A long mirror featuring an image of a woman talking on her cell phone by Italian artist Michelangelo Pistoletto graces the wall of Turin-based Galleria Giorgio Persano — it’s called Smartphone Giovane Donna 6 Movimenti F (2018). As can be expected, a few fair-goers stop to take selfies in the mirror flanked by Pistoletto’s painted lady.
'One Last Time Today' | Andrew Kayser, 2019
The scene could be at an art fair anywhere in the world, but it is, perhaps surprisingly, at the Investec Cape Town Art Fair, at the booth of one of a handful of Italian galleries that participated once again in the fair under the directorship of Italian architect Laura Vincenti. Priced in the range of $54,000, it was by far one of the most expensive works to be found.
Now in its eighth edition, the fair took place from 14-16 February at the Cape Town International Convention Centre, and featured a majority of African exhibitors this year. Out of 101 participants, 64 hailed from the African continent, out of which 50 were South Africa-based. Thirty-five exhibitors participated from Europe, newcomer Lawrie Shabibi from Dubai, UAE, and Hannah Hoffman from Los Angeles.
An International Art Fair in Africa?
The new focus on galleries from the continent was part of Vincenti’s aim to provide a stronger platform for artists and gallerists from Africa.
“The fair has become a platform for galleries that are not as established as those we used to have in the past, like Perrotin and Templon,” said Vicenti. “The fair now is more catered to being a marketplace for young and upcoming artists, galleries, and collectors.”
François-Xavier Gbré, Voiture #1, Attoban, Cocody, Abidjan, 2014
Vincenti, who says she was a bit concerned in creating this shift, now believes it was the right way to go. “The ratio between local and international galleries is quite impressive—we have 58 exhibitors from abroad, which includes the rest of Africa and abroad, and 49 local exhibitors.”
Last year, blue chip galleries, such as Perrotin which participated in 2018 and 2019, and Galerie Templon were present. These were replaced at this edition by first timers from North and Sub Saharan Africa, including Yosr Ben Ammar Gallery and AGORGI, both from Tunisia, Jahmek Contemporary Art from Angola, and Galerie Veronique Rieffel from Ivory Coast.
“It was a huge achievement for me to have more galleries from North Africa given that we were a week away from the Marrakech edition of 1-54,” adds Vicenti. “It’s not easy to bring galleries from North Africa, but we need to bring galleries from all of Africa.”
Cape Town: Africa’s Leading Art Capital?
Cape Town has recently been named Africa’s leading art capital, beating Johannesburg, Lagos, and Marrakesh, according to The South African Art Market: Pricing & Patterns study. This is interesting given that economic growth forecasts for South Africa are being reduced all around. Growth in 2020 is expected to be around 1 percent, less than the 1.4-1.6 percent range expected early in 2019 by the SA Reserve Bank (SARB) and others. This year’s fair, however, sung a different tune, and proved that the South African creative economy is here to stay — and perhaps stronger than ever.
Alserkal Avenue-based Lawrie Shabibi participated in Tomorrows/Today, a section of the fair dedicated to highlighting the practices of emerging and under-represented artists.
Cécile Fakhoury à Abidjan
Also in Tomorrows/Today was Abidjan-based Galerie Cécile Fakhoury, with a large photographic installation by François Xavier Gbré. “It sold to an African foundation for $20,000, and we sold some other photographs to international collectors in the range of $2,500 to $8,000,” said Fakhoury. “The fair was a great opportunity to meet new collectors, artists, gallerists and art lovers, not only from South Africa but also the international crowd that it attracts.”
Another first timer, also from the Ivory Coast, was Galerie Veronique Rieffel, which showed the haunting photographs of Manuel Braun entitled Alexandre on Stage, which chart a journey through an Egyptian city with Ivorian dancer Jean-Paul Mehansio and are priced between $3,800 and 6,500. The fair, said Rieffel, was crucial to take part in, as it is “one of the most important on the continent.” She sold works largely to Europeans passing through Cape Town, and also forged partnerships with local galleries.
In the main section of the fair, South Africa’s most well-known galleries, including Goodman Gallery, SMAC Gallery, Blank Projects, EBONY/Curated, Stevenson, and Everard Read were placed next to international newcomers, including 31 Projects; Afikaris; C+N Canepaneri; Galerie ElGEN+ART; Galleria Patricia Armocida, and Giorgio Persano.
At Stevenson, works by Robin Rhode, Meleko Mokgosi Zanele Muholi’s Somnyama Ngonyama series, Neo Matloga, Paulo Nazareth, and the whimsical otherworldly sculptures and works on paper of Simphiwe Ndzube offered powerful and imaginary visions of various realities. The gallery reported sales for both emerging and established artists with works sold ranging from approximately $2,000 to $75,000.
Imaginary and real life anecdotes regarding contemporary African society could be found through edgy and dreamy works comprising paint, textiles, and embroidery at the booth of EBONY/Curated, which participated in both the main gallery and modern sections of the fair. Sculptural works on show by Congolese artist Patrick Bongoy, ranging from $6,000 to $10,000, incorporate discarded materials, including industrial packaging and rubber comment on the degradation of society, particularly in his homeland of Congo. They were placed alongside the more upbeat embroidery works of South African female artist Kimathi Mafafo, priced at between $6,000 to $10,000, and the haunting paintings of Lwando Dlamini, whom the gallery sold out of within the first 30 minutes for a range of $1,500 to $2,000. It was Dlamini’s first major showing at an art fair.
“We did very well at both of our stands at the historical and contemporary sections,” said Marc Stanes, co-founder of EBONY/Curated. “As the biggest fair in Africa this year, the fair was really world class and on par with what collectors see in Europe and America — if not better than the fairs they see there.”
Some, however, had different viewpoints and complained that there wasn’t as robust an appearance by local collectors on the VIP days. “Where are the collectors,” said a South African art specialist who preferred to remain anonymous. Sales seemed to arrive later in the fair and not swiftly on the opening days.
Fathi Hassan, Untitled, 1998
"The art fair was exceptionally strong, and THK Gallery secured sales to local and international collectors,” said Linda Pyke of Cape Town-based THK Gallery. “We sold 10 small Murmurs by Jake Michael Singer for $14,700, and a large Murmuration sculpture for $30,000. We also sold a richly detailed Andrew Kayser Painting for $6,000, and 12 Johno Mellish photographs priced at either $1,336 or $2,000 depending on size. The fair was of a very high standard overall.”
Many noted the fair’s well thought out layout and sleek appearance, which most attributed to Vincenti’s architectural background.
François-Xavier Gbré, Eko Atlantic #1, Lagos, Nigeria, 2014
Perhaps the question to ask is: Does the economic predicament of a nation forecast its art market? While South Africa continues to waver, and collectors still seem more comfortable on average with purchases outside of a higher triple digit price bracket, the market continues and is made up for by works in a lower to medium price bracket, as well as by collectors travelling to the South Africa’s fairest cape from afar.