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How will curators interpret and institutionalise the portraiture trend?



It’s time for museums to harness a dialogue on the importance of this genre, one that is removed from speculation in the art market.


There is such an abundance of portraiture at art fairs, gallery shows, online art platforms and auctions dedicated to African art that collectors are spoilt for choice. This has caused some confusion. Is this a short-lived trend, are the prices too high, and who or what kind of artworks are important? Not surprisingly, collectors are looking to museums and curators to make sense of this proliferation of portraits, but this presents another set of questions. Can it be done given it is a market-driven turn? Would institutions simply fuel more economic speculation around known artists? Are curators interested in engaging with some works that may be all style and no substance?


Undoubtedly, institutions and curators do need to weigh in on portraiture. And perhaps it should involve more than simply dragging out portraits produced by other Black artists from previous generations. Most certainly, the slew of portraits young African artists are producing boast stylistic characteristics in common that suggest this is part of a ‘movement’. The sitters' features tend to be highly stylised. The palettes are typically vibrant and textile patterns and other decorative sartorial details are vital to the visual character of these works. Another prominent feature has been the novel or different painterly treatments of the skin of the sitters, drawing attention to their Black identity. Typically, the subjects are young and attractive. In this way, these portraits tend to exude, beauty, joy, abundance and optimism. This new generation of African artists is celebrating their Black identity in an unprecedented way.


Yet the perception is that this is a market-driven phenomenon galvanised by white or Asian art collectors looking to profit from sharp rises in value. This may only be a feature of this trend at the high-end of the art market, though it has no doubt given younger artists the confidence to dig deeper into this genre. The relationship between art and commerce can be beneficial to advancing a movement in art.


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