12 Must-See Works from Leading African Galleries
As part of its ongoing programming to promote artists and art spaces from the continent, the African Art Galleries Association (AAGA) has launched the second edition of African Galleries Now, an online-only showcase of emerging, mid-career, and established artists whose expansive practices include a range of mediums and materials. As the art world emerges from a year that saw some programming and initiatives go online but many other events canceled, African Galleries Now provides a space that allows galleries to showcase works by artists they represent. As such, the initiative marries elements of a traditional physical art fair with digital features.
This selection of 12 works that are part of this edition was, I must admit, informed by my own bias toward abstract imagery and artworks that are made of found materials. The selection ranges from drawing and painting to embroidery and mixed media. With works produced within the last eight years, and most in the last two or three, this selection represents a slice of what contemporary art from the continent is concerned with at this time. Take, for instance, Stephané Edith Conradie’s bricolage, which encourages questions about what portraiture could be; or the observations that could be made from Turiya Magadlela’s installations and canvases of fabrics interwoven with intimate histories.
I encourage viewers to consider what these works say about the environment, production, and societal relations. Consider the ways these conversations might have begun in homes or about town, and extended into studios before finding themselves in galleries and museums. Consider what these discussions say about the current global climate and the ways in which our contributions might help or hinder the situation.
Franck Kemkeng Noah, The Vatican to the rythm of AKA (2020)
In The Vatican to the rythm of AKA, shown by Casablanca- and Paris-based African Arty, Cameroonian artist Franck Kemkeng Noah’s spirits are adorned in brightly colored robes, floating amid classical European sculptures in the Vatican, all of which are depicted in their characteristic white marble. Inspired by the fusion of cultures, Noah transports his Aka spirits of central Africa to Rome, where their encounters might produce something new: the possibility of alternative futures awaiting humanity at large.
Pebofatso Mokoena, Magic City (2021)
Imagery of sonic vibrations and space dance around the canvas in South African artist Pebofatso Mokoena’s painting Magic City, which is being shown by First Floor Gallery Harare. In Mokoena’s work, we imagine what sound might look like, dotted and lined, in spirals and circles—a city’s soundscape reimagined in space, full of color and shapes.
In his practice, Mokoena considers space, politics, and the environment, and as such, the work he produces transports viewers from the cosmic realm to busy streets and highways. His work spans drawing, paper constructions, and printmaking; in 2020, he was a winner of the Wits Young Artist Award.
António Ole, Tríptico molhado (2013)
Born in Luanda, Angola, in 1951, António Ole lived through the country’s colonial rule under Portugal. His multidisciplinary practice, which includes painting, sculpture, photography, and film, speaks to colonialism, civil war, and Angolan society more broadly by highlighting resistance. An internationally renowned artist, Ole has exhibited his work at biennials around the world, including in Venice, Havana, and Johannesburg.
His work Tríptico molhado, currently showing at the gallery MOVART in his hometown, includes a set of three photographs of liquid (maybe poured, maybe spilled) on a terrazzo floor. Unbroken but fractured, the pools are reminiscent of the map of the world, continents connected but separated. In Ole’s images, the liquid’s reflective surface becomes a mirror.
Miska Mohmmed, Untitled VI (2021)
In Sudanese artist Miska Mohmmed’s mixed-media work Untitled VI, being shown by Nairobi’s Circle Art Gallery, blurry bodies and thin heads packed tightly against each other fill much of the foreground under a starry night sky. In the background, more heads with unseen bodies hover in the sandy landscape.
As a trained painter who graduated from the College of Fine and Applied Arts at Sudan University, Mohmmed makes work that veers more toward the landscape of a busy city than that of rolling hills in the countryside. The resulting paintings are abstract, with no explicit details, so one is freed to imagine evening commutes during rush hour, lines of people queuing for buses, or taxis, or walking home.
Tuli Mekondjo, Omhepo yeni oili pokati ko miti / Your spirits lingers amidst the trees (2021)
Silk, embroidered thread, bamboo, cotton, yarn, and archival images make up Tuli Mekondjo’s tapestries of history. Her work Omhepo yeni oili pokati ko miti / Your spirits lingers amidst the trees, on view through Johannesburg gallery Guns & Rain, includes two archival images. One is of a group of people standing and sitting in front of a home, while the second shows three women carrying loads on their heads. Sewn thread runs between the feet and legs of the people in both images to three embroidered bodies rendered below the archival images that resemble fetuses, suggesting the many ways that the past finds its way into the future.
The work is emblematic of Mekondjo’s multidisciplinary practice, which draws on themes of identity and displacement in relation to her home country of Namibia.
Thameur Mejri, Experimental Being (2021)
Tunisian artist Thameur Mejri’s mixed-media work on canvas Experimental Being, being shown by Tunisia-based Selma Feriani Gallery, is bursting with bright colors. But on closer inspection, it shows some sinister imagery: Skulls and parts of limbs suggest broken bodies with blood dripping off of them. Chaos rules, but there is hope. A small sun shines in spite of it all, and a growing plant retains its green.
With a practice that extends into the moving image, Mejiri brings techniques and qualities from both painting and film into his interrogations of the political and social structures in Tunisia, alongside themes of violence, guilt, innocence, and shame.
Patrick Bongoy, Unravelling III (2019)
Recycled rubber is a recurring material in the work of sculptor Patrick Bongoy. In his piece Unravelling III, on view with South African gallery EBONY/CURATED, letters hang from a wall-mounted webbing of rubber. The effect evokes lost voices or words.
Rubber has a particularly horrific history in Bongoy’s birth country, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where King Leopold of Belgium assumed the position of ruler over what was then the Congo Free State, and instituted devastating practices and punishments onto Congolese workers in the forced labor of rubber extraction. By using discarded material, Bongoy’s work speaks to environmental pollution and its effects on communities in both rural and urban settings.
Turiya Magadlela, Untitled (2020)
Hosiery, tights, and undergarments in all their yellows, greens, pinks, and oranges—items of clothing that are usually hidden—are revealed in their full splendor in South African artist Turiya Magadlela’s work. The accessories appear stretched out onto a canvas, no longer clinging to the curves of the bodies for which they were designed.
A past winner, in 2015, of the FNB Art Prize, Magadlela describes her work as a reflection of her personal life experiences, but the political cannot be overlooked with the use of such material. In viewing works from her series “Umjuluko” (isiZulu for “sweat”) such as Untitled, being shown by Johannesburg’s Kalashnikovv Gallery, these undergarments can serve as signs of femininity, and the dangers that can be associated with embodying that femininity. On the other hand, there is the joyous self-expression these materials can enable. They can denote freedom for those whose femininity might not be recognized by wider society.
Stephané Edith Conradie, Creolised flowers (2021)
Creolised flowers by sculptor Stephané Edith Conradie, on view with Lisbon- and Luanda-based gallery THIS IS NOT A WHITE CUBE, is an ornamental bouquet blooming with bric-a-brac, an assemblage of items collected from the homes of the artist’s family members in South Africa. The work serves as a portrait of the items’ owners, who are represented by these bits and bobs that sit on mantelpieces and shelves, or are guarded by the glass panel of a cupboard door, perpetually unused.
Conradie’s work is an investigation into the importance these items hold in relation to colonization and creolization. By recontextualizing these objects, she encourages us to think about the kinds of items that are treasured and admired in working- and middle-class homes, and the aspirations associated with them.
Isabel Tueumuna Katjavivi, Swapo Office, London, 1977. Missing narratives (2021)
In Namibian artist Isabel Tueumuna Katjavivi’s work Swapo Office, London, 1977. Missing narratives, showing with Windhoek-based StArt Art Gallery, the faces of subjects in a photograph have been carved out. Immediately, viewers’ eyes are drawn to the space where their faces once were, a space that is now filled by gravel and stones beneath the original, cut photograph. In an attempt to complete the story, we might look elsewhere in the frame. The SWAPO (South West Africa People’s Organisation) posters on the wall might offer some clue as to whose faces have been removed from the photograph. Were they political freedom fighters? Exiles? Friends? Lovers?
Katjavivi uses a number of different media to explore themes of healing and memory related to her Namibian heritage.
Eltayab Dawelbait, Spirits of faces #6 (2020)
The sixth work in Sudanase artist Eltayab Dawelbait’s “A Spirit of Faces” series, on view with Kampala-based Afriart Gallery, is a portrait with almost no distinguishing features. The outline of a head and lips are two of the clues that suggest the viewer is looking at a person. The mystery of the incomplete face, which Dawelbait has painted on a reclaimed wood panel, brings to mind recollections of fading memories.
The ambiguity of the painted figures in this series contrasts with the discarded wood panels and cabinets Dawelbait is drawn to, objects which are so rich in textures and histories.
Mauro Pinto, Ventre (belly) (2019)
The images in Mozambican photographer Mauro Pinto’s series “Blackmoney,” being shown by Maputo-based Arte de Gema, are undoubtedly charged, despite their quietness. Coal fills the frame in Ventre (belly), forming the ground and walls in a mine. One imagines choked coughs and swirling puffs of coal dust settling in the air. Coal mining is part of Mozambique’s fast-growing extractive industry, and the process’s environmental toxicity makes it one of the country’s most dangerous. In another work from the series, Target (2017), we see two men looking into a pit, with no clear way in or out, contemplating the belly of the beast.
Pinto’s journey into photography began in the 1990s. Over the last 20 years he has become one of Mozambique’s most widely known photographers, and this series showcases the power of his images.