African Art on the Move

Visitors to Africa have long been intrigued by the continent's art, eager to introduce the work to global markets. Stone sculpture was revived in Zimbabwe, the former British colony known as Southern Rhodesia, in the 1960s after a British art adviser, Frank McEwen, became director of the national museum. He hosted workshops for museum staff and visitors and relied on his network to display the art in European museums. The popularity of Zimbabwean sculpture rose and dipped and rose again as Zimbabwe endured political crises, international sanctions and economic hardship in the decades since independence. With sanctions now limited to a few individuals, tourism is on the rise in Zimbabwe. Artists don't sit at home waiting for fans and customers, and sales of African art are brisk online and at festivals and galleries. Zimsculpt, a small family-run art dealership based in Harare, organizes exhibits in overseas botanical gardens with two artists who display skills and juggle questions about art, authenticity, poverty, commercialization and their fast-changing continent. – YaleGlobal

African Art on the Move

Zimbabwean sculptors travel to overseas gardens, balancing tradition and new creativity
Susan Froetschel
Thursday, November 7, 2013

BURLINGTON: Underneath a tent, not far from formal rose gardens and manicured boxwood of the Royal Botanical Gardens, two sculptors chisel away at blocks of stone. Sponsored by an international dealer, the artists travel six months of the year, more than 12,000 kilometers from their home to botanical gardens, this year in the United States and Canada.

Before each exhibit, the artists walk the gardens and set up about 300 works made by them and their colleagues in Zimbabwe. Nestled among flowers, each sculpture bears the artist’s name and price, averaging about $1,000. Animal and abstract themes dominate, but sprinkled among the mix are pieces with titles like “Child Soldier” and “Right to Vote.”

Welcome to the new world of African art. Artists and dealers no longer wait for audiences to seek them out at museums or galleries, and instead travel for exhibits and art festivals around the globe. Meanwhile, debate continues on culture, style and authenticity – is art global because it sells overseas or because artists respond to customer demands? Must African art be made in Africa, and must it address poverty and politics?  

The story of Zimsculpt, a small family-run art business, reveals conflicting expectations for African artists in the global market. Vivienne Croisette, born in Britain, began Zimsculpt in 2000 to promote sculpture of Zimbabwe. That same year, hundreds of white-owned farms were seized by the government. The economy and tourism went into decline, international organizations reduced aid. Europe and the United States imposed sanctions over the next decade. The sanctions in force since 2008 now prohibit trade in arms and otherwise target only a few political elites.  

Visitors to art exhibitions and botanical gardens are generally well read, so artists must contend with a string of questions on fair trade, sanctions, politics and Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe, a former teacher in power since 1980. “I find it personally distracting that people marry you to the ‘news of the hour' when you only ‘live’ in that country,” Croisette says. “We’re not politicians.”

African artists, especially sculptors based in Zimbabwe, may be under special pressure to display authenticity.  Stonework was a traditional skill in Africa, as evidenced by granite carvings of birds in the Great Zimbabwe ruins, yet sculpture was not a common activity in the British colony known as Southern Rhodesia. After a declaration of independence in 1965 by Ian Smith and a white minority came the first round of international sanctions. Tobacco farmer Tom Blomefield switched from raising tobacco to hosting art workshops on his farm in Tengenenge, which became a refuge for artists searching for work post-independence from neighboring nations.

Frank McEwen, co-founder and director of the National Gallery of Rhodesia, now the National Gallery of Zimbabwe, is credited for directing global attention to the region’s sculpture from 1957 to 1972. He offered informal art workshops for museum staff and visitors, emphasizing folklore. Based on his previous experience of planning exhibits for the British Council, he organized exhibits in Europe and promoted the work among his network said to include artists like Pablo Picasso, who was influenced by traditional African styles and whose success undoubtedly inspired many Africans, too.

McEwen became a target for a debate on authenticity. “Having constructed his ‘unspoilt’ colonial, McEwen proceeded to fetishise it, and would spend the rest of his life defending its ‘authenticity’ and struggling to provide it with an ‘umbrella of protection,’” suggested art historian Olu Oguibe of the University of Connecticut  in 2002. A year earlier, art historian Elin Skogh wrote an essay on “Questioning Authenticity” and asked why African artists are often scolded as “copy cats”: “How is it that western artists who borrow images from other cultures can be described as geniuses, while Zimbabwean art and artists risk losing their authenticity and thus their value?”

Croisette never met McEwen. Based in Harare, she takes pride in building long-term relationships with the artists and observing sculptures in the making. Other dealers may visit Zimbabwe for several weeks, according to Croisette, often at the close of the summer season for European and North American tourists, in a rush that can influence pricing. She purchases directly from artists in US dollars for the botanical garden exhibitions in North America, the United Kingdom and the Middle East and pays for shipping. One or two artists travel with her if they can secure visas. Zimsculpt receives no government funding and operates as a business.   

Commercialization and cross-border connections can reduce artistic freedom by favoring traditional art, suggests anthropologist Jeremy MacClancy, editor of Art, Politics, and Identity in the Modern World.Non-Western artists, by entering the capitalist world-system, in however marginal a manner, inevitably surrender a degree of autonomy, and may well end up as minor actors in a play scripted and directed by others.” The same can be said of the NGO model that relies on international donations, irregular for countries like Zimbabwe in crisis, and encourages political themes. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Institute of Human Activities aims for transparency in art production, brutal acknowledgment of global inequalities, and portrayal of poverty by the poor rather than the wealthy. The institute’s creative director is Dutch filmmaker Renzo Martens, director of Episode III: Enjoy Poverty, a film that in his words, “establishes that images of poverty are the Congo’s most lucrative export, generating more revenue than traditional exports like gold, diamonds, or cocoa.”

Critics and art historians fret about subversion of art by capitalism and Western-influenced investment markets, yet the temptation to promote persists. McEwen was quoted in a 1995 pamphlet, offering prescient advice for modern creative endeavors whether art, music or science: “Promotion counts as much as the art, and if the promotion is right the art will be right…. The future is in the hands of the promoters.”

Africa is posting the fastest economic growth of all the continents. New wealth leads to demand for luxury goods like art, and African art is soaring in value, sought by collectors abroad but also in South Africa and Nigeria. Dealers compete to advise African artists against cheapening the skill with overproduction, repetitive designs, manufactured tourist trinkets or forced experimentation. Rejection of artists because of borrowed or political themes, a mentor’s background, or a promotion style that’s too delicate or pushy – any number of reasons – can be as restrictive as commercialization.

For now, an art career offers an escape from poverty in Zimbabwe, where 70 percent of the country lives below the national poverty line, with annual incomes below $6,000, despite one of Africa’s highest literacy rates at 90 percent. “A single artist is able to support an entire village or community on his earnings alone,” suggests the online art dealer website African Import Art.

Traveling exhibits, festivals, the internet and a rush of dealers to Africa may lead to instant discovery that can promote or stereotype any style or artist. Patrick Sephani, who travels with the Zimsculpt exhibition, began sculpting when he was seven and now teaches the skill to his son. He simply smiles when asked to compare Canada and Zimbabwe or describe his conversations with visitors at the Royal Botanical Gardens. The differences are a world apart, but globalization allows artists like Sephani to reach out to a vast audience and shape their own destiny.


Susan Froetschel has been with YaleGlobal since 2005. Her most recent novel is Fear of Beauty
Copyright © 2013 The Whitney and Betty MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies at Yale