African art has taken its place in the sun. Farah Nayeri charts its rise and profiles three artists in Bonhams Africa Now sale

This has been an auspicious few years for African contemporary art. In an historic first, last year's edition of the 120-year-old Venice Biennale was curated by an African-born curator: Okwui Enwezor (director of the Haus der Kunst in Munich). Artists born in Accra, Lagos, Lubumbashi, Maputo and Nairobi had works included in the main Venice Biennale exhibition. And this year marked the debut of the 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair in the US.

How times have changed. Thirty years ago, the continent was virtually excluded from the Western contemporary art scene. 'African art' still evoked visions of centuries-old tribal masks and totemic wooden sculptures found in ethnographic museums. Artists actually living and working in Sub-Saharan Africa were almost entirely overlooked by Western museums, curators, gallerists and auction houses.

Why the interest today? To begin with, the art world is seeking alternatives to the West's headline artists, partly out of a thirst for the new, and partly because the West's biggest names now command stratospheric prices. Secondly, African artists portray an enchanting universe using motifs and color palettes that are unusual to the Western viewer. Finally, these works offer aspiring collectors an affordable way into the market, and provide established ones with a fresh investment opportunity.

The West's awakening can more or less be traced back to a milestone exhibition: Magiciens de la Terre, staged in 1989 at the Center Pompidou and the Grande Halle de la Villette in Paris. Its curator, Jean-Hubert Martin, was shocked to find at the time that contemporary art was the preserve of artists originating from NATO member countries. So Magiciens focused on all five continents, giving numerous artists from Africa (including Chéri Samba, see box overleaf) their first exposure in the West. Though criticized in its time, the exhibition blazed the trail for other landmark shows, such as Africa Explores at New York's New Museum in 1991, and Africa Remix at London's Hayward Gallery in 2005.

Over the last decade, much progress has been made. In 2009, Bonhams launched its Africa Now contemporary-art sales, the world's only auction series focusing on the continent. In late 2011, Tate set up an African art acquisitions committee and named a dedicated curator. And in 2013, the 1:54 Art Fair (named after Africa's 54 component countries) was launched at London's Somerset House to spotlight artists from Africa and the African diaspora. There was a real need for it, recalls its Moroccan-born founding director Touria El Glaoui. Important artists whom she encountered in Ghana, South Africa, Nigeria and Morocco were utterly absent from international museum shows, art fairs and biennales, where the predominant names "would be white, male and hail from Europe and the Americas".

Nevertheless, the African contemporary art market is only just making the transition from infancy to adolescence. The 1:54 fair had 10,000 visitors last year –one-sixth the number at Frieze London. Auction records for many African artists, even star names, are in the five digits. The African contemporary art market still has plenty of room to grow.

EL ANATSUI

Alcohol distillers in Africa recycle the bottles that contained their brand of whisky, brandy or rum, but throw away the caps, seals and labels that came with them. Those discarded items are important materials in the art of Ghanaian-born artist El Anatsui. He stitches bottle tops together with copper wire and produces giant wall-sized artworks that are today in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Smithsonian and the British Museum.

Born in 1944, Anatsui studied sculpture and art as a young man, and took up a career in academia, moving to Nigeria in 1975. He sculpted as well, of course, crafting objects out of ceramic fragments and timber. His mastery of wood is clearly in evidence in The Pilgrims, above, a carved wooden relief, and in Al Haji (1990), a minutely-carved abstract sculpture from earlier in his career.

One day, on a random walk around his studio, he discovered a pile of discarded bottle tops. To Anatsui, these pieces of litter – which had once capped bottles of Dark Sailor, Nobleman or King Edward liquor – encapsulated the history of the West's relationship with Africa. Drinks, after all, were among the items that Europeans brought to Africa to start trading with the continent. They were a currency in their time, used to pay for goods, and even, on occasion, for slaves. To Anatsui, they carried layers of history and meaning.

Today, Anatsui works with a host of other found materials: milk tins, iron nails, cassava graters. Yet it is the bottle-cap works that have made him an international celebrity, and that appeal the most to museums and collectors; one of them hung over the facade of the Palazzo Fortuny at the 2007 Venice Biennale. They evoke the traditional textiles of Ghana, but inevitably also the tapestries of 17th-century Europe, and the shimmering paintings of Gustav Klimt.

CHERI SAMBA

Chéri Samba – born in the Congolese village of Kinto M'Vuila in 1956 – was one of 10 children of a blacksmith, and the eldest son. His father had high hopes that he would take up the family trade. Yet Samba did nothing of the sort. At age 16, he packed his bags and moved to the capital, Kinshasa. There, he got himself a job as a sign painter, working alongside other up-and-coming artists of his generation. Three years later, he opened his own studio and became an illustrator for an entertainment magazine.

Those formative years helped make Samba the artist that he is. His splashy, billboard-style paintings are executed in cheery, cartoon-like colors. To Samba, color is synonymous with life itself, and he makes dazzling use of it, notably in the work he is best known for: J'aime la couleur (2003). In it, the artist portrays himself as a figure made of spiraling ribbons of color, holding a bright yellow paintbrush between his teeth, and with a bright blue sky in the background. His paintings often carry tongue-in-cheek inscriptions that satirize tradition and politics but also offer thought-provoking comments on more grave issues such as AIDS and poverty. Samba – who became known in the West with the 1989 Paris exhibition, Magiciens de la Terre – has appeared in both solo and group shows at the Fondation Cartier in Paris, including this year's Beauté Congo. He is today one of the top-selling artists from the continent.

GONÇALO MABUNDA

Gonçalo Mabunda was born at a violent time in Mozambican history: in 1975, the very year that his country gained independence from Portugal, and two years before it launched into a murderous civil war that left a million people dead. The little boy was only seven when he first came into contact with weaponry on the occasion his uncle, a soldier in the ruling party's military wing, displayed his personal panoply.

Today, Mabunda (a star of the African contemporary-art scene) is known for crafting seamlessly elegant sculptures – thrones, chairs, decorative masks – out of weaponry. His Weapon Throne is made of clearly recognizable mortar shells, shell casings, and rifle magazines. The armaments he uses in his works are similar to the ones that his uncle used, only they have been de-commissioned. At the civil war's end in 1992, Mozambique had an estimated seven million weapons scattered across the country. Mabunda sometimes wonders whether one of the random pieces in his atelier might have killed or harmed someone he knew. In any event, the sculptures he produces with them are unquestionably striking: as reminiscent of African
tribal art as they are of the early Cubist assemblages of Pablo Picasso.

Farah Nayeri is a culture writer and contributor to The International New York Times.

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