Who are Africa’s top artists really?
A new report uses a fresh method to ‘validate’ important African artists, writes Graham Wood
How does one make sense of the art world? How do you tell the real deal from the fads and duds?
Dealers, collectors and the like have tended to rely on insider knowledge, opinion, personal taste and guesswork to navigate the field.
When it comes to 20th-century or modern art, market values can provide some guidance. But, especially when it comes to a broad, diverse category, such as contemporary African art, looking at auction prices isn’t really going to give you a clear picture of what is going on. The market hasn’t yet had the chance to pin any sort of consistent or reliable monetary value on it, and so the art world has been at the mercy of trends, individual perceptions and other uncertainties to try to decide which artists are important.
Besides, it’s such a diverse, disjointed field, it’s impossible for anyone to be able to claim comprehensive knowledge of it.
But it seems changes are afoot. A new report by art consultancy Corrigall & Co, run by arts journalist, adviser and academic Mary Corrigall, looks set to blast away some of the shadowy mystique of the art world with some cold hard facts — or at least something a little more objective than fashion. Corrigall has just published the consultancy’s second report, The Top 50 Artists & the Top 20 Curators Who Validated Them.
Last year, Corrigall & Co brought out a comprehensive report on what Corrigall calls "art ecosystems" or "art ecology", 2018 Contemporary African Art Ecology: A Decade of Curating. It was a "study of the work of the top 20 African curators from 2007 to 2017" that tried to analyse "impact and patterns in curating over the past decade across the continent and the world pertaining to contemporary art from Africa".
This one extracts something a bit juicier from that comprehensive analysis: who are Africa’s top artists?
"How can you quantify anything that’s related to art?" Corrigall asks. But there are some "quantifiables" that can be tracked — some "truths that we should be aware of" that can give us "perspective on what is really happening so that we can navigate this category". In the absence of reliable market validation, Corrigall’s response has been to look at "institutional validation", which, she says, "is what the curators give".
She has tracked and analysed the exhibition practices of an elite list of influential curators — those putting on exhibitions at important events and venues like biennales, museum exhibitions and so on — and counted which artists they have most frequently selected for exhibitions over the decade to 2017. "Part of my methodology has been doing a lot of interviews as well, finding out what other people’s perceptions are, how they align with the data and how [their perceptions] help us understand some of the data," she says.
Of course, any attempt to reduce the art world of a vast continent to a listicle is bound to cause controversy, but the simple fact is that with the rise and rise of contemporary African art, some attempt at an objective report is deeply necessary.
Contemporary African art is a high-risk category, and the art ecosystem is in constant flux, making information the key to navigating the terrain.
And the winner is …
OK, let’s get it over with: Africa’s top artist, according to the report, is SA’s Zanele Muholi, who is probably best known for her portraits of black lesbian society.
Muholi, who a decade ago was denigrated by then minister of arts & culture Lulu Xingwana as "immoral" and "against nation-building", has been consistently validated by the continent’s most respected institutions. (That alone should stand as a reminder that politicians are the last people to look to for tips on art.)
Muholi’s artworks were selected for 12 exhibitions by Africa’s top 20 curators.
Others on the list, which has seven tiers, include Pascale Marthine Tayou (Cameroon), Otobong Nkanga (Nigeria), George Osodi (Nigeria), Kada Attia (Algeria), Kudzanai Chiurai (Zimbabwe) and Tracey Rose, the SA artist who has been selected to create a work for the national pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale.
Tracking what has been happening for a full decade makes patterns emerge. It starts to present a realistic picture of what is happening over the vastness of Africa, and across its different art capitals.
Of course, Corrigall made choices in her methodology that influence what kind of picture the report presents. She opted to take an African perspective, for instance. "I could have looked at curators who worked in different institutions in the US and Europe, followed their work and found out which artists they were selecting," she says. But while that might have shown how African art is represented globally, it would have been a picture of what European institutions believe exemplifies African art.
Corrigall also points out that her approach ran up against frustrating practicalities.
"When curators reach this kind of [elite] status, their work tends to be very much based in Europe, so that a Western-centric bias is probably still in there," she says.
Exposing the extent to which the growth of art in Africa is tied to a European art ecology, Corrigall says, also underlines the importance of having a report such as hers.
Corrigall noticed some other interesting anomalies, such as the disproportionate number of photographers represented in the list. "That hasn’t really aligned with market validation," she says, speculating that, based on sales and prices, you might expect textile works to figure more prominently. "But actually, photography has been incredibly important to the African narrative."
Again, Corrigall hazards that part of the reason for this might be simple pragmatics. "It’s easier, if you are doing shows in different parts of the world, to have an editioned print printed in another city rather than having to travel with work," she says.
Similarly, "a lot of the curators tended to select African artists that were already in Europe or were close to them". Again, cost and convenience come into play. "So there are lots of little biases in there," she says.
"They [curators] are working with severe limitations … it’s not as if they’re looking at a whole roster of artists and are free to choose."
Of course, Corrigall points out that the whole field is constantly shifting and changing, and what was influential in 2007 might no longer be now. Already, since 2017, when the research period ends, she has noticed significant changes. During the decade the report examines, she says, "curators [seemed] so fundamental". But since the report, their significance has lessened as the commercial scene has grown, she says. "We don’t necessarily rely on curators any more to make African art visible.
"African art is visible. It’s now just a matter of where and how. Now we can have more nuanced conversations about African art, beyond saying: ‘We exist!’"
Institutions like the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa and the Norval Foundation, as well as the Javett Art Centre, which is opening in Pretoria this year, have an enormous effect on South Africans’ awareness of contemporary African art. Corrigall says that’s why it was so important for her to "establish a baseline … so that we can go forward and can measure how things progress".
Her next report will focus on how SA art ecology is structured. She’ll follow that one with a report on art fairs geared to African art.
"What came out very strongly in the first report was that we have to increase the collector base in order to grow and sustain the ecosystem in SA, and education and information have become vital in achieving this," says Corrigall.
If the art market across Africa is to develop, information needs to be shared, quantified and made available. Much as art reports record the facts through making them available, they also influence the very subject of their analysis. With Corrigall & Co’s first two reports and more to come, art reports are now officially part of the art ecosystem.
That in itself is going to be a fascinating development to track.