Five out of the 10 pieces that attracted the best prices of what they call tribal art sold at public auction between January and June last year, were from Africa.
This is according to a list by Tribal Art Magazine, a publication that covers the international art market.
The African pieces listed include: Maternity Figure from Yombe in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Offering Figure from the Yoruba community of Nigeria, Power Figure from DRC and another artifact from Gabon. Each of these works was sold for over $1 million, a remarkable amount for traditional art anywhere in the world.
In the same year, a number of Western galleries either exhibited or auctioned African artefacts, to diverse audiences from across the world. On one end was an exhibition of African Head wares from the Dallas Museum of acclaimed art, at another, a showcase of Sacred Stories in Lowe Art Museum that placed Africa alongside Asia and Europe and an ongoing experiment titled Imagine Africa hosted at the Penn Museum.
At the Penn Museum in Philadelphia, African beauty, strength, power, healing, fashion, change, creation and even spirituality are under focus. Here, visitors to the venue are requested to share their thoughts on the objects on display, and their understanding of Africa.
There were several other offering from Africa, with Tanzania’s playful Tinga Tinga art keeping collectors busy, both in the continent and beyond.
At a quick glance, these pieces were not any better than what my neighbour churns out on a daily basis; in fact, I can easily relate to my neighbour’s pieces, but not the distant masks that the Western world is fed on, as the authentic African art.
The same goes for dance and most of what they call contemporary African art, pushed into the international market by gallery owners and art collectors.
At this point, a few bullet points to keep your mind engaged: Why is African art fetching this kind of cash at the international market? Who is the chief beneficiary?
Congolese pieces seem very attractive, anything to do with the chaos in the country? And who decides what is hot and not at the international market?
I may not have quick answers to these, but two encounters in Cannes and Brussels.
It was in 2008, at a grand event organised by the European Union for cultural actors in Africa, Pacific and the Caribbean (ACP) in Brussels. Though in a far away land, most of the faces featured were the usual clichés; sort of an elite club that dictates cultural programmes in these regions. The interaction with their counterparts from the West was revealing, to say the least.
Apart from the formalities, a lot was exchanged, including contacts, referrals and invites to the different cultural events, across the three regions.
Art collectors present at the accession were exchanging notes, even conspiring on how to acquire more items. Interestingly, it was not so much the cultural worth or creative genius that seemed to matter, but conformity to certain specifications, for the market.
And personal biases and interests too. Ironically, this is the way it happens, on the international art market.
At Cannes, two years later, I encountered the same clowns, this time trying their luck on African cinema. For those who knew how to play the game, it was easy and fast. The honchos from the different funding bodies were present, looking for Africans to collude with: Propose an idea, give him time to draft a proposal as per the funders' needs and then fund it minus their cut.
To boost their credibility, the same honchos would push the funded projects to win international awards, most of which are organised by their bodies, and hence justify another round of funding. This way, internationally acclaimed stars were created and dispatched to the rest of the world.
And this keeps going in cycles, very similar to the international politics, where there was an elite club that called the shots, with the rest of the world watching helpless from the periphery.
So what does this mean? Just like in the case of Africa’s natural resources, the continent’s art has its owners, who dictate terms with several collaborators working with them.
In this relationship, some reap huge profits, as thousands continue to wallow in poverty.
The images are also controlled from above, to the detriment of Africa, as shaped by art schools, art critics and curators.
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