Art and the Elevation of Our Common Humanity

Ugochukwu-Smooth C. Nzewi comments on the global presence of contemporary African art during the 1:54 Art Fair, May 6-8, 2016, NYC

Juliette Harris with photography by Anders Jones

Ugochukwu-Smooth C. NzewiTo follow up the IRAAA+ overview of the 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair, we asked artist, art historian and curator Ugochukwu-Smooth C. Nzewi to explain the increasing international presence of contemporary African art. What's the impetus for the global momentum outlined in the overview, and why now?

Entrance to fair. Stephen Burks furnishings and partial view of Goodman Gallery display. Photo: Anders JonesNzewi moderated three panels at the 1:54 Fair — two on digital content, social entrepreneurship and media platforms, and one on museums and contemporary African art. 

 “That contemporary African art appears to be receiving broad international attention is a combination of several factors,” says Nzewi. “We are beginning to see the fruits of the heavy lifting and sustained effort of a coterie of African curators and scholars in the last two decades or so to break the art world's glass ceiling.”  

These African heavy lifters include Okwui Enwezor, curator, art critic, writer who in 2015 was ranked near the top — #17 — in the ArtReview list of the 100 most powerful people of the art world; Awam Amkpa, a New York University professor and curator of the AfroEuropa: Incontri Photography and ReSignifications exhibitions in Italy; Touria El Glaoui, founding director of the 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair; Salah Hassan, Goldwin Smith Professor of African and African Diaspora Art History and Visual Culture at Cornell and editor of Nka: Journal of Contemporary African Art; Koyo Kouoh, director of Raw Material Company in Dakar, a center for art, knowledge, and society, and curator of Ireland’s 2016 Biennial of Contemporary Art; Chika Okeke-Agulu, professor of African and Africa Diaspora art at Princeton, author, editor and independent curator; Bisi Silva, director of the Centre for Contemporary Art, Lagos and co-curator of The Progress of Love exhibition in the U.S.; Simon Njami, independent curator and art critic who co-founded Revue Noire, a journal of contemporary African and extra-occidental art and is curator of the 2016 Dak'Art Biennale; the directors of the Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg and Capetown South Africa which was founded in 1966 as a non-discriminatory space for artists who are involved with social transformation and international artists whose interests relate to Africa; and others. 

Frances Goodman, Richard Taittinger Gallery, 1:54 Art Fair. Photo: Anders Jones

Nzewi also cites “the deepening of the art ecosystem in Africa in the last few years with the emergence of new platforms on the ground that create more robust cultural activities, programs, and exchange.  These events have had a visible impact on the appreciation and reception of contemporary African art at the international level.”

Frances Goodman, Richard Taittinger Gallery, 1:54 Art Fair.  Photo: Anders  JonesThe new platforms include physical ones like the art fairs and museum exhibitions noted in the overview and electronic ones such as Okay Africa, Contemporary& , and African and Afro-Diasporan Art Talks which have a strong African/international arts focus. 

Nzewi is not sure whether the spectacular momentum of this presence Africaine (to borrow the title from the groundbreaking print journal published in Paris) will continue.

 Aïda_Muluneh, David Krut Projects, 1:54 Art Fair. Photo: Anders  Jones“The very nature of the market is to seek a ‘new flavor of the month’ and contemporary African art appears to occupy that position currently. The real question is whether this interest is for the long haul and if it really troubles the entrenched value system in the art world.

 “The larger significance of the work currently being done by 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair requires an art historical analysis in the near future.  At this stage, I think it serves a unique purpose of forcing attention on contemporary art by artists of African-descent and providing a decent opportunity for Africa-based galleries to play in the big art markets of New York and London. 

 Paul Onditi, ArtLabAfrica, 1:54 Art Fair.  Photo: Anders  Jones“The hope is that as contemporary African art penetrates the Western markets, the art world system of value that currently locates works by African artists (except for a tiny few) at the bottom will change. 

 Nathalie Boutti, Magnin-A gallery, 1:54 Art Fair. Photo: Anders  Jones“One might ask if contemporary African art requires the validation of the Western markets. I think the answer is to look more closely at the economic imperatives of our world today than at any ideological musings.”

Determining relations between global economics and the markets for African and African Disporan art would be an extensive interdisciplinary investigation. In approaching the question about the validation of the Western markets, one could consider the wealth held by Africans and how much of it is spent on art and art philanthropy.  The 2016 African Wealth Report lists African countries ranked by HNWIs (high network wealth individuals) and multi-millionaires and states that there are approximately 165,000 HNWIs living in Africa, with combined wealth holdings of US $860 billion.  In breaking down the asset allocations of African HNWIs, the report includes the asset category of  “collectables.” Presumably these collectables include art objects because homes, cars and other luxury goods are listed in other categories. (Details about the expenditures of wealthy Africans on “collectables”  and the other specific findings are in the full report which costs USD $1491 which is why our account of that report ends here!) 

Otobong Nkanga, In Situ, 1:54 Art Fair. Photo: Anders  JonesUgochukwu-Smooth C. Nzewi is curator of African art at Dartmouth College’s Hood Museum.  He’s had a close-up view of how an African artist rises to world prominence through his association with the renowned El Anatsui.  Nzewi studied with El Anatsui at the University of Nigeria Nsukka.  Between graduating in 200l and enrolling in the graduate program at Emory University in 2007, Nzewi travelled internationally to curate and participate in exhibitions, conduct workshops and take artist residencies.  In 2006 he entered a postgraduate diploma program in Museum and Heritage Studies offered at the University of Western Cape in South Africa and in 2007 enrolled in the art history doctoral program at Emory University. He earned his PhD in art history in 2013.  His dissertation is on the Dak’Art Biennial and its influence on contemporary African art from 1992 to the present.

Meschac Gaba, In Situ, 1:54 Art Fair. Photo: Anders  JonesThe 24 years since the inception of the Dak’Art Biennial included two pivotal developments which catapulted Okwui Enwezor onto the global art scene: the 1997 international biennial exhibition at Johannesburg, “Trade Routes: History and Georgraphy” for which Enwezor was artistic director and Enwezor’s direction of Documenta 11 in Kassel, Germany in 2002.

Omar Ba, Art Bïrtschi & Cie, 1:54 Art Fair. Photo: Anders JonesConsidering the growing international presence of contemporary African art since the first edition of Dak’Art 24 years ago, we asked Nzewi what does he envision as the global situation for contemporary African art in 2040 — 24 years from now? 

Nzewi’s reply:

"Taking an enormous leap of faith, by 2040 I hope for a more tolerant world, where mutual respect between cultures and peoples thrive. This is very crucial in reforming the current configuration of the international art world and the system of knowledge production that inscribes it. 

Interior of 1:54 Art Fair. Photo: Anders  Jones"If this becomes the case, I expect that artistic merit, for and of itself and above identity politics, would once again command gravitas and become central in the assessment of the contemporaneity of contemporary art. I say this, knowing fully well that there is no uniformity of taste and value judgement but also as an incurable romantic who finds comfort in utopia. 

"I am also aware that historical wrongs are yet to be righted with the honesty that they demand and for that reason, they continue to dictate current cultural politics. Yet it is also obvious that we have made progress in the last few decades. With cautious optimism, I hope the momentum will increase and be sustained such that by 2040 our attention will return to the quality of the art object to elevate our common humanity."

Closing Party, 1:54 Art Fair. Photo: Anders Jones"Afro Arab unity" (as described in the mission of the Marrakech Biennial) may be one of the factors in the realization of Nzewi's ideal about art and the elevation of our common humanity. The progression from the bifurcated perception of North and sub-Saharan Africa cultures to the concept of the art of the continent, as a whole could Closing Party, 1:54 Art Fair. Photo: Anders  Joneshelp secure the position of African art on the world stage. This continental consolidation is symbolized by the name of the 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair — the 54 nations of the continent equalling the oneness of the many, a powerful, synergistic whole.

As for where Ugochukwu-Smooth Nzewi be in the next two decades, we're predicting that he will build on the international path that Simon Njami and, most particularly, Okwui Enwezor have blazed by working in multiple disciplines (writing, publishing and curating) and on three continentsAnd morevoer (unlike Njami and Enwezor), Nzewi is a practicing visual artist. 


Lakin Ogun, New African Photography show. Photo: Anders JonesA block away from the 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair, there was a separate contemporary African photography exhibition, not affiliated with 1:54. New African Photography, on view at Red Hook Labs, May 7 - May 15, 2016 present six contemporary photographers from Africa and its diaspora.

Statement from the exhibition announcement:

Delphine Diaw-Diallo, New African Photography show.  Photo: Anders  Jones The works of the selected artists, both emerging and internationally recognised, express the diversity of narratives informing the continent’s rich visual language today. The exhibition explores multiple themes that challenge accepted notions of belonging and identity; the everyday and the fantastical; the past and the future; the public and the private.

Delphine Diaw Diallo, New African Photography show. Photo: Anders  Jones A debut curatorial collaboration between Red Hook Labs and global media platform Nataal, the show encompasses documentary, fashion and portrait photography. Through the lens of these rising talents, we hope to tell universal and inspiring stories that traverse 21st century Africa and beyond.


Related IRAAA+ article: The New Vision for New York's Former Museum for African Art


The three 1:54 Forum panels moderated by Ugochukwu-Smooth C. Nzewi were:

Media Platforms for the Promotion of the Arts, Visual Cultures, and Social Experiences of and about Africa and the Diaspora — Panel on the new wave of omnibus digital content providers focused on African and African diaspora contemporary cultures and social activities. The discussants are Claude Grunitzky (chairman and editor-in-chief of TRUE Africa; Ginny Suss (president and co-founder of OkayAfrica; and Antoinette Isama (associate editor at OkayAfrica). 

Emerging Social Entrepreneurs and Cultural Brokers — Panel on the changing dynamics and growing interest in contemporary art and cultures of Africa and African Diaspora. It spotlights an upcoming generation of African social entrepreneurs who are seizing the opportunity to mobilize new platforms of discussion. Discussants are Ifeanyi Awachie (curator of Africa Salon: Yale University’s contemporary African arts and culture festival; Shimite Obialo (lawyer and Founder of the digital platform Anoko; Sharon Obuobi (founder of Art Accra); and Amy Sall (founder and editor-in-chief of SUNU Journal of African Affairs, Critical Thought + Aesthetics)

Museums and Contemporary African Art — Panel on practices in collecting, curating, and the display of contemporary art by African artists in American museums with discussants Karen Milbourne (curator at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art); Kevin Dumouchelle (associate curator of Arts of Africa and the Pacific Islands at the Brooklyn Museum); and Yesomi Umolu (curator of exhibitions at University of Chicago’s Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts).