Art & Design

African Art: International Enthusiasm Continues

Cristina D’Agostino

By Cristina D’Agostino24 août 2023

In a global art market that remains mainly robust in 2023, despite occasional slowdowns, African art has been experiencing strong demand from collectors both on the continent and abroad. Elana Brundyn, a prominent specialist in African art known for her contributions to the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa (Zeitz MOCAA) and the Norval Foundation, sheds light on this phenomenon.

The sale for 6 million dollars of a painting by the African-American artist Kerry James Marshall at Frieze in London in 2022 also testifies to this continuing interest. Shown here, a painting by Kerry James Marshall entitled "School of Beaury, School of Culture. 2012. (Gandalf's Gallery. Flickr)

In 2022, there was a notable increase in interest in the works of African and Afro-descendant artists. This trend coincided with the art market’s post-pandemic recovery and its exceptional sales, including major pieces from renowned collections such as Ammann, Macklowe, and Allen. The sale of an African-American artist Kerry James Marshall's painting for 6 million dollars at the 2022 London Frieze fair also testifies to this continued interest. As early as 2021, the ArtTactic report on the modern and contemporary African art market indicated a 44% increase in African art sales.

Art has become a potent means of expressing identity and cultural heritage

UBS & Art Basel Art Market Report. April 2023

What about 2023? In the first semester, major art fairs and auctions experienced a more varied performance overall. Inflation, persistent geopolitical instability, and challenges in the American market led to increased caution and more selective purchasing. Consequently, the focus shifted towards investment. According to the UBS & Art Basel Art Market Report released in April 2023, "Average sales rates for post-war and contemporary artworks valued over $500,000 at auction houses remained above 85% in the early part of the year, demonstrating the overall resilience of top-quality artworks during periods of economic uncertainty." While the report doesn't specifically mention African art, it highlights that artists exploring themes of social justice, climate change, and diversity are gaining importance. Art has become a potent means of expressing identity and cultural heritage.

Elana Brundyn, founder of Brundyn Cultural Consultancy and co-founder of Art House Collection (Jacobus Snyman)

Elana Brundyn, founder of Brundyn Cultural Consultancy, co-founder of Art House Collection, has been immersed in the art world for decades. This South African woman has been actively involved in the opening of the highly significant Zeitz MOCAA in Cape Town, initiated by businessman Jochen Zeitz, CEO of Harley-Davidson, and also directed the other important museum institution, the Norval Foundation, located 45 minutes from the city. Now a consultant and recognized as a leading expert in African art, she explains why African art is a booming sector.

From 2015, you were closely involved in the opening of the Zeitz MOCAA museum, and then you led the Norval Foundation for four years, from 2017 to 2022. For the past year, you have been heading Brundyn Cultural Consultancy. Could you briefly explain the context of these projects and the main challenges and difficulties you encountered?

Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCAA) in Cape Town, South Africa (Zeitz Museum)

These projects were extremely exciting. Starting in 2015, everything fell into place – the funding, the energy, the desire, the momentum of the country. It was a special moment; we finally had ambition to create a dedicated platform for contemporary art from our continent. Our artists could envision exhibiting on the continent without necessarily dreaming of international recognition to validate their work. Zeitz MOCAA and the Norval Foundation were crucial milestones in the country's ability to offer strong artistic platforms. The Norval Foundation, more focused on sculpture, is located in nature, 45 minutes from Cape Town, in contrast to the Zeitz Museum, which operates in the city's heart. Having two major museums in Cape Town was essential, asserting our presence on the world stage. Since their opening, I've noticed increased attention to art in the country; locals now know about these museum platforms. Many artists benefit from them. Numerous initiatives have emerged subsequently, such as the artist residency and foundation initiated by Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare named G.A.S. Foundation and the Nairobi Contemporary Art Institute (NCAI) a foundation in Kenya, by artist Michael Armitage.

What are your connections with these artists and activities since founding Brundyn Cultural Consultancy?

The Norval Foundation, which focuses more on sculpture, is located in the heart of the countryside, less than an hour from Cape Town (Norval Foundation)

I certainly have connections with many of them since I organize exhibitions featuring their works. But today, I can be more involved and play a more significant role in fostering collaborations among these various entities, such as the galleries, artist, collectors and institutions. My motivation is to encourage artists to return and exhibit in Africa. Of course, since the awareness of the Black Lives Matter movement, there's a reevaluation of narratives. For example, In April 2018, the Baltimore Museum of Art announced that it would sell seven works from its collection through Sotheby's, arguing that the deaccessioning would allow the institution to collect newer works by artists of color and women. When major institutions in New York or London organize extensive retrospectives on African art, I'm thrilled, but they're not on the continent… It doesn't carry the same weight as if these same initiatives were organized in Africa and seen by Africans, so as a consultancy we assist with fundraising and helping to elevate practises on the continent.

Today, the Investec Cape Town Art Fair has emerged as the essential venue where the burgeoning African art market meets the international art world. This year marked the fair's tenth anniversary. What are your thoughts on its contribution to the sector's advancement?

It's stimulating and remarkable what they have accomplished; I've been involved for a long time in art and there's no better place, than Cape Town in summer for the Investec Cape Town Art Fair. It's pretty similar to organizing a fair like Art Basel, but focused on productions from the continent. Even though a significant fair, Frieze LA, takes place simultaneously in Los Angeles, we see many international visitors visiting the expo and curators of major museums attending. Prominent collectors now reserve this event in their schedules. I love the energy and interest the fair brings, but and my primary focus is on nurturing a new audience to visit. Our larger community needs to take an interest in its artists; the younger generation should be predominantly exposed to art, including those from disadvantaged neighbourhoods.

Yinka Shonibare CBE. Boy Balancing Knowledge, 2015. Courtesy of the artist, Goodman Gallery, Cape Town/Johannesburg, James Cohan Gallery, New York, and Stephen Friedman Gallery, London (Dave Southwood)

Traditionally, a collector starts with ancient art, then becomes interested in modern art, and finally in contemporary art from their country or continent. Have you observed a similar practice in Africa?

Yes, absolutely. Traditional paintings and modern art are often the initial points of appreciation. Then collectors turn their attention to younger artists. This is also evident in auction data, especially if we follow Aspire Art Auction, who has a strong focus on contemporary art from Africa. Although based in South Africa, a global audience is starting to take note of their auctions. We also see a younger collectors base participating in Aspire Art’s on- line auction.

Who are the most active prominent collectors today in Africa?

They're still mostly relatively older, above 40. We're seeing an increase in collectors within the black community, often composed of women, which is very exciting to witness.

What are the reasons behind the growing interest in African and Afro-descendant art?

An artwork by the artist Zanele Muholi. Isililo XX, 2014. Inkjet print on cotton fibre-based paper, Baryta coated 50 x 50.5 cm (Zanele Muholi)

The growing interest in African and Afro-descendant art is driven by a combination of factors including cultural appreciation, identity reclamation, historical context, market dynamics, artistic innovation, representation, and the power of digital communication. This collective effort is leading to a more inclusive and nuanced understanding of the global art landscape. The Western canon has long ignored the art from Africa. There's a genuine desire for rebalancing, a heightened interest in diversity. The art market, by its nature, is interested in new markets. Asia was the centre of attention for a long time, but Africa is rapidly developing, evolving its infrastructure. The old world is captivated by new frontiers, by this contemporary Africa that's expressing itself today. To understand this market is to look at its artists, what they convey about their lives, how they view the world, their identities.

Does this movement also come from the artists, who are now more willing to express their identity clearly?

They are more confident today, whereas they were accustomed to not relying on the art scene for a long time. Artists were quite constrained, also in terms of resources. For instance, in sculpture production, there were very few foundries available. Today, things are changing. The size of the artworks is also telling; monumental works are starting to emerge, whereas previously, dimensions were more 'domestic' to attract buyers. Today, the scale has changed; the ambition is massive, and this is reflected in the size and quality of the works.

The themes explored by African artists are primarily centred on identity, colonialism, culture, memory, race, and gender issues. Have you noticed a certain evolution in these major questions, and what artistic trends illustrate this evolution?

An artwork by the artist Bonolo Kavula, Naledi, 2022, Punched shweshwe and thread 121 x 31 cm (Bonolo Kavula)

There's definitely a change in the themes explored by African artists, reflecting the changing socio-political landscape and artistic trends. These artists continue to engage with the core themes of identity, colonialism, culture, memory, race, and gender, but they do so in ways that reflect contemporary complexities and challenges. Their work is characterized by a combination of traditional and innovative approaches, reflecting a rich and diverse artistic landscape. Artists now say, 'We are much more than this; we can also contribute to solving global issues.' We're going to start seeing a shift in style. Until now, the figurative style was prevalent; now, more abstract elements are being developed. Artist Bonolo Kavula works on identity but integrates technological elements like coding, which is more abstract. The new generation of artists is expressing these old themes less literally. However, it remains true that one of the key figures in addressing the identity question is undoubtedly Zanele Muholi, who will exhibit at the Tate in London next year.

Another project of yours is The Art House Collection, which you co-founded. Could you explain what it entails?

We offer exclusive properties and immersive art and design experiences to people who truly want to grasp the beauty of South Africa through art. The Art House Collection is a platform for renting these incredible properties with magnificent architecture, artworks, and curation. It's a beautiful way to experience art culture, Cape Town, and the vineyards. The most recent example is the opening of our Brundyn Gallery and artists residency at Boschendal Farm, one of the most splendid farms in the region and voted the most beautiful vineyard in the world by luxury travel companies. We've opened a beautiful art gallery there, with a sculpture garden, open for everyone to visit.

A Brundyn gallery and artists' residence have recently been opened at Boschendal Farm, one of the most splendid farms in the region and voted the most beautiful vineyard in the world by luxury travel agencies (Brundyn).

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