these four women are changing the face of contemporary african art
"We’re moving towards a time where we want a contemporary art world to be more inclusive. I don’t think there’s a way back from this, it’s now and it’s a reality.”
Whether in fashion, music, or contemporary art, interest in work by creatives based on, or hailing from, the African continent has never been greater. But while the interest may be there, there are still relatively few formal platforms dedicated to showcasing Africa’s artistic output. Where contemporary art is concerned in particular, major fairs disproportionately spotlight galleries and artists based in, or with easy access to, more traditional art centres. There are of course exceptions, but it was this general sense of infrastructural disadvantage that encouraged Touria El Glaoui to found 1-54 London: a contemporary African art fair held yearly at Somerset House over the October Frieze weekend. “From the start, I had a mission to create the platform for artists from the continent and the African diaspora,” she reflects. “It was a response to the lack of infrastructure and voice for these artists. We wanted to gather as many artists from the continent as we could, and ensure that they are part of the narratives and discourses around contemporary art that weren’t including them.”
Now a key stop on the circuit for collectors, curators and fans of contemporary African art, 1-54 has undergone exponential growth in seven short years. It now hosts fairs in New York and Marrakech. But, as discussions about the treatment of diversity and inclusion as trends increase, is there a reason to worry that the current fever for African art could be all but a passing fad? “I don’t really like the use of the word ‘trend’ with regard to what we do. It would be unfair, in today’s world, to deal with a contemporary art scene that doesn’t include African or African American artists,” Touria tells i-D. “I think the outlook is a good one: we’re moving towards a time where we want a contemporary art world to be more inclusive. I don’t think there’s a way back from this, it’s now and it’s a reality.”
As this year’s edition wraps up, we take a look at some of the most exciting artists whose work was shown at the fair, offering Western audiences an insight into the wealth and calibre of African art.
Known for her portraiture essays that put the collaborative nature of both image-making and identity-making in focus, Alice Mann is quickly rising the ranks of fine art photography. Her series Drummies (2018), documenting young South African drum majorettes, many of whom hail from some of the country’s most disadvantaged communities, earned her the Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize in 2018. It was the first time the prize has been awarded to a series rather than a single image. This year, she picked up the Photography Grand Prix du Jury at the Hyères International Festival. Capturing her subjects with a warm frankness, her work gives voice to the importance of community in building an individual identity. “I’ve always been interested in exploring how being part of a community offers people a sense of belonging, and I think being able to find that space is incredibly important… the need to belong is a feeling we can all relate to,” Alice tells i-D. “‘Being part’ of a community really embodies what collaboration is about… you are linked to other people in some way, working together, having a common cause in mind. From my experiences working with various groups of people, it’s been amazing to witness how belonging to something, and being part of a community can actively reinforce both group identity, but also positively affirm an individual’s sense of self within that.”
Pamela Phatsimo Sunstrum
Pamela Phatsimo Sunstrum is another artist working with photography, though not in the way you may have in mind. Instead, the Botswana artist turns to early 19th-century studio portraits of black and brown bodies shot against kitsch hand-painted landscapes as the inspiration for her recent work. Working in pencil and acrylic, she reinvigorates the images with a surreal balance of vivid and shadowy tones to create images in which familiar markers of time or place are removed. Elsewhere, her subjects fade into the imagined landscapes they pose against, highlighting their insignificance compared to the power and vastness of nature implied by the sets. “I often think of the work of the very brilliant Kodwo Eshun, especially his writing on the 'futures industry' that has been and continues to be at work casting Africa’s future as already apocalyptic, politically, economically and ecologically fraught,” Pamela explains. “It is my intention that my work operates as a sort of navigational device, a signal that it is still possible for us to imagine and occupy radical new futures.”
Mary Sibande’s I Came Apart At The Seams, a solo exhibition now open in Somerset House’s Terrace Rooms, brings together three of the esteemed South African artist’s bodies of work: Long Live the Dead Queen (2008-13), The Purple Shall Govern (2013-17) and In the Midst of Chaos There is Also Opportunity (2017-) as well as new photographic pieces that the artist has begun to refer to as the ‘red’ series: “It’s a colour that for me strongly symbolises rage, resentment and frustration, and an atmosphere of which has remained far too prevalent in contemporary South African society,” she explains.
Focusing on the journeys of Sophie, the alter-ego protagonist that features across the artist’s work, Mary crafts a richly symbolic narrative across photographic image and sculpture, and comments on the inequities of life in post-colonial South Africa and the complexities of navigating identity within it. A key tool in this exploration is clothing, with a central tension between her avatar’s body—that of a black woman—the clothing she wears, and the actions she carries out across each series. Throughout the exhibition Sophie dons a series of costumes, including a domestic maid, a priestess and a soldier. Doing so, she inserts herself into different narratives of power, and encourages us to question our perceptions of a particular body and how the way it is clothed affects them. “I have a deep love for fashion and design. The fabrication of Sophie’s dress, garments, and the textile creatures that often surround her extend beyond simple attraction, however — I believe that we are coded by what we wear, that clothing can be an incredibly effective signifier of class, historical positioning, and power. I’ve used this construct in my work in different ways, sometimes indicating a colonial history, at other times placing Sophie in imagined roles of a powerful priestess or warrior,” she explains.
To create Water Life, a photographic series produced in collaboration with WaterAid and the H&M Foundation, Addis Ababa-based photographer Aida Muluneh travelled to one of the hottest, driest places on earth. A landscape of endless salt-flats and azure blue skies, far-stretching sands and rocky outcrops, Dallol in Ethiopia’s Danakil Depression serves as the otherworldly backdrop for the artist’s uniquely Afrofuturist vision. In her images, she combines references to a pan-African cultural heritage—masks and head-wraps, for example—with contemporary props like the canary yellow jerry cans used by women across Africa to carry water. Though the images are arresting in their presentation of a surreal environmental harshness, underscoring the extent to which access to clean water is an issue that disproportionately affects women, they also speak of their resilience and power in the face of extreme conditions. “I’m not looking for the exoticism of the woman. I’m looking for their strength,” writes Muluneh in the exhibition’s wall text. “Women across the African continent play a major role in society, but often their voices are the ones that are missing.”