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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.