by Kristina Bekenova

African art – successfully presented on the internationally famous exhibitions platforms such as the Venice Biennale (2015), Art Basel in Miami (2015), the British Museum (a three-month exhibition on West African art, 2015), Armory (New York, 2016), 1:54 (New York and London, 2016) – has been attracting more and more admirers worldwide. The cultural value of African art, which has long been neglected or has exclusively been associated only with ritual masks and voodoo sculptures, is finally gaining international recognition. In May 2017 Sotheby’s, one of the world’s largest brokers of fine and decorative art and oldest auction house,  will launch its first auction dedicated to African modern and contemporary work[1].

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As Giles Peppiatt, director of African Art at Bonhams in London, pointed out the success of African art is explained by the fact that the dynamics of the art world are changing “the Chinese contemporary market started to slow, and the hunger to find the next big thing, [i]t was Asia, now it’s Africa”[2]. The success of African art is also explained by the fact that Africa is becoming increasingly interested in identifying, tracking and appreciating the manifold manifestations of its culture and identity.  Government and grass-root movements have realized that the essence of self-identification and self-realization can only be grasped by expanding the understanding of culture and art.

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This idea of culture-centrism  was launched by Leopold Sedar Senghor and his presidency in Senegal during 1960-1980, when he put culture “as central to the critical process of nation building” and artists were defined “as representative of and advocate for a new nation”[3]. His writings on Negritude and African aesthetics emphasized the originality and worthiness of African people. His call “to embody Negro African culture in twentieth century reality” in order “to be really ourselves”[4] was inseparable part of the discourse of African liberation and integration. In the twenty-first century, culture has returned to the African governments’ agenda of development, as culture has identified as the cornerstone of economic recovery. For these purposes, the states increase its budget allocation for building new museums, new galleries, new libraries, new art schools and for providing workshops for the emerging generation of young artists. Rephrasing Ali A. Mazrui, Africans successfully united by culture for freedom, are now becoming culturally  united for development[5].

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Moreover, the search for their own identity, their own voice on the international art market stimulate talented Africans to create their own original thought-provoking artworks. The interviews African Politics and Policy published from the beginning of the year show that this tendency is observed on all levels: music, paintings, sculpture, museum business, dances, poetry, fashion. Every form of art is inseparable from their roots, traditions, for sure, with coating of modernity. The ideas of Pan-Africanism and Negritude is now experiencing a moment of revival with the artists’ attempt to set up their own distinctive and unique vocabulary of arts. And this process of reintroducing “culture matter” narrative is inter-intensified by the efforts the governments and artists make in preserving and promoting their culture.

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Africa has already internationally very well-known contemporary artists such as Sudanese Ibrahim el Salahi, who for international curators stays in the same line as Picasso, Ghanaian Ibrahim el Anatsui, Kenyan Wangechi Mutu, Gambian Njogu Touray, Namibian Elemotho. But with the international support to young artists in making their first steps by creating more opportunities for exposing their artworks and cherishing their skills will be even more beneficial for both sides: for the international audience – to admire and understand the beautiful African soul full of the ancestors’ wisdom and pride, for artists –  to be original and free of any kind of restrictions to create, and for the African nations – to be prosperous and wealthy.

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[1] Rob Sharp, “How London Developed a Bullish Market for Contemporary African Art”, Artsy, July 26, 2016.

[2] Melissa Twigg, “Why You Should Start Collecting African Art”, Billionaire, July 20, 2016.

[3] E. Harney, “The Ecole de Dakar: Pan-Africanism in Paint and Textile”, African Arts, Vol. 35, No. 3 (Autumn, 2002), p. 12

[4] E.Harney, “The Ecole de Dakar”, African Arts, Vol. 35, No. 3 (Autumn, 2002), p. 14

[5] Ali A. Mazrui, “Pan-Africanism: From Poetry to Power”, A Journal of Opinion, Vol. 23, No. 1 (African Studies, Winter – Spring, 1995), p. 35