Sunday, September 25, 2011

Contemporary African Art Gallery, New York


The words "modern" and "African art" are rarely used together. African art as usually identified as traditional art: sculpted masks, statues, in the same style they were done for hundreds of years.
One of the galleries attempting to change this is the Contemporary African Art Gallery in ManhattanNew York City. Founder Bill Karg is an architect, and he lived and worked for over five years in Africa, working on low-income self-built housing, as a consultant for various organizations, such as USAID, the United Nations, the World Bank, and various African governments.
El Anatsui wall hanging
While he was in Africa, he started collecting the work of contemporary local artists, and in doing so, met them and learned about their work. He realized that many were well-known, well-collected, and often shown in Europe but were virtually unknown in the United States.  Karg felt that this situation needed to change, and this was the main motivation for the creation of a gallery specialized in the work of contemporary African artists. 

Karg and his spouse purchased a house large enough to house a gallery on 108th Street in Manhattan. The Kargs moved to their new home and had the inaugural exhibit 2 weeks after the 1987 stock market crash. The first type of art shown was 3-dimensional art: sculpture. The gallery collection expanded from there to include all fine art forms, including installation work. Karg has been careful to only show what is generally recognized as "fine art" as opposed to "curio art." This sometimes posed difficulty, as the art is generally more abstract and less evidently about Africa. The requirements to which Karg carefully adheres to be able to say with confidence that the artists and the work are African are the following:
- The artist has to have been born in Africa
- The artist’s work has to be inspired by Africa; this is usually determined after conversations with the artist.
- Karg must like the work!
Viye Diba: Kangaroo in Suspension

These requirements have been met in all shows. 
Who are the clientele? Their numbers have consistently grown from a small base of people who had a connection with Africa, having worked, lived, or traveled to the continent; to a far broader base, including museums: the gallery has sold to nine different museums and many of them are repeat collectors. 

Collectors within and outside, but especially outside New York, have found the gallery through its website. This has been especially true for European collectors. The website started out as a sampler of the work shown in the gallery. Three years ago, Karg invested in having all work, including his own extensive personal collection, professionally photographed, with links to all countries represented, all artists and all of their work. Some sold items may also be listed, albeit without the identity of the buyer. Collectors are now found in the United KingdomFrance (former colonial powers whose people are often knowledgeable about the artists from their former territories), and Denmark and the Netherlands

The Gallery currently represents over 30 artists from Senegal, Ghana, Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Kenya, Ethiopia, Sudan (Khartoum happens to boast an excellent arts school at the university), Zimbabwe, Namibia, Mozambique, and South Africa.

For Karg, another important motivation is to show a positive and creative aspect of the African continent, aspects rarely discussed in the United States.

The question often asked is: are these artists "African artists," or “contemporary international artists”? The issue for Karg is that if these artists were placed on an already very long list of international contemporary artists,Africa would once again be marginalized. However, if shown as African artists or as coming from a specific country, the gallery can bring credit where credit is due, to a region and to the artist; thus the identity of the gallery as an African contemporary art gallery.

Gallery interior view
Galleries such as the Contemporary African Art Gallery are ground-breaking insofar as for many people, even people who know Africa, "contemporary" and "African" do not go together. Many would prefer to continue exploiting often fake "antiques," while Western designers and artists continue taking inspiration from Africa for modern design, art, music and fashion. It is good news that this gallery is expanding its audience, year by year.

Note: this blog post was originally published in SoSauce.com. More photos can be seen at http://www.sosauce.com/album/9942/contemporary-african-art-gallery/