Highlights: Art14 London
by Nana Ocran
For just three short days at the end of February this year, the international art fair, Art14 rolled into the United Kingdom’s capital for its second run. Situated inside the behemoth of an exhibition venue, London’s Olympia Grand Hall, the fair featured 180 of the world’s most dynamic contemporary galleries, covering 40 countries in total. Sculpture, fine art, photography, painting and the creative efforts of somewhere around 700 artists showed just how far and how confidently the event has grown since its 2013 inception. This year, the strong African input made a huge and memorable impact. Both ‘home soil’ and diasporic artists that hailed from the continent brought their unique visual tone, style and output to the event, which was sponsored by Citi Bank.
Of course, the Omenka Gallery had a dedicated display area where the huge charcoal and paper drawings of American born and Johannesburg-based artist, Gary Stephens attracted consistent visitors. Stephens’ unique style and take on intricately crafted African women’s hairstyles, showed a strong influence of classical paintings, showing an interest in the sculptural qualities of traditional African hairstyles. His work also seemed to represent a timely, and subtle echo of the mono photographs of the late iconic Nigerian photographer, J.D Okhai Ojeikere, some of which were also on display. Networks and Voids: Modern Interpretations of Nigerian Hairstyles and Headdresses was the bonding title that united the work of the two artists at Omenka’s booth, with the work curated by Omenka Gallery owner and artist, Oliver Enwonwu. The display was undeniably fitting in that the striking images by Ojeikere were given significant life at the fair, just a few weeks after the photographer’s passing. The theme of traditional African coiffuring continued with a braiding performance as an extension of Gary Stephen’s works, and this added a modern, dramatic and theatrical dimension to the event, and also highlighted a difference between his own style of work and that of Ojeikere, despite the fact that both show influences of intricately molded and crafted African hairstyles.
There was also undeniably eye-catching work by the internationally celebrated artist Yinka Shonibare, whose Cannonball Heaven, a huge structure took pride of place inside the main entrance to the venue. Positioned not to be missed by all visitors to the fair, his full-scale replica of one of the cannons used in the 1805 battle between the Royal Navy and a combined Spanish fleet almost sprung to life with the artist’s signature mannequins (two of them) dressed in Dutch wax-printed cloth. A distant pile of brightly coloured, and same-textiled cannon balls, gave a playful edge to the Shonibare’s work, but also highlighted the dominant theme of power structures, colonialism and post colonialism. London-based sculptor Sokari Douglas-Camp was represented, along with four other key Nigerian artists, by Arthouse Contemporary, an international auction house based in Lagos that used the title R-evolution as a banner under which these influential artists were showcased. Douglas-Camp’s huge steel structures and intricately constructed gele-adorned metal head pieces had a strong visual and spiritual presence – even amongst the wider range of global art on display throughout the venue. Photographs by renowned photographer George Osodi featured images documenting the environmental problems in Nigeria’s Delta region. Also on display was the work of Washington D.C-based artist Victor Ekpuk’s, whose paintings re-imagine graphic symbols from a broad palette of culture, taking his main influence from nsibidi traditional graphics and writing systems from Nigeria. Visual artist Kainebi Osahenye’s conceptual pieces were also showcased, as were the fashion and tailoring-influenced textile works of Victoria Udondian. Additionally, London’s Tiwani Contemporary, a gallery with its focus on artists from Africa and its diaspora displayed the classic silhouette work of Nigerian-born artist Mary Evans who uses cut and pasted brown paper as her material to conjure up the world and feel of 19th and 20th European paintings with ‘displaced’ African people as the subjects.
There was even more. ARTCO, a German art gallery had a full showing of African artists. Having evolved from being an art agency into a full-blown gallery in 2005, the past eight years have seen the organisation focusing on emerging and international artists with an African background. For Art14, the names springing out of the ARTCO hub included artist Owusu Ankomah, well-known for his use of Adinkra symbols from the Akan-speaking people of Ghana and Ransome Stanley, who is also represented by London’s Jack Bell Gallery. Stanley’s mesmerising paintings draw on nineteenth century Western and exoticised images of Africa. Also out of ARTCO’s stable were Manuela Sambo, and Godfried Donkor, whose intricate layers of global reference include themes of history, sociology, commercialisation and capitalism that thread their way into unique outputs of work that highlight issues including modern and ancient slavery.
Overall, Art14 included a much welcomed and high calibre selection of West African artists, and hopefully this is a pattern that is set to grow as the continent continues to claim even more space and even higher profiles amongst the range of acclaimed artists within the international art scene.
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