in other words

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Transcript: Contemporary African Art

Guest Zoe Whitley and host Charlotte Burns. Photo Credit: Jamie Govier

BY Charlotte Burns
executive editor of In Other Words

In Podcast Transcripts

Charlotte Burns: Hello and welcome to In Other Words. I’m your host, Charlotte Burns, and joining me today for a special podcast from London, we have Zoe Whitley, a curator of international art at Tate Modern.

Zoe Whitney: Hi.

Charlotte Burns: We have Osei Bonsu, the British-Ghanaian curator and writer. And Hannah O’Leary, head of contemporary and Modern African art at Sotheby’s.

Thank you all for being here and joining us today.

Hannah O’Leary: Thank you.

Zoe Whitley: Thank you for having us.

Charlotte Burns: So the topic of today’s conversation is contemporary African art. And so my first question to each of you is, how would you define that?

Zoe Whitley: Oh, I’m happy to say. I don’t define it. I work with artists—it happens to be that many, many of the artists that I work with were born on the Continent or lived there and have studio practices there now. But I feel that often what is intrinsic to the work is different from these extrinsic impositions that get put on this idea of contemporary African art, and that’s something that is market led. And certainly, as a curator—and a curator who works in public institutions—I’m interested in the artist led.

Charlotte Burns: And what about you guys?

Hannah O’Leary: Well, at Sotheby’s, obviously we do have to define it. As an auction house, we need to have departments and categories in which to offer pictures for sale. There were a small number of African artists included in our contemporary international sales, but there are a huge number that have huge international reputations—are included in museum shows—that were not being offered for sale, and we saw a need to have another category that would include those artists. And also address a whole continent of buyers as well.

So, we usually take it as a geographical definition. So, the artists that we include in our auctions are from the continent, have lived there, or were born there, and have worked there as well.

Charlotte Burns: Okay.

Osei Bonsu: Right. And I would agree with both definitions—or non-definitions—because I work between the private and the public sector and have, at different moments, reasons to define contemporary African art differently depending on the audience who’s receiving the work. Maybe in an institutional context it’s more about a kind of education of a history that is specific, as Hannah said, to a geographic mass that is Africa. It’s very difficult to constitute what is African art under that definition.

But I think that when one starts to really think about the battles for institutional recognition, for recognition from the market and from the critical mass of the contemporary art world more broadly, I think there is a strong case to be made to apply quite a specific definition to contemporary African art, which is like so many other works of contemporary art, not without a point of origin, that speaks to a specific social, historical, cultural experience and that draws from narratives, however plural, that are very much linked to the conditions of a people who were historically marginalized and underrepresented. It gives to African art a very broad definition, but I think it’s the definition that we should be giving actually to contemporary art, which is, in many cases, forms of practice that should hold the mirror to society at large.

Zoe Whitley: I’m happy with that definition, but only when we apply it across other nations as well. We don’t tend to talk about contemporary Western European art or North American art in the same way. So that’s why, almost as a point of being deliberately belligerent, I like to kind of push back against it, because I often think it is helpful to say: “Alice Neel, the North American painter”. I’m comfortable with applying them as long as we make more of an effort to not only apply it in certain cases.

Charlotte Burns: That’s something your catalogue essay brings up, and at this point I’m going to introduce the exhibition at Tate Modern. One of the artists you quote says when asked to define black art, it’s sort of: “How do you define white art?” It’s anything from the Renaissance through to Alice Neel.

Zoe Whitley: So, my essay is called “American Skin”, and it’s in the catalogue that Mark Godfrey and I co-edited for the exhibition “Soul of the Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power”.

The artist to who you’re referring is Romare Bearden, America’s pre-eminent collagist. He was asked in a 1972 interview with Camille Billops how he would define black art, and he said that black art is the art that black artists do, and if someone were to say: “What is white art?” you might say the Italian Renaissance, but you can equally say the German Renaissance, or you could say Rembrandt. There’s also English painting. And black art is as varied as that. meld

Charlotte Burns: Right.

Zoe Whitley: There are ways in which definitions can be elastic and be used to help contain something and define it, but equally that we can use it to pull something apart.

Charlotte Burns: Let’s talk a little bit about the exhibition.

Zoe Whitley: Well, it’s art made in America. And what we wanted to do with this exhibition was really to take that question of what it means to be an artist. What does it mean to be a black artist? And artists were asking themselves these questions. Certainly in 1963, the terminology that we applied to ourselves was negro. So then what does it mean to be a negro artist in the wake of the March on Washington?

Also, we need to think about artists as artists, full stop. They were also asking those major existential questions, in the same way that Gauguin asked in his paintings. One of the big questions that the artist group Spiral—who first started to convene in 1963—started to ask, was: “Why are we here?”. They are these big questions that all artists ask themselves, and they answer them in different ways.

Experientially what the exhibition is able to provide are a number of different answers to a same set of questions around what it meant to be an artist. And the artists didn’t agree, and didn’t have to agree.

Charlotte Burns: Right. That plurality comes out very strongly in the exhibition. Osei, I wanted to go to you here because your focus often in your work is on questions of progress. And I found the exhibition to be melancholy at points because it felt like some of the works could have been created yesterday. The issues are incredibly important today, still. What do you think about the exhibition viewed through this lens of progress made?

Osei Bonsu: Right. So, I was thinking about what Zoe was saying, which made absolute sense from a curatorial and institutional perspective, that one would sort of reach to define a narrative of say 20 or so years that might help configure history of African American art that spoke to the specific historical turning points or revolutionary practices. So, just having seen the exhibition, an extremely sort of powerful encounter to have with work that hadn’t been shown in the UK before, and that hadn’t really been acknowledged here very broadly.

So, if we just speak about it in terms of institutional historical progress, I think it speaks to an important juncture in Tate’s history, which we hope that an institution that now has an almost encyclopedic role in telling a certain narrative of modernity will now seek to be more inclusive in its practices. From that perspective, it’s an incredibly exciting exhibition to have witnessed.

Charlotte Burns: Hannah, what about you?

Hannah O’Leary: What I do feel like, when I went to the show at Tate, there were interesting links with Africa for me. A lot of these artists were exhibiting within that “Black Artist” context. A lot of these artists traveled to Africa and were included alongside African artists in significant exhibitions. From that angle, it’s a really interesting field for me to engage with.

Zoe Whitley: I think the intersections are what will, hopefully, be particularly fruitful for future research. There are colleagues of ours currently working on major research project around FESTAC, the second world festival of African arts. Many of the artists included in “Soul of a Nation” traveled there to Lagos in Nigeria in 1977 and were able to not only exhibit work there, but to experience the work of—just as Hannah was saying—a number of colleagues and peers. In many times, the work that they saw there then really galvanized and changed the direction of their artistic practice once they returned to the states.

Hannah O’Leary: And it went both ways as well. There are certain artists that we include in our African sales who had an influence on African American art. I’m thinking of Skunder Boghossian from Ethiopia who is generally acknowledged as one of the fathers of East African Modernism. He was an artist with amazing international links—he spent time living in Paris where he was mixing with people like Gerard Sekoto from South Africa, Ben Enwonwu from Nigeria, also Wifredo Lam from Cuba. And they were all discussing ideas of African art, negro art, African philosophies like Négritude, which is a fascinating period of art history. One of the reasons that we include Modern as well as contemporary art in our sales is because there is a really important story to be told that has been not really fully researched or fully explored, certainly, on the market side.

But Skunder, then, when he was in Europe, when he was thinking about moving back to Ethiopia, of course civil war broke out. He ended up going to North America for a short period of time, and he ended up staying there for the rest of his life where he taught fine art at Howard University, one of the major black colleges for art, and influencing a whole generation of black artists in North America. So there’s a huge narrative to be said about Africa, Europe and North America.

Zoe Whitley: The art world that we are all operating within, it’s not a science. The processes through which artists enter the canon and are effectively cosigned by others is not always a given. And in working very closely with a number of artists—and also artist estates and their families—these past years, one of the things that my co-curator, Mark, and I have been really committed to is telling the truth. And calling things what they are. Institutional racism is real. Systemic exclusion is real. This isn’t a conspiracy where someone in a tin-foil hat is saying that it’s happening. We think of art history in capital letters—capital “A”, capital “H.” But there are multiple stories.

I mean, it’s wonderful for Hannah to bring to the attention of your listeners Skunder Boghossian because it’s not necessarily a name who will be known. In terms of thinking about why this exhibition is happening now—and that’s a question that’s been asked to me again and again: “If not now, then when?” And the fact that it’s happening will hopefully galvanize people to say: “Okay, well beyond these artists that I thought I knew, there are another kind of whole world of artists.”

Hopefully, one thing that an exhibition like this does is kind of shine a light in a productive way rather than an accusatory way on the limits of our knowledge and how we can kind of grow and expand that through, say, a Modern and contemporary department. Or Osei’s writings. Many of us all working together in our various fields where they overlap: that’s what helps to create a new body of knowledge and a new awareness.

Charlotte Burns: Sort of a matrix effect.

Zoe Whitley: Sure.

Charlotte Burns: Hannah, I read in the New York Times—you said in an interview that ten years ago, many of the artists were dismissed because they weren’t sellable. I thought that was very interesting to think about. When we talk about why now and why not now, and if not now then when, there are other factors that weigh into this. The Internet has had a huge impact, I’m assuming, on the spread of information. The African economy as well. Between 2005 and 2015 the number of millionaires increased 79% to more than 165,000 millionaires. It’s a staggering growth in terms of the economy.

To what extent do you think that technological and economical changes have had an impact on both the market and the art history? The critical and commercial reception of artists?

Hannah O’Leary: Well, from a market perspective, of course they’ve had a huge influence. I have been working in this field for ten years, and I’ve seen it go from virtually zero to where we are today, which is still a long way to go before we’re fully represented in the international market space. That has been very much driven by collectors from Africa, and we’re sitting with two great younger curators from the younger generation, but we all know great curators for the past 30, 40 years who have been working in this field or working with contemporary artists from Africa, making sure that they’re included in shows, and that just hasn’t, until very recently, translated into the marketplace.

The thing that has changed in the last ten years is the growth of wealth on the Continent, and it is private collectors from Africa who are really driving the market, first and foremost. I very much look to private collectors from the Continent as to who they rate as important, as well as international curators. I don’t think that we sitting around London, or in New York, or in Paris, can dictate what is important to African art, and I don’t think that’s my role to do.

Charlotte Burns: Can I ask you where the main hubs are? When we talk about African art, we’ve already discussed that it’s a very broad and diffuse production. Are there places that you look to? You mentioned Ethiopia, Lagos, Nigeria—are there certain places that you feel that you have to spend time to know what’s going on?

Hannah O’Leary: I spend a lot of time in Johannesburg, in Cape Town. Also in Lagos, in Dakar and Addis to a different degree, but mainly because the histories of East Africa, in particular, make it rather a closed system. One of the issues that’s been discussed in other forms, but that’s certainly important, are the limits of English being the lingua franca of the art world. So certainly in a place where everyone speaks Amharic, if you are not able to communicate—it could be that you cannot read the histories that are written, or the books aren’t accessible in the same way even where the history has been written. So going to those places makes a big difference. I would also certainly say Marrakesh. Luanda has been very interesting. I’ve only been there the once, but I think a lot is happening in Angola.

Charlotte Burns: When we think about art production, often we think of an infrastructure. There’s a whole chain that creates this matrix, whether that’s art schools or institutions, curators, critics, collectors. It’s some jigsaw puzzle of these pieces that create the cosigning into the cannon. When we think of Los Angeles, we think of the art schools. They created generations of artists who we identify as West Coast but really came from lots of different places. Are there pivotal places, moments, schools, teachers when we talk about contemporary African art?

Zoe Whitley: There are so many. In Ghana there is Kumasi.

Hannah O’Leary: El Anatsui was the professor for fine art for the University of Nigeria, which is in Nsukka, in the north of the country. Although he’s Ghanaian born, he has had a huge influence on the Nigerian art scene and younger artists who have gone through that schooling system in Nigeria as well. But I think the art school model can be problematic in Africa as well.

Osei Bonsu: Right.

Zoe Whitley: Before you say that, then in South Africa there’s Wits. And then there’s the Michaelis School of Fine Art in Cape Town, and many artists who have really been incredibly foundational to what we think of as not only resistance art but just establishing a truly dynamic community of artists in South Africa, like Berni Searle, Penny Siopis teach there and have taught subsequent generations. Penny taught Candice Breitz, for instance. So, there is this knowledge exchange that happens between and across artists.

Osei Bonsu: I’ve taught at some art schools in Africa, and had the privilege of observing artist trajectories, particularly of younger artists—artists who emerge out of MFA programs, BFA programs, sometimes PhD programs—and what’s been particularly interesting to observe: you can’t underestimate the sheer number of really quite interesting art schools generating students that have so much promise.

My chief concern has always been what happens to those promising artists after they leave university. Many are pressured into taking regular jobs that almost always leave them with no time to make art work. And because of the informal economies within which they sometimes have to work, they are almost rendered useful only by way of being bodies of labor. They’re without the agency to think creatively.

I spend probably 50% of my time with artists and 50% of my time with institutions and/or private individuals, collectors in Africa. What’s interesting to me is the number of private museums that have developed and educational structures, pedagogic structures that feed directly in to the platforming of new forms of practice, collaboration, exchange that may not be about the formal education, but may be simply about skill sharing. So, my interest is in—for the future at least—seeing artists really develop a kind of community within which they can share skills that’s not predicated in a hierarchy of art history with a capital A and a capital H, as Zoe says. Or a fine art degree proper as would be expected of an artist from a Western institution.

Zoe Whitley: I think you raise a lot of good points, in particular about artist networks and support systems. Àsìkò, an intensive art program set up by the director and founder of CCA Lagos, Bisi Silva. I’ve been involved with bringing together a pan-African group of emerging artists and effectively to provide an intensive type of, not only studio critiques, but to bring together the international art network that’s already circulating and that may be happening or convening because of international events like the Dakar Biennal and other things for artists to be able to come into contact with historians, and with critics, and to show their work and to talk about it. But more importantly, to build up from within, so that you end up with a network of peers.

That’s what many people are able to develop through, you know, say, going to Otis or doing and MFA program at Yale that you end up with a cohort so that people don’t feel alone, or that they’re not an accountant by day and then doing a bit of graphic design on the side. But are able to fundamentally not only share their practice with others, but to be challenged on it and then for it to grow and change as a result.

Charlotte Burns: When you talk about working also, Osei, with private connectors, private institutions, that’s really interesting. Is that new phenomenon?

Osei Bonsu: It’s all there really is in Africa, I have to be perfectly honest. I mean, what I would like to say in response to what Zoe said—which is so important that there have been really generous and supportive programs launched by agencies on the Continent that have tried to seek to connect the diasporic community with a certain sort of pan-African optimism of how artists might unite in the future—my feeling is that those structures are incredibly temporal, and that what I’ve tried to cultivate in my own curatorial practice is a more artist-artist exchange. I’m aware of the fact that so many initiatives that have been launched in Africa actually haven’t sustained more than a decade in many instances because it’s actually so difficult to get public funding.

Charlotte Burns: Is that why they haven’t embedded funding?

Osei Bonsu: I don’t think it’s only a question of funding, I think it’s a question of professional structures that can support them. But what we do see is a number of individuals with private means investing into structures like galleries, private museums, small foundations that are seeking to remodel this idea of what institutional representation can and should mean. I think, maybe not intentionally so, but what they’re actually doing is rewriting the rules at many levels.

One thinks of the Zeitz Museum in Cape Town. You’ve got foundations. The idea of people who want to simply reframe this idea of being a collector, of setting of platforms of support for artists, I think could be an incredibly generative thing in the future.

But I think it leads back to an earlier point that Zoe made about how subjective the arc of art history can often be. And if we allow private collectors to narrate art history for the next 50 years, what will be the outcome? If we’re looking to institutions for a broad-brush view of contemporary developments, and we’re simply seeing a reflection of one collector’s interest in a specific form of figuration, it could become quite problematic when you think about it.

Zoe Whitley: And yet if we think back to the history of many of the robber barons and great American collections that are now bedrock institutions, they started that way as well. Just to play devil’s advocate.

Osei Bonsu: No, I think it’s very true, but I would say—something that I wanted to bring up in response to “Soul of a Nation” is that America is its greatest PR agent. And to an extent, what makes America such a fascinating place, I think, for those outside of it is how it manages to exploit its culture, its systems of representation to the world in a way by galvanizing technology, pop culture. On almost every level we imagine America affects all of our lives even if we don’t live there.

We could also speak to the fact that America has very wealthy universities, a very strong and rigorous academic community that has centered entire doctoral theses on the idea of African American art. Whereas I would say in the context of contemporary African art, most people couldn’t name ten contemporary art scholars of African art living on the continent. They could name those who’ve traveled to American universities and become incredibly celebrated at Ivy Leagues. Many institutions on the Continent are not necessarily well equipped to support that depth of research.

Actually, when we think of a parallel between the discourse of African American art and the discourse of contemporary African art, the real cleavage for me rests in the fact that African American art has a huge support system of scholars, wealthy individuals, institutions that have consistently aimed to write the history. In Africa, we just don’t have those kinds of structures, and therefore—speaking as a British person but also as a Ghanaian—I can’t make any parallel between the trajectory of black British art in the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s and between contemporary African art. Even though they are diasporic, they were forged by people of African descent. But that’s, to me, where the comparative relationship stops.

Charlotte Burns: I was going to ask you one question. If you had one hope, one change you wish to see in the next coming years, what would that be?

Zoe Whitley: Well, I’ve been working on “Soul of a Nation” for so long that just seeing the show up feels like something has been realized. It is traveling to the Brooklyn Museum at the end of 2018 into February 2019, but before that, in early spring 2018 it will be going to Crystal Bridges Museum in Arkansas.

Charlotte Burns: What are your hopes for the future?

Osei Bonsu: I’m first and foremost an ally to artists and feel compelled to follow the trajectories of young artists who are making their way through the art world who may run into all sorts of difficulties.

The other thing I would say is that because the focus is artist-centered in Africa I have to start to think about the structures that are benefiting artists.

When you look at an exhibition, like “Soul of a Nation”, just to circle back to this generation of artists, there is probably a big breach between how they worked with institutions at the early phases of their career—which was probably very run-and-gun, very haphazard, they probably didn’t get very many opportunities to really show their work or to hold the wall—and the way they’re being shown now with such a sense of esteem. And, in a way, institutional privilege that they do indeed deserve, but could also point to the fact that we can’t wait for artists to reach their final years to be acknowledged or indeed to not be visible in the ways that they should be simply because their work isn’t necessarily able to travel easily to major Western centers of artistic production.

Charlotte Burns: That’s interesting.

Hannah O’Leary: I guess for me, it all comes down to representation. The reason that we have our sales of contemporary African art at Sotheby’s is because we are representing artists that have not currently had a platform at a major auction house internationally. And so we’re really at the very beginning of developing that market. I would like to think in the longer term that we might get to a point where Africa’s fully represented internationally. Like Zoe was saying, what she does with Tate is make sure that they are including African artists within their international shows.

It’s not specifically an African issue, it’s an international issue, but Africa’s probably the last region that the art world has come to with that in mind. I might be going down a tangent here, but it’s interesting that we’re in 2017 and this has only really become the subject on everyone’s mind now. Same thing about women artists. I remember studying art history at university, and it was almost like we were told: “Well, there are no women artists.” There were absolutely women artists, there were absolutely African artists, but their history was not being told, they were not being seen.

Charlottes Burns: Hidden histories.

Hannah O’Leary: And so, it’s really down to the work of people like Osei and Zoe—and groundbreaking curators before them such as Thelma Golden at the Studio Museum or Okwui Enwezor—that are getting these artists and these stories in front of the general public to the point where we don’t need to be talking about what is African art and categorizing African art to such an extent, we’re just talking about it very international art world and obviously with seeing the respect and the prices for those artists reflected accordingly in the market.

Charlottes Burns: What’s interesting to think about is the role of the auction house in this because you talk about using the market as a means of creating more solid, permanent infrastructure, and that’s interesting because that isn’t typically seen as a domain of an auction house.

Hannah O’Leary: I occupy a really interesting role. You’re absolutely right, auction houses play a very particular role and we’ve been talking about kind of the matrix of the art world and we’re kind of at the very top, you know? We really wait, sit here and wait until an artist has made it, is selling regularly. I am in a position where I can’t rely on auction results because we’re talking about artists who don’t necessarily have a track record at auction. But what I can point to are artists that have phenomenal careers. We’re not selling artists that are unknown. They all have international reputations—the artists in the African auctions at Sotheby’s—they have all been included in major museum shows, already have a strong following on the primary market, and those are the things that we look to for it to qualify for our sales.

It’s a really interesting field because there are artists who are major who have never been sold at auction before. We had a work by Nicholas Hlobo, who’s a South African artist, in our auction. The first time he’d ever been offered at auction, but he is in major museum collections internationally. The work in question—and this is not going to shock people with the level of the price—but the estimate on it was eight to twelve thousands pounds, it sold for sixty thousand pounds. There was enormous private interest in it, and for a debut at auction, that is a strong result and something that we can build on.

But it is a really unique position that I’m in, that I’m at this institution, this very huge brand that has a huge reach. Obviously I’ve been given a voice within this world, where I’m talking to the BBC, or CNN or the New York Times, as you mentioned. But I feel the responsibility with that as well to make sure that the artists we include in our auction deserve to be identified as among the most important from the continent.

Osei Bonsu: I don’t think that we designate enough importance to auctions in respect to emerging markets. Actually, when you think about the role that Hannah’s had to play, somewhat unwittingly because she’s known that it comes with an immense amount of pressure and obviously, to some extent, the accusation that one isn’t helping but rather hindering the market because of a certain threat that the secondary will always pose to the primary market. I somehow feel that it’s important to focus on an artist who is underestimated. The validation of his work at auction is able to give him, probably, access to a different caliber of collectors who wouldn’t ordinarily be seeking out African art, but is seeking to make sometimes an investment—hopefully, not speculative—but a kind of investment. And who is probably seeking to find simply the best contemporary art.

The emphasis for me has always been that artists from Africa should be given the same opportunities as any other artist. So, when we really think about it in very broad terms, if the African art market at a primary level is going to develop and expand to the rate where we see artists actually selling for potentially tens of thousands of pounds at a moment in which their careers are ripe for institutional retrospection and a kind of commitment from a more ambitious collector. I think that the auction houses are very well placed to give the artists actually a leg up, in a way, that we don’t always deem that auction houses do.

Charlotte Burns: One thing I think is interesting there—just to caveat to that—is to some extent I think markets are regional. You’ll see the Abstract Expressionists from New York in New York, and you’ll see the American Pop artists in New York, and you will see European artists, obviously, as well. But when it comes to contemporary art, you’ll see more minimalism from Europe in the London sales than you will in New York. So to some extent, tastes can be regional. The American market—and you can even be more specific—it typically favors East Coast American artists over West Coast American artists.

So when we talk about the opportunities afforded to Western artists, it’s a bit general. I think it’s actually more specific than that because depending on who you are, when you were born, what movement you’re a full part in, some artists—they may well be privileged in every other sense–but they could happen to live in California in a period in time in which that was overlooked.

So, when we talk about Western artists, it really does depend on which artist you’re talking about and where they live. A lot of English artists have never fit into a market scheme, for example, so the YBAs were considered a movement. There’s a huge difference between Damien [Hirst] at his peak, and any of the female artists in that same group. So—

Osei Bonsu: But I actually believe that will change. It’s a point that I often make to a lot of African galleries that: being maybe discerning; being very particular; holding to a high standard the collectors and institutions you seek to work with; not simply deeming because you’re an African gallery that you’re less than a gallery that calls itself international art but then only has one artist from Eastern Europe and the rest are American. I always find that point erratic: what constitutes internationalism.

I am really keen to see strength in the market, but more than anything—and I think it’s a point that Hannah and I speak about quite often—is the importance of the local market: the importance of art works that may still be accessible to first time buyers who are fundamentally curious about art but have no collecting strategy. They have no knowledge of what to buy or how to acquire it, but they may walk into an auction and just say: “I feel really strongly about this piece.” I think we really need to do—and curators could do a lot actually—to stop pitting the not-for-profit or institutional context against the market. Because they are absolutely intertwined in so many ways.

Charlotte Burns: When you think of galleries like Goodman Gallery, that gallery has done so much for so many African artists, and been very responsible, and has brought a lot of artists to international attention by being very committed to their artists. So, yes, I think it’s interesting that intersection of public and private.

Hannah O’Leary: One of the reasons that Goodman—the Goodman artists that they represent are so well known is because the doing the international art fair circuit. So, they go to Frieze, they go to Basel. That’s hugely costly. And that’s not an option open to the majority of private commercial galleries on the Continent.

Charlotte Burns: No.

Hannah O’Leary: And I guess that’s one of the issues that is really holding that market back as well.

Osei Bonsu: South Africa is an economy unlike any other in Africa. It almost shouldn’t really be thought about as being part of the same structural context. When we’re discussing the mechanisms of the art world, it has, and has had, a national gallery presenting art. It has had—galleries had an acquisitions budget. It has tried to seek the represent the history of art in South Africa. There have also been huge structural changes following major shifts in South Africa’s social and historical climate, significantly the end of apartheid, which has kind of flipped everything upside down. Now you have artists, black South African artists, who are as well represented and well supported as white African artists, which certainly wasn’t the case prior to that in South Africa.        

I’m just going to more broadly say that this divide, more than anything, between our knowledge of African art and the way in which it has developed or played out on the continent has in large part to do with a lack of representation, first and foremost, which is an issue for many, many art movements that are under-funded, under-supported, that haven’t come to fruition at a time when the artists who are participating in it were alive.

I think this interest is what we would call a blossoming interest that is rooted primarily in curiosity. I don’t think the figures say enough to really say that African art is the next China, for instance, as many people have reported.

Charlotte Burns: Right, that’s interesting. Nascent markets, nascent art scenes can be more informal, essentially. As things grow, as markets develop, as institutions become older there is more of a need for clear roles. Where it seems at this stage, it sort of takes a village, as they say about raising a child.

Well, thank you so much for being here. I think that’s great.

Hannah O’Leary: Thank you, Charlotte.

Osei Bonsu: Thanks so much.

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