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African artists finding their unique voice

By Dr Paul Bayliss, Senior Specialist Art Curator at Absa Group

African art has come a long way since Pablo Picasso first saw the 1907 exhibition of African objects at the Trocadero Ethnographic Museum in Paris. With a marked increase in interest and invitations extended to African artists to showcase their work on international platforms – from the Museum of Modern Art to Tate Modern as well as fairs such as Art Basel, Frieze and Armory – the art from Africa’s fearless creators is assuming its rightful place in galleries, museums, and private collections across the globe.  

Loyiso Mkize
Loyiso Mkize illustration/comic strip

We have also witnessed African art collectors driving global sales of contemporary African art. Sotheby’s, one of the world’s oldest and largest auction houses and brokers of art, collectibles, jewelry, and real estate, recently concluded it’s bi-annual Modern and Contemporary African Art Auction. The auction exceeded the lower end of its pre-sale estimate by over 40% to net almost R52 million (US$ 3.7 million), making their third online-only auction of contemporary African art a major success.

Other African creators making a name for themselves on a global stage, to name a few, include Cape Town visual artist Loyiso Mkize, who penciled his first comic book for DC Comics, and multi-award winning illustrator and street artist Karabo Poppy Moletsane, whose eye-catching work has led to collaborations with Google, Netflix, Apple, and Nike, for whom she designed a sold-out Air Force 1 sneaker collection.

Now more than ever, creators and businesses from across Africa need to join forces to ensure that this growth trajectory is maintained, enabling the industry to reach its full potential.

Celebrating Africa

It was, therefore, a welcome move when the African Union (AU) declared the theme for this year’s Africa month celebrations in May as ‘The AU Year of the Arts, Culture and Heritage: Levers for Building the Africa We Want.’

In a statement issued at the time, the AU acknowledged that ‘this year’s Africa month celebrations are happening at a time when the continent is still grappling with the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. However, the Creative and Cultural Industries in Africa played a key role in contributing efforts towards prevention and combating the spread of Covid-19. Furthermore, the increased use of technology has created new spaces for this sector to thrive by using digital platforms to promote their goods and services.’

Bringing possibility to life through the visual arts

As a proudly African bank, Absa has a vested, long-term interest in supporting our continent’s visual artists, who have captured the world’s attention with their distinct and diverse styles.  

We are committed to helping young artists from across the African continent to reimagine their futures and bring their possibility to life. One of the levers we are using to promote the development of African artsists through our partnerships with the South African National Association of the Visual Arts (SANAVA), the French Embassay in South Africa, Institut Francais – South Africa and the Alliance Francaise in South Africa and our sponsorship of the Absa L’Atelier competition.

Nkhensani Rihlampfu, 2019 Absa L’Atelier winner

Since its inception 35 years ago, Absa L’Atelier has showcased and continues to invest in some of the finest young artists from the various African countries where Absa has a presence. The success of the Absa L’Atelier can also be attributed to our continued partnerships with arts organisations, leaders within the visual arts and artists from across the African continent.  

A period of innovation and digital progression

Though 2020 provided its challenges, it was likewise a period of innovation and technological progression. The pandemic has allowed Absa to advance our digital art presence; from the launch of the Absa Art Hot Spot virtual experience platform to host webinars, art exhibitions, masterclasses, and art auctions virtually as well as migrating certain elements of our art-related sponsorships and partnerships to online platforms.

Karin Mathebula Fusion of Hues
Karin Mathebula’s Fusion of Hues is currently on at Absa Art Hot Spot

With travel bans and country restrictions still in place, the 2021 Absa L’Atelier Awards competition has also been re-envisioned. The competition will take place virtually, from online submissions to online adjudication of all entries; as well as the prizes for the 2021 recipients. The virtual awards ceremony later this year will also be streamed using an online platform, enabling us to lead the charge in being digitally progressive in the visual arts.

The completely virtual Absa L’Atelier allows for the democratisation of art on the continent and gives access to new entrants who may have faced challenges to submit their work in the past. With the innovative, digitally led approach, artists simply need access to a computer or a smart phone and the internet to submit their entries.

Still, the pandemic has exposed the digital divide like never before. Although the African continent still has some of the lowest internet penetration in the world, the International Finance Corporation (IFC) estimated that the number of people with Internet access has grown to 522.8 million, or 40% of the population. By contrast, the global average internet penetration rate currently stands at nearly 60 percent.

Africa is experiencing rapid population growth and, therefore, also has the largest potential for progress. The African Union, with support from the World Bank Group, has set the goal of connecting every individual, business, and government on the continent by 2030. 

Giving African artists a voice

By going fully virtual, we are gearing up for digital transformation, while also ensuring that we continue to provide young visual artists from across the African continent with the platform they need to explore and comment on issues that impact their lives; irrespective of whether they are based in the rural north of Mozambique or the heart of bustling Nairobi.

Absa L'Atelier 2021 Raji Bamidele
Raji Bamidele, 2019 Absa L’Atelier ambassador

The Absa L’Atelier competition has, over the years, proven to not only provide a platform for artists from across Africa to showcase their work, but has often given a voice to the marginalised, in the process addressing some of the continent’s social challenges.

When imagination is at the core of everyday existence, the seemingly impossible can be overcome. We have witnessed how visual arts inspire people and unite cultures. Where the arts thrive, even the most vulnerable members of society are given a voice.

An example of such a social challenge is gender inequality or exclusion which remains a stumbling block to many a women’s progress on the continent and the competition has intentionally promoted the participation of women artists over the years.

The Power of 35 

One such artist was our 2016 winner, Nourhan Maayouf. She is an Egyptian visual artist whose work is mostly autobiographical, representing her generation of middle-class Egyptian females under socio-political influences. Using self-portraits, performances, and installations, she explores issues of gender and home, covering topics such as displacement, dreams for independence and contemporary relationship issues.

Nourhan Maayouf, The Sea is Closed
Nourhan Maayouf, The Sea is Closed

As part of our on-going relationship with our Absa L’Atelier ambassadors, we welcomed her back as part of the ‘Power of 35’ exhibition that we launched in May this year.

The exhibition showcased original work from previous Absa L’Atelier winners from across Africa and will give visitors a glimpse of how art has evolved and used its voice on the continent over the past three decades. The previous winners shared their respective journeys since winning the competition and also showcase their current work on a global platform, using our immersive virtual gallery.

Africa’s time to shine

With vaccine programmes being rolled out globally, the art world has slowly but surely started opening up again, and we’ll see more art lovers and collectors looking to the different countries in Africa, curious to learn more about the continent’s art. I believe we’ll also see more new galleries opening and art fairs and museums emerging that will pay dividends to visual artists working on the continent that we call home.

It is indeed Africa’s time to shine.

To visit the Absa Art Hot Spot platform, click here. 

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