2018: An Afrocentric art world review

Posted on
Painting Papa Ibra Tall, The Warrior, 1966
Papa Ibra Tall, The Warrior, 1966

2018 has been an outstanding year for artists hailing from Africa and the diaspora. “African art” or more globally “Black Art” inclusive of artists from the diaspora remains a niche within the art world worth $63.7 billion (according to Art Basel and UBS report). However, throughout this year, African artists and African American artists have made headlines, and their work set new records.

From the unveiling of the Obama’s portraits, to Kerry James Marshall’s record at auction, to the groundbreaking French report on Art restitution, here is the Afrocentric review of the art world in 2018.

      1. Modern and Contemporary African Art Market: over $13m at auction

Modern and Contemporary African Art Auction at Sotheby's
Modern and Contemporary African Art Auction at Sotheby’s in October 2018

In 2018, the dedicated African art auctions organised at Sotheby’s and Bonhams in London, Piasa in Paris and Arthouse Contemporary in Lagos generated over $13m. While the official data for this segment of the art world won’t be known until the end of 2019 when the African Art market report is published, these auction figures are an early indicator of its health. They also reassert the critical role London continues to play in the African Art market with nearly $10m of the sales achieved through the leader of the market, Bonhams (~$6.5M) closely followed by Sotheby’s.

Also, Artnews reported strong sales on the preview day at the London edition of the specialized Contemporary African Art fair 1:54. The fair continues to gain in notoriety and size and has announced that its New-York edition will be moving to a more central location from next year.

      2. Unveiling the Obamas’ portraits.

Former US President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama
Former US President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama stand beside their portraits after their unveiling at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC, February 12, 2018. / (Photo credit : SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

The hotly anticipated unveiling of Barack and Michelle Obama‘s portraits was a historic moment and it didn’t disappoint in the amount of headlines and buzz it generated back in February. As with a lot of things related to the Obamas it was a moment of firsts. For the first time, a presidential portrait was commissioned to a Black artist, Kehinde Wiley, who is notorious for his portraying of contemporary black men using classical art’s visual codes and standards normally reserved for monarchs. He didn’t depict Obama as a King but as a relaxed president sitting against a luxurious backdrop of greenery. It set Obama’s representation apart from the previous traditional and formal presidential portraits.

Amy Sherald painted a poetic representation of Michelle Obama, in the artist’s customary grayscale tone style. In an interview with CBS, the artist said the portrait captured the former first lady’s grace and contemplative state during the sitting.

A month later, a viral picture taken of a 2 year old girl, standing transfixed in front of the portrait captured the imagination and confirmed, if needed, that diversity and representation mattered. Both portraits continue to draw record numbers of visitors to the National Portrait Gallery in Washington.

      3. Inaugural events

1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair in Marrakeck

entrance to 1:54 Art fair in Marrakech
Entrance 1:54 Art Fair Marrakech. La Mamounia

1:54 Contemporary African Art fair launched its first African edition in Marrakech. The fair drew a swathe of international art collectors and visitors and in doing so, spearheaded an effort to transform the city into a major contemporary African art hub alongside Lagos (Nigeria) and Cape Town (South Africa).

Senegal’s Museum of Black Civilisation

Senegal’s 60 year old dream of creating a museum of Black Civilisations came true when the country’s President, Macky Sall, cut the ribbon at the entrance of the new museum in December. The inauguration has proven timely, as the lack of adequate museum facilities has long been pointed to as one of the reasons why African Artefacts couldn’t be returned to the continent. (more on the last memorable art moment of 2018).

       4. Retrospectives & exhibitions

Africa is No Island at MACAAL

Entrance Macaal Museum

MACAAL, the Museum of Contemporary African Art coordinated its international launch with a critically acclaimed exhibition “Africa Is No Island,” an extraordinary journey through about 40 years of African photography curated by Africa in Visu. The exhibition opened with the work of emerging photographer Ishola Akpo and has now moved to the foundation Zinsou in Benin (West Africa).

Bodys Isek Kingelez: City Dreams at MoMA

The bold miniature buildings and towns, made of cardboard encapsulate artist Bodys Isek Kingelez’s larger than life dreams of transformation for his country then called Zaire (current day Democratic Republic of Congo) and the African Continent. Bodys Isek Kingelez’s first US retrospective, City Dreams, continues at MoMA (The Museum of Modern Art) until Jan 1st 2019.

Charles White: A retrospective at MoMA

Still at MoMA, Charles White’s retrospective has proven to be enlightening – shedding light on White’s practice, and also on his influence on the next generation of other successful black artists including Kerry James Marshall.

Soul of a Nation at the Brooklyn Museum

This extensive exhibition explores the practice of over 60 black artists at the height of the civil rights movement between 1963 and 1983. After showing at the Tate in London, and at Crystal Bridges Museum, Soul of a Nation is now currently on view at the Brooklyn Museum until February 3, 2019.

       5. Black artists making waves at auction

Kerry James Marshall’s ‘Past Time’

Kerry James Marshall’s ‘Past Time’ was auctioned off for over $21.1m, setting a personal record for the artist but more importantly for a living African-American artist. The New York Times later revealed that singer, entrepreneur Sean Combs (alias Puff Daddy) was the new owner of Past Times.

Jacob’s Lawrence’s The Businessmen (1947)

According to Sotheby’s catalogue, Fortune Magazine commissioned Jacob Lawrence series of paintings that chronicled the lives of African Americans in the southern states after the war. The magazine subsequently published 3 of the 10 paintings that made up The Black Belt series, including “The Business Man.” The painting was listed in Sotheby’s contemporary auction catalogue with a high estimate of $2m. It was sold for over $6m, a new record for the artist Jacob Lawrence.

Akunyili Njideka Crosby’s Bush Babies (2017) 

Akunyili Njideka Crosby has emerged over the last few years as one of the most celebrated young contemporary artists. Last year, the auction of her painting the Beautyful Ones (2012) fetched £2.5m at Christie’s and propelled her into the closed circle of superstar artists. In May this year, she set a new record of $3.3m (£2.6m) when her work Bush Babies (2017) was sold at Sotheby’s in a special auction to benefit The Studio Museum in Harlem.

Ben Enwonwu’s Tutu (1974)

Tutu, Ben Enwonwu, 1974, Image courtesy of Nkechi
Tutu, Ben Enwonwu, 1974, Image courtesy of Nkechi

In February Bonham announced that their customary “Africa Now” auction would include a long lost masterpiece, Tutu, painted by the acclaimed Nigerian artist Ben Enwonwu in 1974. The portrait was sold for £1.2m ($1.5m) Although the identity of the new buyer remains shrouded in mystery, they loaned the artwork to the Art Fair Art X Lagos in November and for the first time in decades, Tutu was put on display in Nigeria.

Charles White’s Nobody Knows My Name

Charles White whose retrospective is among the highlights of the year (See above) has also been a feature at auction. His drawing Nobody Knows My Name inspired by Ralph Ellison’s seminal novel “Invisible Man” was sold at auction for $ 485,000 over 4 times it’s lowest estimate.

George Sekoto’s Lentswana

Bonhams’ dedicated South African art auction in September confirmed art collectors’ renewed interest in George Sekoto. The artist is renowned for his earlier work, portraits, and depiction of scenes of daily life in Sophiatown, a township where he lived. His painting of a man, Lentswana was auctioned for £380,750 against a high estimate of £150,000.

Yinka Shonibar’s The Red Lantern Kid (2018)

Nigerian British Yinka Shonibare also set a new record when one of his trademark style hybrid sculptures Red Lantern Kid, was sold for $325,000 at the Red Auction. Organised in collaboration between Sotheby’s and U2 Singer Bono, the proceeds of the auction go to support the fight against aids.

Papa Ibra Tall’s the Warrior

52 years after being exhibited at the first World Festival of Negro Arts in Dakar (1966), Papa Ibra Tall’s warrior was at the center of all attention at Sotheby’s dedicated 3rd modern and contemporary African Art auction in October. The painting that was gifted to Duke Wellington sold for £118,750 against a high estimate of £12,000. The auction also drew attention to the work of leading older African artists such as Alexander Skunder Boghossian and Wosene Worke Kosrof.

6. Art Awards & Prizes:

MacArthur Genius Grant: Titus Kaphar

Titus Kaphar is among the 2018 winners of the “MacArthur Genius Grant.” His art practice seeks to amend the lopsided art history and bring to the fore the forgotten contribution of black people.

The Studio Museum in Harlem’s Joyce Alexander Wein Artist Prize: Diedrick Brackens.

To understand the importance of the Studio Museum in Harlem’s Joyce Alexander Wein Artist Prize, you need to look at the names of some of the past winners Njideka Akunyili Crosby, Simone Leigh and Derrick Adams, all of whom have gone on to have illustrious careers.

This year, the honour was bestowed upon Diedrick Brackens. His intricate textile sculptures explore issues of identity and masculinity.

2018 Hugo Boss Prize: Simone Leigh

In October, Simone Leigh was announced as the recipient of the 2018 Hugo Boss Prize. She is rewarded for her lifetime contribution to contemporary art. The artist’s elaborate sculptures often amalgamate a woman’s head with a tool or with a traditional hut and straddle contemporary art and historical practices. The sculpture address the erasure of black women from history by highlighting their presence and their hidden labour.

Carnegie Prize – Linette Yiadom-Boakye

Linette Yiadom-Boakye won the Carnegie Prize at the 57th edition of the Carnegie International. The British Ghanian artist has been increasingly under the spotlight for her mesmerizing portraiture work. Here is one artist to continue watching in 2019.

Don Tyson Prize: Vanessa German

Crystal Bridge Museum awarded the annual $200,000 Don Tyson Prize to Vanessa German in recognition for her artistic achievement and art advocacy in her Pittsburg Community. She created the “Art House” that functions as a public art studio where everyone in the local community can experiment with art. She intends to create a “Museum of Resilience” with the prize.

7. Art Restitution

In November, the long-awaited report commissioned by the French President Emmanuel Macron recommended the restitution of some of the most contested historical artwork to African countries. The art restitution claims and the report have sparked a heated debate within art circles. If acted upon, the report will trigger nothing short of a cultural revolution both in Europe but more importantly in Africa. It is estimated that 95% of the continent’s historical artifacts are being housed in Europe. This story is still developing and is likely to be among the most topical ones in 2019.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *