African art and contemporary art aren’t mutually exclusive. But, surely, it has taken a minute for the rest of the world to not only understand, but also, accept that. Up until the 1980s or early 90s, museum exhibitions have defined the art of the continent to mean objects of traditional material culture almost exclusively. Collecting focus during this time also lay in the realm of what we currently discuss as the “historical.” But now more than ever, contemporary African art is experiencing a rise in demand, value and visibility. The art fair is one of the modes to credit for expanding the definition of African art in a global context to include contemporary art.
Corrigall & Co, an art research consultancy based in Cape Town, noted in its 2018 report, A Decade of Curating, that the number of contemporary art fairs on the continent has only continued to rise since 2008, the year the Joburg Art Fair in South Africa launched, Africa’s oldest art fair committed to advancing contemporary African art.
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Art X Lagos, which takes place once a year in Lagos, Nigeria, contributed to Africa’s continental rise in contemporary art fairs. Launched in 2016 by Tokini Peterside eight years following the Joburg Art Fair, it became West Africa’s premier international art fair showcasing modern and contemporary art of Africa and its diaspora. During the first weekend in November, the fair celebrated its fourth edition at the Federal Palace in Victoria Island with more than 93 artists from over 24 countries exhibiting at this’s year’s fair. Art X Lagos 2019 was the fair’s largest to date with 22 participating galleries, doubling in size from its beginning four years ago.
Peterside told The Art Newspaper that she created Art X Lagos, in part, to expand the local collector base. “There is a mass of talent in Nigeria, and there has been for a long time,” Peterside said. “I was concerned, if the demand pool remained so small, with very little attempts to grow it, what it would mean for the sustainability of the market.”
She also wanted to create an opportunity for Nigerians to claim ownership over Nigerian art by way of purchasing it. “When I launched this, I didn’t do it because I wanted thousands of international collectors to fly in and buy African art. No. My first area of focus was converting affluent Nigerians, and ensuring they become supports and patrons of the city’s artists.” Peterside said.
Although the fair wasn’t primarily created to cater to international participants, European presence in the fair has coincided with the fair’s growth in size throughout the years. When Art X Lagos first launched, six out of the eleven galleries were based in Nigeria. Of the other five galleries, all were located in West Africa save Stevenson, whose base is located in South Africa. This year, out of the 22 participating galleries, fourteen are located in Africa exclusively, with eight calling Nigeria home.
The first UK gallery to participate in Art X Lagos was London-based TAFETA in 2017 and was the fair’s only European participant. The following year in 2018, fellow London-based gallery Tiwani Gallery, joined TAFETA, although it shared a booth with Goodman Gallery. This year’s Art X Lagos hosted a total of eight galleries with presence in Europe, whether that presence looks like a showroom or a whole new permanent gallery location. Three of the galleries—Tiwani Gallery, Galerie Voss, and OOA Contemporary—exist in Europe exclusively. Four galleries—Goodman Gallery, Stevenson, Galerie Cécile Fakhoury, and Addis Fine Art—are African galleries that had either recently expanded to Europe or has concrete plans to expand to Europe in the near future. TAFETA is an outlier in that its base is in London, but it has a project space in Lagos.
What’s more, Art X Lagos didn’t only see international participation in terms of the galleries it hosted, but also among its attendees. In addition to welcoming collectors, artists, gallerists, and other art enthusiasts from around the globe, this year’s Art X also greeted representatives from prominent institutions worldwide. Guests from institutions such as the Art Institute of Chicago, Centre Pomidou, Smithsonian Institute, and Tate attended the fair this year. This rise in international attendance across the board coincides with the attention African art is currently receiving on a global scale.
So as the world becomes more and more interested in contemporary African art, what does Art X Lagos’s growing international presence mean for gallerists, artists, and collectors on a local level?
“It’s high time,” said Ngozi Okwedi, founder and director of Lagos-based art agency Triple-A. “I think it’s a challenge for local galleries and collectors to embrace these artists and give them the necessary support. If they are making statements out there in Europe, then why shouldn’t they be accepted here in Nigeria?”
Okwedi doesn’t see international participation in the fair necessarily as a threat. “They are not just participating, they also feature Nigerian artists,” Okwedi said, “and this tells me that they are seeing something in these people. So for me, them participating is actually interesting. It simply says, O.K. this has already affected other parts of the world.”
Although Peterside said she started the fair with the local community in mind, it seems that international presence inevitably carries some weight for arts and cultural professionals on the continent in terms of recognition and legitimisation of their work. According to Corrigall & Co., African artists, gallerists, and curators still seek recognition from old colonial centres and other global entities as it provides the ultimate form of validation for their work. As reported in A Decade of Curating, what continues to make Europe attractive to African art professionals is its plethora of resources, “the budgets for proper museum shows, the sheer number of museums and biennales and other platforms on that continent can’t compare with Africa.”
This trend toward Europe is evident in commercial activity, as well. As of June 2019, the data that Corrigall & Co. have collected suggests that African galleries and galleries located outside the continent that promote mostly African art have the highest participation in art fairs located in Europe more so than art fairs located anywhere else in the world. Even more, various African galleries have opened or announced recently that they will be opening permanent locations in Europe. Galerie Cécile Fakhoury inaugurated a showroom in Paris in 2018. Goodman Gallery and Stevenson both opened secondary locations in London and Amsterdam, respectively, this fall. After two years of holding a project space in London with TAFETA, Addis Fine Art will open its own permanent space in London slated for spring 2020.
For artists specifically, international market interest has mainly benefitted individual artists represented by international galleries because local markets are still emerging. Looking at some of the most prominent contemporary African artists, they are represented by galleries that have a presence beyond their home base in Africa. For example, Goodman Gallery represents El Anatsui, William Kentridge, and Yinka Shonibare. Stevenson represents Zanele Muholi, who Corrigall and Co. named Africa’s most validated artist.
With this information in mind, it’s evident that the overall expansion and sustainability of the African art ecosystem relies on growing a local collector base, which only reasserts the importance of Art X Lagos. If African collectors actively create a demand for African art, it would have an incredible impact on local art infrastructure—there would be more permanent spaces dedicated to collecting and exhibiting art, more art fairs, more galleries to buy and sell work, and, possibly most importantly, there would be more artists who feel supported and secure enough to practice art full-time.
Infrastructure aside, Okwedi stresses that it’s imperative that Nigerians own art made by Nigerians for a more sentimental but equally important purpose: self-preservation. “We need to own our own and encourage our own,” Okwedi said. “This is a treasure. It tells us about who we are and what we live for. It talks about our culture and values.”
Kathryn Cua is an emerging curator currently based in Chicago, Illinois. Kat graduated with degrees in journalism and art history from the University of Missouri in 2018. She has worked at the Art Institute of Chicago, the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri, and Sager Braudis Gallery in Columbia, Missouri. Her research interests lie in modern and contemporary American art, particularly in art of the African diaspora. In her free time, Kat is an avid reader, exhibition-goer, and contributor to ÌMỌ̀ DÁRA.