Cape Town is Africa's leading art capital but is its art fair African?


Art collectors, museum directors, curators and gallerists from Africa and Europe will descend on Cape Town this week to consume all the art showing in the museum and gallery exhibitions, a new Triennale (in Stellenbosch) and two auctions all timed to coincide with Cape Town’s annual art fair.


All this heightened activity implies that Cape Town has become a vital art capital. In fact, it is the leading one on the African continent, beating Joburg, Lagos, Marrakesh and Dakar, according to our latest publication The South African Art Market: Pricing & Patterns, an 88 page report mapping patterns in South Africa’s major art capitals. However, could this art fair be considered African, given it is owned and directed by an Italian company, Fiera Milano?


Only 50% of the galleries participating in the main parts of the art fair (including Modern and Tomorrow/Future) are African based. Given 37% of those galleries are South African also suggests that it is a quintessentially South African art fair and is not perhaps the fair you would visit to ‘discover’ new African artists – some collectors say 1:54 in London best offers this, but is that an African fair either? What makes an art fair 'African'; its setting, ownership, the art, the national identity of the participants or the visitors?


Perhaps a fair in Africa need not be ‘African’. Maybe the fact that the Italians manage this fair and work at bringing more international collectors, via the European galleries that participate, is positive for the continued strength of this fair and benefits African artists. Certainly, the growth of the Cape Town art ecosystem has been dependent not only on the influx of European visitors but in the galleries based here participating regularly in fairs in Europe – and the US.


In our ambitious mission to map the art ecologies pertaining to contemporary art produced by Africans, we initially adopted a broad view, teasing out its exponential growth across the continent over a period of one decade (2007 to 2017), via the lens of Africa's most high-profile curators. The result, A Decade of Curating - our inaugural report - naturally involved identifying the leading art capitals on the continent. Two of them are located in South Africa (Cape Town and Johannesburg), one in Nigeria (Lagos) and one in Morocco (Marrakesh). Nairobi and Dakar follow in succession and are gradually expanding.


African contemporary art may be perceived as a homogenous 'category' of art, but our on-the-ground reports from various art capitals across the African continent have revealed not only national, but also regional differences in terms of how each is structured, as well as the type and quantity of art platforms and the entities that operate as the gatekeepers, the dominant validating authority. The regional differences that inform the differences between the Cape Town and Johannesburg art capitals are ideal examples of this reality.

As a result, the South African art ecosystem is best understood as one made up of two systems that are interlinked, compete with and feed off one another. Differing social, spatial and political conditions in these two major cities, shaped by the legacy of apartheid and how it has, and has not, been dismantled, undoubtedly inform their ecosystems, together with the demographics of the artists, collectors and even the focus of the art produced in each city.


Joburg may boast more art fairs, corporate art museums and galleries, however there are a higher concentration of second, third and fourth tier galleries in Cape Town than in Joburg. The private art museums in Cape Town – such as the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary African Art and the Norval Foundation - were found to carry more institutional weight than those in Joburg. More contemporary (defined as being produced after 1980) lots were offered by the major South African auction houses (Strauss & Co and Aspire Art Auctions) in Cape Town in 2018. This figure is set to rise this year as a new auction, staged by Aspire and Piasa, the Paris based auction house, and a larger contemporary one, by Strauss & Co, are timed to exploit the attention the art fair in this city is expected to generate in February.


Cape Town also boasts the largest art fair on the continent. Over sixty galleries will participate in the main sections (excluding NGOs, editioned art studios and art magazines) of the Investec Cape Town Art Fair this year, opposed to a total of 24 in Latitudes (Joburg) in 2019 and a mere 20 in Art Joburg and Art X Lagos in 2019. Only 20 will participate in 1:54 Marrakesh - taking place in February 22. There is also strong participation in the Cape Town art fair by galleries based in Europe (43% in 2020); further implying that this city is the major art hub on the continent.


Cape Town’s status as Africa’s leading art capital has less to do with developments or the growth of a collector base in this city – though many Europeans live here or have second homes in this city. Local galleries are dependent on sales to visitors – some gallerists we spoke to estimated that up to 70% of their revenue is due to this audience.

As such a European-led-managed art fair with close links to European galleries and collectors perhaps best suits this art capital and will further ensure its growth, particularly given the dire economic conditions in South Africa.

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