Against the Odds, Investec Cape Town Art Fair Proves Solid Ground for African Art Market
Steady sales by local buyers confirm strong South African art market
An abstract woman painted in black sits on top of a red goat. She wears a delicate lace top while on her head are stitched together leather straps that hang down like hair. The work, entitled The Journey (2020) by DRC-born Cape Town-based artist Patrick Bongoy, becomes more interesting when we see that she is depicted with the same hooves as the goat. It was displayed on the wall of Ebony/Curated, a gallery with branches in Franschhoek and Cape Town, during the eighth edition of the Investec Cape Town Art Fair. The work, made with hessian, acrylic and rubber inner tubes, portrays the artist’s signature whimsical world that explores themes of migration, alienation and loss of one’s homeland. Also a fashion designer, Bongoy’s work speaks directly to today’s global state of environmental crisis. “My work speaks in response to the global reality of literal and figurative environmental pollution,” he says. Hard to miss after his startling sculpture of a figure at this year’s inaugural Stellenbosch Triennale of a man made in disused rubber hunched over as if trying to free himself from the confines of a pieces of fabric. The piece, which sold in the range of $6,000 and $10,000, was indicative of a strong presence of socio-political work at the fair, challenging present and past ideas of identity and historical narratives as the African continent jets into a new future.
The eighth edition of Investec Cape Town Art Fair returned to its home at the Cape Town International Convention Centre, with a new mission to endow the fair with a stronger African focus. “This is an international art fair where we bring in galleries from Europe and the US but we tried this year to focus more on galleries from the African continent,” said fair director Laura Vicenti.
Out of the fair’s 107 exhibitors this year, 49 galleries were from the African continent and 58 were international, underlining a greater emphasis on the local. In previous years European blue-chip galleries such as Perrotin and Galerie Templon participated. Such names were replaced this year with new galleries from North Africa and the Middle East, including Lawrie Shabibi from Dubai, Galerie Veronique Rieffel from Ivory Coast and Tunisian Yosr Ben Ammar Gallery and AGORGI, among others. In addition, leading museums and institutions from around the world were present, including A4 Arts Foundation, ANO Institute of Contemporary Arts, FOLIO by Alserkal Arts Foundation, Fondazione Merz, Friends der Pinakothek der Moderne, Iziko South African National Gallery, the Centre Pompidou, Musée d’Art Moderne de Paris, The Norval Foundation, Palais de Lomé, Skissernas Museum – Museum of Artistic Process and Public Art, Tate Modern African Acquisitions Committee, WEDGE Curatorial Projects, Yerevan Biennial Art Foundation and Zeitz MOCAA.
Yet the challenging socio-economic landscape did provide cause for concern for many participants as well as the fair’s management. How does one host a contemporary art fair in a country where the local currency continues to plunge?
“The economic landscape of South Africa is challenging,” said Vicenti. “Local collectors are very supportive but it is true that they are facing an economic crisis in South Africa so I tried to balance the situation by having international collectors from all over the world. The number of international collectors increased this year. In comparison to last year there is no comparison. But I am trying hard to have more collectors from Africa.”
Local dealers were divided, however, on whether the buying power was coming from South Africa or abroad. “Of course we are happy when people from elsewhere come to South Africa to buy art—but the most exciting thing about this year’s Cape Town Art Fair was that the vast majority of our sales were to South Africans,” said Joost Bosland, a director at Stevenson. “It is amazing to see local support for our artists grow year on year.”
South African powerhouse galleries Stevenson, Blank Projects, SMAC Gallery and Goodman Gallery all reported swift sales on the first day of the fair. At the booth of Stevenson was an all-star group showing of emerging and established artists from the continent, including Meleko Mokgosi, Robin Rhode, Zanele Muholi, Neo Matloga and Paulo Nazareth and Simphiwe Ndzube. The gallery reported swift sales in the range of $2,000 and $75,000 and the works, like that of Bongoy’s, once again married the otherworldly and magical realm of dreams with the references to the often harsh reality of the present.
Several of the fair’s biggest sales took place at Goodman Gallery’s booth, which confirmed approximately 25 sales in total on the opening day ranging from $2,000 to $500,000. The booth showed a line-up of some of their biggest names, including Ghada Amer, Yinka Shonibare…“We had a great diversity in terms of the spend and also the collectors that acquired the works,” said the gallery’s Anthony Dawson. “This is thanks hugely to Fiera Milano, the organizers of the fair who have cultivated a great program and collector base that is not only diversifying audiences to contemporary African art but bringing new brand new collectors into the country.”
“Cape Town is a stronghold for a lot of German citizens who have holiday homes here and they often come to the fair,” continued Dawson. “In addition, through the Italian organizers many Italian collectors were also in attendance but there seems to be strong focus of people from Western Europe coming more and more to Cape Town. We also had collectors from Angola and Nigeria as well. Overall, I’d say the majority of collectors were European.”
Taking place concurrently were two auctions for contemporary and modern art in Cape Town: The Aspire x Piasa Auction, which took place on 14 February and Strauss & Co’s Contemporary Art sale, which took place the day after. The former told of the first time a South African auction house had teamed up with a European equivalent to host a sale of African art on the continent. “Both auction houses made a big effort to bring French collectors to Cape Town which also added to a new audience in the city at the fair,” added Dawson. “With Piasa’s francophone influence we also so collectors arrive from West Africa that the South African audience has never been exposed to.”
The fair was also the place to forge long-term business relationships. First-time participant Galerie Veronique Rieffel from Cote d’Ivoire who showed a series of haunting works by Swiss-French photographer Manuel Braun of an Ivorian dancer in Egypt said she sold works largely to European collectors passing through Cape Town in the range of €3,500 and €6,000. “I forged excellent relationship with local collectors which deserve to be deepened,” said Rieffel. “I have formed a very beautiful partnership with a gallery in Cape Town, South gallery, and we have agreed to continue to show Braun’s work with them in situ.”
The recent edition of Investec Cape Town Art Fair testifies that a buoyant market for African contemporary art in South Africa can be achieved even during the most economically challenging of times—but through a concerted effort of local and international collectors, galleries and artists.