“B ehind some of the most important movements historically, you find that African art is at the root of it,” says Joseph Awuah-Darko. “I think we are now coming to understand that African art does deserve the attention it’s getting.”
The Ghanaian artist and social entrepreneur is more than well placed to speak on the subject. As the founder and Director of the Noldor Artist Residency, and the President of the Institute Museum of Ghana in Accra, he is a leading light in nurturing the continent’s most exciting emerging artists, and has now curated Contemporary Redefined: Africa Today, Sotheby’s first-ever exhibition of contemporary African art in Tel Aviv.
On display from 5 February until 5 May, the exhibition will feature works by over 20 artists originating from eight African countries, loaned by the Olym collection, a private collection of contemporary African art founded by two brothers based in Israel. 'I’m always a huge advocate for cultural cross-pollination,' says Awuah-Darko. 'I hope that there will be opportunities for people from Israel to discover ways in which there are parallels between the work that indigenously comes from that part of the world and African contemporary art. I think the beauty of diversity is the strength we find in identifying how we are more of the same than different.'
As Sigal Mordechai, Managing Director of Sotheby’s Tel Aviv, explains, this is a significant and exciting collaboration. 'After two quieter public-facing years as a result of the pandemic, our Tel Aviv team is looking forward to re-engaging with art lovers through the launch of Contemporary Redefined: Africa Today. The paintings, photographs and sculptures by artists from Senegal, Ghana, Mali, and Nigeria and beyond, are colourful, intellectually stimulating and joyful.'
For Awuah-Darko, a sense of balance was essential to the success of the exhibition. 'I wanted it to be meaningfully balanced in capturing as much of sub-Saharan and West Africa as possible. I wanted there to be a dynamism, as far as the use of mediums as opposed to purely dedicated to painting in a very puritan way. I was also very careful about having a balance of more emerging artists to midway artists, to established artists across the board.'
Despite such variety, there is also unity to this selection of works. Awuah-Darko explains that 'they all depict a very unapologetic stance on an intrinsically African identity. Even though the continent in of itself is beautifully heterogeneous and complicated, thematically, there is this strong core sense of identity.' To illustrate this, he cites one of his favourite African quotes – 'ubuntu' – which simply means 'I am because we are'.
'It’s definitely an exciting explosion of artists who are really thinking about what it means to tell stories from their perspective,' he continues. 'It demonstrates this urgency to redirect narratives and explore narratives in their own vocabulary.'
One example is Untitled by Accra-based Foster Sakyiamah, featuring a woman in hot pink blazer, patterned head scarf and cat-eye sunglasses. 'I think he [Sakyiamah] celebrates women in a uniquely empowering way,' says Awuah-Darko. 'Instead of capturing them in this burdened mothering or nurturing capacity that sometimes African women are limited to in painted narratives, he captures them in a sense of doing nothing elegantly.' Awuah-Darko sees this work as being in 'direct dialogue' with that of Emmanuel Taku’s The Three Damsels, which uses a beautiful mint green paisley-patterned fabric, applied directly to the canvas. 'In classic contemporary African wear, they are just poised elegantly in this realm and this utopia he’s created.'
Another reworking of traditional narratives can be seen in Texan Sam, by Samuel Olayombo, who is currently a Fellow of the Noldor Residency. Depicting a Black cowboy clad in pink hues, Awuah-Darko says that Olayombo is 'clearly challenging toxic masculinity, in capturing classically-patriarchal characters in this soft pastel pink. It is his way of challenging the status quo and how hyper-masculinity is perceived in African society and within the Black community… What I’ve enjoyed learning about his work is that he’s really relentlessly tackled and confronted the viewer with this re-imagined idea of what it means to be masculine. It is such a radical way of, again, reclaiming the narrative, to say "No - let’s question our views on the societal antagonism of Black males".'
In his own practice as an artist, Awuah-Darko has been exploring the melancholia, yearning and sense of searching within oneself that he has experienced, through severe depression. Having recently returned to making art after a four-year break, his Afro-Futurism-infused work Birth of Autumn reflects this experience, along with the spirituality that has become his coping mechanism. 'What I realised is that when you’re an artist amongst artists and creating spaces for artists by artists, in the heart of Ghana, the urgency of creating as an artist is like breathing,' he says. 'Birth of Autumn is about this constant battle within myself to become a better person and to be a more wholesome human being navigating the world, even as I continue to battle with depression.'
Moving away from painting, two of the most eye-catching objects in the exhibition are works created on shovels by Jean-David Nkot, a Cameroonian artist who Awuah-Darko has followed for some time. While his canvas works are extremely popular, Awuah-Darko chose to include the shovel sculptures in his curation, both to illustrate Nkot’s storytelling range as an artist and to celebrate the grassroots of labour and mining culture in Africa. The repurposing of 'almost mundane' tools are 'a very Duchampian reference – an ultimate symbol of arduous labour, the ultimate symbol of man’s capitalist ability to reap from the earth.'
Elsewhere, there are photographs by Prince Gyasi, such as the vibrant Mood Swing, which features a boy holding a ball in front of a washing line of colourful fabric. In this work, Awuah-Darko recognises a scene familiar from growing up in his grandmother’s house. 'I think it’s so nostalgic. I can remember when fabrics were being hung and how they would blow in the wind and playing football in the compound while that was happening… When you look at his photographs, you see these strong, saturated colours and hues which he amplifies in his work. It’s a really great example of presenting you with that hyper-saturated reality which is so authentic to what it means to grow up in Ghana in a sense – that family life and that sense of wonder. He’s uniquely gifted with his sense of colour.'
In working to create such harmony between disciplines, countries of origin and ultimately, the individual and the universal, Awuah-Darko is confident that Contemporary Redefined: Africa Today represents the past, present and future of art from the continent. 'I really hope that people take away a renewed understanding of the important role that African contemporary art, and art from the continent in general, has continued to play in the wider context of art history. That they appreciate the power of the ideas coming from the continent and that it prompts them to go further back to understand how it has evolved to this point.”
The exhibition will be open from 5 February until 5 May at the Sotheby’s Tel Aviv offices located at 6 Rothschild Boulevard.