How Will Covid-19 Affect the Future of Art Fairs Dedicated To Art From Africa?
As art fairs around the world grapple with postponements and uncertainty due to coronavirus, four directors of leading art fairs of contemporary African art come together to discuss what lies ahead
Pioneering art fair 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair was the first to be affected. Its New York iteration, scheduled to take place in May alongside Frieze New York, was postponed until May 2021. The fair then turned to Artsy, an online platform for buying and selling art, and held the fair digitally as a last-minute resort. 1-54’s London edition is still due to take place from 8-11 October, but as all events scheduled this year, the remaining months of 2020 are shrouded in uncertainty due to the coronavirus.
On 20 May, 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair held the first of a series of weekly online discussions on The Future of contemporary African Art Fairs in a Post-Covid World. Panelists included Tokini Peterside, founder and director of Art x Lagos; Victoria Mann, founder and director AKAA (Also Known As Africa) and Mandla Sibeko, founding director of FNB Art Joburg.
Lockdowns around the world have provided galleries, artists, curators and fair directors with the opportunity of time—time to do what they previously didn’t have time to do. However, uncertainty still plagues the air. It’s been impossible to plan for the Autumn art season. “There’s more time now for galleries to rethink their stocks, their visibility online, their communication with artists and how to promote them,” said Mann. “But there’s also this weariness of the future and the lack of visibility. What if the virus comes back? It’s so hard to move forward in this very dark tunnel.”
“It’s so true,” agreed El Glaoui from quarantine in France. “We make numerous plans about what could happen or couldn’t happen. You make a decision and then have to change it.”
All the panelists agreed that pre Covid-19 the art world was moving at top speed and then, all of a sudden, it just stopped.
“It’s been quite a change for us in South Africa,” said Sibeko. “We are going through what the government has come to call ‘terms’ or ‘stages.’ We are now moving to stage four. There’s been a restrictive movement of people and no flights. It’s been a very tough period for South Africa, especially from an art perspective. All sectors have been affected. This virus has affected all of us—the poor, the rich, the wealthy, black and white. And that’s quite humbling.”
“The challenge is that we are all going to come out of this at different stages and that’s the scary part,” continued Sibeko, “Maybe when South Africa comes out of the coronavirus Nigeria might not be ready and Cameroon might not be ready or maybe Nigeria will be ahead of South Africa, you never know. It is looking like the ‘peak’ will be coming later in the year for South Africa.”
Peterside explained that Lagos had been placed on lockdown late in March and around two weeks ago the lockdown was eased.
“The government has called for an ‘intelligent lockdown’ meaning that because of the high population density that you have in Lagos, it was very difficult for the government to persist with a total shutdown. You have large masses within the population that were very badly affected by the lockdown. Today you have a situation where critical businesses are open—businesses where people could not work from home.”
“Sadly, for the art scene there are no shows,” added Peterside. “Galleries are unable to open at this time. It has been quite a trying period for the art industry here. What we are seeing is that the galleries are in a difficult position, but we are hopeful with regards to the peak. We do not know when the peak will come and we don’t believe we have hit the peak thus far. There’s an expectation in the city that in September and October events can start taking place again but we are still not 100 percent sure. We are hoping to see some movement around Q3 and Q4.”
The real issue, affirmed the panelists, lies in the financial state of the art galleries. “South African galleries have dominated the art industry in this part of the world,” said Sibeko. “They have been flying the flag for a long time for African art. With these galleries being so heavily affected it has such an impact in the way that they will participate in any international fairs going forward.”
In Paris the so-called “peak” has been reached. On 11 May, after eight weeks of lockdown, France eased its restrictions and allowed businesses to gradually re-open. “We are now starting to de-confine,” said Mann. “The state of mind here is that yes, life is picking up again and businesses are re-opening but not everything: Restaurants, cafes, cinemas, and theaters remain closed. However, many businesses have been able to resume their activity, and this includes art galleries.”
“But we can’t just pick up from where we left off,” she continued. “There is this current state of mind that realizes that our attitude has to change. The virus is still here and we are still living with it until the world finds a vaccine or a treatment to cure it.”
Adapting To A New Normal
The big questions on everyone lips are: How do we resume our lives and our activities while co-existing with this virus? “Everyone fears a second wave of lockdowns, which would be economically very dramatic,” said Mann. “However, there’s this new energy in the air—this positive thinking regarding how we change the way that we handle our businesses.”
As soon as September hits art fair season will be upon the art world once again. The respective fairs directed by each panelist continue to be scheduled for September through November. But questions remain regarding whether they will still run or have to be postponed. Each panelist stressed the need now to redefine how each fair operates. One of the challenges has to do with the lack of visibility for galleries and fairs for the upcoming months. How can galleries and fairs continue to promote their artists and their programming digitally as nations continue to struggle with re-opening? Communication, everyone stressed, is crucial, and in the absence of the physical gallery space, the digital sphere is where art viewing and discussions must take place, at least for now.
Art Joburg, scheduled to take place from September 4-6, is the first fair dedicated to African art on the Autumn calendar. Sibeko will most likely be the first to make a decision as to whether or not to postpone this year’s fair.
“It’s been interesting to view the cycle of this virus,” he said. “As soon as things start to reactivate, things don’t actually happen in that way. Tourism has come to a standstill in South Africa. I don’t know if and how the government will find a way to revive this sector and South Africa has a big tourism industry.”
Witnessing what takes place for tourism Sibeko says helps him decide on whether to host Art Joburg in September. “We are looking at changing dates or at least a postponement,” he said. “The ideal situation is to still host the fair if our peak gets under control at some point in August or September. At this point, I don’t know what will happen as our economy is really suffering and many businesses, big and small, are starting to really struggle.”
One option Sibeko said was to host the fair online. “I think it’s a bridge. It’s obviously not the same as a physical art fair, but we will get there eventually. We need to see what stage we are in over the next few months. Right now, we are not allowed to have public gatherings.”
El Glaoui stated that 1-54 was even considering hosting a more “local” fair with galleries who are unable to travel and not residing in countries with travel bans. “I have been imagining what could happen without a fair in October,” she said. “I still want to sustain the galleries who have been working with us one way or the other—perhaps by helping them share space with other galleries from the continent in London because some of them may not have galleries anymore by then. I have also thought of hosting a parcours in London of works by various galleries or bringing our guests to different spaces for shows in the city if we are unable to host the fair.”
Of Art X Lagos, which is still scheduled to take place November 6-8, Peterside said: “We are hopeful it can still happen. Our first priority is to make sure we are fully compliant in health and safety measures if we do go ahead.”
The Lagos fair has always sustained strong local and international support—last year it hosted over 30 people as part of the Tate Acquisitions of Contemporary African Art. “We hope that by November there will be a desire and a hunger for the kind of uplifting experience that Art X Lagos provides. When it comes to international travel, we can’t say 100 percent what will happen so to connect with people remotely via digital platforms, like Mandla stated, is crucial.”
Battling Financial Crisis
“The safety is what is most crucial for everyone right now but there is also the question of economic health,” continued Mann. “Big and small galleries are suffering and that is something to take into consideration in terms of economics.“
As Peterside stressed, communication and collaboration are key: “It’s more important than ever today to communicate with one another—galleries and collectors and institutions—to find solutions that allow us to overcome not only the blocks that permit us to be physically present somewhere but also to overcome the fear that surrounds this situation that cannot go unnoticed.”
But what are the galleries saying about the crisis that has brought the art world to an utter standstill? Are galleries more sensitive now about committing to a fair? El Glaoui said that while 1-54 is usually strict on applications with galleries having to submit their applications in February and to receive their response by March, after what happened to its New edition the fair has loosened its deadlines.
“Some galleries are excited about reopening and others are really worried about how they will make it through the next few months,” said El Glaoui. “We need to support each other as much as we can.”
“There’s no global consensus,” said Mann. “Because each gallery and each business is confronted with their own set of difficulties to overcome then it automatically impacts the way that they envision the future. For many of them what is perhaps the shared global concern is the lack of being able to make a decision regarding the fall calendar.”
The biggest burden for everyone is the economic strain of the crisis. “In terms of economics there is a necessity of reducing risks,” added Mann. “We cannot expect a gallery today to confirm and pay for a booth for an event in November without having any idea of what the situation is going to be like then. We have to adapt to this situation, and this can only be done through communication.”
The Question of Mobility
The other big challenge is mobility. Today the borders are closed but what about tomorrow? How will international galleries near and far get to one another when we do not know when the borders will open again? How will the transporter prices be affected by the current crisis? What are going to be customs rules from now on? How will galleries work alongside art fairs to facilitate art transportation within a world where travel will be altogether a question and rethought by everyone?
All of these questions are crucial in making future plans.
“We have been rethinking everything on all dimensions. There is a plan A, B, C, D, E, F and G because certainty is the one thing that we all do not have at the moment,” said Peterside.
A Determined Spirit
Regardless, all panelists agreed that there’s also this unyielding spirit in the air to move forward and not just shut down. “We actors of the art world can’t just expect the art world to fall apart; we have to continue carrying it together,” said Mann.
This particularly pertains to the young African art market that has witnessed impressive growth over the last decade. “It’s more important now than ever now for us to keep developing the scene,” added Mann. “We need to find solutions for a not-so-near but not-so-distant future so that we can keep promoting the careers of these artists that we so fervently believe in.”
“We have been in conversation with our galleries and they have really appreciated the outreach,” said Peterside. “We are not putting pressure on galleries at this point in time. A lot of galleries have struggled over the last few months and at Art X Lagos we are trying to see where we can alleviate some of that pain.”
Clearly, it’s all about survival during this period of unprecedent crisis. But survival doesn’t need to take place alone; on a collective level it ensures the survival not just of the individual but the African art scene as a whole.
“Even being closed for a week is hard for the galleries in South Africa,” said Sibeko, “And being closed for two months is way too long. The big question is how will the galleries survive? My worry revolves around the work that we have been doing for art in this part of the world. I feel that an Africa that is weak from a collecting perspective is not a good one for the future of the scene.”
“It’s been quite devasting for me to see the amount of progress that has been made by a small group of galleries to just fly this flag at all costs for the African art market and then to suddenly have to stop,” he added. “Is the local market enough to sustain these businesses given that many have gone international and are participating in major art fairs all over the world?”
Collaboration Is Key
What about the artists? Who will take care of the artists who are having trouble selling and exhibiting their art during this period? “The vast number of artists on the continent are not exclusively represented by galleries,” said Peterside. “It’s so important to sustain the momentum of their work. But what will happen to those artists currently deprived of gallery shows and fairs? How are they going to be able to sustain their practices?”
Collaboration and supporting Africa’s burgeoning artists is key during this period. The panellists agreed that what needs to be done is to find ways to support young talent within the African art market. As Mann said, “Ultimately, it’s about joining together and working to progress all of creativity we have worked so hard to achieve.”
“Let’s open up the dialogue so that we can all come out of this stronger,” said Mann. “All the work that has been done over past few years is not about to vanish. On the contrary, it’s going to show what resilience we all have to surpass these types of world events. Today it is Covid but we don’t know what will be next and that’s part of the game: In this field we all need to come up with creative solutions.”