Among the first works El Anatsui created after moving from Ghana to Nsukka, Nigeria, was the above “Chambers of Memory” (1977). Aficionados of traditional African terracotta works of art surely immediately recognise a strong influence from the famed Nok heads. Indeed, with the typical facial features and its large bald forehead, El Anatsui fashioned this sculpture to resemble a terra-cotta head from Nigeria’s Nok culture. Arriving in Nigeria in 1975 to teach at the University of Nsukka, he had started to immerse himself in local styles and became fascinated by Nigeria’s national museums and archeological sites. The art of the so-called Nok, the only remnant of the civilisation that created these works, became a strong influence on his early work. The genius of the artist came into play with the creation of the empty chambers on the inside of the head, visible at the back (see below). The interior divisions he created allude to the sites of memory archived in man’s mind. With its empty chambers, the work in that way can be seen as a reflection on collective memory and humanity’s inability to learn from its mistakes. After all, we are for example still clueless what happened with the Nok civilisation, a culture so forgotten we don’t even remember its real name. I like how the artist, inspired by this specific case, made this universal and timeless message. And, also for collectors of classical African art, it does add a new layer of meaning when admiring traditional African terracotta sculptures.
Long before he would get famous with his hanging metal tapestries, El Anatsui thus was already pushing boundaries as an artist. If you are not familiar with his work, please read the brilliant article The New Yorker recently published about him here.
The news stayed a bit under the radar during this global pandemic, but something rather extraordinary happened in the art market earlier this month : the acclaimed Ivorian artist Abdoulaye Diarrassouba (1983), better known under his moniker Aboudia, was given a dedicated online sale at Christie’s New York of paintings and works on paper created by the artist over the past year – you can learn more about this sale here. The auction was accompanied by a solo exhibition of the works on sale in Christie’s Rockefeller Center galleries from 4 to 8 March (as illustrated above).
Not only was it exceptional for an auction house to consign works directly from an artist, the 22 works in the sale all were sold, and the auction made a total of $ 1,066,875 (!), with most works on canvas selling for 10 times the low estimate. Admittedly, the estimates were deliberately kept low – their market value being substantially higher – yet with the six bigger paintings all selling above $100K, all previous price records for the artist were pulverised. In the art industry, that sort of thing should make you famous overnight – yet I have not found many articles about these astonishing results?! For market insiders, this success wasn’t a real surprise, as on October 22th, 2020, the artist’s Le Petit Chien Rouge (2018), which was expected to sell at Sotheby’s for just $23,400, instead was hammered down for $98,400.
Based in both Abidjan and Brooklyn, Aboudia’s work is informed by both Western and African art movements, referencing styles from avant-garde movements such as abstract expressionism to the street art and murals of Abidjan. His paintings consist of layered child-like figures, and often incorporate clippings from newspapers, magazines, or books to contextualise the work. Combining text with raw images, Aboudia has often been compared to Jean-Michel Basquiat, and one can only admit the works do have a comparable energy to them. Depending to who you are talking with, this comparison has worked both against the artist as to his advantage. Personally, I think one is degrading Aboudia’s own unique voice by using the Basquiat reference in sale pitches of his work. The artist himself claims a multitude of both Western and African influences, and the art dealer Jack Bell has recounted how during his initial visits to the Tate Modern, Aboudia was impressed by the large formats used by Jackson Pollock and the loose gestures of Cy Twombly. Anyhow, I think it should be avoided to view his work solely through a western art historical perspective.
Aboudia originally gained international attention in 2011 for his depictions of the Ivorian war and its child soldiers – and that series by some is still considered to be his best work. The artist’s motivation to create art mainly comes from telling stories about the unfavourable conditions and city life of his country, especially for children. You might enjoy to learn he has also been adding photos of classical African masks and statues in his works – for example, spot the Dan masks and Igbo masks in the painting above. Aboudia has stated that these elements of ‘his ancestral history’ nourish him as much as a the raw contemporaneity of city life in Abidjan.
In response to market demand, Aboudia has become a very prolific and productive artist, and has been exhibited by Jack Bell Gallery, Galerie Cécile Fakhoury, Ethan Cohen Gallery, and Saatchi Gallery, among others. The fact that both Jean Pigozzi and Charles Saatchi, two discerning collectors of African art, acquired works from him has counted as an early market validation, and ambitious dealers (and now also auction houses) have been most active to build on to his success. In 2017, Christophe Person (now at Artcurial), for example also held a selling exhibition of Aboudia’s work at the French auction house Piasa. Surely, the Christie’s auction, held in anything but favourable circumstances, also rode the waves of the huge current interest in artworks created by millennial African artists.
Ever since Adenike Cosgrove published her yearly State of the African Art Market last month, I’ve been thinking about the comment one of the participants of the survey made:
“The (African) contemporary scene is now flooded with mediocre portraiture and self-portraiture, narcissistic works turning on ‘identity’, formulaic flat-styled figurative painting and a lot of imitative work. This superficiality/commercialism is stoked by art fairs and frothy auction action that is mainly driven by wealthy and speculative buyers (including corporate interests) who have more money than taste or discernment.”
The above juxtaposition of three paintings just next to that quote seems to illustrate the collector’s point. Yet, I do disagree. Firstly, one can hardly state the emergence of portraiture celebrating blackness is something new. The African American artist Kerry James Marshall, who indirectly can be considered an influence on some contemporary African artists, has been building 40 years on an oeuvre focused on black self-representation. His 1980 work “Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of His Former Self” for example features a black man dressed in black and before a black background. Through his work, Marshall has helped correct what he has called the “lack in the image bank of Black subjects”, and has paved the way for other artists such as Kehinde Wiley. Wiley, an American portrait painter with Yoruba roots, indeed has cited Marshall as a big influence. He is most famous for inserting black protagonists into a setting that recalls traditional European Old Master paintings. Kehinde Wiley’s fame got rocketed to a new level when Barack Obama commissioned him to paint his official portrait. Wiley depicted Obama seated casually on an antique chair among abundant foliage. With his art, the artist wishes to inspire future African American generations who visit museums and finally get to see someone who looks like them being displayed at its walls. In an interview with NPR, Wiley said:
“What I wanted to do was to look at the powerlessness that I felt as — and continue to feel at times — as a black man in the American streets. I know what it feels like to walk through the streets, knowing what it is to be in this body, and how certain people respond to that body. This dissonance between the world that you know, and then what you mean as a symbol in public, that strange, uncanny feeling of having to adjust for … this double consciousness.”
Hijacking traditional models of representation, reimagined with black models, Wiley’s work thus can be interpreted as a comment on the absence of black portraits in museums. His criticism of the art world has helped generate an emancipatory response among contemporary African artists.
Wiley’s brightly-coloured, one-dimensional backgrounds for example reemerge for example in the work of the Ghanaian artist Raphael Adjetey Adjei Mayne – who’s portrait of Amanda Gorman was recently donated to Harvard’s Hutchins Center (info). Mayne’s latest works, capturing and celebrating black experiences, are currently on view at the sold-out exhibition “The joy of my skin” at the Antwerp gallery Geukens & De Vil.
It is fair to say there is currently indeed a wave of Black figurative contemporary artists specialising in portraiture. One of the leading figures is the painter Amoako Boafo, who after selling out a solo show at Art Basel Miami in 2019 became one of the most coveted contemporary African artists (a demand resulting in stratospheric prices at auction). Rendered with a distinctive finger-sculpted technique, Boafo’s portraits celebrate the Blackness of the subject. Portrayed against a light or monochromatic backdrop, the viewer’s attention is focused on the sitter.
The use of such monochromatic backgrounds to highlight the intensity of the blackness of the sitter perhaps should be considered a stylistical element of a whole new movement in contemporary African art. The list of talented artists who each give their own take on these aesthetics of representation is long: Cinga Samson, Collins Obijiaku, Kwesi Botchway, Otis Kwame Kye Quaicoe, Eniwaye Oluwaseyi, Sungi Mlengeya, Ephrem Solomon, and Annan Affotey all are raising interesting questions about black identity and representation. As always, self-portrait do speak multiple visual languages at once, drawing on the artist’s own multifarious identity as a painter, and generalisations should be avoided. Fact is that a whole new generation is exploring new interpretations on the sociological complexities of blackness and difference.
The work of Lynnette Yiadom-Boakye, who currently has a solo show at the TATE Modern (info), has been celebrated for its portrayal of Black normalcy. Yiadom-Boakye has frequently noted that her use of Black figures is merely drawing from her own inspiration rather than the critique of Western art’s relationship with Blackness some writers have projected on it. The artist thus already has moved ahead and in her own way is setting things right in the inequalities of visual representation in present day art world and its cultural institutions. Working with similar made-up empowering narratives as a frame for her portraits is Kudzanai-Violet Hwami, whose discovery of the work of aforementioned Yiadom-Boakye proved most inspirational to her own practice.
In the second half of the 20th century portraiture somewhat fell out of favour as a serious genre, yet Hwami and the other mentioned artists are helping to revive the genre while reformulating it around the Black body. Eventually this resurgence of figuration ‘will go beyond the Black body,’ Hwami said in an interview, ‘it will lift up portraiture as a genre for everyone. And that’s the beautiful thing about it.’