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January 23, 2019

Art: At last Africa gets into the big tent at Art Basel

Art lovers walk past installation view of Lisson Gallery’s booth at Art Basel in Miami Beach, 2016
Art lovers walk past installation view of Lisson Gallery’s booth at Art Basel in Miami Beach, 2016

“There he is!” I blurted out to no one in particular as I came up the steep escalator onto the upper floor of Hall 1 at Art Basel, Basel. Ibrahim Mahama — his latest work, that is — dominated the entrance of Unlimited, the section of the fair reserved for monumental art. Compared to the four other sections, Unlimited is a Brobdingnag sort of place, where a Boeing 747 would get lost in.

Mahama’s Non-Orientable Nkansa II, brought to Basel by White Cube, London, and Apalazzo gallery, Brescia, is a hulking assemblage of hundreds of old, wooden and metal boxes used by shoeshine boys in Ghana to ply their trade. Rusty nails, pliers, soles, fabric, sewing threads, ancient cans of shoe polish, etc., jutted from nooks and crannies. The shrine-like installation, a monster prop from a Mad Max movie, loomed above mesmerised fairgoers click-clicking and flashing away with cameras.

A mixture of fascination and elation was palpable around the stupendous artistic statement by the 30-year-old Ghanaian wizard best known for his old jute sacks drapes of architectural structures around the world. Here he was, sharing with Basel his take about life of artisans and the varied reinterpretation of their histories.



Non-Orientable Nkansa II wasn’t the only star attraction at Unlimited, its emplacement by the curators as Exhibit-1 among the 72 works by renowned artists was a pointer to Africa’s growing heft in the citadels of global art. In past decades, rare was the artist from the continent or in the Diaspora who made dealers or curators cut at Art Basel or any of the major fairs in North America, Europe or Asia.

Cameroonian Barthelémy Toguo also had a pride of place at Unlimited. His 10x4m canvas Rwanda 1994 isn’t among his best works. However, the subject matter, the Rwandan genocide, carried such an evocative pathos of the permanence of evil in our midst it became the exhibit that attracted the most pensive throngs. Yours truly was among those who bent a knee in silent prayer in front ofRwanda 1994. “As an African artist, I seek to evoke in my own way this large-scale crime which traumatised the entire world, and particularly the African continent,” Toguo said of his Guernican oeuvre.

Malawi-born London resident Samson Kambalu took us down memory lane with his Mboya Series, a set of black and white photos of Tom Mboya assassinated in Nairobi at the peak of his career as foreign minister under first President Jomo Kenyatta. Represented by Kate McGarry, London, the work is an uncanny juxtaposition, in the same frame, of iconic photos of another Kenyan son, President Barack Obama.

Zanzibar-born, UK-based artist Lubaina Himid, 64, oldest person and first black woman to win the Turner Prize (2017), made it to Art Basel at the Feature section. Himid’s exploration of slavery, racism, and colonialism through deceptively naïve compositions in bright acrylics cut a soothing dash at London’s Hollybush Garden booth. Ball on Shipboard, a group of blind slaves in modern summer clothes on board a slaver’s ship, was acquired by a North American museum for £110,000.

Africa’s presence at the fair included South Africans Mikhael Subotzky and Patrick Waterhouse with their Ponte City 2008-14, a photographic odyssey capturing life within the 54-story circular behemoth that blots the Johannesburg skyline. Built for whites under Apartheid who fled for the suburbs in the Mandela era, Ponte City has been appropriated by hundreds of families, impoverished migrants from rural South Africa and economic refugees from across Africa. Brought to Basel by Goodman Gallery, Ponte City was bought by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art for an undisclosed figure.



Cameroonian artist Pascale Marthine Tayou’s Colourful Stones (2018) found a buyer at €85,000. Nigerian-Brit Yinka Shonibare MBE sold two sculptures for £135,000 each, acquired by Greek and Belgian collectors. Swiss and Spanish collectors bought six sculptures by South African William Kentridge priced between $95,000-$300,000. Zimbabwean Mishek Masamvu sold a painting for $19,000. Works of El Anatsui, Candice Breitz, Zanele Muholi, Simphiwe Ndzube, Kemang wa Lehulere, Nicolas Hlobo, Robin Rhode, etc, now routinely appear on the fair’s secondary market.

While one should rejoice for Africa’s artists earning some serious moolah, at last, there’s this sinking feeling when a major creation disappears into galleries and private collections far away. Perhaps, as many as 90 per cent of the works of Africa’s most renowned artists are located outside Africa. The stark implication is this: their creativity and life’s achievement are at the reach of everyone but Africans. This is a damning indictment that can be remedied only when the continent’s moneyed class and institutions begin to collect. Seriously.

Mahama’s Non-Orientable Nkansa I was shown at Art Basel Miami in 2017 and was acquired by the Margulies Collection, Miami. One hopes that Non-Orientable Nkansa II, bigger and more stunning of the two, and which is in the process of being acquired by a North American museum, will find its way back to a museum in Ghana. One day. For a show, at least!

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