The last several years has changed the art world in ways that are necessary, ways that make it apparent that there is a paradigm shift taking hold and in ways that heighten the need for a more sustainable change.
Art is and has been a commodity. For African art, it has shifted in the last 20 years from sculpture, masks and objects to contemporary art as collectibles. The shift from the west to Africa as the place to buy art is reminiscent of that shift to China or Korea. Nothing new here but it is imperative for that the continent make more of what is happening so when the interest leaves its artists to the next frontier that there are some foundations established and built: infrastructure, policies, strategies and most important, a competent and competitive sustainable art market.
In some ways, African governments and the private sector need to come to an understanding and proactive collaboration to create a model for measured and scalable growth, equity sharing and a future sustainable market. Yes, African governments can be problematic but the future can not be imagined or created without them and if we keep seeing failed governments as the only way Africa functions, then the governments of Rwanda or Tanzania are not possible.
Artists need to come up with standards and modes of operation beyond that of the poverty model of starvation or the “big man” richy rich models or the “IT” artist of the moment annoited by some local or foreign curator, gallery or collector. These models are stale, extreme and create an unrealistic perspective of the art world.
The curation and exhibition of African artwork seems to be at a peak level but this curatorial process seems to only apply to a select group of chosen curators and a select group of African Artists and countries. With a continent of almost a billion people with such diversity, it is often pegged through the artwork choices af nd selections as the “South Africa, Kenya, Nigeria, Ghana” African art shows with complete exclusion of the rest of Africa. Or the other narrative is franco-phone and/or anglophone artists. Where is Mozambique, Sierra Leone, Mali or Rwanda or even Liberia?
At the Art Fairs,a similar level of exclusiveness prevails, African artists are moving into “mainstream” shows where underrepresented small and “unnamed” galleries who nurtured and grew some of these artists prior to their “discovery” are not exhibiting because the extreme fees, costs and selection processes that eliminate the galleries. The creation of African Art Fairs on the continent has also grown yet the model is still the same. One questions why the continent has not redefined or re-adapted, or quite frankly, created its own model, a new voice of dynamism rather than follow the western model. Just imagine what that would be!
Today’s art market has brought more observers than real buyers. Artists and galleries are trying to find their way as the art fairs, pop-up shows and social media have transformed the market giving buyers direct access but one thing has not changed, buyers now are only looking for “cache” artists, like brand name products. There still is a lack of imagination, daring and risk taking to carve out new ways of collecting or new ways of exploring outside the “follow” mode defined by a select group.
The search for more art buyers and collectors is moving towards Bitcoins. Like the internet when it began, this untapped space will be both risky and rewarding to the pioneers who get there, but it is imperative that it has structure so that it does not repeat some of the same art market issues.
What’s next? A daring focus on building collections of newcomers and unseen work. This is a huge challenge, if taken on, it would bring a new dynamism to the art market.