From the hieroglyphs of the Pyramids to the carvings of Lalibela churches in Ethiopia, Africans have preserved our rich history and cultures through art. In a time of renewed self-awareness, African artists combine a myriad of influences from their heritage to embody and express the African experience from their point of view. Against the backdrop of heightened cultural awareness, we Africans have found new ways to communicate our realities by maintaining old methods that have been passed down to generations, as well as through modifying and refashioning Western modernist styles and techniques. African expression through art creates a landscape that explores themes relevant to African experiences; the “new” African artists articulate the subtle nuances of being African through the ever-expanding styles of art.
In recent years, with the emergence of the pandemic and the spotlight on Black identity movements, the African is embracing the notion that their “Africanicity” is not defined by how they are portrayed through the external gaze, or by where they live: rather, their Africanicity is what they identify it to be. The time spent indoors resulted in a collective reflection on the flaws that were glossed over in the old normal that the pandemic forced them to leave behind. In the wake of these movements, there was a sudden social awakening where African artists, especially in the diaspora, were propelled by this heightened sense of cultural awareness to set into motion a newfound appreciation for the human condition.
Much of African art today presents a sophisticated view of the realities that Africans are faced with. Depicted in intricate details, from immigrant crises to trade deals gone bad, from water shortages to political international relations, the African art of today is an expression of evolution and evidence of cross-cultural absorption. From commercial purposes to social commentary, the surge of a global attention on afrocentric art is apparent in music, in galleries, and even on Netflix.
Contemporary African art today takes pride in themes centered in heritage, being noticed in international spaces where discourse on the development and authenticity of the African aesthetic is taking place. We are experiencing a rebirth of Africans, and their art, as they are shifting the once obtuse attitude towards them both on the continent and further afield. All the while, African artists in their rooms, studios, or schools are working incessantly to just be authentic to who they are and not who they should be.
In shifting their mentality, the new artists across the continent make unique contributions to the overarching expression of an African identity. The result is a wide array of styles emerging across the continent’s contemporary art scene. Afro-futurism/surrealism, social commentary, sustainable art, sculpture, and photography are some such styles that are increasingly being torn apart and redefined with acceptance both locally and internationally.
The evolution of African art is indicative of a culture’s ability to adapt while maintaining dignity. As a part of their contribution to Africa’s oral history, artists have honed their inherent dependence on nature and renewability. Consequently, art in Africa is part and parcel of the global focus on sustainability. Across the continent, artists explore the dynamics of both the rustic as well as the futuristic (PDF using, high resolution-loving artists), paying homage to natural and local materials. Use of recycled materials in both sculpture and artworks has experienced greater appreciation and increased value as Africans continually redefine the true African identity. As contemporary art, worldwide, finds an increasing value placed on sustainable art, both in the styles of mixed media and sculpture, one sees the nuances that African artists bring to their art.
Here are 6 contemporary artists redefining and thriving on a global scale.
Ghanaian-Moroccan artist David Alabo coined the word Afrosurrealism in modern African art. With his depictions of faceless heads, he removes focus from what one is used to and challenges ideas of race, leaving one to question one’s own perception of his art: is the subject of his work African because he is? His project, “Dream worlds”, uses vibrant colours, symbolism, and 3D art to vividly express how mystical & unexplored he sees the continent to be. He has been commissioned by HBO, Daily Paper, Allure Magazine, Concrete Limbo, and WiRED Magazine, as well as shown his work in a solo exhibition in Accra.
David Alabo, Emperor, 2020. Photo via @davidalabo
David Alabo, People Watching, 2020. Photo via @davidalabo
David Alabo, Divine Opulence, 2020. Photo via @davidalabo
Dr. Serge Attukwei Clottey
Ghanaian artist Serge Attukwei Clottey brings this concept of absurdism to life with gallon-sized water containers. While some parts of Africa still do not have access to potable water, there is 4G internet almost everywhere across the continent. Of what value is the internet whilst one can’t drink from one’s faucet? We must be ok with using plastic gallons to transport water to our own home. Through fusion of plastic pieces— cut from the distinctive imported yellow gallons used to transport water in Ghana—as a mixed media tool, the migration of plastic into art brings an emphasis to the environmental inspiration that underlies the artist’s work and that of several other creatives. Clottey’s work centers around themes like the environment, colonialism, and migration, seeking to exhibit some of the challenges Africans face. He finds sustainable ways to manage waste by incorporating it into the art, repurposing commonplace materials and essentially turning trash into a treasure and ironically sending it back to the West. His works have been exhibited in Accra, New York, Berlin, and Los Angeles, amongst other major metropolitan cities, and at various galleries including Accra’s Gallery 1957, the Nubuke Foundation, and the U.K’s Modern Forms.
Serge Attukwei Clottey, The Wishing Well, 2021. Photo: via @afrogallonism
Serge Attukwei Clottey, Beyond Skin, 2021. Photo: via @afrogallonism
Serge Attukwei Clottey, Kwame, 2020. Photo: via @afrogallonism
Guinean photography artist Namsa Leuba redefines conventional photography with pops of color. These blends of color highlight her natural native home with its fruits and greenery. She has exhibited her art around the world, from Lagos to Paris to London to Brussels, in galleries such as Art Twenty One in Lagos, Photoquai in Paris, Guggenheim Bilbao, and the Tokyo International Photo Festival. Across these exhibitions, Leuba seeks to capture the essence of the African identity seen through Western eyes and articulate her own sense of identity as the cultural traditions that shaped her own experience come to bear in her work.
Namsa Lauba, L'hommeaux Diamands, 2019. Photo: via@namsalauba
Namsa Lauba, HeiHere, 2019. Photo: via@namsalauba
Namsa Lauba, Sarah, 2015. Photo: via@namsalauba
Benin-raised and Senegal-based, Monteiro utilizes scraps and reusable materials to vividly depict the environmental and cultural degradation by exploring in the realms of surrealism and photography. He draws his inspiration from his own experiences living in Europe and Africa, bringing together the worlds of fashion photography and street photography into multicultural collages. He has exhibited works in the Photo Basel art fair in Switzerland, as well as in Paris at the Magnin-A Art Gallery. Monteiro has several separate projects in his work, one of which is his The Prophecy series, which tells the narrative of humanity’s interaction with nature.
Fabrice Monteiro, The Prophecy, 2018. Photo via @fstudioabricemonteiro
Fabrice Monteiro, The Way of The Baye Fall, 2019. Photo via @studiofabricemonteiro
Fabrice Monteiro Marron, 2015. Photo via @studiofabricemonteiro
Another prolific artist to pay special attention to is Ghanaian-born-and-based Zohra Opoku. Her art utilises sustainable materials. Opoku’s expertise in the combination of photography, screen printing, and alternative methods of photo-processing yield her creations. Her use of a variety of natural fabrics, woods, textiles, and garments enables her to communicate her exploration of Ghana’s political, and socio-cultural history. Her work has been exhibited at a plethora of institutions, including the Nubuke Foundation, Centre for Contemporary Art, !Kauru Contemporary Art from Africa, Kunsthaus Hamburg, Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, Kunsthal Rotterdam, Broad Art Museum and the Museum of Contemporary Photography (Chicago), the Cleveland Museum of Art, and the Royal Museum of Ontario.
Zohra Opoku, Raddiya Mayafi, 2017. Photo: via @zohraopoku
Zohra Opoku, Undercover, 2017. Photo: via @zohraopoku
Zohra Opoku, I Have Power, 2020. Photo: via @zohraopoku
Kenyan artist, Michael Soi, explores the social and political climate in his country through vibrant graphic surreal and often funny illustrations. His art is themed around the relationship African figures of authority have with the West & East, with an emphasis on the impact these relationships have on the common citizen. One of my personal favorites is hanging in my living room and is called “Africa Loves China”. It depicts very high heels and the legs of a woman of dark complexion on a podium and stereotypically dressed Asian men excited to see the show with money overflowing from their pockets. The colors used and the brush strokes do give you the sensation of excitement, but you feel a bit of shame and culpability as though by looking at the painting and thus watching the show, you’re also selling your soul. It’s obviously a caricature of Africa’s will to give up its true core for money; it leaves you thinking. Soi’s work has been featured at the Gallery 1957 in Accra and auctioned at the Piasa in Paris. He has also been recognized by FADER magazine, the Financial Times, The Huffington Post, and ArtDaily.
Michael Soi Madonna and Child 1, 2020. Photo: via @michaelsoistudio
Michael Soi, Logistics Specialist 1, 2020. Photo: via @michaelsoistudio
Michael Soi, China Loves Africa, 2020. Photo: via @michaelsoistudio
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