15 African Artists on the Rise
Contemporary African art has long been a topic of contention. For a time, there was even a heated debate around the very existence of contemporary art in Africa. Nevertheless, artists hailing from the continent have continued to create despite conditions of invisibility and marginalization. Now more than ever, interest in contemporary African art is picking up and its artists are getting recognition both at home and internationally. The artists listed here, many represented by members of the African Art Gallery Association, represent a mix of trailblazing young people creating groundbreaking work and artists recently discovered by the art world.
B. 1991, Tanzania. Lives and works in Kampala, Uganda.
Sungi Mlengeya’s paintings show stark contrasts of dark figures against pristine white backgrounds; her work is characterized by this signature, minimalist black-and-white aesthetic. A self-taught painter, Mlengeya first pursued a career in banking before changing gears to focus on art full-time in 2018. She is inspired by ordinary, everyday women who freely live out their lives without inhibition.
In her paintings, Mlengeya portrays Black women and their stories, while placing a particular emphasis on how contemporary women are making their mark on history. The white space we see throughout her works symbolizes her subjects’ desire for freedom to pursue their full potential without the limitations put in place by harmful cultural and social norms.
The artist has had a meteoric rise in her career since showing her work in the “Surfaces” exhibition at Afriart Gallery in Kampala in 2019. Her work has been shown at the 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair 2020, the Investec Cape Town Art Fair, and Latitudes Art Fair 2019, among others. Her work was also included in the recent Unit London group exhibition “The Medium Is the Message,” curated by Azu Nwagbogu.
B. 1975, Maputo, Mozambique. Lives and works in Maputo.
Gonçalo Mabunda is a self-taught artist who uses his artistic grit to decry war that ravaged his home country, Mozambique. He transforms old and abandoned weaponry into thrones, masks, and totems, then adorns his creations with kalashnikovs, rockets, guns, and bullets.
Mabunda’s work draws on memories of violence and promises peace. The sculptor develops rich conceptual work that blends Western modernism and traditional African systems of control. His sculptures embody metaphor, employing defunct military equipment to symbolize violent political leaders. Mabunda uses the old guns to signal the inevitable fall of such power; just as the once-mighty weapons of war now lie derelict, so will they.
Mabunda has been exhibited in the Gangwon International Biennale and the 2015 Venice Biennale. His work has been widely collected internationally; one of his works was acquired for the office of former U.S. president Bill Clinton.
B. 1993, Lagos, Nigeria. Lives and works in Lagos.
Ayobola Kekere-Ekun is an academic and mixed-media artist whose work, often figurative and made from the paper technique known as “quilling,” shows an obsessive, experimental play with line and medium. She creates all of her pieces with paper and acrylic, utilizing her materials in unexpected ways to develop social commentary.
Kekere-Ekun’s series “The Real Housewives of Old Oyo” speaks to the exclusion of women in the Nigerian pantheon. She uses her works to satirize the erasure of the female from the history of belief by creating these cartoon-esque characters that portray the incredibly powerful female deities as one-dimensional TV series characters.
More recently, in her series “High Stakes,” which was shown at Guns & Rain in Johannesburg, she addresses the corruption in Nigeria’s electoral process. Ayobola has shown at Art X Lagos and Latitude Art Fair and has had numerous exhibitions at Guns & Rain and Rele Gallery in Lagos. Her first solo show, which was held at Rele Gallery in March 2019, was presented through a grant from the Dean Collection.
B. 1994, Fort Portal, Uganda. Lives and works in Kampala, Uganda.
Richard Atugonza is a rising artist who is carving out his own sculptural style with intention. He creates relief sculptures that portray people with dynamic textures and richness of material. Atugonza sculpts through a collaborative and sustainable process. His sculptures are built with recycled plastics and charcoal.
His work translates body language into visual narratives, as seen from the series “Imperfect Perfection” (2020). This work focuses on the intricacies of body representation and how individuals view themselves. Atugonza created the works from casts he made of people he knows. The works explore the futility of trying to achieve perfection and demonstrate that imperfection can be beautiful.
Atugonza was recently featured in the 2020 two-person exhibition “(IM)PERFECTIONS” at Afriart Gallery, curated by Lara Buchmann, and his work was featured in the 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair London 2020 and Abu Dhabi Art 2020.
B. 1994, Nairobi, Kenya. Lives and works in Nairobi.
Agnes Waruguru has developed a varied oeuvre, encompassing painting, textile works, installation, and more to explore her own personal identity. She employs materials as tools and symbols—for example, using time-intensive techniques such as embroidery to portray how time passes, and fabrics and needlework to address traditional notions of women’s work. Acts of remixing and spontaneity are central to her work.
Predominantly employing everyday materials like paper, cotton, and ink, she draws particular attention to objects that can be associated with domestic life. Her works, on paper or swathes of fabric, are often filled with poetic washes and blots of color. The thrust of the work comes from the intimate connection that these materials held in the personal lives that yielded them.
In September, she opened her first solo exhibition, “Small Things to Consider,” at Circle Art Gallery in Nairobi. Waruguru’s work was also exhibited at the inaugural Stellenbosch Triennale, one of the most prestigious art events on the African continent, which opened in Cape Town in early 2020.
B. 1994, Lagos, Nigeria. Lives and works in Lagos.
Kelechi Charles Nwaneri describes his work as “contemporary surrealism.” He employs Black fables, symbols, and allegorical imagery to relay his commentary on social issues. His striking figurative paintings—which feature deftly rendered figures and settings that nod to the aesthetics of the Surrealists—are inspired by current events, traditional indigenous African patterns, tribal markings, and literature. Throughout his work, Nwaneri uses a Black hybrid figure as a tool to portray stories that depict the relationship between humans, the environment, the history of his society, and mental health.
In late October, Nwaneri opened his debut solo exhibition “Modern Marks” at EBONY/CURATED in Cape Town. While drawing on Surrealism and Neo-Expressionism, these latest works explore impossible notions that were born from the artist’s subconscious.
His work has also been shown at the 2020 editions of 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair with EBONY/CURATED and Gallery 1957. In 2018, he won the annual Visual Art Competition organized by the Spanish embassy in Abuja, Nigeria.
B. 1983 in Cabinda, Angola. Lives and works in London.
Alida Rodrigues is a mixed-media artist who often works with found photographs and postcards sourced from antique stores, thrift shops, eBay, and estate sales. Her work speaks to the way the Black body has been treated in photographic history—from complete erasure to being objectified and portrayed through a colonial lens.
In her series “The Secret History of Plants,” Rodrigues uses found photographs from the Victorian era and superimposes images of leaves and foliage from around the world over the figures’ faces. Essentially, she removes the subject from the photo and leaves a trace of another identity, inciting conversations about identity and representation.
In 2020, Rodrigues’s work was exhibited at the 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair and Investec Cape Town Art Fair with THIS IS NOT A WHITE CUBE. Her work has also been shown at the National Museum of Natural History of Angol in Luanda, Galeria Banco Economico in Luanda, Tiwani Contemporary in London, and Iniva in London.
B. 1995, Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. Lives and works in Harare, Zimbabwe.
Amanda Shingirai Mushate is one of the most dynamic young artists in Zimbabwe. Since opening her first solo exhibition in 2018, at First Floor Gallery Harare, esteem for her work has been growing internationally. Her works explore interpersonal relationships and the dynamics between individuals and society. While she works across various mediums, her paintings often feature multiple ethereal layers that seem to float in and out of figuration seamlessly.
In addition to the people in her life, Mushate mines inspiration from prominent Zimbabweans, like musicians James Chimombe and Paul Matavire, whose songs she listened to growing up. Her work is infused with personal emotions and frustrations, as well as her quest for self.
Mushate’s exceptional and sophisticated use of color and its narrative properties has attracted critical support internationally. She was a finalist in the Emerging Painting Invitational 2019 and was selected to present a solo exhibition as part of “Tomorrows/Today,” a curated project of the Investec Cape Town Art Fair 2020.
B. 1988, Sikasso, Mali. Lives and works in Bamako, Mali.
Moussa Traoré’s bold paintings feature otherworldly figures that appear to possess both human and alien characteristics. Set on canvas doused in rich color or inky black, his striking protagonists are carefully portrayed in neutral colors and camouflage-like patterns, with a level of detail that captivates the viewer and calls for close looking.
Traoré’s works require us to be introspective and search within ourselves, emphasizing the essence or spirit of a person, rather than their physical characteristics. The artist is committed to experimenting with various materials and media—which explains how he took up painting despite his background in sculpture.
Traoré was recently featured in a three-person exhibition at Galerie Atiss Dakar in Senegal, as well as the gallery’s virtual presentation for 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair New York 2020.
B. 1996, Port Elizabeth, South Africa. Lives and works in Johannesburg.
Yolanda Mazwana creates expressive narrative paintings that delve into mental illness, phobias, and popular culture. Her works often center on emotive, psychologically charged figures made up of gestural brushstrokes and a color palette of deep pinks and reds, as well as violets and blacks. Stylistically, while Mazwana draws on elements of Abstract Expressionism, Neo-Expressionism, and Symbolism, she names the Austrian painter Gustav Klimt as one of her greatest influences.
In the recent body of work “Symptoms of Nothing” (2019), which was exhibited at Kalashnikovv Gallery in Johannesburg, Mazwana explored hypochondria, developing characters to embody the thoughts, experiences, sensations, and inner turmoil of such conditions. Prior to that, her series “Secret Homegirls,” which was shown at Daville Baillie Gallery in Johannesburg, examined hypochondria. Her paintings give shape to the fears and anxieties of such conditions.
Some of her selected exhibitions include “Symptoms of Nothing,” “Secret Homegirls” at Daville Baillie Gallery in Johannesburg, “Summer Salon” at The Bag Factory in Johannesburg, and “RMB Talent Unlocked 2019 Programme,” at RMB Turbine in association with Assemblage in Johannesburg.This year, Mazwana was a finalist for the Emerging Africa Art Prize, and was featured in a group exhibition at Kalashnikovv Gallery and in virtual exhibitions via TMRW and Two Dot Oh.
B. 1986, Luanda, Angola. Lives and works in Luanda.
Visual artist and storyteller Keyezua has worked with various media including film, painting, poems, and sculpture to create striking narrative work that challenges stereotypical portrayals of Africa in the media. Now, she works with photography to tell stories of grief, loss, disability, and womanhood, including such horrors as female genital mutilation.
With a style aptly described as “Romantic Realism,” Keyezua aims to tear down preconceived notions of what it means to be African. “What makes me uncomfortable in our society is what helps me create art that deserves to exist,” the artist has said. Her series “Fortia,” responded to the experience of losing her father to diabetes. Prior to that, through “Afroeucentric Face on” (2016), she discussed beauty standards and the controversial issues around the representation of white and Black female bodies.
Keyezua has exhibited with Luanda gallery MOVART and has been featured at the Afro Vibes Festival Exhibition in Holland, the Lagos Photo Festival in Nigeria, the Addis Photo Festival in Ethiopia, and Something About Bodies in England, among others. She was also included in the 2018 exhibition “Nataal: New African Photography III” at Red Hook Labs in Brooklyn.
B. 1985, Libreville, Gabon. Lives and works in Berlin.
Nathalie Anguezomo Mba Bikoro is a conceptual artist who creates works that serve as a sort of visual storytelling, informed by real stories of communities she engages with and deep archival research. Working across various mediums—including live performance, photography, installation, sound, film, and text—she often conducts deep archival research, analyzing historical documents, their biases, hierarchies, and subjectivities that have been preserved over time. She uses her work to dissect, critique, and create new dialogues around topics such as race, colonialism, migration, gender, identity, modernism, and more.
In 2019, she was recognized with the Fellow Arts Award of Villa Vassilieff and the PRIMARY Artist Fellowship Research Award, and was nominated for the Preis Der Nationalgalerie at Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin. Her recent work and performances have been presented at the Theatre of Düsseldorf, PRIMARY Gallery in Nottingham, the Goethe Institut in Mumbai, and HKW Berlin, to name a few. Her work has also been exhibited at the 10th Dak´Art Biennale and Documenta 14.
B. 1962, Rustenburg, South Africa. Lives and works in Windhoek, Namibia.
Artist, educator, and activist Nicky Marais is esteemed for her abstract paintings made up of dynamic, repeating shapes. She finds inspiration in her day-to-day life, as well as the history of Namibia, and approaches her work as a means to ground spirituality in the physical world. A key highlight of her artistic practice is her abstract paintings, made from a combination of stencils and traditional painting techniques, which explore both tangible and the intangible forces.
Marais has described her practice as a “constant hunt for significant shapes.” These include her interpretations of everyday objects like turnstiles, tunnels, grave markers, and temples. She pares down and perfects these forms, then carefully and precisely paints and replicates them across her pieces in bold, vibrant hues.
This past summer, Marais had a solo show of new paintings on paper, titled “Connections,” at Johannesburg gallery Guns & Rain, which represents her in South Africa. She also shows with StArt Gallery in Namibia. In 2017, she had a solo show at The National Art Gallery of Namibia, titled “Presence in Absence.”
B. 1996, Nigeria. Lives and works in Lagos, Nigeria.
Ameh Egwuh’s bold figurative paintings are inspired by his environment and the people around him in Lagos. Yet his portrayals of everyday happenings turn even the most mundane settings into meaningful, mesmerizing narratives. His works often feature one person or a group, in various seated and standing poses, submerged in a surreal, technicolored world. And rather than portray their skin and faces realistically, the artist carefully covers them in fine, black-and-white lines.
Egwuh’s approach evidences his deep interest in line, which he traces back to the visual lexicons Adinkra and Nsibidi, as well as scarification traditions of ancient Ife art. While utilizing this unique approach to representation, he explores notions of solitude, identity, family, and domesticity.
Egwuh’s works were recently exhibited at FNB Art Joburg 2020 with Rele. This year he was also selected to be one of Rele Arts Foundation’s Young Contemporaries. In 2018, he was included in the “Generation Y” exhibition organized by Retro Africa.
B. 1982, Tunis, Tunisia. Lives and works in Nabeul, Tunisia.
Thameur Mejri’s vivid, intricate paintings offer critiques of the social issues and politics of Tunisia, his homeland. While exploring themes like bigotry, violence, war, and mass media, among others, Mejri often centers his works around figures, seeking to delve into discussions of morality and religion as well. With their riotous combination of color, form, and line, his works envision the discord and multifaceted nature of such topics, serving to stimulate meaningful conversations and unmask truths. Mejri has said that his artistic influences range from Pablo Picasso and Francis Bacon to David Lynch.
Within his works, he often portrays familiar objects that hold symbolic weight, like television sets, weapons, and microphones. “I use symbols to question power and authority and to understand people’s behaviour, reactions and fears when confronted to the unusual and awkward environment emerging from the scenes of the paintings,” Mejri has said.
Mejri’s solo show “Walking Targets,” will open at Selma Feriani Gallery in late November and run through January 2021. His other recent solo exhibitions include “Eroded Grounds” at Gallery 1957 in Accra, “Before You Split the Ground” at Jack Bell Gallery in London, and “Heretic spaces” at Elmarsa Gallery in Dubai. He was also featured in the Tunisian pavilion of DAK’ART, the Biennale of Contemporary African Art, 2018, and the 13th edition of the Cairo Biennale in 2019.