Africa’s 5 most influential artists of 2017

The visual art field is an intoxicating arena of the most brilliant minds who are going beyond documenting history into exploring the surreal, the unimaginable and the forgotten to unravel a new universe.

The art world has become a major playground with artists and collectors breaking new barriers every other day. The visual art field, as it stands today, is an intoxicating arena of the most brilliant minds going beyond documenting history into exploring the surreal, the unimaginable and the forgotten to unravel a new universe. The African scene’s many great artists have not only made a name at home but also abroad. Here are the 5 visual artists, whose implausible gift and work made the biggest impact in 2017.

Mohau Modisakeng

Mohau Modisakeng :Photo Courtesy

The huge scar of colonialism was the fodder of the Mohau Modisakeng’s video installation at the 2017 Venice Biennale. Mohau and Candice Breitz’s were the only two artists at the world largest art exhibition. Their efforts and ingenuity would make South African Pavilion be among the top eleven pavilions at the fair.

Mohau’s moving image dubbed The Passage, was a gripping three-channel installation that would leave a spectator frozen at the morbid suspense in black and white. Each of the three channels has a character on a boat with a white floor – bringing to mind an imagery of a coffin. The three characters are in a battle to survive in the dark water that is slowly sipping though the floor boards of the vessels. The more they struggle in their own solitude, the more the silvery water fills the dinghy- over powered by the immense water; the sojourners resign to their own fate and are buried in their own coffins with their little possessions.

The Passage was enigmatic- a moment in time as seen by the design and fashion of the characters on the boat. Mohau, who was born in Soweto, took his audience back in time to the pain and solitude of African slaves, especially those who tried to escape and their fate to the unforgiving sea. Metaphorically, the artist was exploring the vanity of struggle in an overly resistant world- a world so immersed in individuality that those who try to bring sanity and humanity slowly wane into oblivion.   

Through film, large scale photographic prints, performances and installations, the artist uses different platforms in an attempt to address the turbulent history of South Africa. The artist uses his own body, costumes and props to reach out to the world as he brings out the traumatic experience that begun with the Apartheid regime in his country. Though the works are docile, one cannot help but see the underlying gripping tale of violence, torture and psychological trauma.

Mohau has exhibited his works at VOLTA NY, New York (2014); the Saatchi Gallery, London (2012); Dak’Art Biennale, Dakar (2012); Focus 11, Basel (2011); and Stevenson, Cape Town (2010), the 2013 FNB Joburg Art Fair and the 2017 Venice Biennale.

Dana Whabira

Mircea Tancau, Photo Credit: Mircea Tancau

Her three installations at the 57th Venice Biennale would speak to the plight of immigrants around the world. Born in London, England to a father who was an asylum seeker, Dana Whabira had first-hand experience on the plight of immigrants in Europe which she explores in Circles of Uncertainty, Black Sunlight and Suspended Animation.

Through the three installations, The Zimbabwean artist showcases her deeper understanding of immigration and its effect on asylum seekers. Her art opines that, the poverty in the people who live in Africa is more from greed and need for a better life elsewhere that puts them in the ‘Circles of Uncertainty’ than the need to make home better. It also speaks about African origins that always keeps those from Africa from settling at wherever place they went and would always yearn to go back home (Suspended Animation). Though Suspended Animation indirectly points to this need to go back home, its focus is on the material brainwashing that makes an African thirst for western goods to the detriment of the local production. Furthermore, it unmasks the truth about ‘the grass is greener on the other side’ since many who make it to Europe and other foreign destinations end up in the informal job markets and at the mercy of the employers and low wages.

Whabira’s work shares some similarity with Kenya’s Longinos Nagila in his exhibition in Nairobi; In Search of Alternative Utopias, Nagila, who has also spent some time in Europe, brings into discourse the ever restless mind of an immigrant. Longinos, using renown trademarks like Prada, Louis Vuitton, and Versace shares the contrast between the dreams of life in the West and the reality that the immigrants find on the ground.

In the Black Sunlight, Whabira mourns the loss of culture through the dynamics of language. Through the use of neon lights, sound and animation, the artist takes us back in time to when language was the heart throb of culture to colonialism, where language has become a tool for control and manipulation. Her wide array of themes centered on immigration, loss of identity and culture puts the founder of Njelele Art Exhibition in Zimbabwe among Africa’s top Creatives.

Whabira has exhibited her works at the National Gallery of Zimbabwe (2013) in group shows in Johannesburg (2015), Pretoria (2015) and Harare (2012), and she will participate at the 13th Dak’Art Biennale from May 3rd 2018.

Peju Alatise

Photo Courtesy: Peju Alatise

2017 was a busy year for Peju Alatise, she won the 2017 FNB Art Prize in South Africa besides being part of the Nigerian pavilion at the Venice Biennale- A year that saw Nigeria open her pavilion at the famous art show. The exhibition was titled What About Now’ and Peju, using her mastery in sculpture would represent eight life sized sculptures of girls with wings under the banner Flying Girls, towering above the girls were birds in mid-flight. Flying girls, despite its alluring and mystical presence, inundates the plight of the girl child. In this context, the artist does not put the girl in the corner of despair awaiting help. She gives the girls the wings, what is expected of society, that is, giving the girl child education and other opportunities accorded to the boy child. With wings, the girls can be able to fly to their dreams and rise to the heights they only imagined-symbolized by the artist’s birds in mid-flight.

The installation is optimistic, for the representation is not exposing the plight of the girl child but the potential in her. The African girl child goes through a lot of challenges and her exhibition which highlighted most of this challenges could not have come at a much better time.

According to the artist however, Flying Girls “is based on the story of Sim, a little Yoruba girl who lives in two alternate worlds. In one world she is a nine-year old who is rented out as a domestic servant in the city of Lagos. In the other, dream world, she can fly at will. A world with talking birds and butterflies, where shadows are friends. A moonlit world of escapism” Peju says.

The Lagos based artist holds a degree in architecture and aside from mixed media art, she is also a poet and an author of several books. She has exhibited her works on various platforms like 1:54 Contemporary Art Fair, Casablanca Biennial and several exhibitions in her home country.  In 2016, she was awarded a fellowship at the National Museum of African Art at the famous Smithsonian Institute.     

Maral Bolouri

Maral Bolouri : Photo Credit: Tom Vandas

Maral Bolouri installation Mothers and Others would make her the winner of ABSA-Barclays’ ‘L’Atelier’ Prize for 2017. The piece, like most of her works, was centered on women and how they are perceived by the society. Building on her own hypothesis of the woman, Bolouri, born in Tehran, would do extensive research on Proverbs in Kenya, Ethiopia, and Sudan among others and how the proverbs portrayed women. She then built three installations indicative of how positive and negative the female gender had been entombed in the African proverbs. The first installation contains bells hanging on a flatbed-like roof, suspended on the bells are proverbs that negatively depict women as a burden- whether married or not, invalid or an outcast. Under the flatbed roof, is a shrine, which contains positive proverbs about women, the four proverbs however, look narrowly at the woman’s potential as a mother.

The third piece is blank, inviting viewers to participate by giving their own proverbs, in this respect, the Nairobi-based artist invites discussion on individual level on how women have been regarded over the years and also encouraging personal realization on cultural norms that have made it hard for women to rise in positions of authority.

Bolouri who has a master’s degree in International Contemporary Art, has also explore feminism in her works including Boxes, Destiny III and Alienation. She has exhibited her works in Iran, USA, Belgium, South Africa and Malaysia.

Victor Ehikhamenor

Victor Ehikhamenor: Photo Credit: Benson Ibeabuchi

He was among the three artists who opened up the first Nigerian Pavillion at the 57th Venice Biennale. Victor Ehikhamenor exhibition, Biography of the Forgotten is a historical masterpiece that encourages introspection through reflections from the past-the pieces of history that modeled what we call modern.

The Nigerian artist born Udoni Uwessan, used material culture from his region- majorly the rich Benin bronze statuettes and mirrors interwoven with his drawings on seven large canvasses. The metaphorical essence of this masterpiece was to parallel the two worlds that came together during the time of white infiltration into the culturally rich region. In the installation, the artist brings glass as an import into Benin Kingdom and bronze and many other artifacts including slaves as the products the whites carted away. Through this, the artist, who hails from Edo State, brought to life debate on colonialism and African heritage around the time slave trade would rear its ugly head in Libya.

The Nigerian artist who also takes up form as a photographer, sculptor and a writer, ignited debate around the Nigerian and African art space when he pointed out flaws that lean on colonialism and European lust for African art through Damien Hirst’s exhibition at the Biennale ‘Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable’. According to Victor, the world renowned British artist appropriated one of Ife heads without giving proper accreditation. Victor opined through his Instagram page that: “The British are back for more from 1897 to 2017. The Oni of Ife must hear this. “Golden heads (Female)” by Damien Hirst currently part of his Venice show “Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable” at Palazzo Grassi. For the thousands of viewers seeing this for the first time, they won’t think Ife, they won’t think Nigeria. Their young ones will grow up to know this work as Damien Hirst’s. As time passes it will pass for a Damien Hirst regardless of his small print caption. The narrative will shift and the young Ife or Nigerian contemporary artist will someday be told by a long nose critic “Your work reminds me of Damien Hirst’s Golden Head”. We need more biographers for our forgotten.”  @Victorsozaboy (May 8. 2017)

These sentiments brought to light some of the flaws that have been occurring throughout history and end up becoming normal, most of the discussions that later followed were on how to ensure African art is preserved as it were, and not twisted to shade off its rich history of ownership and belonging.

Victor has wrote extensively as well as being a CEO and editor-in-chief for Daily Times in Nigeria. His 2012 nonfiction book, Excuse Me! is widely acclaimed in the field of academia in Nigeria. He has also designed book covers for various authors including Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. He divides his time between Nigeria and USA. 

|Afroway

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