Africa’s contemporary art scene is characterised by a myriad of remarkable artists who have paved the way for the next generation, and a fast-growing number of promising young artists. Using their artwork to interpret and portray Africa’s socio-economic realities, political challenges, rich traditions and diverse beauty, many African artists go beyond aesthetics, and dive deep into concept. These leading and emerging artists continue to influence the evolution of contemporary art in Africa.
Tracey Rose, South Africa (b.1974)
Born in Durban and currently residing in Johannesburg, Tracey Rose is an established contemporary multimedia artist and outspoken feminist, best known for her bold provocative narrative-less performances, video installations and photography. Evident in her artwork, Rose confronts the politics of identity, including sexual, body, racial and gender issues. Rose’s themes often convey her multicultural ancestry and experience of growing up as a mixed-race person in South Africa. She skilfully combines popular culture with notions of sociology to evoke powerful emotions and illustrate the disparities of South Africa’s political and social landscape. Rose has held solo exhibitions in South Africa as well as in Europe and America and has participated in a number of international events, including the Venice Biennale.
Meschac Gaba, Benin (b. 1961)
Meschac Gaba is perhaps best known for his Museum of Contemporary African Art, a travelling exhibition inaugurated at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam in 1997. Created in the form of a nomadic museum, Gaba’s extraordinary project consisted of 12 exhibition rooms set up in various European art institutions over a period of five years in an ingenuous attempt to create a space for African art. In 2013, the Tate Modern purchased and showcased Gaba’s entire ‘museum’. With a natural talent for expressing his ideas through the visual arts, Gaba’s museum depicted subjects from fashion in the Summer Collection Room and food in the Museum Restaurant, to excessive overproduction of food in the Draft Room. Employing local craftsmanship with a European flair, Gaba’s works vary from paintings and ceramics to installations using a range of materials such as paint, plywood, plaster, stones and decommissioned bank notes.
Kudzanai Chiurai, Zimbabwe (b.1981)
Exiled from Zimbabwe after fearlessly producing an inflammatory portrait depicting the country’s infamous president Robert Mugabe, Kudzanai Chiurai, the first black recipient of a Bachelor of Fine Arts from the University of Pretoria, has become an important figure in African art. Chiurai uses dramatic multimedia compositions to confront the most pressing issues in the southern African region, from government corruption, conflict and violence to xenophobia and displacement. Based in Johannesburg, Chiurai’s work is brutally honest, challenging the status quo and African governments through a mixture of digital photography, editing and printing, painting, and, more recently, film. His latest work entitledThis is not Africa, this is us is a three-part exhibition involving video installation taking place in Rotterdam and The Hague until 29 March 2014.
Nástio Mosquito, Angola (b.1981)
A multimedia and performance artist working across music, videos, spoken word and a capella (singing without instrumental sound), Nástio Mosquito flirts with African stereotypes in western contexts. Often portraying himself as the central figure of his art, Mosquito’s work makes powerful political and social statements, slightly discomforting at a first glance, but stimulating meaningful reflection. Past exhibitions include the 9 Artists exhibition (2013) at the Walker Art Centre in Minneapolis, and Across the Board: Politics of Representation at the Tate Modern in London in 2012. In a recent work, Mosquito declared, ‘I do represent, if you are willing, the army of the individuals’ in line with his belief in producing artwork not in isolation, but involving the community at large.
Watch Nastio Mosquito’s Desabafo de um Qualquer Angolano:
Julie Mehretu, Ethiopia (b.1970)
A key African artist of her generation with a growing international exposure, Julie Mehretu’s large paintings draw on elements of aerial mapping and architecture. With an underlying calligraphic complexity, Mehretu’s energetic art pieces represent accelerated urban growth, and densely populated city environments and social networks of the 21st century. Mehretu creates each painting by adding consecutive thin layers of acrylic paint on canvas and then finishing it off with delicate superimposed marks and patterns using pencil, pen, ink and streams of paint. Mehretu’s work portrays a compression of time, space and place, independent of historical significance. From constructivism and geometric abstraction to futurism, Mehretu describes her paintings as ‘story maps of no location’ envisioning her work as imagined and abstract rather than realistic.
El Anatsui, Ghana (b.1944)
One of Africa’s most influential sculptors, Ghanaian El Anatsui is at the forefront of contemporary artists of his time and has received considerable international attention for his sculptural experiments. A professor in the Sculpture Department at the University ofNigeria and a prolific sculptor, Anatsui’s preferred media are clay and wood, which he uses to create objects expressing various social, political and historical concerns. In his later works, he has turned to installation art and sewing processes. Using unconventional tools such as chainsaws and power tools, he has reshaped and given new meaning to materials such as railway sleepers, driftwood and aluminium bottle tops. In an interview, Anatsui noted, ‘the amazing thing about working with these metallic fabrics is that the poverty of the materials used in no way precludes the telling of rich and wonderful stories.’
Ibrahim El Salahi, Sudan (b.1930)
Often referred to as the godfather of African modernism, Ibrahim El Salahi has created over five decades of visionary artwork, a sort of surrealist split between Arab and African origins. Former diplomat and undersecretary of the Sudanese Ministry of Culture in the 1970s, El Salahi was imprisoned for six months without charge, having been accused of anti-government activities. An articulate and avuncular figure, El Salahi has developed his own unique art history, pioneering on many art fronts such as being one of the first artists to elaborate Arabic calligraphy in his paintings and the first African artist to get a Tate Modern retrospective. Elementary forms and lines dominated his early artwork, and over the years his work has taken a meditative and abstract turn, with a strong emphasis on lines, and use of black and white.
Sokari Douglas Camp, Nigeria (b.1958)
Nigerian-born Sokari Douglas Camp is one of the best female sculptors having broken into the male-dominated field of sculpting in Africa, and belongs to the first generation of female artists to have attracted the attention of the international art market. Originally from a large Kalabari town in the Niger Delta, Douglas Camp’s work is greatly inspired by Kalabari culture and traditions. Employing modern sculptural techniques with the predominant use of steel, Douglas Camp creates large, semi-abstract figurative works, adorned with masks and ritual clothing, reflecting her close relationship to Nigeria despite having lived in London for many years. Douglas Camp has had numerous solo and group shows all over the world and permanent collections of her work can be found in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC, and the British Museum in London.
Abdoulaye Konaté, Mali (b.1953)
A prominent contemporary art figure in Mali, Abdoulaye Konaté artwork is a striking combination of installation works and painting. After pursuing a degree at the National Art Institute of Bamako, Konaté completed his painting studies in Cuba. Most of Konaté’s large-scale work is based on textiles, a readily available and cheap medium in Mali. Treating textiles as a limitless palette, Konaté dyes, cuts, sews and embroideries scraps of cotton and traditional bazin fabric to produce his signature monumental tapestries. Through his creative work, Konaté conveys his thoughts on the political, social and environmental spheres and cultural traditions in contemporary Mali. His major works have focused on the political tensions surrounding the Sahel region, and, since the start of the millennium, on the devastating impact of AIDS on Malian society.
Chéri Samba, Democratic Republic of Congo (b.1956)
A leading contemporary African painter, Chéri Samba’s paintings reveal his perception of different facets of daily life in the Democratic Republic of Congo and the rest of the African continent, with Samba himself as the main subject of his paintings in later works. Samba started his career working as a billboard painter and a comic strip artist, and gradually moved to painting on sacking fabric, as canvas was too expensive. In his paintings, Samba began to use the comic style of ‘word bubbles’, a move that enabled him to include thought-provoking commentary in his works. Recognised as the ‘Samba signature’, adding text was Samba’s innovative way of encouraging people to take more time to study and understand the meaning behind his captivating paintings.