Two years after the Armory Show’s Focus section offered a cross section of African galleries (the geographic frame was abandoned thereafter), dealers and young artists from South Africa, already in the spotlight with the opening of the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa, have made a particularly strong showing at this year’s fair (8-11 March), as US audiences encounter themes of racial dialogue, self-definition, and hope that resonate strongly in the Trump era.
At Whatiftheworld, of Cape Town, Athi-Patra Ruga tackles issues of race, identity and sexuality through imaginative photographs, performances, and tapestry portraits. A gallery spokeswoman says that “Ruga is trying to rewrite history”, noting that works made specifically for the fair honor the 1920s Senegalese performer Francois [Feral] Benga. She sold a tapestry, Lizalis Indinga Lakho I Autistik Imperium (2014-17), for $160,000 to a collector who has pledged to donate the work to a US institution.
Nicodim Gallery, of Los Angeles, sold out its booth of eight paintings and sculptures by the South African artist Simphiwe Ndzube within the opening hours of the fair, for prices between $20,000 and $40,000. Taking off from the swenka (“dandy” in Zulu) culture that exists in mining towns, where on weekends workers will mount peacocking competitions, Ndzube uses found objects such as snakeskins and traffic cones to augment exuberantly hued paintings of joyful, contorted bodies. Since his first gallery show, last September, Ndzube’s market has been “on a rocket to the moon”, says gallery director Benjamin Lee Ritchie Handler; he will have his first US solo show at the Rubell Family Collection in Miami later this year.
Other works finding favour are more subtly encoded with the continent’s history. Johannesburg’s Goodman Gallery, returning after an absence, is showing a selection of photographs by the South African photographer David Goldblatt ($15,000-$22,000) and paintings by the Zimbabwean artist Misheck Masamvu ($16,000-$19,000). According to the gallery’s Elizabeth Callinicos, “There is a lot of interest from US collectors and New York galleries” in the works, which speak to themes like life under apartheid. “Goldblatt does not like to be called a political artist; he positions himself as an observer. He has covered South African life since the 1940s…he has seen so much. Masamvu does also not consider himself a political artist, but his works are a comment about living under a system [in Zimbabwe] and feeling defeated and disillusioned.”
Might artists who are processing South Africa’s apartheid past offer lessons for the US, at a time when heretofore submerged racial tensions are front and centre? “It’s a different context but the themes are universal”, Callinicos says. The Armory Show’s director, Nicole Berry, sought to create space (even literally, by widening the booths) for galleries to bring works with complex content. “There’s a focus on work that’s addressing important topics in an interesting way”, she says. The tilt toward South Africa “certainly was not a conscious choice”, says Berry, “but my eyes were opened by my trip to Johannesburg….there is an optimism that’s refreshing, and I do think the US audience is more open to [this work] based on what’s happening in our own country.”