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How interest for African contemporary art is growing

April 13, 2018

As DW unveils its new art collection featuring two major Senegalese artists — the "Joseph Beuys of Africa," Joe Ouakam, and Paris-based Soly Cissé — we look at a booming trend in the global art market.

Serie von Joe Ouakam
Image: DW

Contemporary African artists have been gaining ground on the international art market, a boom that's been confirmed through record sales at auction.

Still, these artists remain part of an emerging market niche, as the Quartz news website pointed out: "For all the excitement around African contemporary art," it wrote in March, "the continent still accounts for a fraction of the global art market."

Art Basel's latest global art market analysis, "The Art Market 2018," showed that combined sales of African and South American art grabbed less than four percent of last year's international market share. The US, China and the UK still strongly dominate the market, largely because these richer countries count more art collectors.

Read more: African art goes on sale in Paris and Marrakech

Now Deutsche Welle (DW) is also among the new collectors focusing on African contemporary art, with recent acquisitions of works by Senegalese artists Issa Samb, also known as Joe Ouakam, and Soly Cissé, officially presented on Friday.

Soly Cissé work
Soly Cissé combines figurative and abstract forms, as in "Sans Titre (Raison)" from 2001Image: DW

Beyond the market trends

While some claim that "modern African art is being gentrified," as Nigerian art historian Chika Okeke-Agulu wrote in an op-ed for The New York Times, DW did not buy the artworks to make a quick profit, explained DW director-general Peter Limbourg at the unveiling of the 10 newly acquired artworks in Berlin.

The idea behind the collection is not "to go and pick things in Africa with a colonialist approach, but rather to present these artists to allow people to develop a stronger perception of Africa, not only based on its politics and problems, but also from the cultural field," Limbourg said. As a public broadcaster with a focus on Africa, DW's goal with the collection is to develop projects with these artists and further build bridges with Germany.

DW intendant Peter Limbourg
DW director-general Peter Limbourgh in front of a photo of Joe Ouakam's legendary artistic yardImage: DW/E. Grenier

While the DW had already collected art in the 1950s, Angela Stercken, the art expert who advised DW on its new acquisitions, explained that there wasn't a proper concept behind a collection that was mainly comprised of local artists from the Bonn region. "In my view, one could barely call it a collection," the curator said. This time around, the collection is to draw links with the broadcaster's international mission.

DW's collection is to be further expanded over the years — with a modest budget, Stercken added. The art expert is also heading to the Dak'Art: African Contemporary Art Biennale, held from May 3 to June 2, to scout for more works.

Stercken is visibly excited by the artists highlighted by the first round of acquisitions. She also hopes the public will continue develop "another perception of African art" beyond the latest collector trends. 

Read more: Berlinale: Africa's rising film industry

Issa Samb, alias Joe Ouakam: the African Joseph Beuys

Joe Ouakam is considered "the African Joseph Beuys," Stercken explained. The Senegalese painter, sculptor, actor, philosopher and playwright, who died in 2017, was something of a legend in his country. Born in Dakar as Issa Samb, the artist became renowned for his non-conformist attitude. 

Ouakam was a critic of the cultural policy of President Léopold Sédar Senghor, who promoted the concept of "Negritude" that led to the strict formalism of the artistic movement known as the Ecole de Dakar. With other artists, Ouakam founded the experimental art group Laboratoire Agit'Art as a counter-movement in 1974 that claimed total artistic freedom. The creative lab was set up in Ouakam's own yard, which he called "Issa's garden." 

Ouakam was also on show at the documenta XII in 2012.

The next generation: Soly Cissé

Like Ouakam, Soly Cissé was also born in Dakar, in 1969, and is currently based in Paris. After completing his studies at Dakar's National Arts School in 1996, his reputation as an artist grew quickly over the past two decades.

Combining figurative and abstract forms, his work combines animals, humans and fantasy creatures. By allowing people and animals to share the same universe, "it is no longer a world setting the ruler against the ruled-upon, but rather a world in which people, creatures the same environment share in mutual respect," he once said.

Portrait of a young woman with red hair and glasses
Elizabeth Grenier Editor and reporter for DW Culture