Art auctions uncontrived in their wide multiplicity
In 2010 Simon Njami, the curator born in Cameroon and based in France, and Africa’s most celebrated architect, David Adjaye, staged an ambitious initiative.
In Art at Work, they conceived of an adaptive travelling exhibition across eight cities on the continent. Adjaye took care of the pop-up gallery and Njami engaged local artists in each city to generate the art.
The art was probably not the most cutting-edge, and it was mostly photography. But the expression was particular to — and different in — each city, extending the pluralistic view of African art Njami has been promoting throughout his career.
It should be a given that African art has no obvious identifiable features. Yet art professionals on the continent are constantly trying to make this point.
This is what makes art auctions such interesting platforms on which to consider art. An uncontrived multiplicity of expression occurs naturally in the secondary art market.
The artworks are curated, selected through a filtering process and tailored by ideas of what is valuable, but there is no deliberate tick-boxing.
Catalogues produced ahead of auctions almost always contain an unexpected mix of art, exuding the multiplicity of tastes of patrons, the auction house’s specialists and the identities of the artists.
The diverse collection of sculptures on Aspire Art’s Summer Auction is a good example of this. It includes Edoardo Villa’s hard-edged abstract sculptures, Sydney Kumalo’s spiritually driven anthropomorphic art, Willie Bester’s political statements, Peter Schütz’s kind of African pop art aesthetic and Anton van Wouw’s bronze figurative expression.
Villa’s futuristic and severe black steel sculptures from the early 1990s exude such a different mind-set in the remarkable Reclining Figure, an abstract bronze work with a verdigris patina. Villa may not have been in two minds; in his earlier sculpture from the 1960s, he seemed to pursue softer lines in natural-looking materials, and later found his groove in man-made lines.
These differences reveal the friction between culture and nature. The severe sharp black silhouettes of Villa’s steel works stand in for culture, a mastering of form and language; while the green patina of the curved bronze speaks of an adaptive fluidity associated with nature.
Seduced by his new African home, the Italian-born sculptor might have been best positioned to deal with the seemingly hard line between African and European aesthetics that artists were preoccupied with at the time. The middle-ground for him and others was presented through a language involved in reducing forms, arriving at abstraction.
Villa represents a generation that sought to grapple with a seemingly fractured identity through form rather than by representing themselves — claiming the fracture, so to speak. Back then it was all about finding common ground rather than asserting difference.
The flat solid surfaces speak of this Afro-pop vibe that is so unique to the artist. Sculptors so rarely describe urban banality that the medium seems tied up with monumentalising the extraordinary
There is a connecting line with Kumalo who was taught by Villa, worked for him and then exhibited alongside him. Yet they were from different worlds, separated by race, birth, privilege and culture.
African spiritualism appears to have influenced Kumalo’s remarkable work dubbed Mythological Rider, which presents a man and beast seamlessly fused together. Aspects of Zulu culture informed his art, such as the praise singer in a bronze sculpture of that name, which will also go under the hammer. However, it is the Mythological Rider, valued at R1m, that holds the attention. The elegance with which he evokes the relationship between humankind and the animal world is appealing, reflecting how Africans see the one as a mirror of the other.
Like Villa, Schütz was a European immigrant. This background created an interest in how locals first represented white people through their wooden sculptures. This would set his language in the Suburban Streetlight sculpture (1983) in which he applies it to critique the way in which white middle-class suburbanites live in fortresses of sorts.
The flat solid surfaces speak of this Afro-pop vibe that is so unique to the artist. Sculptors so rarely describe urban banality that the medium seems tied up with monumentalising the extraordinary.
Van Wouw created a non-monument of sorts in his bronze sculpture Bad News (Slegte Nuus, 1907) in the sense that it registers loss rather than a national triumph. Unlike typical war statues, the two male figures are seated and slumped rather than erect. Their gaze is cast downwards as they consider the fall of the Boer republics. This is not the sort of sculpture you would associate with Boer nationalism at all, making it an unusual and compelling work.
You could draw a connecting line between Schütz and Bester, though their identities and circumstances could not be more different. Bester’s Bench for Mr Semikaze (1994) also derives its vocabulary from a tradition of wooden sculpture, yet he too navigates it towards a different end, turning it into a form of political commentary.
Referencing public benches during the apartheid era labelled "whites only", Bester creates a bench for black people. As it is designed for public space, sculpture is the ideal vehicle to challenge the politics inherent to it, opening up a space for those who are exempt from occupying it. However, all the accessories attached to Bester’s bench make it impossible for anyone to take a seat.
It is through art, museums and exhibitions that curators are "making space" for people who have been excluded and oppressed due to their racial, sexual or gender identities.
"This is for you," roared Mark Coetzee, the curator and director of the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary African Art, addressing the groups of school children gathered at the entrance on its opening day. He implied that the art should reflect the multiple identities of Africans rather than represent the art world.
• Aspire’s Spring Auction takes place on November 12 at 5pm at the Gordon Institute of Business Science. The public is invited to view the works and attend walkabouts from November 9 to 12.