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The contemporary art scene of Africa is characterised by a dynamic list of creators, who interpret and capture socio-economic realities, political challenges, rich traditions and diverse beauty. Culture Trip curates both leading and emerging artists who continue to influence the evolution of contemporary art in Africa.
Durban-born Tracey Rose is an established contemporary multimedia artist and outspoken feminist, best known for her bold performances, video installations and arresting photographic works. Rose confronts the politics of identity, including sexual, racial and gender-based themes, and often explores her multicultural ancestry. She skilfully combines elements of popular culture with sociological theories to evoke powerful depictions of South Africa’s political and social landscape. Rose has held solo exhibitions in South Africa as well as Europe and America, and has participated in a number of international events, including the Venice Biennale.
Meschac Gaba garnered critical acclaim for his travelling exhibition, Museum of Contemporary African Art, inaugurated in 1997 at Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum. Gaba’s extraordinary project consisted of 12 exhibition rooms, including Summer Collection Room, Museum Restaurant and Draft Room, set up across various European art institutions over five years – in an attempt to place African art in front of international audiences. In 2013, the Tate Modern purchased and showcased Gaba’s entire ‘museum’, featuring paintings, ceramics and multimedia installations employing materials such as paint, plywood, plaster, stones and decommissioned bank notes.
Exiled from his native Zimbabwe after fearlessly producing an inflammatory image depicting Robert Mugabe, the country’s infamous leader, with horns and swallowed by flames in 2009, Kudzanai Chiurai now lives and works in Johannesburg. Chiurai was the first black recipient of a Bachelor of Fine Arts from the University of Pretoria, and has since become an important figure in the African contemporary art scene. Chiurai uses dramatic multimedia compositions to confront and challenge the most pressing issues in Southern African, from government corruption to violence, xenophobia and displacement. Chiurai’s work is brutally honest, tearing apart the status quo and confronting the state of African governments through a mixture of digital photography, printing, painting and, more recently, film.
Angolan multimedia and performance artist Nástio Mosquito flirts with African stereotypes in Western contexts, working across the realms of music, video and spoken word. Often portrayed as the central figure in his video works, Mosquito’s creations make powerful political and social statements. Past exhibitions include 9 Artists (2013) at the Walker Art Centre in Minneapolis, and Across the Board: Politics of Representation (2012) at Tate Modern in London. Mosquito once said, “I do represent, if you are willing, the army of the individuals”, believing that art should not be produced in isolation, but should involve the community at large.
Ethiopian-born Julie Mehretu is a key African artist of her generation with growing international exposure. Her large-scale paintings, which she describes as “story maps of no location”, draw inspiration from aerial mapping and architecture and capture accelerated urban growth, densely-populated city environments and contemporary social networks. Mehretu creates each painting by adding consecutive, thin layers of acrylic paint on canvas, finalising her work with delicate, superimposed marks and patterns using pencil, pen, ink and streams of paint.
Nigerian-born, London-based Sokari Douglas Camp belongs to the first generation of African women artists that captured the international market. Douglas Camp, who is from a large Kalabari town in the Niger Delta, is largely inspired by Kalabari culture and traditions, and she employs modern sculptural techniques with the predominant use of steel, to create large, semi-abstract figurative works. She has had numerous solo and group shows all over the world, and her works live in the permanent collections of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC and the British Museum in London.
A leading contemporary African painter, Chéri Samba’s paintings reveal the artist’s perception of daily life in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Samba began his career working as a billboard painter and comic strip artist, and gradually moved towards painting on sacking fabric as canvas was too expensive; in his later works, he is at the forefront of his own paintings. Samba’s paintings became characteristically known for their ‘word bubbles’, which allowed the artist to incorporate written commentary in his works; this is now known as the ‘Samba signature’. The artist’s works encourage viewers to contemplate and interact with his paintings.
One of Africa’s most influential sculptors, Ghanaian artist El Anatsui is at the forefront of the contemporary art scene, having received considerable international acclaim for his unusual and highly-identifiable sculptural works. Anatsui, who is a professor in the Sculpture Department at the University of Nigeria and a prolific sculptor himself, works with clay and wood, which he uses to create objects expressing various social, political and historical concerns. In his later works he turned to installation art and sewing processes, and reshaped and repurposed everything from railway sleepers to driftwood and aluminium bottle tops.
Widely considered the godfather of African modernism, Ibrahim El Salahi has created over five decades of visionary artworks in his own brand of Surrealism, split between Arab and African origins. A former diplomat and undersecretary of the Sudanese Ministry of Culture in the 1970s, El Salahi was imprisoned for six months without charge upon being accused of anti-government activities. Elsewhere, he was one of the first artists to elaborate Arabic calligraphy in his paintings, and the first African artist to obtain a Tate Modern retrospective. Elementary forms and lines dominated his early work, which, over the years, has taken a meditative and abstract turn with a strong emphasis on lines and monochrome.
Abdoulaye Konaté, a prominent contemporary art figure in Mali, creates a striking combination of installations and paintings. After pursuing a degree at the National Art Institute of Bamako, Konaté completed his studies in Cuba. Most of Konaté’s large-scale works are in the textile arts – an inexpensive and readily-available material in Mali. Konaté dyes, cuts, sews and embroiders scraps of cotton and traditional bazin fabric to produce his signature monumental tapestries. Through his creative works, 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.
This British-Nigerian artist explores the complicated history between Europe and Africa, including his own cultural identity, through a variety of mediums. Yinka Shonibare’s work is showcased everywhere from the Tate Modern in London and Moderna Museet in Stockholm to MoMA in New York City and the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C. His paintings, photographs, and installations integrate themes of colonialism and contemporary globalisation, asking the viewer to reflect on class and identity in our world.. Yinka Shonibare’s use of batik fabric is a colourful hallmark found in many of his mediums.
Cairo-born Ghada Amer is much more than her popular, if slightly controversial, embroidered paintings depicting nude women’s bodies. Though much of her art does include themes of sexuality and female identity, her work ultimately questions the ambiguous paradoxical nature found when trying to define art, gender, and cultural identity. She takes the fundamentals of traditional notions and explores their dichotomies through paintings, sculptures and ceramics. Amer’s French-honed talents are frequently showcased from Brooklyn to Berlin and even down under in Sydney.
Aida Muluneh’s journey from Ethiopia to becoming one of the leading experts on African photography took her to Yemen, England, Cyprus, the U.S. and Canada. A commercial photographer as well as an artist, her resume includes a stint as a photojournalist for the Washington Post in her early career. Today, her powerful portraits of contemporary Africa are exhibited around the world, while she and her family embrace Ethiopia’s communities from both behind and in front of the camera.
The first thing to know about Pascale Marthine Tayou is that the feminine ‘e’ added to his first and middle names are intended to distance his art from gender ascriptions. Everything else one needs to know about this Cameroonian artist can be discovered through his work, which is deliberately heterogeneous and mobile. Though he explores his African roots through ever-changing mediums, he predominantly seeks to explore the issues that humanity and nature face in a global society. Tayou’s travels continually influence his creations and his quest to redefine postcolonial culture around the world.
Nick Dauk contributed additional reporting to this article.