Art fairs may be nearing peak globally but in Africa they’re just getting started

Art fairs could bring African art home, but at what price?
Art fairs could bring African art home, but at what price?
Image: AP Photo/Markus Schreiber
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Last year, with just a few days to go before the first Art X Lagos fair, only 800 people had registered to attend what was to become West Africa’s premier art fair. This year, 4,000 people have already registered and organizer Tokini Peterside is relying on Nigerians’ notorious love of last-minute planning to top the 5,000 visitors who eventually visited last year’s debut fair.

More so, the rising numbers of visitors and sponsors are testament to the world’s growing interest in African art and the increasing number of collectors on the continent. It’s also part of the commercial success of international art fairs. While the global art world is now wrestling with just how disruptive art fairs have become to the traditional business model of galleries marketing art and artists, in Africa they’re opening up a new market.

Art X Lagos follows a similar format that has made art fairs around the world so successful—including dozens of artists, live performances and a program of speakers—with one notable exception: it positions itself as an international art fair in a region that has largely been neglected by the global art industry.

Taking place from Nov. 3 to 5 on the city’s Victoria Island, Art X Lagos features emerging independent artists alongside internationally recognized names like multi-dimensional contemporary artists British Nigerian Yinka Shonibare and South African photographer Zanele Muholi, known for her groundbreaking work as social commentary. Peterside founded the art fair last year, as a response to a growing frustration among Nigerian artists who were forced to leave the country if they wanted to make a living.

“It was such a shame to have not only a brain drain, but also a talent drain,” says Peterside, reflecting on the cultural loss Nigeria and other African states have suffered. “The aim was to have, in the end, these artists widely known and reckoned with at home, supported at home, collected by Nigerian and African collectors at home.”

Like many art fairs around the world, Art X Lagos’ success will be introducing the general public to still somewhat exclusionary art world. Before 2000, art fairs were exclusive to industry players and took place on a much smaller scale. Today, according to the Tate group of galleries, there are over 200 art fairs taking place around the globe, characterized by parties, panel discussions and specially produced installations.

For new and experienced collectors, art fairs make buying art easier. Galleries show off their fresh contemporary work at their stalls so they can stand out. Consumers get to interact with curators and save on shipping costs. The fast sales of art fairs, however, tend to benefit fair organizers rather than the artists themselves, some critics argue.

The proliferation of art fairs places pressure on galleries and artists to keep up with the demand. Contemporary artists may find themselves producing work to suit the “one-stop experience” of art fairs, where their work must stand out among dozens of other artists. Sometimes, that means artists don’t have the time needed to create complex, sophisticated and engaging work.

Art fairs are also expensive to participate in, including application fees, booth fees if their application is accepted and the logistics costs of getting the work to the fairs. Those who can afford this do about two-thirds of their business at art fairs, but small to medium-sized galleries are struggling to keep up.

In addition to the commercial critiques, art fairs that focus on African art specifically are accused of pigeon-holing the continent’s artists or positioning them as separate to their global art world, says Peterside.

“We must remember that to participate in some the world’s largest fairs is something that is outside the reach of very many African art galleries. They simply cannot afford to participate in galleries like Basel, and Frieze,” she says.

“I think an art fair in Africa that provides African galleries and artists the opportunity to be experienced by greater number of Africans with the purchasing power to collect is a great thing, personally,” she adds.

West Africa has been home to the Biennale of Contemporary African Art in Dakar, known as Dak’Art, since 1992, which has been instrumental in the promotion and discourse around contemporary African art. In 2016, Nigeria’s commercial capital acquired its own Lagos Biennial, keeping up with cities like Cairo and Marrakech. While biennials are often curated around a particular theme and work with artists directly, fairs have a more specific commercial purpose and favor galleries over independent artists.

“I think any cultural offerings—commercial or otherwise—are integral to cities, not only to attract global visitors, but also to reaffirm them as hubs for exchange in the eyes of the local community,” said Marwan Zakhem, director of Accra’s Gallery 1957.

“I’m a strong believer that the best markets are where there is a local appreciation for the works – therefore by participating in a fair closer to our gallery than most international art fairs, we are growing our West African collector base.”

Ghana’s collector base is still small, but growing, bouyed by the increased attention that African art has received in the last few years. As more individuals Ghanaian artists’ work is made available outside of the country, the regions cultural economy gains support and cofidence, said Zakhem.

When it opened in 2003, the Stevenson Art Gallery in South Africa had no West African clients and about half of its clientele lived in Europe and the US. In the last few years, half their clientele is now African, says director Joost Bosland. The gallery participates in much larger, established art fairs like Art Basel and Frieze New York, and is enthusiastic about international art fairs that allow them to connect with African collectors. For both Gallery 1957 and the Stevenson, the art fair is also a chance to interact with existing clients in West Africa and strengthen those relationships.

“We all like to complain that there is no infrastructure in the region so when someone does this, we need to support an initiative like this,” said Bosland. Art X Lagos has not only smoothed out the “tricky terrain” of selling art in Nigeria, they’re also providing a “pressure cooker” of ideas on art in Africa, he adds.

“Transactions are almost secondary,” said Bosland.

Once the fair is over, sold art fair tickets don’t necessarily translate to foot traffic for the galleries once they’re back home, but the festival atmosphere counts in experience driven economy, he says.