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.

Sunday Times - - Contents - By Mary Cor­ri­gall

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.

GOLDFISH

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

Pic­tures: Linda Nylind/Frieze

Berni Searle’s Still (2001) Steven­son, So­cial Work, Frieze Lon­don 2018.

Cinga Samp­son works at Blank Projects Gallery.

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