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have a context in which to frame their encounters with contemporary art from Africa - though some may be slightly outdated or distorted.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.