The Voice of South Africa

– Looking at the South African Art Market

The interest in the African art market has been on a stable rise internationally since the early 2010s. In 2019, the Ghanaian pavilion at the Venice Biennale made a strong and lasting impression, with an impressive selection of artists’ commissions which included David Adjaye, El Anatsui, John Akomfrah and Lynette Yiadom-Boakye. The interest at the Biennale was a reflection of the growing numbers of dedicated sales established by auction houses in the US and Europe and art fairs, with 1-54 in New York, Marrakech and London being the most recognizable one. This interest is by no means surprising, as there has been an influx of sales of Asian and Latin American artists in the international art market.

The growth of the art market within the African continent deserves a separate introduction. As Rebecca Anne Proctor wrote for Artnet in 2019, it is impossible to speak about one market encompassing 54 countries and over 1.2 billion people and considering the number of different artistic traditions at the same time. I could not agree more. It is safe to assume that the market for African art within the international art sector will adapt to this diversity – previously this process could have been observed in the particularization of the ‘Asian art’ into separate Chinese, Japanese and Indian, Himalayan & Southeast Asian departments within major auction houses like Sotheby’s.

In South Africa, the first dedicated art fund aimed at investing into African artists (both in Africa and the diasporas) has been set up in March 2015 in Cape Town, by the South African investment manager Herman Steyn and Chinese-born, South Africa-based businessman Dabing Chen – Cristina Ruiz from the Art Newspaper reported. Another aim of the fund is to support the activities of museums in the region. The Zeitz Museum of Contemporary African Art (MOCAA), shows the collection of Jochen Zeitz, the former chairman of Puma and features a program of temporary exhibitions along with a permanent collection and dedicated spaces for showcasing new media art and project space for emerging artists. In the first year after its opening it has been listed as one of the greatest museums in the world and visited by 3 million people. One of the museum’s current exhibitions, ‘Waiting for Gebane’, showcases the works of South African artist Senzeni Mthwakazi Marasela. Her works concentrate on the experience of womanhood and waiting, and are executed in the majority in red, which related to the so-called ‘red dust’ period in the early 1900s when the daily life in South Africa was still marked by the conflicts and drought. Marasela works across different media (from drawing to photomontage), often adapting a figure of a fictional character Theodorah Mthetyane, who is awaiting her husband. She also often uses materials of historical significance, like linen, from which she produces traditional shweshwe printed dresses.

Interestingly, another artist in MOCAA’s collection, Penny Siopis, uses a similar colour palette to Marasela’s. Siopis was born to Greek parents, who have moved to Cape Town, where she spent most of her life and is currently working. And similarly, to Marasela’s Siopsis’s practice is multidisciplinary, encompassing painting, video, photography and installation. She often uses white wood glue and multi-coloured inks to construct works which reflect on the formation of personal and shared histories, exploring the dynamics of violence and shame, all immersed in a post-colonial and feminist context, following the ‘poetics of vulnerability’.

The motif of personal and collective histories appears to be an underlying theme of many mid-career South African artists, whose parents are a generation remembering the times of Apartheid and their own coming of age would be marked by conflict. Wayne Barker is among the most recognizable of them, living and working in Johannesburg. His rise to fame coincided with the unrest of the Apartheid in the late 1980s. The exploration of this political shift is thus at the heart of his practice, all mixed with a strong sense of personal experience and own encounters with violence and changes, applicable to both South African and international context in the 1980s. His style inherits something from Robert Rauschenberg’s readymade-inspired, and truly post-modern, tradition of re-cycling and free-association. Wayne often evokes, in a Pop Arty manner, popular symbols of consumerist culture, mixed with elements significant for representing South Africa. There are neon signs and abstract expressionist-like brushstrokes all contrasted with either popular imagery characteristic for South Africa, or medium alluding to the tradition of craft (e.g. beads) and giving it a new agency. ‘I am interested in how the media, through popular images, inform, confuse and rape the African continent. For the past two decades, I have also been dealing with land, which is quite trendy now. My approach has been to deconstruct the icons of South African painting, particularly works by Pierneef’ – Wayne said in an interview for Art Africa Magazine in 2012. His paintings are dynamic, almost rushed and chaotic in appearance, where past and present histories interact with each other constantly.

The exploration of post-Apartheid life is also of interest for another Johannesburg-based artist, Blessing Ngobeni, born in the rural town of Tzaneen in Limpopo. For Ngobeni, a residency in Johannesburg, where he had a chance to meet established artists like David Koloane and Sam Nhlengethwa. Further residencies in New York and Paris can be seen as bearing influence on his style – Ngobeni names Jean-Michael Basquiat and Pablo Picasso as inspirations but his style equally shows the influence of Surrealism, Dada and Abstract Expressionism. Instead of the expressionistic brushwork, similarly to Wayne Barker, the focus is shifted onto a dynamic human symbol, reflecting the style of graffiti art. Ngobeni is also passionate about mentoring a generation of young artists, continuing the tradition of cross-generational artistic exchange he himself has participated in. Many of the very young South African artists, like Teresa Kutala Firmino, are often characterized by distinguishable, developed styles. For Firmino, the interwoven pattern of personal and shared histories is also a point of reference. Past and present are fluid, while grand narratives can be re-imagined through the prism of the personal ones – ‘History, as presented, is often biased and one-sided, so to get a better understanding I reimagine my past in this so-called truth’ – she explains. Her works incorporate collage and a surprising, Surrealist assemblage of objects, each carrying a personal significance and capable of being the main actor in an imagined story.

Unsurprisingly, most of South Africa’s art market oscillates between two major cities, Johannesburg and Cape Town, with primary and secondary markets located there. Goodman Gallery in Cape Town, founded in 1966 is among South Africa’s oldest galleries of contemporary art, with a strong presence across international and regional art fairs and has been a pivotal actor in bringing attention to artists like Lisa Brice and David Goldblatt. Gallery MOMO, with locations in Johannesburg and, has been identified by Kai Lossgott as ‘paving the way for South Africa’s return to the Venice Biennale’. Everard Read Gallery, established in 1913 and Africa’s oldest commercial gallery has a London location, just like the Goodman gallery. While building a strong local presence for South African artists in the region continues to be important and the painful historical past remains one of the key themes, the growth of the African sector within the global art market can drive the artists outside, towards the global art centres.

Follow Nina on her Instagram @l.ninka