SA art didn’t speak loudly enough in London
The only art noticed at a fair boasting a staggering 160 galleries is art that speaks loudly. But it is always interesting to note what African galleries think might sell in London.
Perhaps it was naive to believe this was the year that African contemporary artists would storm London’s Frieze art fair in Regent’s Park last weekend. From afar the promotional e-mails frequently mentioning the participation of African artists from Michele Mathison (Zimbabwe) Otobong Nkanga (Nigeria), Kemang Wa Lehulere (SA) and Berni Searle (SA) gave this impression. With a solo exhibition at Marian Goodman’s London gallery, Wa Lehulere probably has “arrived” on the global art scene. But Back at Frieze one of his black and white abstract works, at that gallery’s stand, barely got any attention amid all the loud, brightly coloured and very, very large artworks that populate this fair.
The only art noticed at a fair boasting a staggering 160 galleries is art that speaks loudly, whether it be David Shrigley’s neon titular Distractions work (a repletion of this word written in neon tubing) which turned heads at the Stephen Friedman stand or the Donald Trump wallpaper that formed the backdrop for Jim Shaw’s American satire at the Simon Lee Gallery. In the painting To Serve Mankind, people queued outside a fast-food joint dubbed “ass burgers”.
Aside from didactic satire, artists aimed for novelty. El Anatsui’s woven bottle-top work, Default (2016), hanging at Goodman Gallery’s stand, stood out as a more elegant example. South Africa-born Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin are into novelty art, if their photographic work printed on what appeared to be a cardboard box in their Untitled series (2018), also at Goodman’s stand, was anything to go by.
The Stevenson Gallery might be the big fish in our little art fair ponds in SA, but at Frieze, where they occupied a modest stand in an area for smaller, less wellknown international galleries, they are veritable goldfish. The stand presented Moshekwa Langa and Vivianne Sassen. Langa’s abstract paintings appeared out of step with art at the fair, largely.
Berni Searle’s seminal Still series (2001) made a reappearance and was artfully installed given the setting. However, displayed alongside a group of other female artists who dealt with gender/racial issues in the ’80s and ’90s, under the banner of “Social Work” and tucked into the less important part of the fair, it felt like a slightly patronising gesture by Frieze. In a way this echoes the way in which the organisers’ marketing material doesn’t square up with the reality of the fair, dominated by big westernbased galleries punting art by white men.
Clearly, they are making an effort to turn attention towards Africa-based galleries. Cape Town’s Blank gallery was awarded the best stand prize in the Focus section. But this is a section for small, young (read less important) galleries tucked at the back of the fair. Cinga Sampson, Bronwyn Katz and a work by Donna Kukama graced their walls. It is always interesting to note what African galleries think might sell in London.
CENTRE FOR AFRICAN ART
London is fast becoming the new “centre” for contemporary African art. A good collector base is located there — or floats through this major city — according to Touria El Glaoui, who has been staging 1;54 Contemporary African Art Fair here, in Somerset House, to coincide with
Frieze since 2013. She wanted to create a space not trying to “accommodate” African art but focused on it.
The result is a niche fair with a relaxed, intimate vibe. Each gallery more or less occupies its own room in this stunning period building. As such you feel more like you’re on a gallery crawl. There is time to chat to gallerists and take in work because you don’t have another 100 stands to see.
Only three South Africa-based gallerists were showing this year; Afronova, Whatiftheworld and Smac. The Spier foundation took up a stand to promote artists. The rest are mostly France-based galleries trading in African art. Galleries from Tunisia and Egypt joined the mix, presenting an ArabAfrican influence that has been so absent from South African fairs. Artists who stood out were Omar Ba from Senegal at Art Barschi & Cie and Ali Abdel Mohsen from Mashrabia Gallery. Cape Townbased Emma Willemse’s extraordinary kinetic sculptures and “wooden” books brought to the fair courtesy of Spier and Nando’s stood out too. A solo exhibition by Athi Patra Ruga in the venue will exist beyond the fair’s life span, which is fortunate given his stained-glass window designs inculcating gay black icons into history (of this colonial building).
Misperceptions about art produced by Africans persist; some visitors expected the art to be cheaper.
Barriers still need to be broken. African art, artists and gallerists haven’t taken over London yet. But, with Stevenson and Goodman galleries rumoured to be opening branches in the British capital, joining the Everard Read outlet there, more inroads appear on the cards. LS
Berni Searle’s Still (2001) Stevenson, Social Work, Frieze London 2018.
Cinga Sampson works at Blank Projects Gallery.