Monday, 4 December 2017


Fans of African art in France have been spoilt for choice this year, with an abundance of exhibitions around the country, particularly in the capital Paris.

Paintings from Ebony Curated gallery at AKAA.
During the spring, Art Paris Art Fair featured Africa as its “guest of honour”, with works from all over the continent, while the Louis Vuitton Foundation dedicated its vast space to art from South Africa and other countries in the region.

Paintings, sculptures and photographs have all been on view, with established and emerging artists showcased. The highlights of the year so far include the thrilling Also Known as Africa art and design fair (AKAA) and the highly praised exhibition of photographs by Malian icon Malick Sidibé, titled Mali Twist and running until Feb. 25, 2018.

AKAA presented its second annual fair in November with 140 artists from 28 countries participating. The three-day event, which attracted 15,000 visitors, received glowing reviews for its quality and cultural programme comprising talks, music, film screenings and dance.

“The fair is a great way to bring people together who love this art,” said Sorella Acosta, the owner of Spanish gallery “Out of Africa”.

AKAA founder Victoria Mann
AKAA is the brainchild of Victoria Mann, a French-American art lover and entrepreneur who studied modern African art before turning to the contemporary sphere.

“It’s a very exciting time for African art, which has seen a world-wide momentum,” Mann said. “But despite all the interest, the market is also very fragile. We’re thinking about the development globally and working with a select group of galleries every year.”

She told SWAN that the fair collaborated closely with “creators, thinkers and writers” to develop its cultural programme, which was directed by Senegalese curator Dalimata Diop. The AKAA selection committee also included Simon Njami, a writer, curator and artistic director of the Dakar Biennale’s 12th edition. Some 38 international galleries were chosen to take part in this year’s AKAA.

"Tears of Bananaman" by Jean-François Boclé.
“We believe in a sense of community and working hand in hand with participants for an exchange of perspectives that will make us go forward,” Mann said. “One of our key aims at Also Known as Africa is to create dialogue.”

The artworks certainly gave rise to discussion. One installation - created by Jean-François Boclé and presented by the Paris-based Caribbean gallery Maëlle - comprised bunches of bananas arranged in human form, for a reflection on the legacy of colonialism.

Titled The tears of Bananaman, the artwork had words or phrases carved into the fruit’s peel, in various languages: eat your liberty, come mis labios, tropicale moi. On the final day of the fair, the bananas were distributed to visitors, some of whom seemed bemused as they hesitatingly took bites. The irony was not lost on others - that the fair was taking place in a country that has a complicated and uneasy relationship with its former colonies and overseas territories.

Bananas were also a feature in paintings by South African artist Lady Skollie, whose pulsating works were displayed on the lower floor of the Carreau du Temple, a renovated 19th-century covered market where the fair was held. Skollie’s “Mating Dance” incorporated the yellow shapes, sending echoes of Josephine Baker’s legendary and controversial images while also provoking thoughts about history.

Artist Virginia Ryan, beside her artwork.
Artists who participated in the fair, such as Virginia Ryan of Italy, willingly agreed to be photographed with a bunch of bananas, for a seeming expansion of the artwork. Ryan was one of several artists “from other nationalities” at AKAA who have links to Africa. Her latest work investigates the “relationship between white and black, between contrast and contact,” according to the fair’s organizers.

“We’re not putting artists into a box and saying you have to be from a certain place,” Mann said. “AKAA allows for interpretation. Participants can determine themselves what is Africa and what it means.”

The artists from the continent addressed a range of topics, such as inequality and apartheid, as in the case of South African painter Robyn Denny. She put on an exhibition titled “Indigo - Passage to Healing” with performance artist Mamela Nyamza.

The show (curated by Beathur Mgoza Baker and hosted by Candice Berman of the Johannesburg-based Berman Contemporary gallery) consisted of Denny’s large-scale paintings and Nyamza’s live dance performance.

“Through our collaboration, we talk about the dark history that many people don’t want to talk about,” said Denny, who used crushed indigo and acrylic for her work, creating striking hues. “There’s nothing we can’t say to each other.”

Artists Robyn Denny, James Barnor and Mamela Nyamza.
Healing, in fact, was a theme of this year’s AKAA, which posed the question: can art heal us?

“When we turn our gaze away, artists heal and revive our inherited memories, giving us back our history,” said the organizers.

Perhaps the most notable aspect of AKAA was that very few objects could be considered a “pretense” for "real" art, unlike in many contemporary fairs. Whether it was the sculptures of Senegalese artist Ousmane Sow - who died last year and to whom the fair paid homage – or the pictures of Ghanaian pioneering photographer James Barnor, nearly all the works evoked history and narratives.

“One thing the artists here have in common is that they are story-tellers, and we all respond to a good story,” said Mann.


Across town, the same could be said of Malick Sidibé, whose work captures an era in the Malian capital Bamako and tells stories of the young people, families, and couples who invited him to their soirées and into their lives.

Malick Sidibe: Nuit de Noël, 1963. Gelatin Silver Print.
Collection Fondation Cartier pour l'art Contemporain
On show at the innovative Fondation Cartier in Paris, the photographs in Mali Twist highlight the diversity of Sidibé’s output from 1960 to 1980, including some world-renowned images: Nuit de Noël (Christmas Night) and Fans of James Brown. They pull viewers back to by-gone parties and to picnics along the Niger River.

For art lovers who appreciate music, Mali Twist has its own original playlist as well, selected by U.S.-based writer and professor Manthia Diawara and curator André Magnin. 

As if that’s not enough, visitors can also view the sardonic portraits of city life by Congolese painter JP Mika, whose art “reveals the influence of Sidibé’s work on an entire generation of artists”, as Magnin puts it.

The next edition of AKAA takes place Nov. 8 to 11, 2018. You can follow SWAN on Twitter @mckenzie_ale.

Artist JP Mika in front of one of his paintings at Mali Twist.