African artists eye global reach with London show

 African artists eye global reach with London show
A woman looks at a work of art by US artist Joyce Pensato entitled "Micky for Micky 2014" displayed at the Frieze Art Fair in London on October 14, 2014.

LONDON - Despite sparse resources and limited institutional support, the world will soon wake up to Africa's ingenious new artists, according to some of the continent's leading exponents taking part in London's Contemporary African Art Fair.

The four-day event - the largest such fair outside Africa - opens on Thursday and showcases the work of over 120 artists in the grand setting of Somerset House in the heart of the British capital in a bid to reach a global market.

Some 27 galleries from around the world are represented at "1:54" - named after the number of countries in Africa - and the event has doubled in size since it debuted last year.

"What is exciting about 1:54 is showing that Africa is global, we are not in a bubble," said artist Sokari Douglas Camp, from Nigeria's Rivers State but based in London.

"I don't understand why Africa has to be separate, it is part of this planet and has been communicating for centuries," she added, standing next to one of her steel sculptures depicting a person straining under the weight of a bucket full of flowers.

Cameroonian Adjani Okpu-Egbe, who dreamed of becoming a footballer before turning to painting, believes that the new wave of African artists can be as important as the continent's superstar sportsmen in raising its cultural profile.

"There are many different things that make us happy and art is one of them," he said. "Art can reach out as much as football."

In "The Journey of the Underdog" - painted on four wooden doors - Okpu-Egbe colourfully depicts himself being devoured by a bright red, sharp-toothed monster, meant to represent his domineering father.

'Great sense of humanity'

As with many artists represented at the fair, the 33-year-old is self-taught, giving the collections a fresh sparkle to western eyes, according to 1:54 founder Touria El Glaoui.

"There is a lot of influence from their life context and you can see that," she said. You can understand what you see, it's not too conceptual.

"They are not trying to be pleasers, they are not trying to comply to a typical group of collectors or institutions, which is amazing."

On the perils of producing work to impress art's power brokers, Okpu-Egbe said: "The best way to please people is when you are pleased yourself."

"If you are standing on a strong foundation, you can stretch out your arm and help."

The painter, who is now based in south London, pinpointed "platforms and resources" as the biggest obstacles facing artists in Africa, calling the dearth of art museums in Cameroon "unbelievable".

Having established the fair in London, founder Touria El Glaoui, daughter of famous Moroccan artist Hassan El Glaoui, said there were plans to bring it to New York and Africa itself.

Reflecting the shortage of artistic materials, much of the work on display is fashioned out of recovered materials including charcoal sacks and plastic oil containers, and is heavily influenced by the local environment.

"There is a lot of politics, that are very visible and sensible in their production," explained the event's artistic director Koyo Kouoh. "There is a great sense of humanity."

It's not about the artist, it's a very important voice in portraying society.

"The power they (artists) have is to challenge and tease consciousness and I think African artists do that best because the society and environment is so challenging," she added.

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