AKAA, Contemporary African Art and Design fair hits its stride on the 4th attempt

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Maya-Ines Touam, Triptyque vertical sans titre, Courtesy African Arty

The 4th edition of the Contemporary African Art and Design fair AKAA (Also Known As Africa) opened a day earlier to a select group of collectors and art insiders. By the time the fair opened for the official preview on Friday 8th, the clues that this would be a better, well-rounded selection – compared with preview editions – were evident. This was an edition rooted in the youthfulness of artists recounting a multifaceted contemporary Africa, investigating the continent’s cultural hybridity and, more importantly, reimagining its future. 

 

Photographic creation has long been among the most exciting work presented at AKAA, certainly, due to the pre-existing Paris-Photo show, the biggest European photo fair, held the same week at the Grand Palais.

Maya-Inès Touam’s painterly approach to photography was a refreshing new sight at the fair. I first encountered her work at Fondation Montresso earlier this year. Here, her darkly lit “Untitled” triptych, a contemporary take on the still life genre, emerged at one of the many crossroads of the art fair, as an invitation to resist the urge to consume art on the fly. A call to pause and reflect on the symbolism and meaning of this carefully staged, opulent, and dark scene. My eyes were naturally drawn to the golden chalice positioned in the middle of the composition, underneath the hovering Dutch wax textile (commonly called African wax) frozen here, in a manner that recalled Yinka Shonibare‘s series of Wind Sculptures. The jewellery in the foreground evoked the wealth generated by the African continent, pre-eminently featured on a vintage globe – deftly placed on the right edge of the scene, at the margins. The fruits, figs, and grape overflowing from a chalice could be compositional tricks, typical of still life images, although it was tempting to read them as muted signs of the sexual exploitation that was rife during colonisation.

Tucked away, behind the panels at the back of the fair, was an interesting visual dialogue through time, between the work of Gideon Mendel and Marcelo Brodsky. The former documented, in the eighties, the violent struggle that brought an end to the political system of apartheid. Marcelo Brodsky’s body of work challenges the prevailing view that “a picture is worth a thousand words.” In his documentary style, he reprised Mendel’s archival pictures and annotated them with quotes and details that provided unsuspecting viewers with the broader social and political context of the time.

Between the visual lines drawn by these poignant photographs, hung questions about memory, preservation, and archiving of visual artworks. Some of these answers came from Prof. Zanele Muholi, one of the most pre-eminent artists to have emerged from South Africa, on the panel for “Innovations within the third Space.” They spoke about training a new generation of African artists, so they could pick up the mantel of creating, preserving, and archiving materials about their respective communities. The imagery of their groundbreaking exhibition Somnyama Ngonyama (Hail The Dark Lioness), was the starting point of the project Ikhono LaseNatali. To mark the 25th anniversary of the end of apartheid, 25 young artists were tasked with reinterpreting these pictures, that challenged the representation of Blackness. Morgan Mahape recreated mesmerizing versions of Muholi’s portraits using small glass beads intricately strung together. The materiality of his work – glass beads, often associated with crafts and not art – expanded the subject matter to question the sometimes-arbitrary, often Eurocentric categorisation still applied to African artistic production.

Nelson Makamo, Think Different, 2019. AKAA Fair
Nelson Makamo, Think Different, 2019

On that matter and others, there was – and there still is – undoubtedly a need to “Think Different.” Nelson Makamo’s striking figurative work could be a cultural manifesto in and of itself. The way the faces of Black children emerged from scribbled charcoal forms, heightened the notion of nascent, yet to be defined identities. These portraits challenge the default description of Black children as criminals in the making when we know they represent 60% of the African population and are repositories of the continent’s future.

The agony some of these young people face when they try to cross borders and live as immigrants and asylum seekers in Europe was at the heart of Jean-David Nkot’s new body of work. He turned migrants into silhouettes that haunted a modern world made visible only through its infinite micro boundaries.

Joseph Obanubi, Cloud Mischied, 2018, AKAA Fair
Joseph Obanubi, Cloud Mischief, 2018

Far from despair, Joseph Obanubi’s photography provided an escape from these dreadful realities into a surreal realm of boundless creativity. Maybe what is required to stop a growing generation of young African from being lost at sea is what the artist called in an interview with Omenka, a new “altered reality.” He certainly brought this alternate reality to life through his bold and futuristic aesthetics.

 

Straying away, far away from conventional representations of classic African sculptures, Nigerian artist Osi Audu’s altered, bold and geometric vision of “West African Headdresses” was presented, against a contrasting grey background. It was a welcome novelty that halted the ‘masks fatigue’ that started to creep up halfway through the fair. African masks undeniably are critical features in the continent’s and by and large the world’s cultural heritage. Their mediation of the invisible world continues to inform part of the continent’s worldview. Their aesthetics have bolstered the creativity of numerous great artists and became a catalyst for modernism in art. Even so, there comes a point when their ubiquity either in classic forms or in resembling styles or facsimiled in decorative contemporary paintings, verges on stereotypical obsession. These are stereotypes that Romuald Hazoumè has vigorously denounced through his sculptural masks made of jerry cans. It seemed at times, though, that these artworks deriving from African masks were far removed from that subversive intent and exhibited in a somewhat subservient and commercial reflex of providing something that fits snuggly, almost too easily, under the banner “African Art.”

 

Osi Audu, Sakhile&Me, AKAA 2019
Osi Audu, Sakhile&Me, AKAA 2019

In the fast-expanding world of contemporary African art fairs, AKAA has long appeared as the younger offspring who couldn’t quite measure up to the elder, more mature, and brilliant sibling, 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair, launched in London in 2013. Some of the galleries exhibited the same works by the same artists they had already shown in London a month earlier, creating an avoidable impression of déjà vu. The first edition of AKAA had to be cancelled due to the tragic events in Paris in 2015. Since then, the Parisian fair has been in direct competition with the other smaller (but growing) fair, Art X Lagos, staged a week earlier in Nigeria. Small galleries on the contemporary African scene have had to choose between the two. Besides, in previous editions, some gallery owners have anonymously complained of poor sales vowing not to return. Despite these issues, the fair has proven itself to be resilient and adaptive (extending to 5 days this year), improving the quality of its selection and talks programme year after year. In layman’s terms, the fair seemed to have “found its voice” through a combination of thought-provoking photographic work, lower pricing points, mixed with a focus on young and emerging innovative artists, wrapped up in a serious yet affable atmosphere. 

 

Jacques-Antoine Gannat, the founder of the newly created art agency African Arty, was satisfied with the sales made at the fair and the interest in the artists he was showing at AKAA. Joachim Melchers of ARTCO Gallery has attended the fair since its inception. When I spoke to him on Sunday, he was equally satisfied with the sales recorded throughout the four days of the fair. The black and white photographic work of Justin Dingwall was a major draw along with that of Gideon Mendel. The textile-based artworks of Marion Boem and Raam were also sold. The key, according to him, lied in understanding the audience and selecting the right work to present.

 

AKAA has given a new impetus for a more Afrocentric cultural programming in November that, in turn, has opened up new opportunities for African artists. A continued curatorial rigor and commercial success are likely to strengthen its position as a torchbearer for contemporary African art and design in Paris for years to come.

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