Author: Luisa Nannipieri
Showcasing more than 130 artists represented by 38 international galleries, the 7th edition of AKAA that took place last month in Paris made it clear that African art is claiming its rightful spot on the French market and that this fair with a human touch is set to last.
“Everything is in place: the artworks are all set and, most importantly, the artists are here. It feels so good to finally open the seventh AKAA fair!” Armelle Dakouo, Also Known As Africa’s artistic director, is ecstatic. Wearing a dashing smile, she walks under the glass and metal canopy of the Carreau du Temple, a modern cultural space set in a covert market built in 1863 in one of the central districts of Paris, as she welcomes the first visitors. The stakes for this year’s fair, one of the main events dedicated to Africa and its diaspora’s artistic scenes in France, are quite high. After the abrupt stop in 2020 due to the rebound of the pandemic outburst a few days before the opening, and the 2021 edition shackled and diminished by the restrictions implemented to stop the COVID spread, AKAA’s relevance in the art market has been put to the test.
The founder and director of the fair, Victoria Mann, decided with her artistic director’s support that they needed to shake things up a bit to put the event back on track. That’s one of the reasons why they chose new dates for this year’s rendezvous (October 20 to 23, instead of November). Moving up the opening, a goal they had been working on for several years, allowed AKAA to attract the international public coming to France for Paris + first edition, a new initiative by Art Basel. But also gallerists and art lovers from all over the world who went to celebrate 1-54 London’s ten-year anniversary, a few days before. The idea was to make the most of one of the richest and more dynamic cultural weeks of the year.
To answer the expectations of the public and the professionals, they also had to secure the best offer they could. Keeping, at the same time, the human and friendly touch the fair was appreciated for. Listening in on the visitors wandering the stands, it seems their bet paid off: “I like it here, because there are more artists of color than in other European fairs. They are young and refreshing and I can feel a vibe, a buzz, that’s really stimulating”, says a collector from Philadelphia to her husband, looking at some playful portraits by Thandiwe Muriu. The psychedelic works of this Kenyan photographer, presented by the French-Italian 193 Gallery, have picked the visitors interest and found their buying public. “It’s a more intimate fair than the ones I’m used to, says a young man drinking a glass of champagne at the bar with his friends. But there is a lot of choice and I think I prefer this kind of atmosphere. I can take the time to talk with the artists and explore the booths without feeling lost or overwhelmed”.
12 galleries out of 38 came to Paris from all over Africa
“The fair is growing in quality and in diversity”, says Victoria Mann, “This seventh edition marks the coming back of the galleries from the African continent after the closure of border crossings because of the pandemic. They amount to almost a third of the total exhibitors.” The organizers selected 38 international galleries presenting over 130 artists – both masters and emerging ones – and several original artworks. At the Carreau du Temple there are fewer booths than in 2019, but each exhibitor got more space than before, which gave them the occasion to explore all kinds of media. The end of the restrictions also means that sculptures and big design pieces can travel to Europe again. A fundamental condition to increase the heterogeneity of the fair, which also includes a small design section.
As for the 12 exhibitors who made it from the continent, Northern Africa is represented by Karim Francis Contemporary Art Gallery from Egypt – for the first time at AKAA – and Galerie 38, from Morocco. They brought to Paris some of Abdoulaye Konaté’s latest masterpieces, focusing on his abstract creations inspired by Tuareg cultural permeation of the sub-Saharan region. One of his monumental works, made of textile strips that recalls a West African dancer’s dress, a part of the installation enlivening the center of the fair, sold for 110 000€. Two other smaller pieces went for 40 000€ each. Good news for one of the major figures of art in Africa, who has been honored this year at the Dakar Biennale but hasn’t made a lot of appearances on the Parisian market, yet.
Representing West Africa, there were WALLS House of Art and Véronique Rieffel from Ivory Coast, and a new gallery from Ghana, Soview, which promotes interactions between French and English-speaking artists in the subregion. For both Soview and WALLS House, attending AKAA for the first time can be labeled a success. “We sold 70% of our booth, got the chance to meet representatives from Artcurial or the Bernard fund and actively work our contact list”, says Barbara Kokpavo from Soview. Zeina Nehme – WALLS – joins in: “Our prices ranged between 2 100 and 6 500 € and people were happy to find affordable works of art. We took a risk showcasing a massive wooden sculpture, but it also sold in the end. So, I think next time we will bring more expensive pieces.”
The absence of Eastern African galleries was noticeable, but it can be justified considering the situation is still complicated in countries like Kenya or Uganda. And we must also consider that the American market is still the best option for exhibitors coming from English-speaking nations who need to carefully manage their budget. Things are a bit different in Middle Africa. The two attending Angolan galleries – MOVART and This Is Not a White Cube – benefit from their double locations. Being based in Lisbon and in Luanda makes it easier to select, ship and showcase different artworks. Fidél Evora at MOVART is, for instance, one of the most bought artists of the fair.
Truth to be told, almost half of the selected African galleries are from South Africa and most of them came to AKAA for the first time. Like The Melrose Gallery, a leading Pan African contemporary space located in Johannesburg and Cape Town which represents established artists like Esther Mahlangu. The elder artist being exposed at AKAA was the first person to transfer the traditional Ndbele style of mural painting to canvas and she is a real idol for the artists in the making who visit the fair: “It’s awesome to be able to see her works directly. It’s so inspiring!”, says Shamika, 22, on a study trip from Martinique. Esther Mahlangu’s installation was sold for 300 000 €, setting a record for the highest purchase in AKAA’s existence.
Kalashnikovv Gallery, from Cape Town, brought some highly appreciated works by plastic artist Turiya Magadlela. Born in 1978 and living in Soweto, she tackles questions related to sexist and racist violence, using nylon socks and different textiles to create multilayered and abstract compositions that evoke femininity, as well as the relationship between public and personal spheres. Also based in Cape Town, Eclectica Contemporary came to AKAA after a successful appearance at 1-54 London, earlier this month. The director, Shamiela Tyer, decided to focus on on-going experimentation in contemporary African painting, its European inspiration and its diasporic and global impact, bringing to Paris four African artists from Nigeria, Kenya and South Africa. Titled ‘We Come in peace’, Eclectica Contemporary’s contribution to the fair gets its name from one of the powerful and bold pieces by Bob-Nosa Uwagboe, whose graphic trait recalls Jean-Michel Basquiat or Fauvism. Johannes Phokela questions the absence of black bodies in western art, taking advantage of Edouard Manet’s counterfeit realism technique, while Samson Bakare’s ironic and Afro-classical portraits show black people in different times and spaces, displaying blank expressions as they strive for cultural emancipation. Portrait is also the core of Nedia Were’s work. Born and raised in Kenya, he focuses on oil painting and has recently been featured in Vogue. The way he brushes the background, which reminds the Douanier Rousseau Post-impressionist style, makes his black characters stand out and add a sprinkle of ‘Black Magic’ to the realism of the composition. “A younger generation of African artists is taking its space, everything is evolving”, Shamiela Tyer points out. “Think of the portraits: they changed a lot in the last five years or so. The way the subjects look directly at us, instead of keeping their heads down, or how the painters are not afraid to use even dark pigments anymore… It’s like they were saying loud and clear: I’m here, I’m black, and I am seen.”
Over the years, AKAA has remained true to its original vision, open to dialogue and discovery without clichés or preconceptions. “We stand by our commitment to show newcomer artists, still confidential but talented, near safe values and established ones”, say the organizers. This mindset has allowed the fair to become a unique space for young artists who claim a link with Africa through their practices, for new collectors or for those taking their first step in the contemporary African art world. An educational mission, in a sense, that during the last seven years has helped to structure and reinforce the market in France. “AKAA has given security and credibility to a lot of artists that could otherwise fall between the cracks”, thinks Béatrice Dossou-Yovo, a collector. “It’s now enforcing the dynamic in France, maintaining its uniqueness. They are doing an essential work.” Sibi, a young woman of Togolese origin, is a good example of the fair influence in democratizing African art. She doesn’t really see herself as a collector, but the first time she came, in 2021, she left with a piece. She will probably do the same this year: “I’m starting to think I would love to have a Togolese collection, but I will only buy what I’m really taken with.”
To accompany the artistic projects of its exhibitors, and to appeal to this kind of public, helping them to make an informed choice, AKAA has created Les Rencontres. A cultural platform within the fair where artists, curators, thinkers, art professionals and visitors may express themselves and debate publicly, reflecting on questions related to current artistic issues and the art market in Africa. This year, Armelle Dakouo put together a cultural program that explores themes inspired by the movement in art, because: « Just like time, movement defines us. It is movement that marks gesture, influences a current or determines an artistic practice and thought process ». Installed near the bookshop, the conference space hosted several encounters, while a fashion show and a few performances livened up the Carreau du Temple throughout the three days.
As the read tread of this edition and its highlights, the word Movement is also part of the title of the second Art book fair edited by AKAA – In motion/Quantité de mouvements – and illustrated by 17 chosen artists, present or not in Paris. It’s a concept that can be approached from different angles, depending on the choice of materials, artistic gestures or themes. For example, the work on cultural identity or memories, which is especially important for the diaspora’s artists, can be related to the notion of movement through time or space. The French-Italian-Cameroonian artist Barbara Asei Dantoni, represented by Cécile Dufay Gallery, exhibits a project on “imaginary identity” that uses Cameroon’s passports masks, colors and symbols to question the way her personal cultural differences intersect. On another note, the four-panel painting revealed by Ousmane Bâ, a Tokyo-based French artist and one of this year’s Dakar Biennale stars, shows us a frantic samba dance inked on washi paper. The composition can change, like Japanese sliding doors or prompts in a Kabuki show, depending on how the panels are fixed on the wall.
I have already written about one of the guests of honor of AKAA fair: the Malian artist Abdoulaye Konaté. His monumental works speak a volume about movement: because of their aesthetics, playing with colors and symbols, and the materials used to make them. Folded countless times by hand. The artworks exhibited for his carte blanche in the central aisle of the Carreau du Temple, nicely enlightened by the natural light coming from the canopy during the day, are from his series ‘Les Plis De L’âme’, the folds of the soul. In one of these, he created first a Dogon symbol, then asked Moroccan weavers to embroider the canvas and had one of the last Moroccan weaving masters working on the central pattern. All this using the bazin, a traditional Malian fabric, in a way that materializes the cultural link between the Maghreb and the Sahel, the Tuareg and the Peul heritage.
This year, AKAA decided to invite another artist for another carte blanche, especially conceived for the space of Les Rencontres. The choice fell on Nnenna Okore, a Nigerian-Australian artist who lives in Chicago, who is represented by October Gallery in London and who is internationally established. Like Abdoulaye Konaté, she is still little known in France, but her work on organic fibers, textures and waste material is bewitching. Inspired by nature and her environment, she exhibits pieces resembling beautiful yet ephemeral and delicate flowers. For this carte blanche, she wanted to make a statement and challenge the public, leaving a mark on the viewer. “I wanted to explore an issue I haven’t seen a lot of artists address, here at AKAA: the plastic problem we have, in Africa and all over the world.” Using plastic bags she found in her surroundings, she created an immersive artwork that recalls a microorganism expanding indefinitely. “Like a pest, plastic is spreading everywhere, filling every empty space. We can’t ignore it; we need to talk about it”.
The booths near the space of Les Rencontres are occupied by a rich specialized bookshop and the collective Neuvième Toit. Founded in 2014 in Paris by entrepreneur and public relations consultant Goudet Abalé, it brought together French-speaking creators active in the fields of painting, music, photography, fashion, design and audiovisual. For the 7th edition of the Parisian fair, they drew up a new project in partnership with AKAA. Led by Goudet Abalé and his art advisor Johanna Amelot, it aims to highlight African art in an innovative and accessible way, using non-fungible tokens or NFT and hybrid media, mixing physical and digital art. They worked with the French-Ivorian dancer, photographer and plastic artist Willow Evann (31 Project gallery) to give life to an immersive exhibit, combining both the perception of the real world and its virtual mirror. The carpets composing his piece Zouili are especially baffling. Three mask shaped tufting rugs were hung on the wall. They can be totally used as customized carpets, but the owner can also interact with them using a tablet and an app. Besides creating an appealing effect due to the animation of the mask, Willow Evann wanted to reconnect the object with his history and sacred function. In the Ivory Coast, the Zaouili dancers put a mask on to perform during funerals and celebrations, symbolizing the unity of the community.Particularly busy, the Neuvième Toit booth attracted an interested crowd all along the fair. But not everyone was satisfied with the young artists’ explanations of the benefits of NFTs for African creators. It’s also to demystify them that they spend their time patiently explaining the concept to the visitors.
Other people were simply not interested in digital art and were cautiously gauging the fair. William Mpah Dooh, a gallerist from Cameroon who personally prefers nonfigurative art, was still looking for an artwork to catch his eyes: “But I’m impressed. The work on textures is more prominent this year. I see a lot of different support, artists going in different directions… I think that AKAA offers a good variety of choices to the visitors and the collectors and that’s positive for me. I think everyone can find his catch”. For the representatives of the Institute Museum of Ghana, the catch was Assoukrou Aké. The Ivorian winner of the second Ellipse Prize, sponsored by the French infrastructure design and construction company Ellipse Projects, which operates in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia, developed a multidisciplinary artistic practice of collage, painting, engraving and sculpture. Influenced by symbolism and spirituality, his work invites us to question the meaning of existence through dark and heavy atmospheres, from which emerges a touch of serenity and hope. “We are really happy that his exhibit at AKAA will allow one of his works to go back to the continent”, declared the two founders of Ellipse Art fund, Laura Picard and Victoria Jaunasse. The presence of western heavyweights like Fondation Cartier, Centre Pompidou, Fondation Vuitton, Tate Modern or the Modern Art Museum of Paris is a sign of vitality. But it’s also interesting to observe that collectors and institutions from the continent browse the fair to look for acquisitions.
“I think AKAA is reaching its maturity”, ponders artistic director Armelle Dakouo. “We are progressing, year after year, and we closed several good sales from the get to go”. On Sunday, October 23rd, the fair doors closed with 15 000 visitors (2000 more than the previous edition) going back to its attendance rate before the pandemic. The direction aims to keep the event on a human scale, but it also hopes to attract a new public in 2023, benefiting further from the concurrent Paris+ fair, the most important annual gathering of art collectors and professionals in France. Fully asserting, at the same time, their position as the main event dedicated to Africa and its diaspora’s artistic scenes in the country.
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