A sprawling urban wall made of hundreds of ‘shoemaker boxes’ greeted all who entered into the Unlimited section of Art Basel. Towering high above us, it’s impossible to miss Ghanaian artist Ibrahim Mahama’s Non-Orientable Nkansa II (2017). The multitude of shoeboxes, made from scrap materials found in Accra and Kumasi, Ghana, used to contain tools for polishing and repairing shoes, were obtained by Mahama and his coworkers—migrant workers from rural Ghana—after much negotiation. Fastened together in a single monumental unit, the work is akin to a memorial for Africa. Other items, heels, needles, hammers and fabric, jut out from the boxes, stacked together in a shrine-like fashion—all part of Mahama’s ongoing investigation into the life of materials and their numerous possibilities.
The work’s eminent placement makes a statement on the possibilities for Africa and its art—a region that witnessed increased representation at this year’s fair. “The critical response to the first iteration of Ibrahim Mahama's extraordinary installation Non-Orientable Nkansa I was overwhelmingly positive when we first showed it in London and then Miami [Art Basel Miami 2017], where it was acquired by the Margulies Collection,” says Artistic Director of White Cube, Susan May. Non-Orientable Nkansa II was acquired by a museum in North America. Details will be announced after the formal acquisition process is complete, stated the gallery. Just a few steps away and we encountered Cameroonian Barthelemy Toguo’s expansive 4 x 10 meter painting Rwanda 1994 (2012-2014). “Twenty years after the terrible genocide of the Tutsis, I decided to create this giant painting,” says the artist. “As an African artist, I seek to evoke in my own way this large-scale crime which traumatised the entire world, and particularly the African continent. Once again, man becomes wolf, denying all the values that are the foundations of humanity.” A line of men and women holding hands reveals, as the artist states, “the hope of peace returning,” rather than destruction. Presented by Galerie Lelong, the painting is a visual feast. Even while skulls hang behind each figure, the work reflects the idea of darkness being expelled by light and ignorance being replaced by knowledge.
Sam Gilliam immersive installation at Unlimited presented by David Kordansky Gallery
Another emotionally poignant work in the Unlimited section is South African photographer Mikhael Subotzky collaborative work with Patrick Waterhouse, Ponte City (2008-14). The 54-story Ponte City apartment building commands the Johannesburg skyline. Built for wealthy whites during the apartheid in the 1970s, a multitude of histories dwell in the building. During the 1980s, as the affluent tenants moved to the suburbs, immigrants and migrants from rural South Africa moved in, and the building changed. Subotzky and Waterhouse capture the current tenants with electrifying sensitivity. Its Apartheid revisited. Presented by Cape Town and Johannesburg-based Goodman Gallery, Ponte City sold to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art for an undisclosed figure. “It was our top sale,” said a gallery representative.
Tucked inside the main fair in the Feature section at London-based Hollybush Gardens was one of the gems of this year’s fair: works by 64-year-old Tanzanian-born, UK-based artist Lubaina Himid. In 2017, Himid became the oldest person and first black woman to win the prestigious Turner prize. Her politically driven, vivid subject matter explores themes of racism, visual culture and art history. Collectors rushed to the booth and by mid-afternoon on Tuesday, the VIP opening day of the fair, eight out of 10 works from her ongoing series of painted pages from the Guardian newspaper sold for £6,000 each. The most expensive and largest work, Ball on Shipboard (2018), was priced at £110,000 and on hold for an international museum. By Thursday only a few works remained available.
Barthelemy Toguo's Rwanda 1994 at Unlimited presented by Galerie Lelong
African American art similarly had their heyday at Art Basel. The fair takes place just after P Diddy’s purchase of Kerry James Marshall’s 1997 painting Past Times at Sotheby’s in May for $2.1m, setting a new auction record for a living African American artist. Two works by Marshall sold at Art Basel for big figures. David Zwirner sold Vignette #12 (2008) while Jack Shainman sold Vignette (The Kiss) (2018). Both galleries did not disclose prices due to the “sensitive nature” of pricing Marshall’s work after the artist’s record-breaking auction, reported The Art Newspaper. During the fair’s VIP preview days, Blum & Poe reported the sale of a Henry Taylor work depicting the US-Mexico border, priced at $175,000, to Paris’s Louis Vuitton Foundation. New York-based dealer Jack Shainman sold a 1975 portrait by the late Barkley Hendricks for $1.75m, and Lehmann Maupin Gallery sold nine works by McArthur Binion, in addition to a monumental work in Art Basel’s Unlimited section, for prices ranging from $70,000 to $450,000, according to Artnet. At Alexander Gray, a vibrant 1972 abstract composition by Sam Gilliam sold to a German art foundation. And in Basel, two African Americans—Gillian and Theaster Gates—had solo exhibitions at the Kunstmuseum.
Such a grand presence for African and African American artists signals a moment of long overdue recognition. “It is not a phase—it is awareness and education,” says Tim Blum. The rising prices at auction, particularly for African American art, point to changes in the market characterised by swiftly recalibrating price points for artists that have been devalued for decades. Moreover, a new set of African American collectors has helped to set the bar straight. During last month’s auctions, producer Swiss Beatz, who introduced P Diddy to Kerry James Marshall, purchased UK-born Ghanaian artist Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s painting, An Assistance of Amber (2017), for $55,000. In addition, museums are increasingly filling gaps in their collections—making space for new histories and for works by artists long due the spotlight they deserve. The sale of Ponte City to SFMOMA and Mahama’s monumental installation to a North American institution are cases in point. Other examples include the Broad museum in Los Angeles, which announced in May that it had purchased Mark Bradford’s Helter Skelt I (2007), which sold at Phillips in March for $12m, making it the previous auction record for a living African American artist, and Kerry James Marshall’s 2017 painting Untitled (London Bridge) (2016) has recently been acquired by the Tate Modern in London.
Shirin Neshat. Tooba Series. 2002. Cibachrome print work. 121.9 x 152.4cm Courtesy of Goodman Gallery
While the high prices at auction for African American art are indicative of a recent trend, the interest in artists from Africa and the diaspora are the result of numerous factors. “Finally, independent gallerists have made significant investments in research and archiving of underserved artists—my peers Michael Rosenfeld, Garth Greenan, Hales Gallery are great examples of dealers who have made long-term commitments to changing the landscape of art history," said Alexander Gray. "We were here long before the auction houses or the behemoth corporate mega-galleries."
Other factors include the opening of museums on the continent (MACAAL and Zeitz MOCAA) and in the US, such as the David Adjay-designed African American History Museum, as well as several blockbuster shows at international institutions, including the Tate Modern’s 2017 exhibition Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power. In March 2017, Sprüth Magers in Los Angeles staged Power, an exhibition devoted to work by African American women from the 19th century to the present. On view this summer at Sean Kelly in New York is Ravelled Threads, a thematic exhibition done in partnership with dealer pioneering gallerist Somalian-born, Seattle-based, Marianne Ibrahim Abdu, revealing recent work by 10 artists from Africa who utilise fabric to create textiles, weavings, embroidery, performances and installations.
A visitor looks at portrait by Barkley Hendricks at Jack Shainman Gallery at Art Basel
From the African continent two South African galleries—Goodman Gallery and STEVENSON Gallery—were Africa’s sole representatives at the fair. Goodman has regularly participated at the fair since 1982 while STEVENSON first partook in Art Basel in 2016. Two sculptures by Yinka Shonibare MBE for £135,000 each to Greek and Belgian collectors; six sculptures by William Kentridge, each within a price range of $95,000-300,000 to Swiss and Spanish collectors; a photograph by Shirin Neshat for $70,000; and a painting by Zimbabwean painter Mishek Masamvu for $19,000. Galleria Continua sold Colourful Stones (2018) by Cameroonian artist Pascale Marthine Tayou for €85,000(dhs). STEVENSON presented a booth of works by South African artists Zanele Muholi and Simphiwe Ndzube. “It is wonderful to see a growing group of friends from our part of the world make the annual pilgrimage to Basel,” said Joost Bosland, Partner, Stevenson, Cape Town, and Johannesburg. “Collectors seemed to have noticed the recent biennales in Dakar and Berlin, based on the interest at the fair in the work of Portia Zvavahera, Meschac Gaba and Moshekwa Langa. All in all, this has been our best year yet.”
Economic power too has its sway on the art world—just as much as the creativity that fosters the art. In 2000, The Economist infamously labeled Africa the “hopeless continent.” Eleven years later it changed its narrative to “Africa Rising.” And while the latter description is relative to the African country in question, according to the World Bank, Africa has six of the world’s ten fastest growing economies this year. These include Ghana, Ethiopia, Côte d’Ivoire, Djibouti, Senegal and Tanzania. The World Bank also forecasts growth of 3.2 per cent for the year, up from 2.4 per cent in 2017. It predicts slightly higher growth for 2019 of 3.5 per cent. Africa is rising and its “rise” is fostering new opportunities for an ever-expanding art consciousness, one that is influencing a new stream of collectors.
An installation view of Alexander Gray's booth
“In terms of art from the African continent and diaspora, it was lovely to see the South African regulars, Stevenson and Goodman Gallery, the only two galleries from the African continent, representing not only South African artists but artists from other parts of the African continent,” said Johannesburg-based collector Pulane Kingston who purchased a work by an Afro-Brazilian artist at the fair. “What struck me most about their offering was how the artists that they represent and showcased at the fair have grown globally in stature—these are artists such as Kemang wa Lehulere, El Anatsui, Zanele Muholi, Yinka Shonibare, Nicolas Hlobo, Robin Rhode, Candice Breitz, William Kentridge and Mikhael Subotsky who now sit in major international collections. That said, it would be wonderful to see more galleries from the African continent and diaspora at the fair.”
There were no Sub-Saharan African galleries at Art Basel or at the surrounding satellite fairs. However, there were more collectors. “It is great that more attention is finally being paid to Africa from overseas, but what is particularly encouraging to see is the presence of more collectors from the African continent at events like Art Basel,” said Liza Essers, owner and director of Goodman Gallery. “For me it reflects a more sustainable and long-term shift in the market." As the curator and art critic Simon Njami put it during the recent Dakar Biennale: “What we don’t want is this phenomenon that was created outside to dictate what happens inside.” The future holds promise.