There has been a not-so-quiet awakening in the art world of late as it comes to recognize practices from Africa and the Diaspora. This can be attributed to a number of factors, not least the string of innovative artistic voices coming out of the continent married with the tireless work of prominent curators and scholars including Okwui Enwezor, Koyo Kouoh, Bisi Silva, Ugochukwu-Smooth C. Nzewi, and Elvira Dyangani Ose, among others.
Concurrently, over the last decade a slew of contemporary art spaces have been established across the continent. These largely independent institutions provide indispensable platforms and resources for artists who prefer to cultivate their practices in the metropolitan areas of Lagos, Accra, Luanda, and Kampala over other global centers. Major institutions in the West, from the Tate Modern to the Brooklyn Museum, in a tardy push for greater representation in their collecting and curatorial endeavors have dedicated solo shows to key figures including Ibrahim El Salahi and Mescha Gaba, as well as broken new ground with large-scale exhibitions such as "Disguise: Masks of Global Africa" that explore the influences of aesthetic traditions on contemporary production. On the commercial side, historical and contemporary artists alike now command record figures for their work. And the recent and overwhelmingly successful addition of the 1:54 African Art Fair in London and New York exposed an untapped interest in African art among international collectors and museum donors.
With so much activity and what some might call art world hype, this spring it fell to New York's Armory show to launch its own foray into Africa. Recruiting respected curators Julia Grosse and Yvette Mutumba of the nascent online publishing platform Contemporary And, "Focus: African Perspectives" was a refreshing and buzzworthy addition to the fair. Grosse and Mutumbe's curation was marked by the strong presence of emerging voices as well as a balanced representation of artists and galleries working both within and outside the continent.
Of particular note were Francois-Xavier Gabre's sublime photographs of West Africa's industrial architecture at Galerie Cecile Fakhoury, Abijan; Francisco Vidal's eye-catching interactive installation U.topia Machineat London's Tiwani Contemporary ( Fig. 1); and Kapwani Kiwanga's research-oriented moving image and sculptural works at a joint booth by Galerie Jerome Poggi, Paris and Galerie Tanja Wagner, Berlin ( Fig. 2). As this year's commissioned artist, Kiwanga's work received particular attention and certainly it was strongly featured in the booth. However, her single-channel video The Secretary's Suitegot short shrift with its placement at the entrance of Pier 92. The art fair context is of course not the ideal setting for viewing an in-depth moving-image work exploring the histories and practices of gift-giving, but given the prominence of Kiwanga's contribution, the placement of the work was highly disappointing.
Other special projects, including those by Emeka Ogboh, Athi Patra Ruga, and Mame-Diarra Niang, also suffered from lack of impact due to their thin dispersal across the fair. Rather unfortunately, one of the most conspicuous contributions garnered undue attention due to an apparent controversy over censorship. Ed Young's monochromatic banner emblazoned with "ALL SO FUCKING AFRICAN" ( Fig. 3) and "NOT ME IT'S YOU" graced one of the entrances to Pier 94 and his "YOUR MOM" balloons—unleashed into the fair after said controversy—achieved the visual shock-and-awe that is so often effective among the cacophony of offerings at art fairs. The cynical tone of Young's works is intentional, but for this viewer at least it proved unproductive in its attempts to call attention to the exoticization and commoditization of African art in the art world writ large. Perhaps a banner with the statement: "Tell me something I don't know and with a little more subtly, please" would have been more appropriate in this context.
Elsewhere, Karo Akpokiere's Alternate Art Fair( Fig. 4)—a participatory live drawing activity located centrally at the customary champagne lounge—was far more successful at exposing the internal dynamics of the fair system through soliciting contributions and...