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Why do African galleries gravitate towards Europe?

It was perhaps no coincidence that two of South Africa’s top tier galleries – Stevenson and Goodman – both announced in the week before Art Basel that they were opening spaces in Europe. They are the only two African-based galleries that participate in this fair. The announcement was a means of confirming their foothold in this continent and establishing themselves as international brands, which this important art fair has facilitated for them. Both galleries clearly want a more permanent place in Europe, which isn’t unexpected given Corrigall & Co’s recent and upcoming reports reveal that African gallerists, artists, curators ambitions are focused on European art centres.

Goodman Gallery have settled for a space in London’s art gallery district, Mayfair, while Stevenson have opted for what appears to be a sliver of a space in Amsterdam. They claim it is more of an office than a gallery – though they launched it before Basel showing a group exhibition titled Winter Sun, inspired by a work by Peter Clarke of Amsterdam – underscoring the fact that South Africa and Holland are interconnected. They are deeply in fact – not only historically, culturally but linguistically – Dutch and Afrikaans are closely interlinked.

Old colonial centres continue to have great importance for the African art ecosystem. Historical ties account for a deeper interest in art from African countries - Europeans have a context in which to frame their encounters with contemporary art from Africa - though some may be slightly outdated or distorted. The interest to know more and maybe compensate for past biases may be in play too.

London appears to have a stronger market for African contemporary art. Two international auctions and departments dedicated to the sale of African contemporary and modern - Bonhams and Sothebys – take place in this city. The first boutique art fair outside the African continent was established here – 1:54 – and other South African and African owned galleries are in this city – Everard Read, Tyburn, Addis Fine Art and Tafeta among others.

The Brexit mess might have influenced the Stevenson – as the UK is now viewed as less of a link to Europe – and its collectors. It will be interesting to observe whether this might shift the dominance of London in terms of operating as a major art capital – particularly for African owned businesses.

Europe remains the focus of African galleries, curators and artists. This has come up time and again in our previous art reports. In A Decade of Curating – we found that 75% of Africa’s most high-profile curators studied in Europe. As a result 65% of them settled there. This has had a huge impact in terms of where curatorial and ideological discourses on African art are occurring - 47% of the exhibitions this elite group of African curators staged over a decade long period (2007 to 2017) were held in Europe. The budgets for proper museum shows, the sheer number of museums and biennales and other platforms on that continent can’t compare with Africa.

This explains why curators gravitate towards Europe (and artists) but this trend marks commercial activity too.

Corrigall & Co are currently gathering data on the participation in art fairs by African galleries and those outside Africa that mostly promote African art. So far our data for 2019 suggests that art fairs based in Europe are more popular with these galleries than those held elsewhere in the world. For example: of the 46 galleries we have tracked in South Africa, 53% take part in art fairs outside the African continent. Of the fairs that galleries - dedicated to promoting African artists (they are not all located in Africa) - participate in, 49% are in Europe (SEE CHART: THIS PERTAINS TO ART FAIR PARTICIPATION). These are our preliminary results for 2019 – we are still working on this data set. So far it appears that African based galleries would rather participate in fairs in Europe than ones in other parts of the continent or elsewhere in the world.

Galleries cluster around collectors, or at the very least are perpetually chasing those beyond their own borders – perhaps always believing that the veritable collector ‘grass’ is greener, thicker and more lush elsewhere. African galleries are not alone in this; European galleries are trying to get a foothold in the US, where the greatest amount of collectors are thought (and sometimes factually justified) to be located. Which begs the question: why are African galleries less interested in American collectors? In turn American galleries believe that Asia is breeding hungry collectors worth pursuing. Art is a globalised industry.

For African owned businesses – locating themselves in old colonial centres inevitably is tied to sociopolitical baggage – it affirms them as ‘cultural’ homes, where the African artist must accrue success in ‘order to claim a position in the world’.

Ironically, Goodman Gallery suggest that their presence in London will shift the psychic dynamic between Africa and Europe.

“It is time for a gallery from the African continent to play more of a front-line role in shaping international arts discourse. In this global moment of heightened nationalist sentiment propelled by populist politics, it is more important than ever to reach across borders,” said owner, Liza Essers in a statement.

Our inaugural report found that curatorial discourse, the ones that shape conversations about African art, rarely take place in commercial venues such as galleries or art fairs. Perhaps having another African gallery located in London will bring African art in closer proximity to the European based curator who rarely visits Africa.

Many of Goodman and Stevenson’s big art stars already enjoy representation by galleries in Europe. Nicholas Hlobo, Robin Rhode, Barthelemy Toguo, William Kentridge, Yinka Shonibare, Lisa Brice, Broomberg and Chanarin, and Mounir Fatmi among others - this development might complicate existing relationships. Stevenson has tried to navigate this by sharing a space with the Dutch gallery representing Vivianne Sassen and Pieter Hugo - who are both aligned to them.

Perhaps Goodman and Stevenson will bring to attention more African artists who are not already enjoying high visibility in western art centres.

In truth both of these galleries are probably no longer serving that many African collectors or at least a smaller percentage than those they have elsewhere. Many of the artist prices at their exhibitions in South Africa are in dollars.

It will be interesting to observe, how both of these top tier galleries will evolve once them have established their permanent footholds in Europe. Will they continue to hold onto their ‘African’ identities – or broaden it to be more ‘international’ – representing artists from many different countries who may not have African roots. Will they survive as small fish in a bigger pond? How will their expansion impact on their African spaces – will they maintain a good exhibition programme, might it be enriched by their connection to Europe art centres? As a deep recession appears to be hitting South Africa, their expansion plans are well-timed and no doubt some of the mid-tier galleries in that country might be toying with the idea of establishing spaces elsewhere in Europe - if they have the means and have put in the art fair time to cultivate collectors on that continent already.

Images: Yinka Shonibare, Post-Colonial Globe Man, 2018, William Kentridge, Drawing for Head and the Load, Tondo, 2018. Both courtesy Goodman Gallery.



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