Whose art is it anyway?

Author:Kapotwe, Musonda Chibwe
Position:Arts & Culture: CONTEMPORARY ART

Afrobeats, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Lupita Nyongo are instantly identifiable to Africans. But try El Anatsui--one is likely to draw a blank stare. Why are star artists little known among Africans, and is their art relevant, asks Musonda Chibwe Kapotwe.

On the global art scene and in certain cultural hubs on the continent, contemporary African artists, such as El Anatsui, Ibrahim El Salahi or Yinka Shonibare, have triumphed in a world notorious for its exclusivity and elitism. Shonibare, the British-Nigerian artist, was shortlisted for the Turner Prize and elected as a Royal Academician by the Royal Academy of Arts. Benin's celebrated conceptual artist Meschac Gaba's work is currently on display in London's Tate Modern. But these huge names on the international stage remain unfamiliar to many Africans. Some may have heard of them but would still be hard-pressed to name these artists' famous works.

The same cannot be said of their equivalents in fields like music, literature or film. Shonibare and Gaba may be well known in the art world, but they are not as recognisable in Africa as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the award-winning Nigerian writer, or Kenya's Lupita Nyong'o--the Oscar-winning actress.

Some may point the finger of blame at the lack of media coverage of African art. But the starting point is for Africans ourselves to take a greater interest in the art produced around us. For many, African art is still wrongly synonymous with "tribal" [meaning traditional] art, to which not much value is attached.

The influence that traditional art had in shaping the work of Constantin Brancusi, Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque has been widely acclaimed; yet the same cannot be said of other African art. Contemporary abstract African art is a natural progression in the evolution of local artists. However, if we exclude the oligarchs, established collectors and a small emerging market of informed and affluent art enthusiasts in West Africa, Kenya, Ethiopia and South Africa--where the contemporary art revolution is flourishing--the outlook elsewhere across the continent is less clear.

In African homes, many still decorate their living room walls with art, either done by family members or comprising purchases of poorly executed traditional oil paintings. Typically they feature African women traditionally clothed, performing domestic chores, or a busy local market scene with street hawkers and overcrowded buses. These popular images of rural and urban...

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