African Art in London

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Transvangarde Now @ October Gallery

Mon Gouvernement - Romuald Hazoumé (1997)

Apologies for the late notice – floating somewhere just below my radar for the past few weeks was the fact that there’s currently work by three top artists from the African continent on display at October Gallery. Transvangarde Now – that’s ‘trans-cultural avant-garde’ now, in case you were wondering – features work from OG regulars Romuald Hazoumé (Benin), Rachid Koraïchi (Algeria) and Owusu-Ankomah (Ghana), alongside an array of other artists who all meet the gallery’s slightly baffling but highly successful criteria.

The show continues until 30th April.

Opening hours:
Tues-Sat, 12.30-5.30

October Gallery
24 Old Gloucester Street, Bloomsbury, London

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Hamidou Maiga @ Jack Bell

Hamidou Maiga (date unknown)

More ace African photography for your perusal – this time it’s the turn of Bamako-based photographer Hamidou Maiga, with Talking Timbuktu. This will be Jack Bell’s third exhibition of studio photography from Africa, following the success of Seydou Keïta and Leonce Raphael Agbodjélou last year.

Although the show’s title cunningly plays up the mysterious allure of Timbuktu (where Maiga trained as a mason as a young man, and ran a studio in the 1960s), the photographer was actually born in 1932 in Bobodioulasso, Burkina Faso, and has been working from photography hot-spot Bamako since 1973. Taking in everyone from villagers to dignitaries, his images offer a glimpse of some of the spectacular changes in Malian society over the last half a century, following independence from France, economic expansion and the rising popularity of Western fashions. Like the work of his contemporary and friend, Malick Sidibé, Maiga’s portraits combine evocative portrayals of individuals with a powerful sense of the ideas and dreams framing their everyday lives, in a country becoming increasingly connected with the wider world.

There’s an interview with Maiga at AnOther Magazine, available online here.

The show continues until 30th April.

Opening hours:
Wed–Sat, 12–6

Jack Bell Gallery
276 Vauxhall Bridge Road, London

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Mother Africa | Modern Women @ Frameless Gallery

Things to Come (2005) - Charles Nkomo

Frameless Gallery in Clerkenwell is hosting a group exhibition this coming week, organised by contemporary African art promoters and Shona sculpture specialists Guruve. The show includes paintings by Zimbabwean Charles Nkomo and Gambian Njogu Touray, both of whom explore the position of women in changing African societies in their work, as well as Shona sculpture by artists including Sylvester Mubayi and Boet Nyariri. Further details here.

Private View: Tues 29 Mar, 6-9

Sun 27 Mar, 4-7
Mon 28 Mar – 1 Apr, 11-7
Sat 2nd Apr, 10-7

Frameless Gallery
20 Clerkenwell Green, Islington, London

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Rediscovering African Geographies @ Royal Geographical Society

Orbis Terrae, from Atlas sive Cosmographicae (1595) - Gerard Mercator

It’s not strictly speaking ‘art’, this one, but worth a mention nonetheless – a new exhibition of maps, photographs and other materials from the Royal Geographical Society archives, all of which helped to shape the ways in which we know (or think we know) Africa today.

The RGS-IBG is a professional body whose goal is to ‘advance geography and support its practitioners in the UK and across the world’. Ongoing debate about the role it should take in part reflects the society’s dual origins – the Royal Geographical Society started as a gentlemen’s dining club in the 1830s, while the Institute of British Geographers was formed in 1933 as a more academically-minded sister society. The two merged in 1995, but some of the old divisions have risen to the surface lately, with a split developing between those who want to focus on competitively funded research projects, and those who want the society to reinstate its own major overseas expeditions into the ‘unknown’. Despite victory for the former camp, exploration enthusiasts continue to agitate for RGS expeditions through the Beagle Campaign.

This might sound like a petty argument between crusty old academics, on the one hand, and gung-ho ex-boy-scouts on the other, but there’s certainly more to it than that, not least the RGS’s struggle to come to terms with its own difficult past. As the website explains, ‘the history of the Society was closely allied for many of its earlier years with “colonial” exploration in Africa, the Indian subcontinent, the polar regions, and central Asia especially.’ Exactly what was “colonial” about these activities – rather than simply colonial – remains unclear, but there are clearly awkward mutterings going on in some quarters, as the framing of Rediscovering African Geographies shows. The exhibition promises to reveal the untold story of African contributions to the Society’s expeditions, and has been designed from ‘an African perspective’, thanks to the involvement of various community partners. Is this a step in the right direction, or simply the reflection of a guilty conscience? Either way, old maps are always fascinating, so I look forward to finding out.

22nd March – 28th April

Mon-Fri, 10-5

The Pavillion, Royal Geographical Society
1 Kensington Gore, London

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Yinka Shonibare, MBE @ Parasol Unit

The Pursuit (2007) - Yinka Shonibare, MBE

Fans of Yinka Shonibare, MBE, shouldn’t miss the opportunity to see his installation ‘The Pursuit’, as part of the current group show at Parasol Unit. I Know Something About Love features work by Shirin Neshat, Christodoulos Panayiotou and Yang Fudong, as well as the impressively (and amusingly) ennobled Shonibare, whose splendid ship still adorns Trafalgar Square’s fourth plinth.

The show continues until 22 May.

Monday: by appointment
Tues–Sat, 10–6
Sun, 12–5
First Thursday of every month, open until 9 pm

Parasol unit
14 Wharf Road, London
N1 7RW

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Namvula Rennie @ Open The Gate

Girl with Tub - Namvula Rennie

There’s been a fair bit of African photography on show in London lately. Nigerians Behind the Lens (now finished) and Reflections on the self (still going) both featured some brilliant examples of photographers getting to grips with societies in transition, as well as the sticky business of looking and being looked at. Next up are a selection of images from photographer Namvula Rennie‘s travels in Sierra Leone, Zambia and elsewhere, currently on show at Open the Gate gallery in Stoke Newington. The exhibition is called In Light, In Shadow, and forms part of an artistic programme supporting the venue’s explicit aim to “promote African & Diaspora Cultures”.

The show continues until 6th April.

Sun-Thurs, 12-12
Fri-Sat, 12-2

Open The Gate
33-35 Stoke Newington Rd, London
N16 8BJ

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Jude Anogwih @ Gasworks

If all the money flying around at Bonhams’ Africa Now sale tomorrow afternoon leaves you feeling a little dirty, head down to Gasworks later on for what promises to be a rather more ascetic affair – artist and curator Jude Anogwih will be giving a talk about his work at the Centre for Contemporary Art (CCA) Lagos, as well as his upcoming collaboration with Tate Modern. His presentation will be followed by a panel discussion with Tate’s Kerryn Greenberg and London-based artist Albert Potrony, who recently did a residency at CCA Lagos.

Wednesday 16 March

155 Vauxhall Street, London
SE11 5RH


Reflections on the self: Five African Women Photographers @ Southbank Centre

ID Series (2003) - Senayt Samuel

As part of celebrations for the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day, Christine Eyene has curated an exhibition of work by five female photographers of African origin, now on show at the Royal Festival Hall.

The show explores the women’s engagement with the politics of representation through their use of visual narrative and portraiture, and their experiences both in Africa and the diaspora. The artists are: Hélène Amouzou (Togo; lives and works Belgium); Majida Khattari (Morocco; lives and works France); Zanele Muholi (South Africa); Senayt Samuel (Eritrea, lives and works in the UK); and Nontsikelelo Veleko (South Africa).

The show continues until 3rd April, and if you head down this Friday (18th March) at 7.30pm, there’s an introductory talk by Christine – more info about this and the show here.

Opening hours:
Daily, 10–11

Spirit Level, Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre
Belvedere Road, London


Africa Now / Nigerians behind the lens @ Bonhams

Next week is kind of a big deal for anybody interested in buying contemporary art from Africa – the latest edition of the Africa Now sale at Bonhams is offering eager bidders the chance to get their hands on pieces by some of the continent’s best-known artists.

Works from Nigerian greats Onobrakpeya and Enwonwu are likely to be a safe bet, but top of many people’s lists (and certainly top of the price list) will be a couple of early(ish) sculptural works by El Anatsui, which are expected to sell for anything between £25,000 and £50,000. These were made at a time when the artist was using a chainsaw and other power tools to carve deep gouges into hardwood, leaving the surface scorched with intricate, interlaced marks that are both brutal and delicate.

Riga Sequence (1995) - El Anatsui

According to the Bonhams catalogue, the artist is a knowing critic, playing with the language of contemporary western art by juxtaposing it with ‘ideas, techniques and material from never-yet-subjugated areas that lie far beyond the pale of western art’. This cryptic pronouncement makes me rather uneasy. As his high asking-prices and his fame indicate, El Anatsui is no stranger to the west and its contemporary art market, so the suggestion that his work somehow incorporates ideas from ‘never-yet-subjugated areas’ lying ‘far beyond’ speaks volumes about Bonhams’ view of art from Africa, and, perhaps, their anticipated audience; where might these ‘areas’ be, exactly? Who is looking for them? The temptation to seek a kind of redemptive vibrancy in art from an Africa that is somehow held at a distance seems irresistible, even while acknowledging the artist’s astute involvement in the process.

I wholeheartedly agree that El’s work is powerful, captivating, and in many ways profoundly West African. However, as I  (and many others) have suggested before, there is something suspect about the idea that African art’s attraction is its potential to act as some sort of panacea for the shortcomings of contemporary Western art. While this notion is by no means the overt ‘message’ of Africa Now, it is certainly an undercurrent. This is especially problematic given that, with the exception of El, none of the artists featured here seem likely to appear in a general ‘contemporary’ sale in the near future. Of course, Africa Now is far better than Africa Never, and I should note that the El blurb is the exception in a catalogue which generally shows real signs of attention to the all-important context of the work, beyond the ‘redemptive’ impulse (although this only makes the description in question all the odder). Perhaps in the future, it would be nice to see El and his peers positioned less as a diverting antidote to the main event of the world’s contemporary art, and more as partners in it.

Anyway. As if 115 lots by some great artists weren’t enough to get you down to Bonhams’ pre-sale viewing, there’s also an eye-catching accompanying exhibition of Nigerian photography, organised by Tafeta + Partners. Nigerians Behind the Lens coincides with the launch of Ebi Atawodi’s book of the same title, featuring work from nine fine Nigerian photographers, including Jide Alakija:

'No more lies' (2008) - Jide Alakija

That’s enough to be going on with…

Africa Now / Nigerians behind the lens

Sun 13th March, 11-3
Mon 14th – Wed 16th March, 9-4.30
(Africa Now viewings finish at midday on the 16th)

Africa Now Sale

Wed 16th March, 2pm

101 New Bond Street, London

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Staff Benda Bilili

Staff Benda Bilili

Kinshasa’s Staff Benda Bilili set out to be ‘the best handicapped band in Africa’. I was lucky enough to catch their show last summer, and they were most definitely one of the most exhilarating live bands I’d seen in London, handicapped or otherwise. Here is what I wrote at the time:

‘In the sweaty cavern of the Hackney Empire, they worked their audience into a frenzy with their take on Congolese rumba and funk. Wearing a glittery fedora and clutching what looked like an electrified baked-bean tin, 19-year-old singer and future band-leader Roger Landu started off nervously, but soon came into his own, with extraordinary solos on both vocals and the tin, an instrument called the ‘satonge’ which he invented himself. Across the stage, his senior band mates were completely at home, navigating their intricate riffs with ease, belting out beautifully harmonised call-and-response vocals and throwing themselves – at times quite literally – into the performance.’

Staff Benda Bilili play the Union Chapel at a sold-out Gala Event this Friday night, in celebration of their new film, which is in cinemas from March 18th, and screening at several London venues including the Cine Lumière, the Ritzy, Greenwich Picturehouse, and the Odeon in Covent Garden. Not to be missed.