Patronage in Contemporary African Art: Its Growth Amidst the Global Pandemic

Patronage in Contemporary African Art: It’s Growth Amidst the Global Pandemic-Omenka Online

Art patronage can best be defined as the support, encouragement, privilege or financial support an artist receives in exchange for his works. The outcome of patronage is manifested in the art market, which is the main platform on which the acquisition and disposal of artworks are carried out. The challenge of the art market is that though it has a global reach, it is only in the last few years it has engaged contemporary African art. In this situation, the COVID-19 pandemic should, therefore, be of great concern to players in this global art system.

Generally speaking, art patronage comes in different forms; you have the personal support of individuals, who patronise the artist out of the passion they have for his works and then you have the corporate support which comes from institutions like museums, galleries, public and government establishments and other private business concerns. Such support comes in the form of commissions or sponsorships. For the most part, art patronage was seen in the past as a form of investment, since art was considered to be a product of expertise. However, in the contemporary period, art has been defined more in terms of purpose and as such expertise is no longer considered an important characteristic. In a nutshell, beauty as an essential aspect of art is now considered superfluous as ideas or concepts have become more important than the finished works themselves.

In a primordial sense, monarchical societies used art to glorify their sovereign institutions, in cases of divine rulership or for religious and cultural observances. In such societies, artists were seen as craftsmen who produced works based on the dictates of communal acceptability. However, in modern times, individual artists are recognised for their unique contributions to the development of art, which goes beyond the glorification of royalty and religion. This system is what is known today as the art market. Each product or industry has its market; what makes the art market particularly unique is the fact that artworks, which are its primary products, are considered to be luxury items and status symbols, exclusively powered by wealth. The uniqueness of works of fine art like paintings and sculptures is that each work is considered to be an original. Consequently, the rarity of art pieces adds value, creating a demand that surpasses supply, which inevitably raises the price of the artwork. The most reliable form of art sale is by auction because it is technically driven by market forces, meaning supply and demand. Other considerations that determine the value of an artwork is the artist’s profile and the impact of his or her works on the art market, which influences or contributes to society. Other platforms to sell art include exhibitions, annuals, biennials, triennials and fairs. These have moved from local to global events, the art market in turn gradually becoming international. Africa, which had hitherto been out of the loop, has now become a vital part of the market.

As the second-largest continent in the world in terms of landmass, Africa is also culturally and linguistically diverse. This diversity notwithstanding, most African nations have to some extent, followed a similar trajectory—in that the overwhelming influence directly or indirectly of Western culture cannot be dismissed in a hurry—even with countries like Ethiopia that were technically never colonised by any European country. This continent consists of 54 individual countries, each with a conglomeration of ethnicities within its borders, due to the scramble and partition of Africa by European countries that took place between 1885 and 1914 and its insensitivity to the autochthonous peoples. Until recently, the terms ‘modern’ and ‘contemporary’ were used almost interchangeably in scholarship to describe postcolonial African art dating from the late 1950s. Today both terms have specific connotations as modern African art now refers to art produced from the beginning of the colonial period to 1979. While from the 1980s through to the present is considered the contemporary period.

Interest in contemporary African art began to grow as we approached the 1990s. This has been due to the impact of globalisation on contemporary art culture. Okwui Enwezor and Chika Okeke-Agulu in their book ‘Contemporary African Art Since 1980’ state that the “…strategic repositioning and adaptation of global winds of change is knocking down ideological structures throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s”. This witnessed the appearance of Senegalese figurative sculptor Ousmane Sow (1935-2016) and the Nigerian installation artist Mo Edoga (1952-2014) who became the first Africans to be included in the Documenta 9 exhibition held in Kassel, Germany in 1992. This was followed by the ‘Seven Stories about Modern Art in Africa’ 1995-96 exhibition, which was held at Whitechapel Gallery in London and featured 64 artists from all over Africa. Out of these 64 artists, 12 were from Nigeria. More African artists have since been invited to participate in international shows including Documenta 11, which appointed Okwui Enwezor (1963-2019) a Nigerian-born curator based in the United States as curator, making him the first non-European curator of Documenta (1998-2002). In 2015, he also became the first-ever African-born curator of the Venice Biennale in the exhibition’s 120-year history. In addition, Enwezor curated The Short Century: Independence and Liberation Movements in Africa, an exhibition held in Munich, Germany in 2001. It served as a critical introduction to African art as an essential part of Africa’s struggle for her liberation and independence. For the first time, in 2017, the Nigerian Pavilion was featured at the Venice Biennale, with Victor Ehikhamenor (b.1970), Peju Alatise (b.1975) and Qudus Onikeku (b.1984) showcasing their works.

Full article published in our digital issue coming soon.

Opening image (Ousmane Sow, Warriors) retrieved from

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Ekpo Udo Udoma is an art administrator with degrees in fine arts, art history and art management from the University of Benin, Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria and Pratt Institute, Brooklyn, NY, respectively. He has worked as a manager with Art & Objects Gallery; staff writer ThisDay Newspapers; administrator/ consultant Bruce Onobrakpeya Foundation; executive secretary and consultant Visual Arts Society of Nigeria. Udoma has also curated several exhibitions, organised media conferences, as well as conducted documentation and evaluation exercises for several private art collections in Nigeria; and curatorial assistant at the Schaefler Gallery, Brooklyn, NY. Here, he was the principal researcher for a major Schaefler gallery project: 'Architectural Competitions in America Exhibition' (2001) curated by Prof. Tobias Guggenheimer. In addition, he has written several articles for newspapers, magazines and exhibition catalogues. Udoma is presently a doctoral candidate in art history with a research focus on the impact of patronage and trends in contemporary Nigerian art.

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