Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Africa's contemporary art is booming ... so buy it while you can

By Chibundu Onuzo, Special to CNN
updated 6:44 AM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
The contemporary art coming from Africa today is as varied and exhilarating as from any other place in the world, says Chibundu Onuzo. Here a creation by Mozambican Goncalo Mabunda, famous for his sculptures made of recycled AK47s. The contemporary art coming from Africa today is as varied and exhilarating as from any other place in the world, says Chibundu Onuzo. Here a creation by Mozambican Goncalo Mabunda, famous for his sculptures made of recycled AK47s.
'Bird that Wants to Survive'
Contemporary African art
Nigeria's 'Mama Nike'
Alternative media
Pulsating creations
New Hollywood 'It Girl'
African entertainers
  • African contemporary art is thriving, says author Chibundu Onuzo
  • She says that for the first time it is moving through proper distribution channels
  • "There is no doubt that African culture is on the rise," says Onuzo

Editor's note: Born in Lagos, Nigeria in 1991, Chibundu Onuzo is the author of "The Spider King's Daughter" (Faber, 2012.) The novel has won a Betty Task Award and been shortlisted for the Commonwealth Book Prize. The opinions expressed in this article are solely hers.

(CNN) -- I walked into the Gallery of African Art (GAFRA) on London's Cork Street in Mayfair two weeks ago. Opposite the Burlington Arcade, right at the heart of the art establishment, on gallery row itself, African art formerly seen as a niche interest, now officially playing with the big boys. And the best thing ... GAFRA is owned and run by a woman: Liberian born Bendu Cooper.

Chibundu Onuzo
Chibundu Onuzo

Just down the road in Oxford Circus is Tiwani Contemporary, a gallery that specializes in Nigerian art, also run by a woman, this time Maria Varnava who spent her childhood in West Africa. Tiwani partners with the Centre for Contemporary Art in Lagos, again run by another woman, Bisi Silva. It would appear that women are at the vanguard of raising the profile of contemporary African art. And for those who may point out that three female curators do not a trend make, name checks to Chief Nike Okundaye, Touria El Glaoui and Rakeb Sile to list a few.

If female curators are a rarity, Africa-focused female curators are even more so. Yet the message of these women is not a gendered manifesto but a simple statement of fact: contemporary African art exists. Not only does it exist, it thrives. Not only does it thrive, it does pretty well at auctions, as the annual Bonham's 'Africa Now' auction attests to.

Read this: Dakar Biennale brings African art to world stage

Growing up, my conception of African art was limited to ivory masks and wooden sculptures. Art was what our ancestors did. African artists were dead and anonymous. A quick browse on the Wikipedia 'African art' entry does much to confirm this outmoded view. The page boasts a smiling mysterious mask from Gabon, a bellicose Ife bronze head from the 12th century and a Nok terracotta sculpture from the 6th century BC. The deader the better where the African artist is concerned it seems.

A hub for African art
Proud Ghanaian promotes African art

Yet African art is alive. One cannot view the pulsating wall length panels of Victor Ehikhamenor, or the playful metal work of Sokari Douglas Camp and declare these pieces artifacts. Nor view the sculptures of Gonçalo Mabunda made from recycled AK47s and say these are artists working with only traditional materials. Nor listen to the acoustic art of Emeka Ogboh and say this new generation is confined to the usual mediums. The art coming from Africa today is as varied, vibrant, exhilarating and bewildering as contemporary art from anywhere in the world.

And not only is this art alive, it is for the first time, moving through proper distribution channels. No more the European treasure hunter, grabbing sacred artifacts, sacking sacred temples and carting off the spoils to institutions like the British Museum and the Louvre. Instead today, the business-like curator, the technologically savvy artist, with work cleared through customs on both ends and profits split sensibly.

This unfolding success story of contemporary African art comes at a good time for the continent. No matter what one might say of the trajectory of some African governments, there is no doubt that African culture is on the rise. First the rise of afro-pop music (D'banj, Fuse) then the rise of the African actor (Lupita N'yongo, Chiwetel Ejiofor) and now perhaps the rise of the contemporary African artist (Victor Ehikhamenor, Tamrat Gezahegn) .

To the female curators at the forefront of the movement, I salute you. And to the public, grab their works while you can.

Read this: Dakar Biennale brings African art to world stage

Read this: Why can't Nigerians watch country's biggest movie?

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Chibundu Onuzo.

Part of complete coverage on
African Voices
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Mon July 7, 2014
Australia's Tim Cahill appeals to the linesman after a disallowed goal during the Group B match between Chile and Australia at Arena Pantanal on June 13, 2014 in Cuiaba, Brazil.
Kenya's national football team may not have made it to the World Cup Finals in Brazil -- but one man will be there for his African nation.
updated 6:44 AM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
African contemporary art is thriving, says author Chibundu Onuzo.
updated 8:30 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Wegkruipertjie, a short film playing at the Durban International Festival
From Ghanaian rom-coms to documentaries celebrating 20 years of South African democracy, festival-goers are spoiled for choice at this year's Durban Film Fest.
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Tue June 10, 2014
Kalibala with one of the children she supports.
In 2010, Ugandan journalist Gladys Kalibala embarked on a mission to bring attention to her country's lost and abandoned children.
updated 11:05 AM EDT, Tue June 3, 2014
Sunset at Camps Bay with one of Andrew van de Merwe.
A trip to the beach is usually for lounging in the sun. But for Andrew van de Merwe, the sand stretches in front of him as an enormous blank canvas.
updated 8:40 AM EDT, Tue June 17, 2014
Esther Mbabazi, Rwanda's first female pilot
Esther Mbabazi wheels her bag towards the airstairs of the Boeing 737 sitting quietly on the tarmac at Kigali International Airport.
updated 7:22 AM EDT, Tue May 20, 2014
Jun 1978: Filbert Bayi #42 of Tanzania rounds the bend during the 5000 Metre event at the AAA Championships in Crystal Palace, London.
He's smashed world records and revolutionized running during his career. And yet the name of Filbert Bayi has largely been forgotten.
updated 8:49 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Nelson Mandela
Adrian Steirn and the 21 ICONS team have captured intimate portraits of some of South Africa's most celebrated. Here he reveals the story behind the photographs.
updated 6:41 AM EDT, Fri May 9, 2014
As the old adage goes, "If you want it done right, do it yourself" -- and for social activist Rakesh Rajani, those words have become an ethos to live by.
updated 6:50 AM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
As the head of Kenya Red Cross, Abbas Gullet was one of the first emergency responders at the Westgate shopping mall.
updated 9:15 AM EDT, Wed May 28, 2014
David Kinjah njau and Davidson Kamau kihagi of Kenya in action during stage 2 of the 2007 Absa Cape Epic Mountain Bike stage race.
He's one of Kenya's premier cyclists but David Kinjah's better known as the man that trained Tour de France champion Chris Froome.
updated 8:34 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
A Silverback male mountain Gorilla sits in the dense jungle canopy on the edge of Uganda's Bwindi National Park in this 29, January 2007 photo. Bwindi, or the 'Impenetrable Forest' as it is known to many tourists is home to the majority of Uganda's rare and endangered mountain gorilla population where plans are underway to habituate two more gorilla family groups to counter growing demand from a flourishing gorilla trek tourism business, a major source of income for the Uganda tourism Authority. AFP PHOTO / STUART PRICE. (Photo credit should read STUART PRICE/AFP/Getty Images)
Meet Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka, the woman from Uganda trying to save critically endangered mountain gorillas before its too late.
updated 5:59 AM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Jean Claude Nkusi
In Rwanda, young genocide survivors are forming "artificial families" to help each other financially and emotionally.
updated 5:42 AM EDT, Mon May 19, 2014
The President and founder of the organisation 'Femmes Africa Solidarite' (Women Africa Solidarity), Bineta Diop.
Senegalese human rights activist Bineta Diop reveals why she is willing to risk her life to help women in Africa.
updated 6:14 AM EDT, Tue April 1, 2014
Grace Amey-Obeng has built a multi-million dollar cosmetics empire that's helping change the perception of beauty for many.
Each week African Voices brings you inspiring and compelling profiles of Africans across the continent and around the world.