Kerry James Marshall: Mastry, Photo by Rosa Menkman
Kerry James Marshall: Mastry, Photo by Rosa Menkman

“Most of the galleries used to, uh, not take me serious, baggy pants, braids,” Swizz Beatz reflects on his art collecting experience in the HBO documentary, Black Art: In The Absence of Light. His statement paints a clear picture of the art world that 10, 20 years ago was; not very welcoming of people of color, even for the successful young producer that he was.

But well, that was then, fast forward to 2018, P. Diddy snaps up Kerry James Marshall’s “Past Times” at auction for $21 million, a transaction that had Swizz’s hand in it and one that sets the record for the most expensive work by an African American artist. It’s July 2021 and Amoako Boafo, the Ghanaian art star lands a commission to paint the exterior of one of Jeff Bezo’s Blue Origin rockets that would be launching into space – being the first artwork by a Black artist venturing beyond our planet.

These are just the tip of the iceberg around the buzzing Black art scene, both on the continent and its diaspora. It looks like the ice is melting in an industry that is predominantly white male, and the fire within creatives of color cannot be contained. It’s blazing like an errupted volcano due to the global awakening across the diaspora ignited by the Black Lives Matter movement. Amy Sherald, the artist who painted the Michelle Obama portrait, says in the documentary, “I think a lot of galleries are now picking up Black artists because there is this, you know, gold rush. I say that because we are making some of the best work and the most relevant work”. Amy is probably right. Non-black art has done it all, having dominated the global marketplace, whereas we have barely scratched the surface when it comes to exposure to artists of African descent. This also explains why, particularly black figuration is a hot trend now, showing that Black art is still in its infancy. Abstraction and other forms of simplified expressions in art always come later. Representation and the naturalism we are seeing everywhere are always at the beginning stages of trend in the art industry.

Sothebys Auction House, Photo by Orbis UK
Sothebys Auction House, Photo by Orbis UK

Even in the midst of the pandemic in March 2020, Sotheby’s Modern and Contemporary African art sale saw a stunning 46% jump in the number of bids from the year before with sales closed at $2.9 million. Collector and commercial interest in Modern African art has risen globally over the last decade with happenings on the continent in form of art fairs in Cape Town, Johannesburg, Art X in Lagos, biennales in Dakar, Kampala and Kinshasha. Could we talk about Wangechi Mutu, the Kenyan American artist’s commission for the Metropolitan Museum of Art? We could also talk about Eddy Kamuanga, a Congolese artist whose solo show, “Ghost of The Present” just opened at the October gallery in London, during the 1-54 art fair. The art world should also watch out for Sungi Mlengeya’s black bodies against a stark white background as the Tanzanian painter will debut at Art Basel Miami this winter. Sungi has already been acquired by Swizz’s Dean Collection.

Sungi Mlengeya, Contemplation, 2021, Photo Courtesy of Afriart Gallery

Of course it’s not only on the continent where you need several white gloves to hold Black art because it is so hot right now. In Britain, if you work in the contemporary art world you would encounter Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Lubaina Himid or Yinka Shonibare’s works. Lubaina took home the Turner prize back in 2017, unprecedented for a black woman, Lynette’s imaginative portraits are sensational and Yinka’s aesthetically arresting sculptures-that critique colonialism- are museum trophies.

The Black art movement emerged from African American artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat, Barkley L. Hendricks, but even earlier and more influential were Augusta Savage, Gordon Parks, Jacob Lawrence, Faith Ringgold, Romare Bearden and others who came up with the Harlem renaissance that uplifted black culture globally. That and its offspring, the Black civil rights movement, have a major footprint on the world’s depiction of people of color. Contemporary artists Kara Walker, Kehinde Wiley, Mickalene Thomas, David Hammons, Bisa Butler, Glenn Ligon, Lorna Simpson, Mark Bradford, Rashid Johnson, Jordan Casteel, Simone Leigh, Theaster Gates, Titus Kaphar have all become household names and this legacy is the fruit bore from the labor of the artists that came before them.

Panel 40 (Great Numbers), The Migration Series by Jacob Lawrence, Photo by Ron Cogswell

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