LONDON — With Africa's economy recovering, new, wealthy potential art patrons are looking around for great deals in the field. Nowhere do they seem more plentiful than in this exciting city. Home to the British Museum, which possesses one of the world's finest and most extensive collection of African art, it also boasts art dealers creative enough to discover and support artists throughout the continent.
"There's a tidal wave of remarkable work coming out of Africa or emanating from African artists living and working elsewhere," says Chris Spring, curator of the African galleries at the British Museum, and author of African Arms & Armor.
The British Museum's Sainsbury African Galleries present both the riches of Africa's past and its vivid contemporary culture, showing work by some of the continent's foremost living artists. They are arranged thematically into sections, exploring wood sculpture, masks and masquerade, pottery, brass casting, forged metal work, textiles and articles of personal adornment. They also exhibit works that explore contemporary issues. The Tree of Life is a powerful memorial to war, while other displays look at the subject of HIV/AIDS in Tanzania.
Throughout the continent, ancient skills in ceramics, textiles, metalwork and sculpture continue to flourish, with new art forms having developed in the past century, like the printed cloth known as kanga, in Eastern Africa, or the wax prints in Western and Central Africa. Recycling manufactured goods — clothes, tires, tins or weapons — provides an easy source of raw materials of endless variety. The use of woven textiles and other fabrics is embedded in the culture. Usually decorated with vivid colors and complex designs, which serve as a subtle form of communication, they are available almost everywhere.
While a visit to the British Museum rewards African art lovers well, a stroll through some of the most prominent galleries exhibiting African art might offer some exciting surprises, and opportunities to purchase works by emerging artists. (The auction houses Bonhams and Philips now hold auctions with an Africa theme.)
Jack Bell opened his gallery only 18 months ago. However, for many years, while working for other galleries, he traveled widely throughout the continent to find new artists, particularly in Central and Western Africa, winning a name for himself as a knowledgeable connoisseur. Prices for his artists range from 1,000 to 10,000 pounds ($1,600-$16,000) — a fraction of the price of most well-known American and European artists.
An example of the fascinating art to be discovered in his gallery is the current exhibit, "The Battle for Abidjan," by the Ivorian artist Aboudia Abdoulaye Diarrassouba, which runs though Sept. 1. Now widely collected in West Africa by institutions and collectors, Diarrassouba is having his first solo exhibition abroad.
At first glance similar in style to Basquiat, on further viewing his style and concerns are very much his own, particularly that of his country's civil war. Only 26, Diarrassouba spent a large part of the war hiding in a basement for security reasons, documenting the chaos beyond his walls. On large, vivid canvases, he paints startling images of men and women suffering the consequences of the brutality in Côte d'Ivoire, using references to the popular Ivorian street slang, nouchi, in graffiti juxtaposed with comic strips and references to the media and advertising. Powerful and violent, his works capture a wrenching time in history with fierce humanity.
A pioneer in the field, the October Gallery began showing African art, as well as art from other parts of the world, in the late '70s. It also serves as a cultural hub in central London for poets, writers, intellectuals and artists, and it hosts talks, performances and seminars.
This fall, Sept. 15-Oct. 29, it presents the powerful work of Ghanaian artist Owusu-Ankomah, who now lives in Germany. Owusu-Ankomah paints monumental figures surrounded by complex signs and symbols, both ancient and contemporary, especially those connected with the mysterious knowledge of the Dogon people of Mali.
The gallery's artistic director, Elisabeth Lalouschek, says that the city's surge in interest in African art began six or seven years ago. "It's all about [African artists'] increased visibility," she says. "They are appearing far more frequently on the international stage, at places like the Documenta exhibition in Germany and the Venice Biennale. One artist may get spotlighted, and then those from his country benefit and get to share in some of the attention. Of course, the Internet has helped too — there's far more of a global vision, and people have access to artists all over the world."
Along with the visibility have come more European and American collectors and institutions, excited about investing in the burgeoning scene. Interestingly, the African artists show far more interest in historical subjects than personal. "Rather being self-investigative, like most European and American artists," she says, "they tend to tackle big, historical themes."
She mentions, as an example, Romuald Hazoumé's magnificent La Bouche du Roi, a model of a slave ship created from waste material, which was exhibited at the British Museum in 2007. Similarly to the Jack Bell Gallery, prices for such artists' work at the October Gallery range from a few thousand pounds to many thousands (one pound = $1.60), with all of them on the increase.
More exciting work can be found at Gasworks. Through Sept. 18, it offers the first solo exhibition in the U.K. of award-winning Congolese photographer Baudouin Mouanda. He focuses on the subcultures of urban Congo, particularly the flamboyant Sapeurs, members of the SAPE community (Société des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Élégantes/Society of Tastemakers and Elegant People). Mostly young men, they favor extravagant designer clothes, inventing ostentatious identities through style, gestures and slang.
Their carefully constructed self-images are in stark contrast to their living conditions. They have emerged in African and Diaspora communities over the past 25 years and are often compared to the Parisian dandies of the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
Other photographs by Mouanda also highlight this contrast, examining how people deal with a collapsing infrastructure, as well as the formation of youth identity around the politically active and vocal hip-hop scene in Libreville and Brazzaville. As an interesting complement, the show also includes his recent studies of youth culture in the U.K., produced in London and the Scottish town of Huntly, during his residency at Gasworks and Deveron Arts in Scotland.
This rich and provocative London African scene offers art lovers enormous rewards. Between some serious time spent at the British Museum and visits to these galleries, it shouldn't be too hard to gain an appreciation of what might just be the next hot art.
Valerie Gladstone, who writes about the arts for many publications, including the New York Times, recently co-authored a children's book with Jose Ivey, A Young Dancer: The Life of an Ailey Student.