“I didn’t expect it to be so South African,” remarked a Nigerian gallerist on the last day of the Investec Cape Town Art Fair. The comment seemed at odds with the more widely held perception that this annual event at the city’s convention centre was undeniably ‘international’. By this people meant that the majority of art galleries originated from countries outside of South Africa.
A quick look at the hard data confirms it was indeed ‘more international’ with only 33% of art galleries of South African origin. A comparison with last year’s figures shows that 46% were locally based while the remainder hailed from outside South African borders. This is a dramatic shift if you consider that in 2016 70% of the galleries participating in this fair were of South African origin and almost 80% were African owned.
The question is perhaps not whether the Investec Cape Town Art Fair is ‘international’ but what is the character of this quality… is it more pan African or more global in its content, the art? And of course, the bigger question; will Europeans, Americans, Brazilians travel to Cape Town to attend this fair?
A continental analysis shows that this fair remains a staunchly ‘African’ fair given that 51% of galleries hail from Africa. This is a reduction on last year’s statistic with 58% being African owned, so perhaps this figure may not hold. This may be positive given some of the gallerists we interviewed suggested that a strong African identity attached to an art fair lent a sort of African ‘ghetto’ vibe that could be hard to shake off if you wanted your gallery to participate in more ‘serious’ art fairs - like Art Basel. That galleries with a very globalised business (meaning they have galleries in multiple countries around the world) such as Perrotin and Galerie Continua participate in it and have done so for the last two years, implies that Cape Town is an art capital slowly edging its way onto the global art circuit.
Investec Cape Town Art Fair may be emerging as a more serious or international art fair in comparison with the two Johannesburg based ones; FNB Joburg Art Fair and the Turbine Art Fair, which are very provincial not only in terms of the galleries that participate but the audiences who attend them.
What percentage of visitors to the Cape Town art fair come from Europe or elsewhere? There is no hard data to draw from in answering this question. Italian could be heard spoken in the fair and at the social events surrounding it. Almost every gallerist we spoke to suggested that there were more international visitors than previous years. Given much of Cape Town’s well-to-do originate from Europe, living here during the summer, it is hard to know what percentage of the international visitors are travelling from Europe to attend it. Should this be a priority? Would it not make sense for the fair to be a must-do event for Angolan, Nigerian or Moroccan art collectors, who seemed thin on the ground…
The strong presence of European galleries at the fair meant that many of the prices for art were in Euros. Once translated into rands they may have been a little beyond the reach of the average South African; large painted artworks from European based galleries ranged between EUR35 000 to EUR45 000 – translating into up to ZAR525 000. South Africans are only accustomed to shelling out these sorts of prices if they go shopping at the Stevenson, Goodman or Everard Read/Circa galleries. These are gallery brands locals trust and they are generally familiar with the artists.
When the Nigerian gallerist qualified her remark vis-à-vis that the Investec Cape Town Art Fair being ‘so South African’ she suggested this referred to the fact that South Africans visiting the art fair preferred to buy art from their native country. The South African taste for art is, well, very South African. This is not unexpected, given South Africa’s cultural isolation during the Apartheid era, the parochial or even xenophobic outlook of (some) of Cape Town’s population. The South African based galleries that have made deeper inroads into art capitals in Europe - Goodman, Stevenson (who show at Frieze and Art Basel) - do show more art from artists outside of Africa than those that are more local in their outlook.
The growing international slant to the fair is a positive development if it translates into opening up the limited tastes and experiences locals have about art. More contextualisation, education and programmes to bring those artists from elsewhere to South Africa for the fair may be required to broaden tastes and interests. Ironically, South Africans are very insecure about their cultural identity and products. Art made, shown and celebrated in Europe has for a long time been viewed as 'superior'.
In our analysis of the contemporary African art ecosystem over the last decade (2007 to 2017) as presented in inaugural 2018 report we were able to substantiate via a study of the most high profile African curators, that ultimate ‘validation’ of art in this category remained tethered to Western Art Capitals. We found that 47% of exhibitions by this elite group of curators were staged in Europe during the period of the study.
The international shift of the Investec Cape Town Art Fair over the last three years could represent a reversal with European galleries focused on African art seeking to present it/sell it on African soil.
Much of the art presented by the Italian galleries (and one German) were not focused on African artists. This is an exciting prospect could the gaze be reversing – with European artists and their work being viewed as ‘exotic’?
As our pie chart indicates 2018 was dominated by a British presence with 16% of galleries originating from that country, while 2019 saw a reduction in that number with a stronger Italian presence in the form of 16% hailing from Italy. This is not a totally unexpected turn given that Fiera Milano are a company of Italian origin.
The participation of galleries from the United Kingdom have halved over this time; are they preferring to do 1:54 London instead?
A comparison between the three years of Investec Cape Town Art Fair show that less South African galleries have participated in numbers with 24 in 2016 to 21 this year. Some of those galleries have since closed or simply would not meet the criteria to participate. However, as the number of South African galleries has only shifted marginally, while the fair has grown you could conclude that any South African or African based art fair can only expand if it is able to persuade galleries from other countries to participate. Was it worth their while, will they return and what will they bring? These are questions we will be asking of gallerists in the coming months.
Corrigall & Co’s upcoming report analysing African art fairs or fairs for African art might provide some useful insight. We are looking forward to weighing in on the data and opinions we have been collecting. If you would like to preorder this report or contribute your opinions or information towards it please mail your details to email@example.com