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Contemporary African art conquering the continent
View of Zeitz MOCAA in Silo Square. Photo: Iwan Baan.

by Philippe Alfroy with AFP's Africa bureau network

JOHANNESBURG (AFP).- Contemporary African art has long been beloved by collectors in Europe and North America.

But now, such works are enjoying a renaissance among experts and the public on the continent itself.

The opening of the largest museum of African contemporary art in the world in Cape Town on Friday is seen as a game-changer for the continent's arts scene.

"Anything that is high profile and promotes really excellent contemporary African art is a really good idea and we'll all benefit from it," said Danda Jaroljmek, director of Nairobi's Circle Art gallery and founder of Art Auction East Africa.

"It can only help all of us in what we're doing."

Set in a 6,000 square metre former grain silo converted to premium gallery space at a cost of 31 million euros ($37 million), the Museum of Contemporary Art Africa's (MoCAA) collection will offer visitors a glimpse of hundreds of African pieces.

The museum's opening also heralds the arrival of a much-needed local space where African sculptors, photographers and painters can have their works seen and enjoyed.

Before, their works would typically have ended up under the hammer in a Western auction house or in the portfolios of private collectors in Europe, Asia or America.

'Gaps must be plugged'
In May, British auctioneers Sotheby's sold its first consignment of African contemporary and modern art.

Not to be outdone, the Vuitton foundation in Paris recently staged a major exhibition of art from the continent.

Both were runaway successes that highlighted the growing interest around the genre -- as well as the growing demand among Western art fans and galleries for African art which is helping develop the continental art market.

"Major museums, like the Pompidou Centre in Paris, the Tate Modern in London, or MoMA in New York have realised that they have very limited African contemporary and modern art offerings -- if any," said Clement Lecomte, an expert at the Cecile Fakhoury gallery in Abidjan.

"For these museums that have a global outlook, these gaps must be plugged, so it's natural that they are turning to galleries on the continent.

"Art follows money."

As well as the Cecile Fakhoury gallery, several others are also thriving in Ivory Coast's commercial capital and cashing in on the desire for African pieces.

Abidjan's Civilisations Museum reopened this year after a long-term closure caused by political instability and now features a contemporary art room.

It includes work by celebrated sculptor Jems Koko Bi.

The same trend is being seen in Dakar which will next year host the 13th edition of the Dak'Art biennial which celebrates the best of African contemporary art.

"We're feeling a renewal of artists. We're observing a movement of works worldwide, in Europe and in the US," said one of Dak'Art's organisers who declined to be named.

"Now the priority is to develop the movement within our own (West African) community, and in Africa."

'Shake-up the existing order'
Danda Jaroljmek is seeing the same phenomenon is East Africa.

Her gallery's revenues remain modest, but are picking up.

"Things have changed radically in the last five years in Kenya and East Africa," said the gallery director.

Marie-Cecile Zinsou who created the art museum in Benin that bears her name describes Nigeria as the driving force behind the revival of contemporary African art on the continent.

"Something is clearly happening in Nigeria, especially with the increase in auction sales in Lagos. That will explode," said the Franco-Beninese entrepreneur.

"The country has two essential factors for the development of art: democracy and a dynamic economy," she told AFP.

"We invest in art if we can be persuaded that tomorrow will be better -- if not, it makes no sense."

Zinsou described the newly opened Cape Town space as a "tremendous symbol", but acknowledges that her approach is starkly different to that of MoCAA.

"It's all about private sector initiative. We still don't have a public equivalent, so it's the private sector making things happen in the cultural sphere," she said.

"I hope that the success of this museum will prompt governments to shake-up the existing order."

© Agence France-Presse

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