymore. The term of choice these days is arts premiers: the first arts. Bowls, masks, finely carved statuettes. Ageless objects made by anonymous artisans, appreciated as much as anthropological artifacts as they are works of art.

"It's Europe's colonial heritage," explains Florence Alexis, a prominent curator and veteran arts administrator. Paris-born with Haitian origins, Alexis points out that ever since Picasso modeled two faces in his Demoiselles d'Avignon after African masks in 1907, European modern artists have embraced what she prefers to call "classic African art." But when modern artists of the African Diaspora studied at elite schools like Paris' Ecole des Beaux Arts and London's Slade School of Fine Arts or employed Western techniques in their work, they were considered inauthentic by much of the European art establishment. Generations of modern black artists have been overlooked. "There are big gaps," Florence Alexis says, "in Europe's official art history."

Alexis is aiming to fill those gaps, orchestrating a major corrective to that official history in the form of Africa Scene 1, the largest auction of art by members of the Diaspora ever to be held in Paris. Some 100 works will be on sale at Artcurial, France's leading auctioneer. The event will take place on Oct. 24, during FIAC (Foire Internationale d'Art Contemporain), a massive annual fair that attracts artists and dealers, collectors and curators from all over the world. The auction also coincides with commemorations of the 50th anniversary of the blossoming of African independence. In 1960, 17 African nations became independent states, freeing themselves from the domination of their colonial masters.

There will be works on sale by such late, great trailblazers as Senegal's Iba N'Diaye (1928-2008) and the Cuban-born Wifredo Lam (1902-1982). Sudan's Ibrahim El Salahi (who will have a retrospective at New York's Museum for African Art next year) and Ghana's Ablade Glover are among the living giants whose works will be part of the Paris auction. The U.S. will be represented by the likes of the Betye Saar, whose works often have an explicitly racial theme, and Ed Clark, an abstract expressionist whose paintings hardly touch on race at all. And naturally, there will be a strong cohort of younger artists in the auction, including the irreverent and provocative Hassan Hajjaj, a Moroccan-born Londoner whose recent work, Kesh Angels, shows Muslim biker chicks in flowing djellabahs and face veils decorated with the Nike swoosh.

Coordinating the auction with Alexis is Jean-Philippe Aka, a young Paris gallery owner born in the Cote d'Ivoire, who is focused on the marketplace. "I'm not a curator," Aka says. "I'm not a spokesman for a cause. I'm an art dealer." Indeed, the most recent show in Aka's venue, HeArt Galerie, was a collection of photographs of artificial environments -- including a snowy ski resort in the middle of the Dubai desert -- by the Austrian Reiner Riedler. He points out that two of the major South African artists in the Africa Scene 01 auction, William Kentridge and David Goldblatt, are white.

"What is Africa today?" Aka asks. "What does it mean to be black today?" These are elemental questions surrounding the auction. But the most important aspect is the high quality of the work. For Aka, the best way to promote the contemporary art of Africa and the Diaspora is to get people to buy it.

Jake Lamar is a novelist and journalist living in Paris.

The Root has compiled a slide show of artwork scheduled for the auction.

You can see the official catalog of the art here:

The press release (in English) is here.

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