With African art enjoying a boom in global interest, it turns out some of its biggest fans are in Asia, particularly China's newly minted millionaires.
The rise of China and other Asian economies during the past decade led to an upsurge of interest in Asian art, as international investors, collectors and galleries sought to acquire pieces from this dynamic region. Many international buyers sought out young and emerging Asian artists, and many of Asia’s newly minted ultra-rich sought to purchase Asian objets d'art from overseas and repatriate them to their original homes. The entry, en masse, of Asia’s wealthiest individuals into the international art market did wonders for the sector, boosting sales to record highs.
It now appears, however, that Asia’s time in the sun may soon be coming to an end, as it is eclipsed by growing interest in African art. As African artists and their work increasingly enter the mainstream, all things African are becoming the latest fashion. While interest from the West remains important, a significant portion of the demand driving the recent boom in African art is coming from Asia, specifically China, which alone accounted for 21 percent of the $63 billion in worldwide art sales in 2017.
With the art world firmly the domain of the global one percent, Asia’s growing ranks of millionaires and billionaires is having a significant impact on global purchasing trends. For instance, the number of Chinese billionaires has more than doubled: from 221 in 2016 to 580 in 2017. Moreover, while the rest of Asia sans China accounts for only two percent of global art sales, this number is growing, buoyed by the fact that a new billionaire is minted in Asia every two days, according to Swiss bank, UBS. Asia’s super-rich will play an important role in the coming years, with Deloitte’s Art and Finance Report forecasting that the global elite will spend some $2.7 trillion on art by 2026.
Beyond the ‘Wakanda Effect’
The immense worldwide success of Black Panther kicked off a year in which African aesthetics were already being feted in the art world. The work of established African modernists, who strove to create art for a post-colonial, independent Africa in the mid-20th century is, alongside new and emerging African artists, becoming increasingly appreciated and sought after by foreign art collectors, especially in Asia.
Instrumental to this renaissance in African art have been the efforts to create more venues for African art outside Africa, including the 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair in London and New York, established by Morocco’s Touria el Glaoui. Among other pieces, the latest 1:54 exhibit in Brooklyn featured a bedazzled mine-resistant infantry fighting vehicle by South African artist Ralph Ziman. A common sight during the South African Border War and in South Africa’s townships, this former symbol of apartheid repression has been festooned with 70 million colourful beads.
A further example of a prominent art venue is the Also Known As Africa (AKAA) fair in Paris, which is highlighting the links between Africa and the Global South, notably the Middle East and Southeast Asia. “As far back as the history of Africa goes the continent is closely related to these regions of the world,” notes AKAA director, Victoria Mann. “These ties are rarely emphasized which is why it seemed interesting to study them today through their resonance in contemporary artistic creation [...] We are strengthening our desire to think about the African continent beyond its borders and its 54 countries by inviting galleries to weave links between artists from Africa and other continents.”
A great example of this is the work of Wafrica, an art project blending elements of West African and Japanese culture, creating eye-catching hybrid works in the process. Wafrica’s work includes West African sculptures finished by Japanese lacquer-work masters in the traditional Japanese style, as well as the creation of West African inspired Japanese kimonos. A collaborative work between the 150 year old Japanese design house Odasho, and Cameroonian art director Serge Mouangue, the kimonos retain the traditional Japanese cut, but use brightly patterned fabrics sourced from Nigeria and Senegal to give the garments a distinct West African vibe.
Wafrica’s projects are not intended to be commercial ventures, but rather a commentary on the similarities between the two cultures. In founding Wafrica, Mouangue seeks to create a “conversation between two ancient, strong and sophisticated identities: Japan and Africa. The conversation is about the beauty of weaving strands of our stories together.” Speaking on Wafrica’s goals, Mouangue argues that the project is “in response to the argument that globalization may rob us of our cultural identity.”
A similar sentiment is expressed by Israeli-based collector of Chinese and African art, Serge Tiroche. “I think conceptual art is much more advanced and cutting-edge in China than in Africa,” he says. “Africa is still very much a craft art market – which I should note that I absolutely admire and which is the essence of what we are trying to capture in our collection – and it is therefore easier to couple it with India, for example. That said, juxtaposing the newest art from Africa and China can be a very interesting contrast, demonstrating that – fortunately – globalization has not completely taken over yet.”
The narratives that African art portrays have increasingly found an attentive audience, with Johannesburg’s African art sale raking in $3 million in 2016, almost double its takings from 2015. Similarly, famed auction house Sotheby’s inaugural Modern and Contemporary African Art sale in 2017 exceeded expectations, with 116 lots going for $3.6 million overall. Of these, a wall installation made of aluminium bottle caps by Ghanaian artist El Anatsui sold for $941,000. Nevertheless, despite the recent enthusiasm for African art, the continent continues to be a small player in the international art scene, accounting for only one percent of the global $624 billion creative goods trade in 2008.
China’s vanguard in Africa become art patrons
It is within this context that African art is becoming increasingly popular overseas, especially in China, which has emerged as the second largest source of worldwide art sales, behind the United States, and recently relegating the UK to third place. Chinese interest in African art offers another fascinating take on the developing relationship between Beijing and Africa, which has captured international attention in recent decades in the wake of China’s modernization. China’s influence in Africa has drawn much comment, due to the scale of its investments in the continent, as well as its mixed reputation in the eyes of ordinary Africans.
“China certainly hovers over us like a huge Zeppelin,” notes South African artist, William Kentridge. “The scale of it, the scale of its hunger for resources, the scale of everything. China in Africa today creates a sense of a series of questions rather than answers.” Having spent the last two decades pouring hundreds of billions of dollars into Africa, China’s relationship with the continent remains rather one-sided, both in economic terms, as well as in the lack of knowledge about Africa among the general Chinese population.
That being said, many of China’s nouveau riche have become unlikely supporters of fostering deeper cultural awareness about Africa in China. In particular, a number of them represented China in its earliest forays into Africa in the 1990s and early 2000s. “The Chinese contemporary art market is slowing and art lovers need to find a new region to focus on,” explains Giles Peppiatt, director of African art at Bonhams. “China has been in Africa for some twenty years, searching, dominating, digging it up. People want art they have some kind of connection with and none of us can deny China and Africa have a relationship, not matter how difficult it is.”
This longing for art that speaks to Chinese collectors can be seen in the patronage of Chinese actors in Africa. For instance, take the work of retired Beijing couple, Li Songshan and his wife Han Rong. Having spent the last thirty years travelling to Africa, they have acquired a love of African art, specifically the elaborate, ebony Makonde sculptures from Tanzania. Li acknowledges that the exchanges between Africa and China are not equal, noting that there are relatively few opportunities for Chinese people to learn about African culture.
Hoping to help rectify this deficit, he and his wife have opened a museum and cultural centre in Beijing, called African Tribe. The 13 building complex is the first privately owned, non-profit in China dedicated to promoting African art. Li and Han have donated 12,000 sculptures from their private collection to the museum, and their efforts to increase cross-cultural understanding has met with praise from Chinese and visiting African officials alike. Tanzania’s minister of foreign affairs and international cooperation, Bernard Membe attended the project’s groundbreaking ceremony in 2012, praising Li and Han as "the real Tanzanian ambassadors to China."
A similar effort can be seen in Wuhan, with the creation of the Chenshia Museum in 2010 which has since been opened to the public for free. The museum also helps young and emerging African artists raise their profiles, with residencies or cultural exchanges to China. The Chenshia Museum allows these artists to exhibit their work in the museum and acts as a liason for the sale of African art in China. The brainchild of Chen Dabing, the founder of the Chenshia group of companies, the museum encapsulates his fascination with African art.
Chen’s fondness for Africa was kindled in his first trip to the continent in 1988. With China only just beginning to open up to the wider world, and travel for Chinese citizens still difficult, Chen relished the opportunity to travel to Africa as the representative of a Chinese state-run enterprise. After several years working for the state company, Chen quit and decided to forge ahead with his own ventures in Africa, relocating to the region in 1991.
Alongside his work with the Chenshia Museum, Chen is also a director and founding member of the Africa-China Friendship Association and Africa-China Entrepreneurs Forum. Speaking on his belief that art can build bridges, Chen maintains that “culturally, the African and the Chinese peoples have a lot in common. For instance, the traditional family structures; relationships and the management of core and extended family members and relatives; respect for elders as well as social networking in rural and communal contexts. [Consequently,] I find it quite natural that Africans and Chinese bond with each other [sic]”
African artists critique Beijing's influence on the continent
While art can be a means to foster greater understanding between China and Africa, it is also providing Africans with a means to criticize China’s influence in the region. William Kentridge’s animated drawings and installations are popular with Chinese investors, with his Notes Towards a Model Opera exploring the parallels between the Cultural Revolution under Mao and apartheid-era South Africa, as both blindly pursued visions of unobtainable utopias.
Other artists using their work to criticize China include Samuel Fasso, a Cameroonian photographer working in the Central African Republic (CAR), whose photo series Emperor of Africa sees him dressed as Mao Zedong. Fasso is referencing the eccentric Jean Bédel Bokassa, who in 1976 declared himself Emperor of the Central African Empire, and spent the majority of the nation’s GDP on his coronation, only to be deposed three years later; hardly a flattering comparison for the revered father of the People’s Republic of China.
Then there is Congolese photographer, Sammy Baloji, who combines 19th century colonial photos from the Belgian Congo with modern vistas of vast Chinese industrial and mining projects. Zimbabwe’s Moffat Takadiwa also has China in his sights, paying street children in Harare to collect discarded Chinese-made plastic goods for use in his brightly coloured wall sculptures.
Similarly, Terrence Musekiwa (also from Zimbabwe) incorporates defective pre-formed plastic bottles imported from China in his work. Another interesting example is Kenyan Soi Michael, whose series of paintings China Loves Africa highlights the contentious relationship between the two by depicting Africans as sex workers pleasuring their Chinese masters.
It is interesting to note that these critical appraisals of Chinese activity in Africa nevertheless find Chinese buyers. Perhaps some of the appeal is the freedom of expression African artists enjoy in criticizing China, a right denied to Chinese artists such as Ai Weiwei (who, in 2017, became the first contemporary Chinese artist invited to South Africa’s Goodman Gallery) - who face censure and are branded dissidents by Beijing.
The largely unregulated art market works to the advantage of Chinese buyers seeking art critical of China, and so far such work by foreign artists from Africa has not attracted the ire of the government. That being said, the fact that such pieces are purchased as investments or for private collections also helps. It would be surprising if Beijing allowed such works to be aired openly as part of a public gallery.
All this attention is certainly a boon for the African art scene, to say nothing of the continents aspiring artists; however, there are concerns that overseas interest from Asia (and elsewhere) also has some negative consequences. Critical voices argue that the exodus of African art from the continent to the private collections of Asia mimics the loss of cultural artefacts during Africa’s colonial period. While wealthy foreign patrons are helping create jobs for African artists, the African public is largely denied access to the products of their fellows.
Writing in the New York Times, Chika Okeke-Agulu, associate professor of art history at Princeton, argues that as African art enters the mainstream it is undergoing gentrification. The continent’s masses are excluded from this renaissance in African art, as whole countries in Africa cannot boast a single museum of note. Underinvestment in cultural infrastructure in Africa denies the public access to their own artists. The lack of public spaces dedicated to the arts has an additional significance in the African context given the importance, and established tradition, of art as a communal experience in the region.
Some progress has been made in rectifying this deficit, most notably the opening of the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa in Cape Town in 2017. Housed in a 57 metre tall former grain silo, the building is largest space dedicated to African art in the world. “For a very long time, the African story has been told by outsiders,” explains Zeitz’s curatorial trainee, Tandazani Dhlakama, “[now] Africa’s taking ownership of its narrative.”
Long overlooked, African art is enjoying a surge in international popularity as collectors and investors from the West and Asia seek to expand their portfolios, enticed by African art's comparitvely inexpensive price point. Young and emerging African artists are finding success in traditional art centres such as London, Paris, and New York as well as emerging art markets in Asia. Of particular note is China's growing market share in the international art scene, with the Middle Kingdom accounting for 21 percent of all art sales in 2017.
Work by African artists exploring the continent's narratives have found eager audiences among Chinese collectors, as China's growing influence in Africa exposes more Chinese to the region's rich cultural heritage. While Beijing's presence in Africa engenders mixed feelings, some of those at the vanguard of Chinese activity in Africa are working hard to foster better cross-cultural understanding by promoting African art in China.
China's presence in Africa is also serving as inspiration for a host of critical pieces tackling the similarities between Chin and Africa as well as the negative impact of Beijing's appetite for resources.
Comprising only one percent of the global creative services market in 2008, Africa's creative potential remains both severely underexploited and underappreciated. While this has begun to change in recent years, there is a danger that, aside from the artists themselves, the main beneficiaries of this art boom will not be average Africans.
The lack of cultural infrastructure in Africa threatens to exclude the vast majority of Africans from their own artists, with the work of the latter increasingly sequestered in collections abroad. In response, a call has gone out to recognize the importance of cultural investment: it is now up to African governments to answer.
Jeremy Luedi is the editor of Asia by Africa. His writing has been featured in Business Insider, The Japan Times, The Diplomat, FACTA Magazine, Yahoo Finance, Asia Times, Huffington Post and Qrius. His insights have also been quoted by TIME, OZY, and the Washington Times, among others.