Curated by Bisi Silva, founding director of the CCA in Lagos, "Marker 2013" presented five of the most active scenes from West Africa. Making this event the largest ever showcase of arts from this region in the Middle East, declared Fair Director Antonia Carver. The theme, “Cities in Transition”, outlined a shared experience of constant changes in major cites on the African continent.
Sparkling floors, majestic columns, giant waterfall, spacious architecture, it only takes a few steps inside Dubai’s terminal 3 to get a prime teaser of the experience promised by travel ads. But this is no vacation. In the shuttle taking us to passport control, tall men in suit, briefcase in one hand, smart phone in the other, remind us that we have landed in a business destination.
Thriving on property, trade and finance, Dubai is a key contributor to global growth markets. Written off by analysts and investors during the economic downturn, explained Frederic Sicre, Managing Director of The Abraaj Group, Dubai has proved to be a resilient economic platform. Host to Art Dubai since 2007, one of the world’s major contemporary art fairs, the city also plays a significant role as a pointer of the region’s investment in the arts. Art Dubai, added the representative of the fair’s main partner at the press conference, is rooted in a local context that reflects global trends.
Similar observations could be drawn, on a relative scale, from the economic growth of a country like Nigeria, which dynamism gave the impetus to the theme of “Marker 2013”, Art Dubai’s regional emphasis. Curated by Bisi Silva, founding director of the Centre for Contemporary Art, Lagos, this section presented five of the most active scenes from West Africa. Making this event the largest ever showcase of arts from this region in the Middle East, declared Fair Director Antonia Carver. The theme, “Cities in Transition”, outlined a shared experience of constant changes in major cites on the African continent.
In the absence of government support for the arts, a number of cultural entrepreneurs have taken matters into their own hands and founded independent art spaces acting as creative hubs in their local environment. For “Marker 2013”, Bisi Silva invited four of these organisations: Maison Carpe Diem, Ségou (Mali), Espace Doual’art, Douala (Cameroon), Nubuke Foundation, Accra (Ghana) and Raw Material Company, Dakar (Senegal), to join CCA, Lagos in representing West Africa.
Each venue made a selection of eighteen nationally and internationally established artists practising in a variety of media, ranging from the more traditional painting, wood sculpture and textile, to multimedia arts like video and sound installation.
Maison Carpe Diem presented: Harandane Dicko (photography), Amahiguéré Dolo (wood sculpture), Aboubakar Fofana (textile), Abdoulaye Konaté (textile), Adama Kouyaté (photography); Centre for Contemporary Art, Lagos: Ade Adekola (photography), Karo Akpokiere (drawings), Ndidi Dike (mixed media), Taiye Idahor (mixed media), Emeka Ogboh (sound), Charles Okereke (photography); Doual’art: Em’Kal Eyongakpa (photography/video), Boris Nzebo (painting), Joseph-Francis Sumégné (mixed-media sculpture); Nubuke Foundation: Ablade Glover (painting); Raw Material Company: Soly Cissé (painting), Henri Sagna (installation, mixed media) and Amadou Kan Sy (painting).
Naming the artists is all the more important as very few of them were present in Dubai. Although their art was well mediated by the exhibitors, their absence was a missed opportunity for the artists to experience the response to their work, interact with Art Dubai visitors, engage with other artists, and benefit from the much engaging platform provided by the Global Art Forum.
Spread out in Madinat Jumeirah’s Arena Ballroom, “Marker 2013” opened with Espace Doual’art, the longest established venue of the five, with a selection of some of the most innovative home grown Cameroonian talents. Veteran artist Joseph-Francis Sumégné, known for his mixed-media sculptures, was joined by young bloods Boris Nzebo whose paintings are already included in France’s Fonds National d’Art Contemporain and Em’Kal Eyongakpa snapped up by British curators at the 10th Dak’Art Biennale to be included in last year’s Manchester Art Gallery exhibition “We Face Forward”.
Doual’art was followed by Raw Material Company whose director Koyo Kouoh also opted for a cross-generational selection. But unlike her usual curatorial approach, which tends to be theme-based and international in scope, for “Marker 2013” Kouoh chose a national focus in order to present snippets from Senegalese contemporary art. Interestingly, safe for a signature installation by Henri Sagna with his famous mosquitoes, most works were two-dimensional. Among them where two pieces by Sagna that outlined cityscapes shaped by religious buildings, as well as paintings by Kan-Si depicting, and decomposing almost to the point of abstraction, positions of the Muslim prayer.
These pieces created an interesting link between their place of production, Senegal, and their place of exhibition, the Emirates. Indeed, Islam is both a religious and cultural tie that binds many West African countries to the Maghreb and the Middle East. To select works that highlighted this link was not only culturally relevant, it was also a clever commercial move within the frame of Art Dubai. Indeed these works were the first ones to get Raw Material their red dots.
Could that be an indication that the buyers visiting Art Dubai were more inclined to acquire art to which they could culturally relate? One gallery owner from the main selection, with whom we discussed this question, seemed to think so.
That may well have been the case for artists less known to Dubai visitors, but certainly not for practitioners who have long gained international acclaim. Ghanaian soon-to-be octogenarian Ablade Glover was honoured with a solo presentation by the Nubuke Foundation. At 15,000 euros each, (the highest prices for “Marker 2013”, with mid-range prices at 3/4000 euros), four out of the six paintings exhibited sold half way through the fair. Quite an exciting moment for the non-profit institution devoted to raise awareness of the arts in Accra, support visual artists and develop art educational initiatives.
The most successful booth of “Marker 2013”, Nubuke Foundation’s artistic choice confirmed that there is a potential for artists based on the continent to achieve on the global market without feeling pressured to succumb to “international trends”. A concern which, valid or not, is still being debated within African cultural circles.
One must add, though, that Glover is also an artist from October Gallery’s portfolio and it is most probably through his commercial association with this gallery that he – just like his peers El Anatsui and Romuald Hazoumé both doing remarkably while remaining based on the continent – has gained the level of recognition he has been enjoying for the past decades.
The story was altogether different for Carpe Diem. Established in 2010, this space was founded by Chab Touré, known to us through Galerie Chab created in 2000 and specialising in photography, before relocating in Segou and operating under its current name. With wood sculpture, textile and photography, the Malian venue offered an eclectic choice of works. While the line-up of artists included a big name like Abdoulaye Konaté – whose monumental piece Pouvoir et Religion (Power and Religion), 2011, commissioned by the Institute of International Visual Arts (Iniva) was also displayed in Sculpture on the Beach, a specially curated project by Chus Martinez – achieving sales proved to be quite a challenge. Aboubakar Fofana’s most spectacular ensemble of textile pieces, Obsessions (2012) commissioned by Manchester Art Gallery and premiered during “We Face Forward” suffered from an inconvenient location, high above head. The lack of signage only made it visible to those who randomly happened to look up, or spotted it from afar, unless being informed by Touré or the artist himself.
Our hunch was that Malian pioneering photographer Adama Kouyaté’s studio portraits would definitely find a buyer. This took long to materialise but towards the end of the fair, those little gems found a new home. Proving that prints from pre and early Independence in Africa remain sought after by collectors.
If anything, hesitation was one of the responses commonly observed by the participants of “Marker 2013”. With potential buyers expressing interest, taking notes, checking the names of the artists and returning for more hesitation… “Marker 2013”, it seems, confronted preconceived ideas about contemporary African art and market expectations with the reality of what this part of the continent has to offer. Dolo’s sculpture on the beach blurred the boundaries between tradition and abstraction. Nzebo’s superimposed braided heads over precarious shacks led the viewers from the realm of exoticism to Douala’s urban hairstyles and environment.
CCA, Lagos, the lead institution behind “Marker 2013” got a first hand exposure to the gap between market expectations and artistic production. CCA’s booth was by far the most avant-gardist in its artistic choices. Ade Adekola’s pop portraits form the series Icons of a Metropolis (2012), Karo Akpokiere’s subtle social commentaries, Emeka Ogboh’s soundscapes and sound waves, to name a few of the artists, were all accomplished works created in Lagos, reflecting Nigerian contemporary trends, combining naturalistic and conceptual elements. Objectively, all these pieces were curatorially relevant and one would have thought they would be met with great interest. But obviously this was not what buyers were after.
This raises a crucial question for African artists and curators engaging in market dynamics: should African art production and curatorial practice cater for the market, or should the encounter of the two be premised on an endogenous inside-out process? My answer tends towards the latter. I would also add that there is still a serious job to be done in order to guide collectors and general viewers alike. Many African art professionals on the continent and in the diaspora agree on the fact that there is a need for continued efforts to mediate contemporary art practice from Africa through research and the production of interpretative and analytical material that will place it within local and global art history.
Among the other sub-Saharan African artists represented in Dubai by European galleries were Meschac Gaba, Romuald Hazoumé, Pascale Marthine Tayou, and Otobong Nkanga who is also featured at the Sharjah Biennial until May 13. Mary Evans created a frieze entitled Fayre as part of Art Dubai commissions. But like in Aboubakar Fofana’s case, her work was placed far too high for the visitors to properly engage with it.
Finally, North Africa counted quite a number of artists including Faycal Baghriche, Zoulikha Bouabdellah, Mounir Fatmi, Nicène Kossentini, Moataz Nasr and Younès Rahmoun.
More than a celebratory event for West Africa, “Marker 2013” provided a timely vantage point to observe the dynamics at play between contemporary African art and the market, particularly in the build-up to 1:54, the first African art fair announced to take place in London next October. Could Art Dubai’s Marker 2013 be a barometer signalling artistic trends and collectors responses? Quite possibly!
Just like art critics or curators, the market acts as a validating tool. A relatively impartial system, it allows some level of appraisal of the value of art. Dubai may not be London but there is certainly a lot to be learnt from this encounter between contemporary African art, curatorial practices, and sale strategies adopted by African professionals in order to appeal to new audiences and markets.
Christine Eyene is an art critic and curator.