Inside The Art Book Of The Hour

African Artists: From 1882 to Now provides an overview of over 300 modern and contemporary artists born and based on the African continent, with GRIOT highlighted as an online resource for further reading. Four artist-profiles from the book, teased exclusively below, were written by GRIOT Contributing Editor Eric Otieno Sumba.

by GRIOT - Published on 07/12/2021
African Artists: From 1882 to Now (Phaidon)

“There’s an incredible wealth of beautiful, important and rewarding art being produced by African artists. However, some gallery goers might not know their El Anatsui from their Samuel Fosso” announces a press release for African Artists which is now available online and in select bookstores in Europe and the USA. The book is subsequently presented as the ultimate solution to this unusual problem: Admittedly confusing El Anatsui (a Ghanaian sculptor) with Samuel Fosso (a Nigerian photographer) requires a certain degree of malicious intent, yet this off-kilter marketing language should not distract from what is at stake here.

African Artists, like any project that groups artists by origin, nationality, gender, sexuality or race, has its shortcomings; the most obvious one being who can be considered “African” and what is to be made of the “African Art” conundrum? While elegantly solved in the book’s title, and critically discussed in the introductory essay by Princeton Art History professor Chika Ogege-Agulu, the question of whether the term “African Art” can be reclaimed from its ethnographic connotations lingers in the book and well beyond it.

African Artists: From 1882 to Now. Phaidon Editors

Nevertheless, the book will be a valuable addition for art connoisseurs, artists and curious minds who will find much to draw on in its pages. It presents a rich selection of images, produced by over 300 modern and contemporary artists born or based in Africa, and represents the most comprehensive attempt to capture the continent’s booming art scene ever made. Each artist profile is illustrated with the image of a representative work, and the accompanying texts enable readers to gain a greater understanding of the art displayed and the artists behind it. Nigerian painter Aina Onabolu, born in 1882, lies at the earliest point of the survey, which overwhelmingly features photographers and painters. However other media including collage, (sound) installations, moving images, performance, prints, sculpture, and textiles are also represented in the book. Most artists, as we see in the following teasers of four profiles from the book, work across disciplines.

African Artists: From 1882 to Now. Phaidon Editors

After completing a master’s degree in fashion at Hamburg’s University of Applied Sciences and  briefly working in fashion design, Ghanaian-German artist Zohra Opoku (b. 1976 in Germany), for instance, felt drawn to textile cultures beyond fashion, particularly the conventions of traditional Ghanaian dress. She eventually ventured into collage and experimented with photography, which continues to feature in much of her work. This combination of practices is palpable in Bobs Cloth (2017), in which the artist’s nephew, regally donned in a printed flowing gown and adorned in bulky Ashanti beads gazes unassumingly. Beside him, and against a grainy outdoor background, a fluorescent halo of Ohene Adwa (king’s stool) adinkra symbols lends credence to his double’s countenance as they hover above four mask cut-outs from the print they are wearing.

Zohra Opoku, Bobs Cloth, 2017. African Artists: From 1882 to Now. Phaidon Editors

In contrast, Ephraim Ngatane’s talent was noticed and encouraged while schooling in Johannesburg. Between 1952 and 1954 Ngatane, who was born in neighbouring Lesotho in 1938, studied painting at Polly Street Art Centre, to which he eventually returned as a teacher. Like many of his contemporaries, his immediate social conditions under apartheid were as important as art historical references. Having settled on oil paint, he produced celebratory but otherwise accurate scenes of township life in Orlando. By 1964, he had two solo exhibitions to his name, but supplemented his income working at a pottery studio in Doornfontein. At a Tuberculosis Sanatorium in Soweto to which he was confined the same year, he befriended Zwelidumile “Dumile” Feni (1942 – 1991) with whom he painted murals that have since been painted over. Completed in this period, Figures in a Township (1969) criticizes the epitome of apartheid spatial planning while valorizing it’s dreariness with color. Ngatane succumbed to the disease at thirty three, ending a short and prolific career.

African Artists: From 1882 to Now. Phaidon Editors

Another artist from the book is YoYo Gonthier (b. 1974 in Niamey, Niger), who graduated with a master’s degree in photography and multimedia from Paris VIII University in 1997 subsequently worked as a photographer in the city. Gonthier’s practice now rests on conceptual art and performance, alongside film and sculpture. While photography still serves as a creative spark and documentary medium for the artist, his work is animated by the concepts and the contexts within which it emerges. Burey Bambata is part of an ongoing series Le nuage qui parlait (the speaking cloud), which is a collective artistic and participative project around an eponymous flying (and floating) object built between 2011 and 2013. Through the words and phrases stitched to its surface, the object activates imagination, inducing spontaneous performance artworks wherever it drifts.

African Artists: From 1882 to Now . Phaidon Editors

Angolan artist Yonamine was born in Luanda in the year that Angola won its independence from Portugal (1976). Yonamine spent the turbulent civil war years that followed in the Democratic Republic of Congo, later moving to Brazil and subsequently to England and Portugal. He began his career in the 1990s, exhibiting with a group known as the Nationalists. Riding the wave of artistic expression that launched the inaugural Luanda Triennial in 2006, he participated in  workshops and exhibitions from 2004 onwards, driven by an urgent sense of expression. Painting, graffiti and photography are his media, while street art and mixed-media installation are his most common techniques. Named after a street in Berlin Mitte, Drontheimer Strasse 19 typifies these layers of media and signification. The graffiti tags and tattered ageing posters are characteristic of the German capital’s cylindrical concrete advertising pillars. Yonamine adds intention to this ordinary aesthetic, skillfully reproducing a serendipitous visual texture.

African Artists is currently available in English. A French version will soon be available.

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