Europeans ‘rescuing’ African art from obscurity again
Billie Adwoa McTernan | April 10th, 2014


On April 1st, the Saatchi Gallery in London held a private preview for its new exhibition, Pangaea: New Art from Africa and Latin America, ahead of the five-month long show. Attendees remarked at the variety of art on display and the event was described by many as a resounding success. Following the opening, this article written by Colin Gleadell was published the UK’s Telegraph newspaper in which the author begins with hostility:

Visitors to the Saatchi Gallery hoping to spot the next big thing in the art market as seen through the great collector’s eyes should take care. So many of the shows, upstairs particularly, are not of works in his collection or that he has bought. These are exhibitions taking place under his roof in order to pay the rent.

Gleadell goes on to suggest that in holding this exhibition Saatchi has become a philanthropist in his support of poor artists.

But this show reveals a philanthropical side to his activities. In the African art section are a number of works by the Ivory Coast painter, Aboudia, and by Boris Nzebo, a painter from Cameroon. Both artists were living in poverty when Saatchi bought their work.

Is this to say that the artists are lucky to get handouts? The implication also disregards the desire of those artists who create to inspire and educate through their passion, and not simply for financial gain.

Gleadell then describes Jack Bell, a young Australian gallerist based in London, as some sort of saviour of African art- rescuing artists from the deep dark pits of oblivion since 2010.

Portraying Bell as a valiant redeemer is nothing short of a spit in the face of the many gallerists, curators and writers whose efforts in supporting, mentoring and opening doors for artists have been unwavering.

For years Bisi Silva, Nana Oforiatta-Ayim, Koyo Kouoh and Elvira Dyangani Ose, to name a few, have been active players in the art world.

Why are they being written out of the story? What about the work of Paula Nascimento who contributed to success of the Angola pavilion at the Venice Biennial last year? And that of David Adjaye?

Or the artists with long-spanning careers, El Anatsui, Malick Sidibe and the late Gerard Sekoto, can they not take any credit for their great work that has also helped put other African artists in the limelight?

The matter goes beyond Jack Bell.

These actors do not deserve to have the wide-range of opportunists past and present, who flock to the continent to “discover Africa”, ride on their coat-tails.

I don’t know whether Bell is aware of or had any input into Gleadell’s article but I sincerely hope not. It is sad that he is being shown in this light.

The article is disgraceful and I urge participants in the art world in Africa and Latin America to shun and rally against this neo-colonial narrative and reclaim their work for themselves.

Do so before the “cultural vultures” (as Oforiatta-Ayim succinctly put it) pick it apart, gobble it up and leave both continents with nothing but bare bones.

Image: “Peace (The Zionist series)” (2010) by Mário Macilau.

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Billie Adwoa McTernan

Billie Adwoa McTernan is a freelance journalist living in Accra. She writes about political and cultural affairs across the continent with a particular focus on Ghana and West Africa.

3 thoughts on “Europeans ‘rescuing’ African art from obscurity again

  1. Aboudja was a graffitti artist in Abidjan, living in the streets. Bell tracked him, found him, and made an exhibition where he sold everything to Saatchi for 4000 quids a piece. Now they are 15000. Handouts? Clearly these people are out to make money, Bell is not in any way portrayed as a “valiant “redeemer”. Here is an interview with Bell
    Malian photographer Hamidou is finally getting his dues at 85 years of age. I think that is just grrrreat.

  2. Europeans and Africans and/or Africans born and raised in Europe or elsewhere away from Africa, have to find a way to work together hand in hand without a paternalist feeling that deforms the good artistic intentions!

  3. The commentary expressed in the article by Colin Gleadell about the Pangaea exhibition is scarily reminiscent of the words and actions of the Italian art collector Jean Pigozzi and his buyer André Magnin during the early 1990s, immediately after the staging of Magiciens de la Terre (1989) at the Grande Halle de la Villette and the Pompidou. In the early 1990s, just prior to the launch of the ‘Africa Now’ exhibition at the Saatchi in 1992, art critic Andrew Graham-Dixon wrote an article (titled ‘Jungle Fever: International socialite “Johnny” Pigozzi collects houses, celebrities, kitsch – and now, with characteristic enthusiasm, African art’) in which he quotes the following extract from an interview with Pigozzi:

    “I went to that massive multi-cultural art exhibition, Les Magiciens de la Terre, in Paris in 1989, and I was just knocked out by the African art in it. I wanted to buy it all and I contacted the organisers but they told me it had been bought up already by the exhibition’s sponsor. So I asked them who had been in charge of finding all the African stuff and they put me in touch with this young curator called Andre Magnin and we had lunch. After about fifteen minutes I asked, ‘Andre, do you still have a job?’ and he said ‘No’. So I said, ‘Andre, if I give you a limited budget and pay you a salary, will you run around Africa and make me a collection?’ He said ‘Fine’, and that’s what he’s been doing ever since.” Magnin has been to Africa on Pigozzi’s behalf on more than sixty occasions. The collection now numbers some 300 pieces by more than 30 artists. How simple things can be when you have money.”

    So, almost a quarter of a century later we are STILL reading about (in deeply patronising tones) the philanthropic activities of wealthy Euro-American elites, valorised in the art press for “run[ning] around Africa” single-handedly ‘saving’ artists from poverty and helping to bring ‘new’ artworks to the attention of audiences in the West, as if commercialisation, profit-making, self-aggrandisement and self-promotion had absolutely nothing to do with it! Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose!

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